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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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. You’ll be amazed – this has become one of my favourites. You expect it to be green but … it’s red! As well as drinking it with cold water, you could dilute it with wine or have it with hot water for a winter health boost. Other uses might be drizzled on ice-cream, rice pudding or pancakes. I might even try a Nettle Drizzle Cake! One commercial product adds Blackcurrant leaves.
Nettle Beer – easy and ready in just a week or 10 days.
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 Crisps – fried or baked. There are many variations on the web from salted, to a dressing made with oil and any combination of black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic (powder or crushed), balsamic or rice wine vinegar, tamari sauce, tahini or lime juice!
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 Wild Garlic
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 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.
Identifying Wild Garlic
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!).
Lily of The Valley has drooping bell-shaped flowers along the stem. Two or three leaves come from a single purple stem. It contains a toxin and mistaken identify has been the cause of poisonings in Europe.
Meadow Saffron (also called Autumn Crocus) has 5 to 11 “strappy” and almost vertical green leaves up to 40 cm long. It is mainly a plant of damp meadows and mainly found in the West Midlands, Welsh Borders and East Anglia though has been introduced in other parts of the country. It is a bitter tasting alkaloid, which is Nature’s way of saying “don’t eat me”. There have, however been many poisonings, some fatal, on mainland Europe when it has been confused with Wild Garlic growing in woods.
Smaller leaves of Lords and Ladies may be confused for Wild Garlic. It has many other names including Cuckoo Pint and Wild Arum. If eaten by accident they give an immediate burning sensation to the mouth and throat. This happened in April 2018 – a whole family were hospitalised for confusing Wild Garlic with Lords and Ladies.
Wild Garlic and Lords and Ladies are often found growing close together so it is worth being aware of the differences.
Lords and Ladies leaves have irregular edges and many deep veins.
A larger leaf has backward facing lobes – a bit like an arrow head and is pretty distinctive.
Smaller leaves can look more like a Wild Garlic leaf but the veins should still be obvious.
They won’t smell of Garlic.
Wild Garlic leaves are long, pointed, “spear-shaped”.
They do not have veins – just a prominent central mid-rib (looking like an extension of the stalk).
In the below photograph we have – from left to right:
1. Lords and Ladies – rear
2. Lords and Ladies – front
3. Wild Garlic – front
4. Wild Garlic – rear
Picking Wild Garlic
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!).
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.
Culinary Uses for Wild Garlic
You can use Wild Garlic anywhere where you would use regular garlic, the flavour is however milder.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
A salad dressing can be made by liquidising with a little olive oil.
Enjoy some scattered in a salad.
Wild Garlic Recipes
Articles / Pages with collections of Wild Garlic recipes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
If you go down to the woods today you might spot the small white flowers of Sweet Woodruff. The plant will remind you of Cleavers or Goosegrass that children stick on your back. The resemblance is for good reason, they are both in the same family – “Galium”. Sweet Woodruff is a darker green and the leaves are smooth and more pointed. The four-petalled flowers of Sweet Woodruff are also bigger than those of Cleavers.
The second part of the Latin name is “odoratum” meaning fragrant or perfumed. The scent of the drying plant has been likened to that of freshly-mown hay or vanilla. Two hours drying will make a picked bunch super fragrant. The fragrance has been put to use as a strewing herb, put on the floor to walk over – an old-fashioned “air freshener, as well as in pot-pourri and perfumes. The plant also has medicinal uses as a wound healer and was used to treat digestive and liver problems. It should be consumed in moderation as high doses can cause headaches and other effects. It can be used in:
I have hazy distant memories of a night out in Slovenia where we went vodka tasting. These were not just ordinary vodkas but a remarkable variety of locally-made infused or flavoured vodkas. Locally foraged ingredients such as wild strawberries, pine needles and even certain grasses had been steeped in vodka with sugar in the same manner as we make Sloe Gin. The results were amazing, all sorts of unusual, wonderful flavours, and less predictably, a rather sore head the next morning!
Back here I have made a few with Vodka, Gin, Whisky, Brandy and Rum. I currently have (separately!) Blackberry, Elderflower, Japanese Knotweed and Sloe on the go, with quite a few more on the “try” list.
These wild drinks can be drunk neat, but are better mixed such as with apple juice, soda water or tonic. There are also quite a few wild cocktail recipes that can be found on-line too. Making infused or flavoured vodkas is very straightforward though the processes do differ a little and the amount of time for the flavour to infuse also varies. Look on-line for a wild drinks recipe for the foraged ingredient that you happen to have and to see which spirit goes best with it. I also highly recommend two books which wild drinks / infusions form a part of: