I took a break from writing over the holiday, but not from eating. The holiday season inspires a certain air of abandon when it comes to food; after all, many Christmas dishes appear only once a year. One of my guilty Christmas pleasures is fruitcake, the much derided but surprisingly venerable holiday treat. And proper fruitcake is one of the places we find an interesting but almost unknown herb, angelica.
Angelica is a very ancient biennial or perennial herb that is related to parsley and grows in temperate and subarctic areas of the Northern hemisphere. It is extremely hardy, and was much loved by the Vikings, who likely grew Canada’s first angelica in settlements such as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Angelica is a tall, lanky herb, with strong medicinal properties and flavour. Sometimes angelica is used to flavour gin, and it is the main flavouring agent in Chartreuse. In Japan angelica is eaten as tempura, but though once a popular northern vegetable in the West, we are most likely to find angelica in a very unlikely place: fruitcake.
Candied fruit became extremely popular in medieval times once the coast of sugar began to drop, as candying is a way to store food through the long Northern winters. Angelica was valued for its flavour, but also for its colour; if boiled with a little soda it turns a rather striking emerald green. I picked up a few stalks in a French market this holiday season; the colour is certainly festive. In medieval times angelica was thought to remedy against plague, poison and witchcraft, thus the name, herb of angels.
The colour of angelica is the main draw for its inclusion in fruitcake, which in Canada is largely a Christmas treat. I love fruitcake, though it has long been a source of popular culture ridicule. Fruitcake is an ancient treat, first made in ancient Rome with pomegranates, pine nuts, and raisins in a barley cake. The spices and fruits were added in the middle ages, when fruitcake was highly valued as a source of calories that did not spoil due to the high alcohol content of the finished cake. Preservation was everything in the days before global food systems and refrigeration; from the 16th century onward fruitcake was an important traveller’s food. The UK version we now know in Canada as “Christmas Cake” usually contains pineapple, cherries, raisins, nuts, and angelica, and can be dark or light in colour. If wrapped in brandied cloths the cakes can keep for a very long time, and in the UK they are finished with a wrapping of marzipan and a coating of royal icing, which is an egg-based frosting that becomes rock-hard with time. In Canada fruitcake was also traditionally used as wedding cake, though I must admit I prefer the almond white cake traditional at weddings in the American South.
Angelica might be a minor herb, but its interesting flavour opens up all sorts of potential uses in the kitchen. It grows well in Canadian climates and would be a nice addition to the kitchen garden, though the sap makes the skin sun-sensitive, so harvesting on a cloudy day might be in order.