Juniper Berries

A juniper berry is the female seed cone produced by the various species of junipers.  It is not a true berry but a cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance.  The cones from a handful of species, especially Juniperus communis, are used as a spice, particularly in European cuisine, and also give gin its distinctive flavour.  Juniper berries have been called the only spice derived from conifers, although tar and inner bark from pine trees is sometimes considered a spice as well.

Juniper berries, including Juniperus phoenicea and Juniperus oxycedrus have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs at multiple sites.  J. oxycedrus is not known to grow in Egypt, and neither is Juniperus excelsa, which was found along with J. oxycedrus in the tomb of Tutankhamen.  The berries imported into Egypt may have come from Greece; the Greeks record using juniper berries as a medicine long before mentioning their use in food.  The Greeks used the berries in many of their Olympics events because of their belief that the berries increased physical stamina in athletes.  The Romans used juniper berries as a cheap domestically produced substitute for the expensive black pepper and long pepper imported from India.  It was also used as an adulterant, as reported in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: “Pepper is adulterated with juniper berries, which have the property, to a marvelous degree, of assuming the pungency of pepper.”  Pliny also incorrectly asserted that black pepper grew on trees that were “very similar in appearance to our junipers”.

The flavor profile of young, green berries is dominated by pinene; as they mature this piney, resinous backdrop is describes as “green-fresh” and citrus notes.  The outer scales of the berries are relatively flavourless, so the berries are almost always at least lightly crushed before being used as a spice.  They are used both fresh and dried, but their flavour and odour are at their strongest immediately after harvest and decline during drying and storage.

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