I like soup, a lot. I probably have soup for lunch two or three times a week. When I had a “real” job, I regularly took soup to work to heat up in the microwave and other users of the office kitchen were always keen to know what the “weird” soup of the day was.
Spring is a great time for fellow soup lovers that forage, there are lots of great wild ingredients around that you can experiment with. Spring being the season of new growth and greenery, it is wild leaves that we make use of. You can follow the same basic recipe and easily and cheaply produce lots of different versions using either a single type of leaves or a combination. Adopt the basic recipe as you like with other ingredients or not blending it etc. The soups can be eaten hot or cold (gazpacho) and all freeze well. I use washed out plastic milk bottles to freeze them in.
As always, check the plant identification as there are some poisonous plants that it is possible to confuse with these.
Nettles (use scissors and gloves, cut the top 2 or 3 inches including the stem. Do not use when they get older as they get fibrous).
Wild Garlic (best before it flowers).
Common Hogweed (NB Avoid Giant Hogweed, and wear gloves if you have sensitive skin)
Ground Elder (best before it flowers, double check that it is not Dog’s Mercury)
Watercress (must be cooked if “wild”)
Alexanders (really check the ID, other umbellifers can be deadly!)
Common Sorrel (mix with some lettuce, skip the garlic. Beware of Lords and Ladies which is confused with this).
Hop Shoots (beware of Black Bryony)
(Table scrolls right and left on mobiles, click on the photos for bigger / zoom-able versions)
Alternatives to a clove of garlic
Wild Garlic leaves
Three Cornered Leek – stem or leaves
Few Flowered Leek – stem or leaves
A few edible wild flowers e.g Primrose, Wild Garlic, Three Cornered Leek
Chopped herbs such as Crow Garlic
1/2 a carrier bag or a few large bunches of leaves – see above
A little oil
1 large onion – chopped
1 clove of garlic – crushed (or a handful of an alternative – see above)
1 carrot – optional
2 pints good stock (vegetable or chicken). I use Marigold Swiss Vegetable (or Vegan) Bouillon Powder.
2 medium potatoes – peeled if you like (not really necessary), chopped into large pieces
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cream or crème fraiche (optional)
Small bunch of Crow Garlic
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
Wash all leaves thoroughly.
Melt butter in a pan and sweat the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown (c. 10 minutes).
Add stock, potatoes and all the leaves.
Bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are cooked.
Season with salt, pepper and add the cream.
Put the soup mixture into a blender a bit at a time and blitz it.
When I ask a group of guests on a seashore foraging course “who has eaten seaweed before?” it’s usually about half that put their hands up. I ask if it was crispy seaweed and for most it was. However, on most occasions, it’s not seaweed that they were actually given but deep-fried spring greens – a type of cabbage! Those that have really eaten seaweed have usually done so in either Japanese restaurants or in the Welsh dish Laverbread. Almost everyone will have however eaten seaweed regularly as extracts from it are used in a wide variety of food products. For example, it keeps ice cream smooth and creamy, is used in beers for a more stable and lasting foam and in wines to help clarify the colour. As a thickener or stabilizer, it appears in sauces, syrups, and soups, mayonnaise, salad dressings and yoghurt.
Seaweeds are most popular in East Asian cuisine (Japanese, Chinese & Korean). Nearer to home, there is a long history of using some species in Ireland and Wales. Seaweeds are rich in minerals especially iodine, proteins and vitamins. One has 10 times the calcium of cow’s milk, twice the vitamin C of oranges, and 50 times the iron of spinach!
Foraging for Seaweed
Seaweeds are probably the least foraged wild food group, however, there is lots of good news for the forager:
Of the 500 or so species in British waters about a dozen are eaten, so learning them is a lot easier than plants or fungi.
There is only one poisonous species, but you won’t encounter it being only found in very deep waters, like midway across The English Channel.
If you like East Asian cuisine, we have many of the same or equivalent species on our coast.
Seaweeds can be preserved for future use.
The coast is perhaps the most dangerous foraging environment with more ways to come a cropper than other environments. I won’t go into detail here, but among the dangers are being cut off by the tide, hit by a landslide, slipping on rocks and getting stuck in mud. Take care!
The best time to gather seaweed is as the tide is falling and the best months are May and June. You should look in areas away from sources of pollution such as sewage outfalls and where rivers come to the coast. So your seaweed gathering has minimal impact, you should always cut it with scissors and not tear it off the rocks. Do not cut too near the holdfast (“root”), leaving a third of the length and it will happily grow back. You should generally, only gather seaweed that is still attached so it has not deteriorated. As with all types of foraging, take a little here and a little there.
At the coast, rinse it in seawater to remove any sand, shells or creatures. The easiest way is to put a handful into a bucket / large bowl of water, give it a good swirl then put into a colander to drain. If it is sandy, give it multiple washes. Once cut and washed, put it in string bags (e.g onion sacks) to let the water drain. I strongly recommend that you put each species in a separate bag so you don’t need to spend hours at home sorting them out! If you’re collecting on a warm day, use a cool box to keep the seaweed chilled until you get home. If it becomes too hot it will start to break down and get mucilaginous and slimy.
The usual law that applies to foragers, The 1968 Theft Act, covers fruit, fungi, foliage and flowers but not seaweed. You should be okay collecting it for personal use but technically you need permission from the owner of the foreshore (Council, National Trust or private landowner). Below the High Water Mark, the landowner is usually The Crown. John Wright’s Edible Seashore book includes excellent coverage of the legal aspects of seashore foraging.
Seaweed in The Kitchen
The key thing for cooking with seaweed is that you need to appropriately use each species. It’s not just a case of boiling any of them as you would a vegetable, each has its own role in the kitchen. They are more versatile than you would think, besides being used in soups, starters and main courses, they can be used in puddings, breads, cakes and drinks. On our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course, learning about their roles is our focus. There are, however, simple ways that you can easily add seaweed to your regular diet and enjoy the health and taste benefits.
It is easy to produce a jar of dried seaweed flakes. This is one or more of Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Laver (Nori), Bladderwrack, Gutweed and, optionally, a little Pepper Dulse. These seaweeds are washed thoroughly and then have been dried (below) and ground / flaked (below). The result is stored in a glass jar where it will keep for a long time (though once you get the flavour you will use it regularly!). You can:
Sprinkle on cooked vegetables, salads, eggs, noodles, pizza or pasta dishes, popcorn, soups and sauces.
Put in a salt shaker with sea salt and using as a condiment.
Add when making bread / savoury scones etc.
Mix into soft butter for Seaweed butter, optionally adding lemon or lime juice, chilli flakes etc. Serve on bread or with fish, vegetables, noodles or pasta. This can be frozen.
Your technique will depend upon how much time you have, the size of the seaweed and the weather. Natural drying in sunlight and fresh air is the traditional approach but if it is too windy or wet you may have to rethink – garage, conservatory or greenhouse (ideally not the house – you will get complaints!). If drying flat, turn them occasionally. Whatever your approach, they want them to be totally dry but still pliable. Dried seaweed can then be stored for years in sealed plastic bags or glass jars in a cool, dry place away from direct light. Some are used dried; others are rehydrated before using.
Cake cooling racks
Clothes drying rack
Dehydrator – 40 degrees C so the nutrients are not damaged. You can use this for drying mushrooms, fruit and veg too. C. £40
Sheets / tarpaulin
A very low oven (40 degrees C) overnight.
The washing line / a rotary drier / a sock drier
To flake the seaweed, you may need to crisp the dried seaweed removing all moisture by either:
Putting on a tray or ovenproof fish in a hot oven. Check it every minute or so to see if it can be crumbled; put back if not. The time required will vary with the thickness of the seaweed and how thinly you have spread it.
Placing in a grill pan with a piece of greaseproof paper over the seaweed to stop burning. Put well away from the heat, turning the seaweed occasionally checking if it is crisp.
When it is crisp you can crush it, your method based on whether you want flakes or powder:
Pestle and mortar
Freezer bag / rolling pin
Rub between the fingers (carefully as some seaweeds may have sharp edges)
Food processor / Coffee (Spice) grinder (shorter time for flakes, longer for powder)
Join us on our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course. You will find most of the edible species, understand harvesting and preserving them as well as working together to prepare, cook and eat a three-course meal with seaweed in every course. Afterwards we will email you lots of information including the recipes.
There are a good number of books on seaweed foraging and cookery with some wonderful recipes. You can browse and order some of our favourites here.
Yes, it’s February as I write this. These wonderful plums, also known as Mirabelles, are ready to pick in around August, but there is good reason for mentioning them now – they are in flower. The pretty blossoms are distinctive, there’s nothing else to confuse them with at this moment and you can spot them as you drive past at 60. If you track them down now, you can head back later in the year for their fantastic fruit. Get your skates on though as the Blackthorn will be out before too long. Yes, it’s still worth knowing where Blackthorns are for your Sloes, but Cherry Plums are less common. The focus of this post is telling them apart. One blog I found gives one possible way:
The simple way to tell the difference is to plunge your arm vigorously into the bush and wriggle it about. If it is covered in bloody scratches when you retrieve it, odds are it was a Blackthorn…
You will be pleased to know that there are other, pain-free ways of telling them apart, admittedly they are a bit more complex.
Flowering period: Can flower as early as late January, but can carry on into March and April
Twigs: The young twigs are hairless and distinctively green. Bark dark grey. No spines.
Flowers / leaves: The leaves develop at the same time as the flowers.
Habitat: Scattered, but locally frequent and easily overlooked when it grows in hedges with Blackthorn but given away by the early flowering. Can make a small tree (up to 8 metres). They are non-native, and sometimes used for landscaping or highways planting.
Appearance: Distinctly wispy with slender branches and twigs.
For more information on identifying Cherry Plums see this Woodland Trust page.
Flowering period: March – April
Twigs: The dark brown / black bark is smooth, and twigs form straight side shoots, which develop into thorns / spines.
Flowers / leaves: Flowers appear before the leaves start to show.
Habitat: Grows naturally in scrub and woodlands, but commonly used in hedges. Can grow to 6 or 7 metres tall.
Appearance: Usually an impenetrable mass of very spiny straight-branched bushes.
For more information on identifying Blackthorn see this Woodland Trust page.
It was very saddening to read a recent newspaper report of the deliberate taking of the rare Bearded Tooth (formerly Lion’s Mane) fungus from three locations in The New Forest. This is one of four species of protected fungi listed under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act as they are endangered. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine.
According to the newspaper article (not available online), they were taken by “unlicensed foragers”. There is only one licensed forager in The New Forest (it’s a long story!). Collecting wild fungi for commercial purposes requires landowners’ consent, without it such collection is theft (1969 Theft Act). The Forestry Commission in The New Forest do not give consent for commercial collection and their fungi picking campaigns of the last few years are aimed at commercial collectors (though this is not at all clear from their signage). Whoever took it you have not done any favours for legitimate people foraging for personal consumption. You are not representative of the rest of us, like football hooligans, a small minority may well tarnish the reputation of the law abiding majority. The Police, Natural England and The Forestry Commission are investigating the thefts. Anyone with information is encouraged to share it with the police via 101 or The Forestry Commission.
I have seen Bearded Tooth only on one occasion knowing immediately what it was and whooped for joy at being so fortunate to see it. It is a stunning species looking like melted wax cascading out of a fallen tree. Only photos and memories were taken.
With a mycologist friend I returned to that spot this year and there was no sign of it. Poor memory was blamed for forgetting the exact location but I now wonder of this was one of the spots where it had been taken.
The name refers to the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish and not the big cat. The species is edible – “a superb seafood-like taste compared to crab or lobster” but clearly should not be eaten from the wild. If you are keen to try it, it can be cultivated so you can buy it in Asian grocery stores, online and occasionally in supermarkets. Alternatively, your can try to grow your own with plug spawn. It is also sold as powders, supplements and extracts from some health food shops being revered by Native Americans and East Asian cultures where it is traditionally known as an immune booster, memory booster and styptic (stems flow of blood).
As a member of The Association of Foragers, I have been active making sure our legal right to pick wild fungi for personal consumption is allowed to continue. As Hedgerow Harvest, I organise educational fungus forays and walks in The New Forest and pay for a permit from The Forestry Commission to run them. The events are undertaken following strict rules as to what and how much we can pick and as well as teaching identification and safety do emphasise sustainable and legal picking. We are privileged, The New Forest is one of the best places for fungi in Western Europe and is home to rare and protected species as well as good numbers of much more common species.
It may be that this illegal picking was ignorance of the law rather than deliberate targeting. Some fungi books list Lion’s Mane as “edible” without mentioning the legal status, however, such “ignorance of law excuses no one”. To try and educate people I have tried to put together a guide to protected fungi species. To read the interesting background to these lists (e.g. the politics), Peter Marren’s excellent book Mushrooms is highly recommended. (According to a review in The independent it is “The greatest book about mushrooms you’ll ever read”).
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 it is an offence to pick, uproot or destroy any wild plant listed. “Wild plant” means any plant (including fungi) which is or (before it was picked, uprooted or destroyed) was growing wild and is of a kind which ordinarily grows in Great Britain in a wild state. This means that picking these critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine. The four species of protected fungi listed are:
Royal bolete is known mainly from grassy areas under broadleaved trees in ancient, deciduous woods, particularly hornbeam or beech woods but also oak, on calcareous or acidic sandy soils. It is an ectomycorrhizal species which depends on old host trees. Many of its known host trees are old oak pollards. It has attractive, edible fruiting bodies which generally appear between May and September, although it is not known how reliable its fruiting is. The fruiting bodies are reddish in colour with a cap 6-15 cm in diameter.
In Britain, this species is only known from southern England. There is very little information on its historic distribution in Britain. It may always have been rare, but some experts suggest that it may have declined over the last 40 years. In recent years, it has only been seen at three sites: the New Forest, Ashgreen (Surrey) and Windsor Forest. Elsewhere, this species has been recorded in scattered locations across central Europe.
Hericium erinaceum grows mainly on the wounds of old living trees and on the ends of felled trunks in deciduous woods. It often grows high up on its host trees which are usually beech, but may also be oak. This species has an extremely local distribution in Britain, possibly because it is restricted to areas of woodland where there has been a long continuity of old trees. Fruiting bodies appear in late summer to autumn. Techniques are available for cultivating this edible species, and it is now being sold in supermarkets as a fashionable addition to cuisine.
This species is scattered but locally common in southern England, rare in the Midlands (only one record from Herefordshire) and is absent from other parts of the British Isles. There are 12 records from approximately seven sites since 1960. Recent records include sites in the New Forest, Windsor Great Park and Oxfordshire.
This species causes brown rot in mature oaks or on recently dead oaks, but never on any other species. It mainly occurs in wood pasture habitat where there has been a continuity of mature oak trees. The fruiting bodies which are edible, but have a very bitter taste, generally appear between May and December.
In Britain, this species has been recorded at Sherwood Forest and from approximately five other sites in Derbyshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire. There is no evidence for a historic decline in this species.
In response to International moves to help reduce or halt the significant losses in global biodiversity, the UK, like many other countries, has summarised the most threatened or rapidly declining habitats and species and created detailed “Species Action Plans” for their conservation. As well as priority habitats, action plans have been created for birds, plants, fish, fungi and other groups. Following devolution there are now priority lists for England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.
UK BAP priority fungi species
Note that lichens have been omitted. Includes rusts and smuts etc. U = unknown
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (also known as the IUCN Red List or Red Data List), founded in 1965, has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. These criteria are relevant to all species and all regions of the world. With its strong scientific base, the IUCN Red List is recognized as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity. A series of Regional Red Lists are produced by countries or organizations, which assess the risk of extinction to species within a political management unit.
A Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi was produced in 1992 and 2006 by the British Mycological Society (BMS). However, neither of these achieved official approval by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, thereby diminishing their effectiveness in conservation decision-making.
Preliminary Assessment: The Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi – 2006
To remedy this, the family Boletaceae (Boletes) was chosen in 2012 to establish a template for fungal conservation status assessments. The aim was to facilitate production of British Red Data Lists conforming to international standards set by the IUCN and published by JNCC.
Working with Natural England, the Association of British Fungus Groups and the British Mycological Society and a team at Cardiff University, Kew mycologists produced this first official (pilot) fungal Red Data List for Great Britain, which was duly published by JNCC in 2013. Of the 68 Boletes studied, 13 were assessed as threatened and 37 are now ‘red-listed’. Even now, in late 2018, no further families have been added.
Red List of Fungi for Great Britain: Boletaceae. A pilot conservation assessment based on national database records, fruit body morphology and DNA barcoding - 2013.
As I write this in late November you could be forgiven for thinking that most foraging opportunities are finished for the year but this is far from the truth. There are still some wild greens and fruit about and while most fungi finds are slowing up, with a frost or two already past, it becomes time to hunt for Wood Blewits. They can be found from September to January or February. While not as well known as other “top table” fungi like Ceps and Chanterelles, these are right up there for flavour and versatility and used to be sold in markets in this country.
Many woodland fungi are mycorrhizal. This means that the mycelium (underground web of fibres making up the majority of the body of the fungus) grows on the roots of trees. It takes up water and nutrients to pass to the tree in exchange for sugars. Wood Blewits are saprophytes. They feed on dead or decaying organic matter such as leaf litter. The name suggests that they are only found in woodland, however, some of the best places I know are nice, old (unimproved) grasslands, including along the coast where agriculture is often less intense. Here they can be found growing in huge rings. They are also found under hedgerows (linear woodlands), in gardens (including mine occasionally!) and on road verges.
We strongly recommend you check identification with several books.
Wood Blewits are violet when young but become light brown / tan with age. I could identify one blind-folded due to their distinctive smell, described as floral, aromatic, sweet, perfumed or best of all, “frozen orange juice” according to one source!
You need to be very careful that you do not confuse them with some of the larger purple species of Cortinarius fungi which can be of a similar colour. The Wood Blewit has pink spores and all Cortinarius fungi have rusty brown spores. A spore print will confirm their colour.
The genus name Cortinarius means “curtained”. A young specimen will have a “cortina” between the cap and the stem. A cortina in this case, is not the United Kingdom’s best-selling car of the 1970s, but a “veil”, a web of threads between the mushroom stem and cap. Remnants of it may be seen on older specimens.
Another species that you will head off the path in pursuit of, thinking from a distance it is a Wood Blewit, is The Clouded Agaric. A closer inspection will reveal the lack of violet and the distinctive smell. As they make most people that eat them ill, you will soon learn to despise Clouded Agarics.
As Wood Blewits can be found in good numbers they can be preserved for later consumption. While drying is an option, I usually fry them and then put the cooked mushrooms into freezer bags and the freezer with the amount I would need for a meal in each bag.
Wood Blewits must be cooked before consumption. Raw they can cause indigestion or stomach upsets. A minority of people find even thoroughly cooked Wood Blewits indigestible so it is recommended you should try a small amount the first time that you eat them to check they like you.
They can often have a lot of water in them so when you cook them, you may need to drain off any surplus liquid so you fry them and not boil them. They are very good sautéed and served with a range of meats or poultry. They can be one of a number of mushrooms in a risotto or pasta dish.
Elderberries are far from the most foraged berry. This is a bit of a shame, used the right way they are a great wild food ingredient. They make a good jam or jelly, but you wouldn’t really want a pudding with them “neat”. Adding another fruit like Blackberries improves the flavour. Where they do come into their own is in drinks, one of the best wild fruit wines, a great spirit-based infusion (think Sloe Gin but with Elderberries and Vodka or Whisky), or most commonly as Elderberry Syrup. This is one of my favourite fruit syrups and can be used in a number of ways.
Uses for Elderberry Syrup
Most will go in the freezer to reappear when the winter colds or flu strike. Defrosted then a little in a mug of hot water (squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of whisky are optional extras) will relieve the symptoms of colds and flu. I add cloves to mine and the fruity/spicy remedy soon starts to work wonders. The combination of certain acids, vitamin C and anti-oxidants has proven in trials that “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier …. in those receiving elderberry extract compared with a placebo“. The medicinal benefits have been known since the Ancient Egyptians and Greek. You can today buy cold remedies with Elderberry in, but why, when you can make your own cheaply. I use the recipe in Roger Phillips’ excellent Wild Food.
I’ve known people use it as a no-alcohol version of mulled wine. The spices, such as cloves, ginger and / or cinnamon, make it fill the role very well.
You can drizzle a little of the syrup on to ice cream, pancakes, rice pudding or similar.
I’ve blogged about Hops before but at a very different time of the year – April. My target in the Spring is the young shoots, these have been called “Poor Man’s Asparagus” and are one of the world’s most expensive vegetables sold in Belgium for around $1400 / kilo. The shoots have lots of great uses covered in the blog, I frequently put them in frittatas or have them as a vegetable.
Hops can occasionally be found in hedgerows even in areas where there is no history of hop growing. The hop vines grow up to a foot a day and the cones (the proper word for the flowers) are blossoming at the moment. Seeing them in their summer guise did make me think about what you can do with them beyond the obvious use. I did a bit of web searching and this post contains what I found. When it’s stopped raining and we’ve had some sun, I am going out to gather some hops to dry and try out some of the below ideas.
Picking / Storing Hops
September and October are the months for harvesting hop cones. They can be dried for later use, however, note that they will lose their potency when exposed to light and air or after a few months’ storage.
If you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear gloves and make sure your arms are covered when picking them. Dermatitis sometimes results from harvesting them. Please note hops are toxic to dogs.
Hops are obviously used as a bittering, flavouring and stability agent for beers. As well as bitterness they give floral, fruity or citrusy flavours and aroma. There are many cultivated varieties of hops used for different styles of beer.
I’m no home-brew expert but it would be interesting to try a beer made with foraged hops.
Hops as Decoration
Stems of dried hops have been used as a garland or in floral arrangements for centuries. Today, they are usually seen in pubs hanging from rafters or above the bar. I was once asked where to find some for decorating a wedding reception!
Medicinal and Cosmetic Uses of Hops
A pillow filled with hops is a popular traditional remedy for sleeplessness. You can easily make your own and can optionally add an equal measure of dried lavender flowers to sweeten the scent. Wrap it well (make a “pillow case”) to avoid the hop’s oils from staining your bedding! Put under your pillow to help you sleep.
The calming and relaxing effects of hops are utilised in herbal medicine as treatments for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. They also used in cosmetics – natural soaps and deodorants.
They have been used in tea for at least as long as they have been used in beer. The tea is often used as a bedtime drink due to its natural sedative properties. You can dry foraged hops and use them for making tea. It can be very bitter and might need sweetening with honey. Some people add other, complementary flavours to hop tea – ginger, citrus peel, chamomile, lemongrass, lemon balm, or other herbs.
I was already aware of most of the above uses for hops but was unaware of any culinary uses. What I did find repeatedly in my search were warnings that they are incredibly strong, and their bitterness can take over a dish. The trick is to use them lightly. According to one source “If there’s one word to keep in mind, it’s this: restraint”. Another source summed it up nicely:
Hops are the ‘spice’ of beer, and they play a similar role when added to food recipes
It’s worth giving them a go, they add robust flavours, aromas and textures to dishes. A test run using them as a dried and flaked condiment is a suggested way of being introduced to them.
A garnish for mashed potatoes
Sprinkled on soup
On pasta or chicken
Among the other uses I found – search for recipes / inspiration:
Adding like a bay leaf to a soup or stew
Salmon and cauliflower with hops béarnaise
On pizzas, like you would use oregano or basil
Infuse oils with hops for salad dressings
Dried and ground as a baking powder substitute (1 tablespoon to 1 lb plain flour)
Mustard to go with hoppy sausage
Infused honey to top a malted barley custard
Hop-infused ice cream
Churros (fried-dough pastry – a traditional snack from Spain and Portugal)
A great edible plant to track down at the moment (June – September) is Fat Hen. It is also known by many names including Lambs Quarters, White Goosefoot, Common Goosefoot, Dirty Dick, Frost Blite, Dung Weed, Mutton Tops and Pigweed. It is a summer plant found on disturbed and cultivated areas such as arable fields, vegetable gardens / allotments and manure heaps. For those that don’t welcome its presence, it is a troublesome annual weed, each plant producing up to 20,000 seeds which can last in the soil for many years. It is common in most of Britain except mountainous areas.
Fat Hen is a member of the Goosefoot genus. Many other members are edible including the salt-tolerant Oraches found on shingle beaches.
Fat Hen has been eaten as a vegetable since Stone Age times. Its seeds made up part of the last meal of Tollund Man, a bog body dating from this period found in Tollund in Denmark. It remained popular until the 16th century when spinach and cabbage replaced it in our diets. One relative, Good King Henry, was a popular garden vegetable for hundreds of years and the seeds are still sold today though is less popular than in the past. A “trendy” relative is Chenopodium quinoa that grows in South America. It’s seeds are the source of Quinoa. Today, Fat Hen is still cultivated as a food crop in some countries including India.
Fat Hen Identification
Fat Hen, and other members of the Chenopodium family are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They are very variable and can hybridise!
Fat Hen is an erect, annual, bushy herb often reaching a height of a metre or more. It usually has striped stems and has dense clusters of tiny green flowers.
They are grey green ovate or triangular leaves which are paler underneath. They are 20-60 mm long and 5-30 mm wide with a pointed tip. Bigger leaves are usually lobed or toothed. All are mealy (covered with meal (a powdery coating)).
Smell / Taste
Fat Hen smells (faintly of) and tastes a bit like cabbage.
The leaves of the toxic Black Nightshade do look rather like those of Fat Hen. The flowers are however, very different, with those of Black Nightshade being like a white version of tomato or potato flowers – in the same family!
Fat Hen Risks
If you are gathering Fat Hen from a farmer’s field, garden or allotment, do check that it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.
Fat Hen can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates though cases of poisoning are rare.
Some members of this genus contain saponins (they form a lather when combined with water), however:
Quantities are usually too small for any harm.
Most are not absorbed and pass without any problem.
They are also largely broken down during cooking.
Like many foods (Sorrel, Sea Beet and lots of cultivated plants like Sprouts and Parsley), they also contain some oxalic acid. Cooking will reduce the levels of this, but people with rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney stones or hyperacidity should be aware that large quantities of Oxalic acid can aggravate their condition.
Fat Hen Uses
“Tops” (flower spikes, younger stems and leaves)
They can be the main ingredient for a soup, made as Nettle or Leek and Potato soups. In my opinion the flavour is like Cauliflower soup. I’ve served it to many people and it goes down well. If you’ve left the Fat Hen to grow a bit big, pass the cooked, blended soup through a sieve to catch any fibrous bits.
Young Shoots / Flower Spikes
The young shoots (less than 20 cm) and unopened flower spikes can be prepared and eaten like Asparagus shoots. If you leave them to get too big they may be a bit woody. Simmer until tender (up to 10 minutes), drain and serving with a little butter.
The young shoots / flower spikes could also go into a stir-fry.
The leaves can be eaten raw but only in in small quantities, see the notes above on risks.
They can be eaten as a vegetable, cooked like Spinach or used in place of Spinach in any recipe, for example:
Tarts / Quiches / Frittata
Curries (e.g. Sag Aloo or a Chickpea, Tomato and Spinach Curry),
Mushroom and Spinach Risotto etc.
One recipe that specifically calls for Fat Hen is Fat Hen Pesto Bake. I make this regularly in the season and thoroughly enjoy it. Vegetarian / vegan / nut-free versions can be made by altering the ingredients.
Fat Hen plants each produces tens of thousands of nutritious, but small and fiddly seeds. The close relative Quinoa is grown for its seeds. Fat Hen seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make bread and cakes. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight and then rinsed to remove any saponins.
A selection of wild booze tipples using Spring ingredients that are about now. When I say Spring, I mean to make now then sit patiently until later in the year to drink. All three use young leaves that can easily be found – Beech, Blackthorn and Oak.
Beech Leaf Noyau / Gin
I think I first saw this in Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free (early version not in the more recent one I have), but it is also included in Andy Hamilton’s Booze for Free. It struck me as an unusual drink with most infusions being fruit or flower. I’ve also looked at the young Beech leaves looking so edible but being not particularly excited about putting them in a salad.
Pick enough young beech leaves to half fill a large jar. Cover with a bottle (70 cl) of gin. Put in a cupboard for a couple of weeks. Make a syrup solution, dissolving 225g of sugar in 300ml of water. Strain and discard the leaves. Add the sugar solution and optionally a glass of brandy. Bottle and store for at least 3 months.
Everyone knows Sloe Gin made with the fruit of the Blackthorn. A much less known tipple uses the leaves of the Blackthorn, picked around this time of the year (April – June). These give the drink an Almond flavour.
John Wright (of River Cottage “fame”) has a recipe in his Booze book. I found this version translated from a French recipe.
– 2.5 litres of red wine
– 400mls of eau de vie (or Vodka)
– 300 grams sugar
– A handful of young Blackthorn shoots
– Place all the ingredients (in a suitable container) and leave for 4 days to infuse.
– Remove the leaves and taste. If necessary, according to taste, replace leaves and leave a further 3 days.
– Strain and bottle.
– Enjoyed chilled as an aperitif!
I’d be tempted to leave it to mature for several weeks (John suggests a year!).
Do get your id right as other members of the Prunus family (e.g. Bird Cherry) contain high levels of Cyanides!
Oak Leaf Wine
Showing my age again, I remember Hugh FW trying this in his original TV series “A cook on the Wild Side” back in 1995. The recipe he has in the book of the series differs slightly from the one in Roger Phillips’s Wild Food. Hugh uses lemons, Roger uses Oranges – take your pick! Every forager should have a copy of Roger’s excellent book, if you are remiss, a. get one, b. you can find a version of it here.
Join us for a Booze Walk
On 2nd June 2018, Andy Hamilton (www.theotherandyhamilton.com) will be leading one of his famous booze foraging walks in Dorchester. Andy is a multiple award-winning author, brewer and an expert on wild food and sustainability. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint. He writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze. You may have seen him on Autumnwatch, Countryfile, The Alan Titchmarsh Show and more. You can find more details and book places here.
“So, you’re one of those nasty foragers!” said the middle aged, well-to-do looking woman to me at a charity event while I was manning a stall promoting my foraging courses. I bit my tongue and outlined to her what most newspapers omitted to say, that foraging is a good thing and that most foragers are passionate about “nature”, they care a great deal about the environment and practice “responsible” foraging. There are also lots of sensible reasons why people forage. I won her round to my way of thinking and she left with a very different view. One down, only tens of millions of people in the UK to go…
That was a few years ago and hopefully I’ve converted quite a few more people since giving talks on foraging and wild foods to WI groups, Wildlife Trusts, Young Farmers, gardening clubs and food festivals, as well as running foraging events for cubs, scouts, young carers and Friends of a country park.
In this blog post I look at some of the reasons why people forage.
Why People Forage
In her PhD thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee at Liverpool University found that people had a myriad of reasons for foraging:
In a US study more than half of the foragers cited economic benefits as their main motivation. Foraged foods made up three times more of the diets of residents earning less than $40,000 per year than those earning more than $100,000. Moreover, for 10 percent of foragers, wild edibles accounted for 20 percent or more of their diets.
Foraged food is usually sourced locally so has less environmental impact in its transportation than many other food items.
2. Connection to the land and the changing seasons
Going foraging improves peoples understanding and appreciation of the countryside. A higher value placed on it means they are more likely to defend it from threats. You work with the seasons, understand habitats and see some great wildlife which you recognise you may be sharing resources and space with.
Foraging encourages people to know where some of our food comes from. The ancestors of many modern species can still be seen in the wild.
“A direct reminder that food is created by the earth and not Tesco”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
“I love the feeling of rooting on the land and seasons, the satisfaction of gathering it in myself and an appreciation of the riches of the landscape I live in”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
Foraging improves engagement / reconnection with the environment. A foraging event reaches an audience beyond that of the traditional Wildlife Trust / National Trust / Woodland Trust / RSPB / County Council etc. guided walks. Many of these groups organise wild food events appreciating the many benefits that they bring. A Washington University study said:
“Mushrooms are a wonderful way to engage the public with its natural resources and the environment. It could be an opportunity for the National Park Service to encourage a different demographic of visitors to value, understand and engage with the natural world.”
Foraging events (walks, courses and festivals) are a form of eco-tourism bringing benefits to accommodation providers (out of main season), pubs, indoor venues and so on. An example is the St David’s Seaweed Week bringing together artists, artisan food producers, chefs, conservationists and foragers.
While economic reasons were a primary reason for foraging (section 1 above), many people are not foraging out of necessity like hunter gathers of long ago or rural populations in wartime. We are doing it as it is an enjoyable way of spending time. You enjoy the whole ritual of locating, smelling, identifying, collecting then cooking and eating, the sense of achievement that goes with it.
“The actual experience of gathering, including the scratches, being outside, seeing wildlife and so on.” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
4. Love of Food
Wild foods give a wonderful range of flavours and textures, often with no direct cultivated equivalents. It is often a short time from gathering to eating so the food is still at it’s absolute best.
Whilst foraging can be done alone, it is often undertaken with family, friends or neighbours giving quality-time both in the outdoors and then in the cooking and eating. It can develop community through sharing / swapping foraged raw ingredients and finished food items. Social media foraging forums give people opportunities to ask questions and discuss, share pictures of finds and dishes and build a virtual community.
A study in the US of the social benefits of urban foraging found them “maintaining cultural practices, sharing knowledge, building community, engaging in spiritual practices, and connecting with nature”.
6. Exercise / Relaxation
Going foraging is better exercise than shopping and better for the mind! It requires walking to look for the wild food, bending down or stretching up to pick the food and gives plenty of fresh air. It is also relaxing away from screens and the pressures of life. I once heard of an eye specialist who said looking for mushrooms was very good exercise for the eyes!
“I find it very therapeutic and relaxing. I’m connected to the land”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
“Fresh air, peace, and pleasant primitive feeling – good for the soul”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
7. Vitamins and Nutrition
Wild foods are often very nutritious especially greens and seaweed. Many are rich in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants etc. In the World War II the nutritional opportunities of wild foods were recognised by Government. A Ministry of Food leaflet “Hedgerow Harvest” in 1943, highlighted common wild foods and their preparation as well as promoting good “etiquette”. Co-ordinated programmes gathered a number of wild foods including Rose Hips for their vitamin C to boost that available to children and nursing mothers as imported citrus fruits were not available.
Today, in our gardens or allotments, we clear ‘weeds’ to grow crops, yet many wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts. In the below table, you can see Nettles have twice the protein of Spinach, nearly 7 times the vitamin C, more vitamin A, twice the iron and about 4 times the calcium!
Source: Cooking Weeds. V. Weise, Prospect Books 2004.
Foraging also encourages healthy eating – back to basics / not processed (& more expensive / less healthy) foods.
Most obvious benefits are the freshness of the products. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)
8. Teach the Next Generation
Wild foods species and their stories are part of our national heritage and it is important to keep this alive. Stories of gathering Rose Hips, herbs, gel producing seaweeds and more as part of the war effort are part of our wild food history and deserve passing on to younger generations.
In the past wild foods were more important culturally and economically than today with wild foods like Blewitts, Bilberries (Whortleberries) and even Snails being gathered and sold in markets. In her Thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee makes a case study of Bilberry picking. The below postcard and quote is taken from the thesis.
Whortleberry gathering was formerly looked upon as an extension of the harvest, and parties of women and children from all the moorland villages took to the open moor to collect the fruit. It was so vital that children were taken out of school as Whortleberry picking was regarded “as seriously as any other form of harvest”.
In her survey, responses included:
“I feel an ancient connection to my cultural roots”.
“So the next generation recognise seasonal wild foods and the art of jam making is passed on”.
9. Environmental Concerns
Jennifer’s PhD thesis was published in 2012 with the survey data from previous years. I would imagine all of the above reasons why people forage to still be true but would think that concerns for the environment might be a greater reason why people forage today.
a. Impacts of Conventional Food Production
Today, many people know (or care?) little about what they are eating, their focus being on price. They are less interested in where it has come from and what has happened to it; has it been genetically altered? What has been sprayed on it? What was the impact on the environment of its farming, transport and production? Concerns about food miles were mentioned in responses back in 2012, but the impact of agricultural intensification and types of fishing activity are greater concerns today. Foraging is FAR less damaging than the alternatives – intensive agriculture, trawling, mechanised seaweed harvesting, even some gardening (chemicals, water usage etc).
b. Invasive Species
Certain invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, Three-cornered Leek and American Signal Crayfish are all highly edible. Left unchecked they can reduce biodiversity. Traditional control of invasive plants usually relies on chemicals which can impact watercourses and non-target species. Japanese Knotweed is seen by most as a real villain. It’s control costs the UK economy around £165 million per year in control measures. Successfully eradicating Knotweed from the Olympic Park in London alone cost £70 million. In the US, Knotweed festivals have foods and other items made from it (e.g. soap) as an alternative control technique. Culinary uses include:
Food – soup, as vegetable (stir-fried, braised), in puddings (in the place of rhubarb in any recipe – crumble, fool, cobbler, ice cream, sorbet. etc.), fruit leather, muffins , jam, jelly, marmalade and bread.
Drinks – chutney, tea, vodka, cordial, beer and wine
3. Food Waste
As an example, bagged salad leaves from supermarkets are reported to represent a high proportion of food waste in the UK. They are quite expensive, and they spoil quickly after you open a bag. Foraged salad leaves from your garden or nearby can be gathered when needed. Wild food also comes without any packaging!
There are lots of reasons why people forage. For most it’s a combination of reasons. It gives the opportunity to source free, nutritious, delicious, seasonal local food with a much lower environmental impact than food produced by conventional means. It provides an enjoyable, quality time, relaxing and having good exercise be it alone or shared with friends or family, it shows children where their food comes from and connects us with the land. While foragers are often criticised in the media, as with many things, it is the behaviour of a minority that is reported or the reports have little hard evidence to support them. Foraging has so many benefits to the individual, society and the environment that are often ignored in such reports.