December 20, 2012

Aroma of Anise

After Christmas visits with family in L.A. and Denver I am way behind, and so I am going to do something I have not done before -- repeat a post first published two years ago. 

It's seasonal, and I am in the holiday mood now after our trip, so here you go:

The Scent of Christmas - December 2010
Christmas does not smell like pine needles or balsam fir to me.  The season is not evoked by cinnamon or cloves or peppermint.

All those are wonderful scents, but the one Christmas aroma that makes me shiver with pleasure is the smell of a Mediterranean evergreen shrub's seeds: Pimpinella anisum.

Anise (not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium) is a plant that looks to me a little like Queen Anne's Lace.  The seeds are used for herbal remedies and flavoring.  And it's that flavoring, the anise extract, that brings Christmas home to me the minute I smell it.

My mother made anise Christmas cookies every year and I make them now.  They were not elaborate pressed cookies or springerles or the Italian anise cookies you can find.  They were really just an iced sugar cookie with anise extract added, cut into Christmas shapes.  I love them.

Descriptions of anise flavor always say it tastes like licorice or tarragon, but it really doesn't.  It has a whiff of licorice, but it is much, much lighter, almost citrusy or even minty.  It is very refreshing.

Still, it's a taste that is not to everyone's liking.  Santa likes these cookies, and I love them so much I like to have a little anise in my garden. But I can't grow Pimpinella in my zone 5 / 6 garden.

I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it.  I have 'Purple Haze'.  It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care, although it does flop a bit in a charming kind of way.


There are other plants with anise scened leaves.  The most notable is  Illicium floridanum, called star anise or purple anise, which is a beautiful dense evergreen shrub with glossy leathery leaves.

The leaves emit a fragrance of anise when crushed.
Purple Anise, Illicium floridanum
I'd love to grow it, but there are a couple reasons I won't.  It is not hardy here, although I could put it in a container and bring it onto the porch over winter.  The other reason: it has stinky flowers.  The aroma is consistently described as smelling like fish.  How can a plant with leaves that carry the essential fragrance of Christmas for me smell like fish?
Eeeeww.  Star anise stinky bloom

Salvia guaranitica, Black and Blue Sage, is called Anise Sage.  I grow it, and it's a beautiful large sage with vibrant deep blue flowers.  But the leaves do not smell like anise.  When you crush them you get an interesting sharp scent, but it's not anise.
Anise Sage. I'm sorry, but it doesn't smell like anise to me

There is an anise scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, a native plant that is supposed to have leaves that smell like anise when they are crushed.  I could try that.  But I'm not sure where I'd put these big weedy stalks in my garden.
Anise scented goldenrod

There is also an anise scented basil I could grow in my garden . . .  but wait.  I mean, basil should smell like basil.  I like basil and I like anise.  I'm not sure what you gain by having one smell like the other.

In fact I'm not sure what I gain by trying to replicate such a specific and evocative memory of a smell in my garden.  While anise does come from the seeds of a plant, it's not the plant that carries the delight.

It's the cookies.

It's the season, it's childhood, my mother, and Santa.  It's snow and it's good stuff baking.  I really don't need to grow anise scented plants in my garden --- I just need to make sure there is anise extract in my pantry.












Mmmm. May you have as delightful memories of holidays and family.

And an update: 
I packed tins of anise cookies in my luggage on our trip, and each son's eyes lit up like Christmas lights with the first bite. They are grown men, living and working on the other side of the continent from me, but a tin of anise cookies brought them home again for a moment.
 

22 comments:

  1. Laurrie, your recollection of childhood fragrances is a reminder that the sense of smell is the most evocative of the senses. And, as you focused on cookies, you made me recall some of those I still remember from childhood. Sweet.

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    1. Lee, smell will get you every time. Brings you back and makes you remember.

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  2. I also grow anise hyssop, and it is one of my favorites. The scent of the leaves is a big part of the reason why. I grow anise scented goldenrod as well. In my garden it only grows about 2-3' tall - not at all difficult to manage. You can make tea from the leaves.

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    1. Jason, that's good to know about the manageable size of the anise scented goldenrod. Your size plant could fit in my garden!

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  3. Don't feel bad about repeating a post. Memories, smells and sweets are what the holidays are made up of.

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    1. Lisa, happy holidays, and may you have great scents all around you!

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  4. Thanks for letting us newcomers enjoy; it's a new article for me. I'd also like to put in a good word for Illicium floridanum. Here in GA they flower beautifully for me in the shade and, back of the border where I have it, the 'fragrance' hasn't been a problem. I haven't really noticed it.

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    1. Bill, I did read that the scent of the illicium flower is highly variable... maybe I could find one like yours that is inoffensive. I'd have to grow it in a pot, though, since it's too tender for here I think.

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  5. A very enjoyable post... I liked the idea of thinking through a whole range of plants that could potentially supply a certain desired smell. The Illicium floridanum looks quite cool, especially those supposedly fish-smelling flowers!

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    1. College Gardener, I do like the way the illicium looks too, and would love to grow it. It's a pretty plant, I just wish the flowers smelled better : )

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  6. Hi Laurrie, This is one flavour that I have never used. You make it sound delicious. I always find sugar cookies a bit bland, so maybe I might try adding some anise. All the best for the holidays and the new year!

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    1. Jennifer, you should try it. That's really all I do -- I add a half teaspoon of anise extract to sugar cookies. Yum.

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  7. Laurrie, very interesting. I didn't know that there is many varieties of anise. Usually I buy it but I've never grown in my garden.
    Happy Christmas!

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    1. Nadezda, I still think it would be fun to grow anise plants in my garden, but for now just having the cookies is enough for me : )

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  8. I'm not sure I've ever made anything with anise before, but you do make it sound appealing. For me, the smell of bread baking is what I associate with Christmas--both my mother and my grandmother would give loaves of bread or yeast rolls as gifts. Since I don't seem to have time to bake bread over the holidays, cookies of any kind have become the replacement here.

    I'm glad you were able to visit your sons before Christmas--wishing you a very Merry Christmas, Laurrie!

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    1. Rose, everyone has certain smells that evoke home or holidays or family. Bread baking is certainly a wonderful aroma and it is great that it smells like Christmas for you!

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  9. Does it smell the same as star anise? Are they related? I've never cooked with it but I've seen it in magazines. I think I've tasted it before but I'm not sure. Too bad your blog doesn't have a smellavision app. :o) Those cookies look tasty!

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    1. Tammy, yes, star anise is the same in powder form, versus the liquid extract. Same wonderful aroma. I actually think I can get high on it : )

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  10. A good friend of mine from high school used to make anise cookies all the time. They were her signature baked item. Hers were the the Italian style frosted in glaze and dipped in sprinkles but soft and moist unlike the dry ones you get at the bakery. Over the years I've lost touch with her but I still have her recipe. Maybe I'll make a batch. Merry Christmas Laurrie!

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    1. Sue, If you make a batch I will come help you eat them!

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  11. Great post Laurrie, glad you decided to publish this again. There are certain smells that bring back a time and place like nothing else. I can just picture your sons faces - how happy they must have been to see their mom and remember sweet memories of Christmas with those cookies.

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    1. Marguerite, I think my sons were happier to see the tin of cookies than they were to see me --- not really : ) --- but the cookies didn't last long.

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