Sensational Sea Buckthorn
I am a sea buckthorn addict, obsessed with the glistening orange berries that flourish on the viciously thorny branches of the sea buckthorn tree.
As such, I am somewhat disappointed by the succinct description of sea buckthorn in A Concise Encyclopaedia of Gastronomy published by the Wine and Food Society in 1942. The entry merely states: ‘The orange-red and edible berry of a maritime shrub with silvery leaves which occurs on some of the sea coasts both of Asia and Europe.’ More encouraging is the late Alan Davidson’s comment in his monumental The Oxford Companion to Food (2006). Though he describes sea buckthorn briefly in a couple of paragraphs, he at least concedes that the berries might become more important.
These descriptions are perfectly accurate but they don’t do justice to this overlooked fruit. Sea buckthorn is a true pioneer, exceptionally hardy, tolerant of extreme drought, salty soil, howling gales and temperatures as low as -43°C. It thrives in an enormous range of territories from windswept areas of the UK, across northern and eastern Europe to frozen wastes of Siberia and even to northern Pakistan and China.
To add to their credentials, the berries are phenomenally rich in vitamins and minerals – reputedly 15 times more vitamin C than an orange. In her book Beyond the North Wind, Darra Goldstein explains that when medicine was hard to come by during the soviet years, Muscovites would seek out Siberian sea buckthorn berries which they believed would cure anything from the common cold to cancer. And in ancient times, the leaves from sea buckthorn were supposedly fed to horses to help them gain weight and to improve the appearance of the coat. This led to the name of the genus Hippophae derived from hippo (horse) and phaos (shining).
Moving on to culinary matters, sea buckthorn has a unique flavour – incredibly tart, a mix of orange zest and apricot, with a bit of background bitterness. If you’re new to the berries, you might want to experiment by juicing fresh or frozen berries with sugar or honey, or sprinkling dried sea buckthorn powder over porridge or meusli. The juice is also good in jams, jellies, sauces, ice cream, and for spiking up vodka, schnapps or herb tea. Best of all, combine the berries with apple and ginger as in my recipe for Sea Buckthorn, Apple and Ginger Cake. Do give it a try and let me know what you think.
© Christine McFadden, May 2023