Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hæ tea

On the subject of plants, a slight puzzle via Yahoo! Answers. Do we have any Danish readers?

Great Dane dining (Lars Eriksen, The Observer, 3 February 2011) tells of a culinary visit to Dragsholm Castle. It mentions an unusual detail:

Henriksen strays off the tractor tracks we are following to pick a couple of twigs from a slender brownish tree called hæ. He breaks one and shoves it under my nose, and there is an instant aroma of liquorice and marzipan. He says he'll boil the twigs to make a tea for a bread he is baking. It seems that the purveyors of modern Nordic cuisine owe a debt of gratitude to their Viking forefathers.

Whatever is "hæ"? The Danish Wikipedia finds no sign of a tree or shrub with this name, nor is it in the Routledge Danish Dictionary. The licorice-marzipan aromatic twigs are probably diagnostic, but don't ring any bells with me. Googling, "hæ" just seems to be a Danish interjection (e.g. "hæ hæ hæ" = laughing in text "he he he"). Is this a garbling of some other word, a mistake, or a wind-up?

Addendum. credits go to "Voelven", who has suggested the likely answer: that the word intended is "hæg".

"Almindelig Hæg" (Common Hæg) is the Danish name for the Bird Cherry (Prunus padus), which does have various English names cognate with "Hæg", Hagberry (aka Hackberry, Heckberry, Hegberry, Egg-berry, etc - see A Dictionary of North East Dialect by Bill Griffiths).  Like all Prunus species, it has a chemical defence against pests in the form of cyanogenic glycosides, in the case of Prunus padus the one called prunasin: the marzipan smell when twigs are broken is hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid, as it used to be called).  I assume - hope - that in the recipe described it boils out during cooking.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the answer is to be found at Heytree/Heatree on Dartmoor.