In April and May the ditches, damp hedgerows and water meadows are full of sweet cicely. Myrrhis odorata is a gorgeous member of the Apiaceae family – definitely one of my favourites. It’s very easy to identify as the lower leaflets have bleached out markings on them – at first glance like a bird on them – plus being velvety soft, and smelling and tasting strongly of aniseed.
The young leaves are a very vivid lime green in colour (see below) and are the juiciest and most tender. As the plant grows it forms fibres, especially on the flower stem, which on older plants needs to be peeled away of using in a stewed fruit dish or crumble.
Traditionally sweet cicely is cooked with rhubarb. Choose the juiciest young stems, before the fibres have formed, and just chip both stem and leaf up and mix them with your chopped rhubarb. There’s no rule but I generally do 50/50. The aniseed flavour is very mild as it doesn’t survive the heat well but you won’t need to use any added sugar. This is because anethole, a natural compound found in sweet cicely, is actually sweeter than sucrose.
For sweet cicely and rhubarb crumble I layer the chopped rhubarb and the chopped sweet cicely into a greased baking dish. I then put a handful of pinhead oatmeal in a mixing bowl with a teaspoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of ground hogweed seed and a knob of butter, and knead the butter in to make a very dry mix. I then add a couple of tablespoon of sunflower seeds and pistachio nuts, and a dessertspoon of honey. When all is well blended together I sprinkle it over the fruit to cover it. Pop it into a preheated 180C oven for half an hour until brown on the top. Serve with cream.
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I also love juicing the stems and adding a shot of sweet cicely juice to apple juice. This is an awesome flavour. In fact the two go so well together that, on my foraging walks, I always offer people a slice of apple to eat with a slice of sweet cicely stem when they’re meeting sweet cicely for the first time.
Custard is another thing I made with sweet cicely. Green custard specifically! It’s very Dr Seuss and kids love it. The milk is infused with the sweet cicely and pressed over a sieve before making the custard. Simple but so tasty.
You can also make sweeties. Either by just munching on the green seeds before they become fibrous or by making sweet cicely seed mukhwas. When they’re young they taste just like the inner seed of an old fashioned gobstopper!
However, sweet cicely is not just a dessert plant. The leaves and stems were often boiled with cabbage or sprouts to reduce the gassy side effects and taking an after-dinner sweet cicely tea, tincture or lozenge will help with indigestion or wind. The young leaves are also lovely additions to a salad.