The juniper berry is the fruitlike cone of the juniper tree, which is native to the coniferous forests of the Northern Hemisphere. The juniper tree has stiff, prickly, evergreen needles that can be either grey-green or blue-green. Juniper trees grow wild in dry, sandy, or rocky soil in North America, Asia, and throughout Europe.
The dimensions of the juniper tree vary; it can be tall (up to 12 metres) and dense, or of medium height, or a very compact and sturdy bush. The flowers of the tree produce fleshy green berries that turn blue-black or purple and develop a plum or grapelike layer of skin after 1 - 2 years. All parts of the tree have a strong aroma. The berries have a resinous smell and a pungent, slightly bitter flavour.
Mentioned in Egyptian scrolls dating back to 2800 B.C., juniper berries have been renowned for their medicinal properties since ancient times.
Juniper berries are used as an antiseptic, a diuretic, a tonic, a cleansing agent, and a digestive. They alleviate rheumatism and arthritis, as well gallbladder and urinary tract problems. However, the essential oil of the juniper tree should not be used during pregnancy or for kidney problems without consulting a professional.
Look for whole juniper berries, which are more flavourful than crushed berries. Choose blackish berries that are free of mould, avoiding those that are brown or greenish. Juniper berries are sometimes slightly shrivelled.
Used whole and crushed, juniper berries are particularly popular in northern Europe. They are used as flavouring for game, poultry, pork, rabbit, coleslaw, pates, marinades, stuffing, cold cuts, cabbage dishes, and court bouillon. Juniper berries are also one of the basic ingredients in dishes that are prepared a la liegéoise (with juniper berries and alcohol) and a l'ardennaise (game cooked with juniper berries or juniper-flavoured alcohol).
Juniper berries are an indispensable component of gin, and they are also used to flavour a number of beers, Scandinavian aquavits, and German schnapps. The berries, bark, and needles of the juniper tree can be used to make tea: Add 1 teaspoon per cup of water, boil the mixture for 2 – 3 minutes, then let it brew for 10 minutes.