Despite our changeable weather conditions, the summer months are a time to cast our mind towards warmer climes, and perhaps summer holidays in the warm and enticing Mediterranean. Whilst we may not be able to guarantee the sunshine in time for summer, we can bring a flavour of the Mediterranean to your kitchen in the form of the myrtle berry.
The blackish-blue myrtle berry is native to dry, warm areas of southern Europe and western Asia, but can sometimes be found growing in local sheltered areas. These berries grow along thin stems with bright green leaves, and have the appearance of elongated blueberries. Beneath the blue-black skin is a reddish-purple flesh, with small kidney-shaped seeds. The taste is between a juniper and rosemary, with an initial aroma of pine.
Interested in growing your own myrtle berries? Myrtle grows best in a well-drained, sheltered position and yields the best results when planted in late spring, in order to give it the best chance of establishing a root before winter sets in. The shelter of a warm wall beneath the eaves of a house is the optimum location.
You can also grow myrtle in a container in soil-based compost. Water and feed with a potash-rich tomato food throughout growing season, as this will encourage more flowers. Ease off watering in August before over-wintering the container for best results.
Many Mediterranean pork dishes include myrtle berries, and can be easily replicated from home. Roasted suckling pig is often stuffed with myrtle sprigs into the belly cavity to add an aromatic flavour to the meat. The berries, whole or ground can also be used as a substitute to pepper in some dishes. However, the most common modern uses of these berries are in desserts and liqueur.
Myrto is a syrupy Sardinian liqueur made by infusing myrtle berries, alcohol and honey. Simply steep your freshly picked or bought myrtle berries in vodka - just enough to cover them - and infuse in a jar for 1-3 months. Remove from the jar, strain the liqueur and sweeten with honey before serving, well chilled and ideally al fresco.