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Alder Pepper

It’s that time of year when winter wildlife tracking is over, but most spring plants and fungi are still a few weeks away.  I’m looking forward to PEI’s main foraging (and gardening!) season but am also enjoying the few wild foods on offer right now. One of those is Alder Pepper.


Photo1: The edible male catkins of Green Alder (Alnus alnobetula).

Alder Pepper – also known as Dune Pepper – is a seasoning made from the male flowers (catkins) of Green Alder (Alnus alnobetula, Photo 1).  These catkins developed late last summer and overwintered in this compact form. They will open and elongate to release their pollen later this spring, but right now they can be collected as a unique culinary addition.


Photo 2: Alder Pepper being dried for storage.

You can use the catkins fresh or preserve them by drying on a tray for a few days or in an oven on low heat until they snap when bent. Six hours at 125F in my dehydrator worked perfectly (Photo 2).  Once dried, they can be stored whole or ground (Photo 3).  Ground Alder Pepper does lose some aroma and flavour over time, so it’s best to grind it as you need it.  Remember that these catkins are full of pollen, which is sticky.  My cheap coffee grinder worked fine, but there is a risk that Alder Peppers may gum things up and so some people prefer to use a mortar and pestle for the job. 


Photo 3: Alder pepper can be used whole or ground, and pairs well with chocolate.

The flavour of Alder Pepper is strong and complex, with different notes coming in layers.  First up is slightly-sweet citrusy and floral, followed by woodsy, piney and slightly bitter, and then a very peppery finish.  About 30 seconds in, you’ll fully understand the ‘pepper’ part of Alder Pepper, with a pleasant peppery taste and feeling that lingers in the mouth.

 

Let your imagination guide you in terms of use, but this is a strong-flavoured seasoning and not something you’ll want to eat by the spoonful. Alder Pepper makes an excellent addition to soups (either whole or ground) or ground and used in rubs; as a seasoning for meat, fish, or roasted vegetables; in vinaigrettes; or added to coffee.  A fresh Alder Pepper on a square of 70% dark chocolate was fantastic (Photo 3). I found the dried pepper too gritty to enjoy this way, but plan to try it in a simple homemade pudding and other chocolate-based dishes.  Alder pepper is highly aromatic and should be an excellent addition to the wood used for smoking fish or meat, though I haven’t tried that yet.  

 

PEI has two species of Alder, and while Green Alder is the one with traditional culinary use, I suspect Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) could be used the same way.  Green Alder has sessile (unstalked), shiny, purple, pointed buds and is more commonly found on drier sites and in old fields.  The buds of Speckled Alder are stalked, dullish, and blunt-tipped, and this species prefers the wetter sites along streams and rivers.

 

In addition to being culinarily useful, Alders are ecologically important. They are among the few plants able to partner with bacteria to fix nitrogen (take it from the air and turn it into a form useful by plants). Because of this, they enrich the soil for other plants around them. Alders have extensive root systems that help prevent soil erosion, especially along streambanks. They are among the first plants to release their pollen in spring, and so – even though they are wind pollinated – play an important role for early season pollinators. Their dense summer foliage provides nesting cover for a range of local songbirds, and Alder thickets are great places to find Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock.

 

Alders are very common on the Island and especially easy to spot this time of year.  Next time you pass one, take a moment to appreciate (and maybe even taste) this part of PEI untamed!

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1 Comment


Wow, I will definitely have to try this out! I have lots of alder but would have to check out the difference between speckled and green. It sounds like it would be good with game meat, somewhat like juniper berries. Cheers, Chris

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