One crisp winter day I set out to pick juniper berries at a local park. I planned to make bigos, an old Polish stew, for a dinner party that week, for which juniper berries are a traditional ingredient.
Being both frugal and old-fashioned, I decided to forage the junipers in the wild, or at least the wilds of Kinsmen Park, Saskatoon. After all, why pay for something that Mother Nature (via the parks department) provides for free? Isn't foraging a form of outdoor recreation? If I didn’t pick them, would they not fall prey to a party of jays or a murder of crows?
On a previous reconnaissance through the park, I had noted a sprawling juniper bush in one little-used corner above a busy road. It was summertime and the berries were soft and green and overbearingly resinous. By mid-winter, they resembled peppercorns, hard and blue and pine-y. Used with a heavy hand, they could quickly overpower more gentle flavours, but applied sparingly, they add a mysterious hint of the woods to dark old-world stews.
So, with bigos on my mind, and a toque on my head, I made my way to the sprawling juniper at the edge of the park. I made a quick reconnaissance. The berries were plentiful, but seemed plumper and possibly cleaner away from the traffic and closer to the pine trees. On the backside of the juniper bush, I squatted into the foliage and began to pick.
Suddenly I was startled by a voice close behind me. "Did you lose something?"
I stood quickly and turned around to see a man, also dressed for winter, with a tripod in one hand and a fancy camera around his neck.
"Oh," I said, "I'm picking juniper berries." I showed him the contents in the palm of my hand.
He looked amused. "Are you having friends for dinner?"
"Well, yes," I said.
"And will you eat crow?" He smiled. Quite possibly he was unsavoury. Perhaps I should walk away. "Hannibal Lecter," he said.
(Of course, I knew the name of the maniacal cannibal in the movie Silence of the Lambs.)
"Did you read Hannibal? He liked to throw in a few juniper berries. Improved the taste."
"And the crow?" I asked.
"Stew. Flavoured with a crow fattened on juniper berries."
We walked together out of the park, discussing a novel I had previously not considered in the "food" genre. I had a new book on my reading list and a story to tell my friends, who I was not having for dinner.
I add juniper berries to any stew made with wild ingredients, such as venison, but it’s also good with beef. If you'd like to make bigos, you'll find the recipe here.
2 pounds venison or beef
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 potatoes, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
1 big onion
2 garlic cloves
Handful of mushrooms, fresh or rehydrated in water
2-3 crushed juniper berries
1 tsp crushed dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tsp salt and some freshly ground pepper
2 cups water or beef stock
1/2 cup frozen peas, optional
Cut the meat into one-inch cubes. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the meat in hot butter and vegetable oil. Remove the meat from the pot.
Meanwhile, chop the potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic and mushrooms. Place these vegetables in the pot and cook until the onion is soft.
Return the meat to the pot. Add the juniper berries, thyme, whole bay leaves, salt and pepper. Pour in the water or beef stock.
Cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender, two or three hours. Add the peas (if using) about half way through.