From Greens

Nettle Beer

The name doesn’t shout come and try me, sounding in the same league as a “Tom and Barbara” concoction such as Runner Bean or Parsnip wine, but, trust me, it’s darn good. I’d describe it as a bit like Ginger Beer. I’ve given it to hundreds of people over the years on my Spring Greens foraging courses and it always amazes people how good it is leading to requests of “where do I get the recipe”. If that praise has tickled (as oppose to stung) your fancy (whatever your fancy is), then here is the recipe. I’ve just got some underway and am looking forward to it being ready. I am no homebrew expert – it’s really easy to make, doesn’t require any special equipment, and (most important) is ready to drink in about a week, so give it a go – you will be pleasantly surprised. So get your gloves on, and go and pick yourself some nettles while they are nice and young.

Stinging Nettles
Stinging Nettles

It is taken from Roger Phillips’ excellent book “Wild Food” (every forager should have a copy).

Ingredients

Scale the below proportionately based on how many bottles you have!

Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients
  • 100 nettle stalks with leaves
  • 12 litres (2 1/2 gallons) water
  • 1 1/2 kg (3 lb) granulated sugar
  • 50 g (2 oz) cream of tartar
  • 15 g (1/2 oz) yeast (I use dried baking yeast)

Method

  1. Boil the nettles in the water for 15 minutes.
  2. Strain, then add the sugar and cream of tartar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well
  4. Cover and leave for a day
  5. Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment and bottle.

Do use strong bottles as it can get rather excited; you don’t want exploding glass bottles! I use swing top homebrew bottles, but empty, plastic, fizzy drink bottles will do the job too.

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Sea beet leaves and elderflower: Learning to forage for food

We recently took a family out for an afternoon learning to forage in Dorset followed by cooking a wild food-based meal. They included a journalist who wrote the below great article about their experience. It was in The Daily Mail and numerous other papers / news sites across the US including the Washington Post and Yahoo News. The coverage was also in other countries including Canada, Namibia, Kuwait and New Zealand!

If you would like to experience a bespoke / private foraging activity for your family or group please look here.

 

 

“This,” said our guide James Feaver, “is our main course.”

We were standing in front of a dung heap in a high meadow in the English countryside. Pushing up out of the ooze was a low-growing weed. He bent down, plucked a sprig and held it up.

“Fat hen. Humans have eaten it for thousands of years. We’re going to need a lot of it.”
After a glance among us, my family and I set about picking with an approximation of gusto. When you are foraging for your food you can’t be too squeamish about little things like cow dung beneath your fingers.

I have long been fascinated with the idea of living off the land, finding sustenance among the wild plants that teem in hedges and fields. So a week’s holiday in Dorset, in southwest England — a county bursting with picture-book countryside — gave me the chance to see how abundant nature’s larder really is.

Foraging is increasingly popular in the U.K. and there are many teachers to choose from. On a recommendation, I contacted Hedgerow Harvest and booked a half-day course for me, my partner Fon and our 7-year-old son, Jimmy.

On a classic English summer’s day – meaning we experienced all weather conditions in one afternoon – we met up with James Feaver, who gave up office work for professional foraging eight years ago. He now runs courses in south and southwest England, but mostly in Dorset, his adopted home.

photo shows James Feaver, a foraging guide, holding a spray of elderflowers on a field trip in search of wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2006 photo shows James Feaver, a foraging guide, holding a spray of elderflowers on a field trip in search of wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

We met him in the village of Toller Porcorum, donned rubber boots and light waterproof jackets, and set off in search of wild provender.

We spent the next few hours walking through lanes hedged in with soaring banks, down tracks drenched in birdsong, beside clear streams and across uncut meadows in search of ingredients for a three-course meal.

This July 12, 2016 photo shows James Feaver, left, a foraging guide, leading Fonthip Boonmak and her son, Jimmy Harmer, through a high meadow in the county of Dorset in southwest England, in search of wild edibles. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows James Feaver, left, a foraging guide, leading Fonthip Boonmak and her son, Jimmy Harmer, through a high meadow in the county of Dorset in southwest England, in search of wild edibles. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

If like me you can’t tell wild sorrel from a blade of grass, this quickly becomes daunting. But Feaver has gimlet eyes and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the edible.

High in a hedgerow, a spray of tiny white flowers stood proud of the foliage. He hooked it with his hazel stick, pulled it down to picking height, and inhaled.

“The smell of summer,” he said.

For centuries, country-folk have used the fragrant elderflower to add a zesty flavour to food and drink. Now it would bring its zing to our dessert. We plucked head after head. I lifted up Jimmy so he could join the harvest.

In quick order we found red currants, wild mint and tiny, sweet, wild strawberries. The wicker basket James provided — a nice touch — began to fill.

In this July 12, 2016 photo, foraging guide James Feaver, left, shows red currants to Jimmy Harmer, center, and his mother, Fonthip Boonmak, on a hunt for wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
In this July 12, 2016 photo, foraging guide James Feaver, left, shows red currants to Jimmy Harmer, center, and his mother, Fonthip Boonmak, on a hunt for wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

So far so idyllic, but this arcadia comes with thorns.

Of the many rules of foraging the most important is this: Don’t eat anything unless you are 100 percent certain you know what it is. Some edible plants look uncannily like ones that are deadly. For example, cow parsley goes well in salads but is easily mistaken for something you wouldn’t want near your dinner plate: hemlock.

Other rules include don’t uproot anything (it’s illegal), only take sustainably and don’t pick from ground-hugging plants near footpaths “where dogs can wee on them.” That was Jimmy’s favourite rule.

Time was getting on. From Toller Porcorum we drove down steep, narrow lanes to a nearby beach. Here you can see the stunning coastline sweep in an arc from Portland in Dorset right into neighbouring east Devon. A trove of fossils has earned it the name Jurassic Coast and UNESCO World Heritage status.

But we weren’t there for beauty or geology. We were there for sea beet leaves, a close relative of garden spinach that grows in low belts along the pebbly foreshore. More free food, right at our feet.

 

Photo shows Fonthip Boonmak left, James Feaver, centre, and Boonmak's son Jimmy Harmer, right, gathering edible sea beet leaves near southern England's Jurassic Coast. Feaver is a foraging guide who offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in how to find wild edibles. The sea beet leaves were used to make a velvety green soup as part of a supper prepared from the foraged plants, herbs and flowers. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
Photo shows Fonthip Boonmak left, James Feaver, centre, and Boonmak’s son Jimmy Harmer, right, gathering edible sea beet leaves near southern England’s Jurassic Coast. Feaver is a foraging guide who offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in how to find wild edibles. The sea beet leaves were used to make a velvety green soup as part of a supper prepared from the foraged plants, herbs and flowers. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

 

But don’t go thinking you can kiss goodbye to supermarkets just because your eyes have been opened. That’s not the idea of the course.

“Foraging isn’t really about survival,” Feaver had said at the start. “It’s about taking the best of the wild and adding it to conventional ingredients to make great-tasting food.”

Great tasting? We’d be the judges of that.

Back at our holiday cottage, Feaver supervised the preparation of the feast. For starters, sea beet soup. For main course, fat hen pesto bake, with more fat hen as a side dish, washed down with sparkling elderflower wine. To finish, elderflower and gooseberry fool, garnished with wild strawberries.

It was a revelation, especially the sea beet soup which was one of the most delicious soups I have ever had: rich, velvety and homey, like swallowing a big bowl of contentment.

This July 12, 2016 photo shows bowls of velvety green soup made from sea beet leaves, part of a supper made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The foraging expeditions are led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, which teaches participants how to identify, find and cook edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows bowls of velvety green soup made from sea beet leaves, part of a supper made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The foraging expeditions are led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, which teaches participants how to identify, find and cook edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows a baked pesto dish made from a plant called fat hen, with a serving of Sea Beet leaves on the side, as part of a dinner made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The wild edibles were foraged as part of a course, led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, that teaches participants how to identify and cook with plants like fat hen, elderflowers and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows a baked pesto dish made from a plant called fat hen, with a serving of Sea Beet leaves on the side, as part of a dinner made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The wild edibles were foraged as part of a course, led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, that teaches participants how to identify and cook with plants like fat hen, elderflowers and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

It had been a long day. We’d started at 1:30 p.m. and the last spoon didn’t scrape its empty bowl till 9 p.m.

As he packed away his stick, basket and scissors, Feaver said that after doing the course, “people look at the countryside with different eyes.”

Yes, I thought. With eyes like dinner plates.

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Razor Clams

Seashore foraging

Thanks very much to the good people that joined us on our Seashore foraging walk on Saturday on the Dorset coast. They had a great time as we found:

  • A range of plants including delicious greens, expensive invaders and seriously DEADLY species.
  • A good number of types of edible seaweed.
  • Plenty of shellfish – both molluscs and crustaceans.

For most the highlights were the razor clams and the anticipation of what was in the pot – a remarkable 4 Shore crabs and 4 Spider crabs! Birthday-boy Mike got to take the razor clams home, and I had the Brown Shrimps and the biggest Spider Crab. Guess what I had for lunch today!

 

Razor clam
The salt is in the hole, water has bubbled up, the Razor clam starts to emerge, wait for it…

 

Razor Clams
Wait for it… you want a inch showing, then grab it between thumb and forefinger across the edges of the shell and pull…

 

Razor Clams
Cheer quietly or squeal with delight!!

 

Catching Razor Clams 1
More Razor Clams success.

 

Another Razor Clam
And another. I have to confiscate the salt after a while!

 

Cooked Razor Clams
Dinner for two
Glamorous assistant with the Shrimp net.
Glamorous assistant with the Shrimp net.

 

Spider Crab
Spider Crab

 

Cooked Spider Crab
Cooked Spider Crab

On the way home I picked some St George’s mushrooms which dried in the sun yesterday as did some Gutweed which the people on the course kindly gathered.

Drying St George's mushrooms
Drying St George’s mushrooms
Drying Gutweed (in the green house - a bit windy for outside!
Drying Gutweed (in the green house – a bit windy for outside!)

Yesterday, I hit the coast again and picked the below plus some Wild Rocket, Dulse and Carrageen.

Seashore basket - Alexanders, Fennel, Three-Cornered Leek, Sea Beet, Sea Purslane and Fairy Ring Champignon.
Seashore basket – Alexanders, Fennel, Three-Cornered Leek, Sea Beet, Sea Purslane and Fairy Ring Champignon.

Thanks to some of the course attendees for supplying photos.

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Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake

Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake

Wild Garlic Pesto is a classic use of the bountiful Wild Garlic leaves in the Spring. I am always on the look out for new uses for it. Here are some new and old ideas:

  • Toss through pasta, gnocci or veg
  • Swirl on top of soups
  • Use on bruschetta or crostini
  • Spread on bread with hummus
  • Stuff or coat chicken or fish – as is or mixed with butter
  • Use as a salad dressing
  • Mix in to mashed potato or potato salad
  • Use as a dip
  • Put on prawns
  • Bake into your favourite bread dough
  • Put on baked potato
  • Try as a sandwich filling
  • Wild garlic cheese scones!
  • Stir into risotto
  • Add a spoonful to egg dishes like an omelette or frittata
Wild Garlic flowers
Wild Garlic flowers

Feeling inspired the other day, I made up my own recipe “Wild Garlic Pesto and Tomato Pasta Bake” – recipe below. Serve with a nice green salad – ideally foraged!

Read more about Wild Garlic – finding, season, id, other uses etc. here.

Wild Garlic Pesto

Pick your favourite recipe from the many online or adapt the below. The below is vegetarian-friendly omitting Parmesan cheese. It is a recipe that you can freely tweak to your own personal tastes. You can freeze the sauce in ice-cube containers, which will then give you a supply of this wonderful pesto throughout the year. Alternatively, it will keep in a jar in the fridge for a couple of months if covered with a layer of oil.

Ingredients:
Serves 4 – 6

  • 50g pinenuts
  • 75g hazelnuts (or all walnuts)
  • 175ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 150g fresh very young tender garlic leaves
  • 2 tbsps lemon juice
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Options / Alternatives:

  • Nuts – cashews, almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts in place of the pinenuts
  • Oil – Olive, Rapeseed or Sunflower
  • Cheese – Parmesan, hard goats cheese or even a strong cheddar
  • If you prefer your pesto a little crunchy you can add the nuts at the end and blend a little more
  • Basil

Method:

  1. Wash and dry the wild garlic leaves.
  2. In a food processor crush the pine nuts and hazelnuts roughly and then decant them into a bowl and set aside.
  3. Puree the wild garlic leaves with a pinch of salt with the olive oil just enough to break up the leaves to a rough texture.
  4. Add the lemon juice and mix.
  5. Pour the wild garlic mixture into the crushed nuts and stir in.
  6. Season to taste.

 

Wild Garlic Pesto
Wild Garlic Pesto

Pesto Pasta Bake

Ingredients:
Serves 4

  • 400g pasta e.g. Penne
  • Pesto
  • 1 – 400g can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 – 2 cups of cheese (mozzarella or cheddar)
  • 1 onion, chopped

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C Fan/Gas mark 6.
  2. Get some hot water heating up for the pasta.
  3. Heat a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the oil and gently cook the onion with a pinch of salt for 4-5 minutes or until soft and translucent.
  4. Add the tomatoes, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and turn down the heat. Gently simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile cook the pasta in a pan of salted boiling water according to the packet instructions.
  6. Once cooked, drain and pour into the pan with the tomato mixture.
  7. Add the pesto and some of the cheese and mix well.
  8. Pour this into a medium-sized ovenproof baking dish. Top with the rest of the cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until bubbling and golden.
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Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots

A bit of a pickle!

To foragers, generally if they think about preserving wild foods, the techniques and foods that come to mind are drying seaweeds and mushrooms, freezing wild fruit and making jams, jellies and drinks.  There are however other techniques that the forager can make use of and they include pickling and fermenting. This post looks at pickling wild food.

Think of pickling and onions or eggs are the obvious things, but as well as garden / allotment / smallholding produce you can pickle all sorts of wild foods as a way of preserving them for consuming throughout the year.

Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots
Wild Garlic buds and Sea Kale shoots

What to pickle

As often with foraging and cooking, your imagination is the limit. Among the things you can try are:

  • Buds – Wild Garlic, Elder, Dandelion, Alexanders or Ox-Eye Daisy
  • Stems – Reed mace hearts, Rock Samphire, Alexanders, Fennel, saltmarsh plants individually or collectively (Sea Aster, Marsh Samphire, Sea Purslane, Annual Seablite etc.)
  • Flowers –  Magnolia flowers, Scots Pine Flowers, Hawthorn blossom
  • Seeds –  Wild Garlic Seeds, Ash keys
  • Miscellaneous – Burdock roots,  mushrooms (including Chanterelles and Jelly Ears), seaweeds (including Carrageen and Kelp), Walnuts, Limpets, Cockles!

Pickle Recipes

Recipes for making these vary enormously – experiment or find your own favourite. Pickles are straightforward to make. Essentially, they contain the wild food you want to pickle, vinegar, spices, salt and sometimes, sugar.

  • Vinegars – go for any of cider, white wine, red wine, malt or pickling vinegar. Pickling vinegar is usually malt vinegar with the spices already added for convenience. The vinegar should have a minimum acidity level of 5%.
  • Spices – your call but there are some suggested combinations below. Also try any of fennel seeds, mixed herbs, juniper berries, garlic cloves, star anise etc. For an easy life (to avoid having to make decisions!) you can buy pickling spice ready-made!
    • Mild – cinnamon, cloves, mace, whole allspice berries, white peppercorns, bay
    • Medium – cinnamon, cloves, white peppercorns, dried root ginger, mace, whole allspice berries
    • Hot – mustard seeds, dried chillies, chilli flakes, cloves, black peppercorns, whole allspice berries
    • Sweet – sugar (brown for brown malt vinegar, white for white malt or wine vinegar), whole allspice berries, whole cloves, coriander seeds, root ginger, cinnamon stick, blades of mace, lemon rind

Rules
The two basic rules for successful pickling are:

  • Jars and lids should be sterilised (washed in very hot (but not boiling), soapy water, then dried in a cool oven).
  • Your ingredients should be in good condition – fresh.

Pickled Wild Garlic Buds
Ingredients:
 Wild Garlic Buds

Wild Garlic Buds
Wild Garlic Buds

 200 ml vinegar
 ½ tablespoon caster sugar
 1 teaspoon salt
 15 black peppercorns
 ½ teaspoon fennel seeds

Method:
1. Use only stainless steel, enamel, or non-stick pans.
2. Wash and dry the buds (tea towel, salad spinner, kitchen roll etc.)
3. Put the buds into the jar.

Wild garlic buds
Put the buds into jars

4. Put the vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a saucepan.
5. Heat until the sugar dissolves.
6. Pour over the garlic buds.

Buds with vinegar plus peppercorns, fennel seeds, sugar and salt
Buds with vinegar plus peppercorns, fennel seeds, sugar and salt (the buds float a bit).

7. Ensure that the lids are airtight.
8. Label and date each jar.
9. Store in a cool, dry and preferably dark place.
10. The buds are ready to eat in 2 weeks to a month.
11. If you find the pickle too acidic you can add more sugar or dilute slightly until you are happy.

Pickled Sea Kale Shoots
Ingredients:
Sea Kale shoots

Sea Kale Shoots
Sea Kale Shoots

Vinegar
Salt / sea salt
Black Peppercorns
Sugar

1. Wash the Sea Kale shoots
2. Blanch them by dropping them in a pan of boiling salted water for no more than 30 seconds.
3. Cool immediately in cold water.
4. Drain and dry (tea towel, salad spinner, kitchen roll etc.)
5. Pack Kale into a jar.
6. Cover with vinegar, add a pinch of salt, some peppercorns and teaspoon of sugar.
7. Ensure that the lids are airtight.

Pickled Sea Kale Shoots
Pickled Sea Kale Shoots

8. Label and date each jar.
9. Store in a cool, dry and preferably dark place.

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Hop to it – Poor Man’s Asparagus

Very happy to find my first hop shoots of the season yesterday – one of my favourite wild vegetables. Even in areas without any history of hop growing they can occasionally be found in hedgerows.

First Wild Hops of the year (the first of many to come!)
First Wild Hops of the year (the first of many to come!)

They are tricky to spot looking a bit like young brambles, superficially the leaves look similar, but last year’s old dry hop stems woven up through the hedge will point you in the right direction. The leaf will look a bit familiar, Hops are in the same family (Cannabaceae) as cannabis! The shoots look like asparagus but with tiny, soft spines. They have been used medicinally for thousands of years for everything from toothaches to tuberculosis. As always make sure you get the ID right. The shoots of Black Bryony are also found in hedges at this time of year, they are poisonous and look similar (check a wildflower book).

Hop shoots are considered a delicacy in many parts of Europe. They have been called “poor man’s asparagus” but now are sold for large sums of money. In Belgium, a kilo sells for nearly $1400, making them the most expensive vegetable in the world!

There were attempts a few years ago to get UK chefs interested with a London Hop Festival and chef’s days out to hop gardens in Kent.

A bit more advanced - May last year
A bit more advanced – May last year

It is the last 6 inches or so that you want while they are still tender. Very young ones can be used as a salad ingredient or quickly steamed or boiled then topped with a little butter or lemon juice. Have on their own as a starter or as a veg; they go well with white fish. I like to use them in a frittata with whatever I have to hand including wild garlic or ground elder. You can also add them to risottos or omelettes.

They are also used in herbal teas and soft drinks – one commercial make is popular in Sweden. The season is brief usually being late April and May. If you find some good spots, you might consider pickling them. There is a recipe here . You can also buy them already pickled (not cheap!). Serving suggestions for pickled hop shoots include:

  • Create a pasta, potato or Hop Salad, and use the brine in your vinaigrette recipe.
  • Excellent with any cheese
  • Wonderful as a martini or bloody mary garnish
  • Great stuffer/side dressing for Salmon dishes
  • Wrap with thin slices of meat and cream cheese
  • Makes a wonderful addition to herbal or spent grain bread recipes.
  • Snip and add to cheese balls and garnish
  • Blue cheese and hop shoot Omelette
  • Use in stuffing’s for chicken, turkey, or pork
  • Nice additions to relishes and chutneys
  • Brine also makes a great marinade

You could also leave them be and wait for the flowers (cones!) to develop. Any ideas?

Hop Flowers
Wild growing hop flowers
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Latest Wild Drinks Recipe – Grass Vodka

The most well known wild drink that foragers, and people who probably wouldn’t call themselves foragers, make from the hedgerows is Sloe Gin. People have their own method but in a nutshell, fruit and sugar is covered in spirits for a period to gain the flavour and colour from the fruit. Some use Gin, others Vodka, this being known as Slodka.

Sloe Gin, or Slodka, is the tip of a very large iceberg with a huge range of wild drinks where hedgerow fruits, flowers, nuts, leaves and even fungi being infused in spirits such as gin, vodka, whisky, rum etc. Blackberry Whisky, Elderflower Vodka, Alexanders Gin, Hazelnut Vodka and Chanterelle Schnapps giving you a flavour of the sorts of things people make. Inspired by the books of John Wright and Andy Hamilton, I have been experimenting and the latest one, ready today is Grass Vodka.

  • Take a handful of grass from your lawn – fresh grass mowings are ideal.
Preparing grass vodka
Preparing grass vodka
  • Put in a large necked bottle or jar.
  • Cover with a similar volume of sugar.
  • Top up with vodka.
  • Leave to steep in a cool, dark place for a few months, giving it a shake whenever you pass.
  • Strain and enjoy.
Grass vodka
Grass vodka

Cheers! Best enjoyed on 1st April only!

Come on one of our Spring Greens foraging courses to try this and some other wild infusions.

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There’s more to nettles than soup.

To your Joe blogs stinging nettles are a pain in the whatever part of your body you accidentally get in contact with them. I am still emotionally scarred from childhood with my first go on a bike with toe straps ending upside down in a nettle-filled ditch whilst wearing shorts and t-shirt! Foragers all know that nettles are good things, with nettle soup being the classic dish. But there are lots more things to do with nettles beyond soup.

We probably all have nettles growing with a couple of hundred metres of us. Self-preservation means that it is a plant that practically everyone learns to identify as a child! Nettles prefer rich soils and are often found near current or old habitation.

The stinging hairs on nettle are hollow spines (think hypodermic needles) that contain a cocktail of irritating chemicals. When you come into contact with them the tips are broken off and the sharp point penetrates the skin releasing the chemicals into your skin. Again from childhood, you know to  hunt down a dock leave when you get stung. There is, however, no scientific reason why this should work. The arguments about acids being neutralised by alkalis don’t add up. Perhaps it is a placebo effect.

The Chemistry of Stinging Nettles
The Chemistry of Stinging Nettles

Picking

The nettle season can start as early as February and carries on through the spring. While you can “grasp the nettle” and pick carefully without gloves you will eventually get stung; gloves and scissors are highly recommended. For culinary use, you just want to take off the top few leaves on young nettle plants. You don’t need to strip the leaves from the top part of the stem, use that as well. After the end of Spring, don’t pick from nettles that are in flower or gone to seed – the stems are tough and contain crystals that may irritate the kidneys. To maintain fresh, young growth you can cut nettles back and then harvest from the new shoots. This way you can have young nettles for many months – “cut and come again”. There is also often a second crop of young growth in the later Summer and early Autumn.

“Non-culinary” uses

Fabric

For much of the last 2 millennia clothing was made from nettle fibres. In the 16th Century they lost popularity when cotton arrived as it was easier to harvest and spin.  Nettle fabric made a comeback during WWI, when cotton shortages meant nettles were used to produce German army uniforms. Today cotton accounts for 20% of global pesticide use. Concern over such environmental damage has led to a hunt for new, ecologically friendly fabrics such as from bamboo and nettle fibres. A student in Leicester made “Nettle knickers” as part of her dissertation on nettle textiles!

Paper

The fibres can also be used for paper-making. There is a great step-by step illustrated guide here.

Yarn / Rope (cordage)

You can make yarn (or cordage) from nettle stems later in the year. Combine these and you could climb up a rope made from nettles! In this video Ray Mears shows how to make nettle cordage.

Dye

Nettles have long been used for dyeing fabric. Stems and leaves produce a permanent green dye, while a yellow dye can be obtained from boiling the roots. In WWII they were used for dying camouflage nets. See here for guidance on dyeing wool.

Liquid Plant Feed

Soak nettles in water for a fortnight, stir occasionally to make liquid plant feed. Use it 1: 10 with water for fertilising container and garden plants or at 1:5 for a spray for aphids and blackfly. Put the spent nettles onto the compost.

Medicinal uses

Stinging nettles have long been used for medicinal purposes. They have been used as a diuretic and blood tonic as well as for treating conditions including rheumatism, eczema, arthritis, gout, and anaemia. Today they are used for treating urinary problems and infections, kidney stones, hay fever, joint pain, sprains and strains, tendonitis, and insect bites. Recent studies are beginning to confirm that certain traditional uses have scientific validity.

Culinary Uses – Leaves

Stinging Nettles
Young stinging nettles – perfect for picking.

While you have to be fairly mad to eat them raw some do. West Dorset is home to The World Nettle Eating Championships  (2012 video). The 2015 winner ate a record beating 76 feet of nettles!

Nettles are good for you. Compared to Spinach, they have over twice the protein, 6 times the vitamin C, twice the iron and four times the calcium.

They are used commercially for wrapping Cornish Yarg Cheese. You can also buy them in the wonderful Northumbrian Nettle Cheese as well as a nettle cordial, beer and, of course, as nettle tea.

 

To Drink

  • Nettle tea / tisane –  Simply add water to fresh or dried nettle leaves and heat until nearly boiling. Use roughly two cups of water for a cup of leaves. You can make the tea stronger by steeping longer, or weaker by adding more water. Once the water is near boiling, reduce heat and simmer for a couple minutes. Enjoy “neat” or with dried Elderflower petals.
  • Nettle syrup / cordial  – one commercial product adds Blackcurrant leaves to improve the flavour.
  • Nettle Wine
  • Nettle Beer – easy and ready in just a week or 10 days.
Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients

 

To Eat

Your imagination is the limit to recipes for nettles-based dishes. They are very versatile and can be used to replace spinach in any dish. Cooked nettles can be eaten as a vegetable (prepare like spinach, then optionally add a little butter and / or nutmeg) or added to lasagne, quiches, curry, meat loaf,  etc. Below are links to a selection of recipes to try.

  • Soups  There are numerous variations – “neat”, with wild garlic or ground elder, hot or gazpacho. Freeze in old fruit juice cartons or plastic milk bottles. Fairly standard recipe here.
Nettle Soup
Nettle Soup

Culinary Uses – Seeds

While most foragers are familiar with the use of young nettle leaves in dishes such as the above. There are some uses for nettle seeds. Gather these in late Summer or early Autumn.

Stinging Nettle with seeds
Stinging Nettle with seeds
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Go wild for the Wild Garlic!

Yesterday was St David’s Day and was, meteorologically speaking, the start of Spring. For those of us that prefer the ancient ways of doing things, Spring doesn’t start until the 20th March with the equinox, which like solstices, is related to the orbit of the earth around the sun. Regardless of the date and whether you think it is Spring yet or not, a walk in the countryside will show that nature is definitely heading towards Spring. Green leaves are appearing on some of the hedgerow shrubs and bushes such as Hawthorn, Elder and Wild Gooseberry. The nettles are several inches high and ready for picking. I was delighted to find lots of Wild Garlic with leaves over 6 inches long and the air heavy with it’s pungent aroma and was inspired to write about it. Wild garlic is not only great to eat but also has many of the health benefits of the cultivated garlic, it is effective in reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Where to find it

Wild Garlic in an old, damp lane.
Wild Garlic in an old, damp lane.

Wild Garlic or Ramsons is found across most of the country. The map below from the National Biodiversity Network shows there is barely a 10 kilometre square in the country without it unless you are in the Highlands or Ireland. It is found in damp, Ancient deciduous woodlands, shady lanes and some hedgerows. Like Bluebells, it prefers slightly acidic soils so if you know a good Bluebell wood it might have Wild Garlic too. Given suitable conditions it can be prolific carpeting significant areas, almost turning the woodland floor white.

Wild Garlic distribution map
The information used here was sourced through the NBN Gateway website and included many resources. <http://data.nbn.org.uk/> Accessed 1 March. 2016. The data providers and NBN Trust bear no responsibility for the further analysis or interpretation of this material, data and/or information.

Season

The leaves of Wild Garlic can be picked in most years from March to June. They are at their best and most flavoursome when bright green before the flowers open. As they age and start to turn yellow, the flavour is less strong. The star-shaped flowers are usually seen in May and June.

Identification

There are a few other plants that it is possible to confuse with Wild Garlic. The usual sources of confusion are young Lords and Ladies leaves, Lily of the Valley and Autumn Crocus. These are all poisonous so take care! Mistaking the latter for Wild Garlic has lead to a death in the UK – you have been warned! The best test is to crush a leaf and use your nose, if it smells of garlic it is garlic (though beware the smell of garlic can stay on your hands!).

Flowers

Wild Garlic flowers
Wild Garlic flowers
  • Wild Garlic – cluster of star-like, white flowers at the end of an upright stem.
  • Lily-of-the-Valley – drooping bell-shaped flowers along the stem.

Leaves

Wild Garlic leaves
Wild Garlic leaves
  • Wild Garlic – leaves have a single main vein and come singly from the base of the plant on individual green-coloured stems.
  • Lily of the Valley – two or three leaves come from a single purple stem.
  • Lords and Ladies – leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins.

Picking

Do not dig up Wild Garlic bulbs. Unless you have landowner’s consent it is illegal and the bulbs are disappointingly small. Harvest leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods using scissors. Look out for bird droppings! Pick a little here and there rather than too much in one place and watch where you are putting your feet. As you pick, it is easy to bruise the leaves so put them gently into a basket or bag without packing them in. Like many wild leaves, they will wilt after picking so use quickly or refrigerate (in a sealed bag!).

Preparing

Give any flowers a shake to remove any insects, wash in cold water. If required, pat dry with a kitchen towel or a tea towel to remove moisture.

Washing Wild Garlic
Washing and drying Wild Garlic

Uses

You can use Wild Garlic anywhere where you would use regular garlic, the flavour is however milder.

Leaves

Wild Garlic leaves are the mildest part of the plant. They can be harvested as early as the middle of January in a mild winter. They can be used raw sparingly in salads, in sandwiches, dressings and finely chopped as a garnish. A popular use is in pesto in the place of basil. I am a great fan of garlic butter made by mixing finely chopped leaves into salted butter. Use for garlic bread, Chicken Kiev or frying; it freezes well too.

Making Wild Garlic bread
Making Wild Garlic bread

When cooked the leaves can be used in many ways. The simplest use is as a vegetable as you would prepare and serve spinach. It can also be used blanched and pureed as a sauce for white fish, in soup (“neat” or mixed with nettle tips), stews, pasta sauce, risottos, quiche, frittata, cheese scones, focaccia, dumplings, and lots more – see recipe links at the end of this post.

Wild Garlic Fritatta
Wild Garlic Fritatta (and a little in the wild salad)

The leaves can be preserved in honey, oil, as pesto, in pickles, chutneys and vinegars. A puree mixed with oil (rapeseed or oil) can be put in jars (Kilner preferable to tin-lidded) and covered with a little oil or frozen in ice cube trays. The leaves can be dried with a dehydrator or in a very low oven. When dry (brittle) store in jars in a dry, cool, dark place.

Drying Wild Garlic leaves
Drying Wild Garlic leaves

Fermenting is very much in vogue. You can create a pickle by pounding chopped leaves and salt and putting it in jars to ferment for 6 months at a minimum! (Alternative method in Mark Hix article 1 in recipe section).

Stalks / Flower Buds

Wild Garlic flower buds
Wild Garlic flower buds

The stems and unopened flowers can be added to salads and other dishes such as stir fries. They can be pickled or preserved by salting.

Flowers

The opened flowers can also be eaten. The flavour is stronger than that of the leaves. In small quantities the flowers make a decorative and tasty addition to salads and can be used as a garnish. They can also be made into great savoury fritters.

Fruits (seed pods)

Wild Garlic seed posts appearing as the flowers go over.
Wild Garlic seed posts appearing as the flowers go over.

Another little used “crop” from the Wild Garlic at the end of the season as the flowers go over is the seed pods or fruit that form in their place. The flavour gets stronger as the seeds ripen. The seed pods can be stripped from the stalks with a fork over a bowl. You can make Garlic butter by pounding them with a pestle and mortar and mixing with butter. They can also be pickled (try elderflower or pine needle vinegar) and eaten with cheese or put in a dressing.

Recipes

Articles / Pages with collections of Wild Garlic recipes

Individual recipes

Wild Garlic pesto
Wild Garlic pesto
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A Slice of Summer – Summer Foraging

When most people think of foraging for wild food it is mainly the autumn – fruit, nuts and fungi. There are of course wild foods to be found all year and the summer is no exception with soft fruit, flowers, herbs, nuts and some fungi offering great summer foraging. A few of the autumn species are showing themselves too but are not quite ripe yet.

A selection of summer wild foods - berries, fungi and plants.
Results from a summer foraging trip – berries, fungi and plants.

Fruit

In both the garden and the wild it is soft fruit season. The wild parents of garden species are generally smaller than the garden versions but still flavoursome and worth the effort in finding and picking. Gooseberries, Strawberries, Red Currants, Cherries, Raspberries, Bilberries and Mirabelles (Cherry Plums) are awaiting you to turn them into delights such as puddings, drinks (cordial, wine and sloe-gin equivalents), vinegars, jams and chutney. Venture a bit further afield (for me to a nearby bypass!) and you will find Sea Buckthorn berries – an amazing flavour. The first blackberries are ripening. It is always the one at the end of the cluster – the “king” berry that ripens first. They are hinting at autumn along with ripening Japanese Rosehips, Rowans, Haws and Damsons.

 

Mirabelles or cherry plums - a fine summer foraging fruit
Mirabelles or cherry plums come in many colours – yellow, red and purple. They make great puddings, jam, plum brandy and chutney. I leaves the stones in for a quick crumble and spit them out as I find them – “pippy pudding”.

Flowers

Elderflower time is a distant memory, though the cupboard or freezer should be stocked with cordial, which can go into puddings, cakes, breads and more. Roses, Meadowsweet, Himalayan Balsam and Clover flowers can be picked with drinks, puddings and more in mind.

Meadowsweet in summer
Meadowsweet smells of hay or almonds as it dries. It was the original source of Aspirin so should be avoided by people that are allergic to it. It was traditionally used as a strewing herb (air freshener) and infused in Claret to make a liqueur. It can be used for many drinks – wine, vodka or brandy, tea (leaves or flowers), cordial or champagne. It can be used when stewing Summer fruits (raspberries, peaches or plums) to add a nice nutty flavour. The leaves can be put in salads. It also can be used when making ice cream or a Panna Cotta.

Greens

While not as bountiful as the wealth of greens of Spring, Summer foraging finds Chickweed in the fields for a lettuce role and Watercress abounds in the chalk stream though must be cooked (soup or a veg) to avid the risk of liver fluke. Fat Hen is plentiful though the woodier stems should be avoided. Soup, curry, quiche or a simple green veg being the main uses. Pine Needles make a refreshing, fruit cordial, delicious on a warm day.

Watercress in Summer
Watercress can be found growing on many chalk streams. It should not be eaten raw as there is the risk of the parasitic liver fluke. Cooked it makes a fantastic soup or can be flash fried (after carefully washing it in a vinegar solution) as vegetable.

 Herbs

Summer is a good time for foraging for herbs. Many such as Marjoram, Fennel and Water Mint can be dried. The dried herbs can be used in the autumn with crab apples for herb jellies. Sorrel is ongoing in the meadows with a multitude of uses – from a sauce for oily fish, to a salad or quiche ingredient or bruised with buttered new potatoes.

Marjoram in flower
Marjoram is commonly found on the chalky banks of old lanes.

Nuts

Hazelnuts are visible in the hedgerows and on the grass where the squirrels have thrown his leftovers. The flesh of green Hazelnuts have the crisp crunch of overgrown peas, and a sweet vegetable-like taste that quickly becomes rather addictive! Do use nutcrackers and not your teeth though. Green Walnuts are still about but we have missed the traditional time for pickling them – late June. They have been a delicacy in England since at least the early 19th-century enjoyed with cheese and biscuits. Charles Dickens mentions them in The Pickwick Papers,

Hazelnuts
Green Hazelnuts

Fungi

A good thunderstorm or two in August usually gets the fungi season kick-started. Online foraging and fungi forums are full of pictures of people’s latest finds. I’ve seen Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Fairy Ring Champignons, Field Mushrooms and Red Cracking Bolete.

Red Cracking Bolete
Red Cracking Bolete. Edible but take care with the ID for any bolete with red on it. A friend enjoys it with drying improving the flavour. He powders it to use it in soups and sauces.
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