Juniper berries (Juniperus communis) are the seed cones and not the actual berries of female Juniper trees that are found extensively in Europe, North America and parts of Asia.
Juniper berries have a long medicinal history and were used in medicine long before they were used in food. Juniper extract and juniper oil (from the berries, stems and the needle-like leaves of the plant) are used as medication for a number of ailments. Studies have shown that the oil (particularly from the leaves) has antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant properties and research is ongoing. However, caution should be taken by pregnant and breastfeeding women and those on diabetes medication or diuretics before using any of these oils. It is also used as a fragrance in cosmetics such as lipstick, bubble bath, bath oils and eyeshadow to name a few.
In Northern Europe, fresh, dried, whole or crushed juniper berries are commonly used to cure fish, pork and game meats and the citrusy, piney flavour is also enjoyed in casseroles and stews, stuffing, pickles and in baking. You may also recognise it as the main flavour in gin and the name of gin is actually derived from the French and Dutch words for juniper ‘geneive’ and ‘jenever’ respectively.
Juniper berries can be added to any stew or casserole recipe to add freshness particularly if it is a heavy dish. They can also be added to your usual pickle recipes and can even be added to store-bought pickles to create a more complex flavour. The recommendation is to use 4-10 berries at a time depending on how much flavour you want to add.
Chicken with Rosemary and Juniper
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
6 small garlic cloves, bashed to break the skins but left unpeeled
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary, plus extra to garnish
4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus extra for finishing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 chicken, jointed, or about 1.5kg of chicken pieces
500ml white wine (or use additional stock)
300ml chicken stock
1 tbsp juniper berries, lightly crushed
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or casserole, heat half the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary and thyme; fry gently until the onions are soft and translucent – about 5 minutes. Remove the onion mix from the pan and set aside. When cool enough to handle, remove the garlic skins.
Season the chicken pieces. Pour the rest of the oil into the pan and raise the heat to medium-high. Brown the chicken on all sides and transfer to a plate. Remove the chicken skins at this point to have a less greasy sauce at the end.
Pour the wine (or stock) into the pan and let it simmer for a few minutes, stirring to remove any tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the stock, juniper and onion mix, bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Return the chicken to the pan, along with any juices, and simmer gently, for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and keep warm.
Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce to thicken slightly. Taste and season as necessary (you may not need much more seasoning). Serve the chicken with the sauce spooned over the top and garnish with a little more thyme and rosemary.