While you might think any concoction made with pine needles would taste like you might imagine Toilet Duck might, Pine Needle cordial or tea have a light, crisp, refreshing flavour and are well worth making.
Pine needles have been used by Native North Americans for centuries. They were most valued in winter to provide nourishment and keep healthy. Shipwrecked sailors too, have long known that tea made from Pine Needles contain more Vitamin C than oranges and will keep scurvy at bay.
Make sure you are not using the needles of the deadly poisonous Yew tree. Also avoid these types of Pine which could potentially be harmful – Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Common Juniper, Monterey Cypress, Norfolk Pine or Australian Pine.
Pine Needle cordial is incredibly simple to make – the recipe can be found here on Andy Hamilton’s web site; it is taken from his excellent book – Booze for Free.
Tea is even more straightforward. As you might guess, put the needles in a cup, add near boiling water and steep for around 10 minutes, strain.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Elderflower Cordial and Champagne; I make gallons of them every year, they are THE taste of summer in my opinion. There are however, SO many fantastic things to make to eat and drink with Elderflowers that it is a shame just to stop with these two. Many of the below recipes use cordial, though you can equally infuse the flowers in liquid in a muslin bag. You can, of course, buy Elderflower Cordial if desperate. You won’t be alone, in 2015 we were predicted to buy 46 million litres of it in the UK. That equates to annual sales of more than £25 million, with sales doubling in the previous five years.
Below, we tell you where to look for Elderflower and talk a bit about identification – people do pick the wrong flowers! The main part of this post is about Elderflower recipes.
The Elder tree is steeped in folk lore, history and superstition, probably more so than any other plant. In the past, country people were afraid to cut down an Elder, with the Elder-Mother, a guardian spirit, living in the tree. Today, most hedgelayers will ask the tree for permission to cut it down. Many people also believed that if you stood below an Elder at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the king of the fairies and his entourage.
Almost every part of the plant – roots, bark, leaves, flowers and berries has been used medicinally. Effective skin cleanser and eye lotions can still be made from it.
When to look
The Elder blossoms from late May to the around the end of June. There will, of course, be some variation depending upon the weather and how far north you live.
Where to look
The Elder is a fairly common sight; it likes disturbed fertile (nitrogen-rich) soils – often the same places as Nettles so don’t wear your shorts when going to pick it. It grows in many different habitats including roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground, hedgerows, woods and grassland.
The Elder is a tree up to about 3 metres tall with a woody stem. On young branches the bark is light grey and smooth. On older branches it is a brown-grey colour and corky and furrowed. Older branches and trunk may be covered in a yellow-lichen. Leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with five to seven leaflets (smaller leaves). The leaflets are 5–12 cm long and 3–5 cm wide, with a toothed margin. Leaflets are dark green and matt on top with a paler underside. They smell unpleasant when bruised (and were used for insect repellent for people and crops).
In late spring and early summer, the trees are adorned by large groups (umbels) of ivory flowers. The flowers have 5 petals and are about 5–6 mm in diameter.
I have known people confuse the flower heads of Rowan trees with those from Elder (disappointing results!). You might also potentially muddle Elder and Wayfaring tree. Be aware that at this time of year there are quite a few tall plants (no woody stem) that have superficially similar flower heads; these are members of the Carrot family. A year or two ago, on the radio, someone admitted trying to make Elderflower drinks with Cow Parsley! Again the result was disappointing. Be very aware that some other Carrot family members are deadly poisonous including Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort. Use a flower-id book if you are unsure.
Pick on a dry, sunny day for the best flavour and to retain natural yeasts needed for fermenting. Remember not to strip all of the flowers from any one Elder. You want to allow some to grow into berries both for the birds and for you, but that’s another story. Don’t wash the flowers either, just give them a gentle shake to remove any insects. A walking stick will help you pull some heads into reach. You can easily make one from a piece of Hazel. Use it upside down, with six inches of one side branch left on, Don’t bend the Elder branch too much, however, as they are not that flexible and will snap. Have a basket or carrier bag over the other arm to put the Elderflowers into.
Elderflower Champagne and Cordial are classics but give the liqueur, wine, cider and herbal tea a go. You can also freeze Elderflowers in ice cubes to cool your favourite tipple!
Champagne (or “Fizz” if you bow to EU “protected designation of origin” rules!). The Champagne is very simple to make and only needs 4 heads of the flowers for a gallon of drink. It is a wonderfully light, sparking drink and is fantastic cool on a warm summer evening. It’s that good that I’ve made it by the case for parties! The fizz does carry a bit of a health warning though – bottles can explode if they are thin glass. I have used flip-top “Grolsh” style bottles for many years without incident. Used plastic fizzy drink bottles can also cope with pressure.
Dissolve the sugar in a little warm water, allow to cool.
Squeeze the juice from the lemon, and cut the rind in 4 pieces.
Put the juice and lemon pieces with the Elderflowers in a large jug or basin.
Add the wine vinegar and pour on the rest of the cold water.
Leave to steep for 4 days.
Strain and bottle. It should be ready in 6 – 10 days.
Cordial – This needs quite a few more heads compared to Champagne and again is the flavour of summer for me. Some recipes call for Citric Acid; others use more citrus fruit / zest. You can buy Citric Acid from homebrew shops (best) or a pharmacy. You may get a quizzical look when you ask; apparently, drug dealers also use it! Make cordial by the gallon and put it in empty (and clean) plastic milk bottles and freeze to enjoy at any time of the year. On those warm summer evenings remember that you don’t just have to dilute it with water, add to wine – especially a sparkling one, like Prosecco or Champagne! Alternatively, freeze the cordial in an ice-cube tray and add to cider or ginger beer.
Again there are dozens of recipes about; I have happily used the River Cottage one for years.
Liqueur (Vodka or gin) – Make as you would sloe vodka or gin. Here you will find 32 cocktail recipes that use Elderflower liqueur! with more here and here! I like the sound of this one – “serve with cloudy English apple juice & a sprig of mint, or mix with lemonade & freeze for some very grown-up ice lollies”!
Elderflower Cider – Follow a cider recipe but add 8 heads for every 5 litres of apple juice.
Herbal Tea – Good for treating coughs and irritable throats. Use fresh or dried on a sunny windowsill and store in dry, dark, cool place. Enjoy “neat” or add to rose petals, lemon balm, mint or nettle.
There are so many different Elderflower recipes for puddings. For great big lists of them head for the pages produced by the main cordial manufacturers – Bottle Green and Belvoir Fruit Farms. You can use cordial in most of these or infuse Elderflowers in a muslin bag while heating the liquid / cooking the fruit.
Panna cotta – While you can make a gelatine version, be a true forager and use Carrageen seaweed you have gathered and dried yourself. The seaweed version will be vegan / vegetarian friendly.
Fritters – dip flowers in batter, deep fry, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with sugar and eat while still warm! For an alcoholic version soak the flowers in a mix of Cinnamon, brandy and sweet Sherry or Madeira for an hour before dipping into the batter. Another version adds chilli!
Elderflower has a strong affinity with Gooseberry, Rhubarb, Raspberries, Strawberries or Pears and the combination works well in some of the below.
Some of our local fields are a picture at the moment with carpets of Dandelions. They are an opportunity not to miss, plentiful and nearby. In your garden you might view them as a troublesome weed. The Victorians, however, cultivated them, with the leaves eaten by the wealthy in sandwiches and salads. I once met a young girl on one of our foraging courses who was in her element grazing on the leaves, preferring them to chocolate or sweets. Foragers will make use of almost every part of the Dandelion – roots (land owner consent required to dig up ANY wild plant), leaves and flowers. In this post we look at some Dandelion flower recipes and uses. Among the uses are:
Dandelion Syrup – (recipe below)
Dandelion Drizzle Cake – (recipe below)
First Flower Champagne
Dandelion Jam / Marmalade
Dandelion (Dandy) Brandy
Search online for recipes for the other suggestions.
Clip on Dandelions from the BBC Series Flora Brittanica.
Pick on dry sunny day so the flowers are open and not wet.
People with sensitive skin may get contact dermatitis when touching the latex.
Your finger tips will go yellow, looking like you have a 40-a -day smoking habit!
Remove any stem you pick with the flowers as you go (saves time later!)
Pick a few here and a few there as they an early pollen source for bees and other insects.
The below recipe is taken from John Wright’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 7 – Hedgerow. You can buy at a great price this here. Pick about a litre of flowers
Dandelion Drizzle Cake
A wild twist on the classic lemon drizzle cake combining the lovely flavour of dandelions with orange. Adapted from the lemon drizzle cake recipe in Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No 8 – Cakes.
Preparation and cooking time – c. 1 hour
For the cake
175 g self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
175g caster sugar
175g unsalted butter cut into small pieces and softened
Finely grated zest of 2 oranges
Petals from approx. 12 dandelions (remove all of the green parts).
For the drizzle:
18cm round or 15 cm square tin, greased and lined with baking parchment, or a 1 litre loaf tin, approx. 20 x 10cm, greased, base and long sides lined with parchment.
Cake cooling rack
Preheat the oven to 180oC/Gas mark 4.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a mixing bowl.
Add all the other cake ingredients and beat for about 1½ minutes, until you have a smooth think batter.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, levelling out the surface with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Leave in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning out and placing on a wire rack.
Prepare the drizzle. Mix some Dandelion cordial with some granulated sugar. Do not let the sugar dissolve. Prick the surface of the cake all over with a skewer and carefully trickle the drizzle over the surface, a spoonful at a time, ensuring each addition has soaked in before spooning over the next.
The cake can be cooled fully or is delicious when still slightly warm. Serve with a little Dandelion Syrup infused natural yoghurt on the side.
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
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.
Serves 4 – 6
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
Wash and dry the wild garlic leaves.
In a food processor crush the pine nuts and hazelnuts roughly and then decant them into a bowl and set aside.
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.
Add the lemon juice and mix.
Pour the wild garlic mixture into the crushed nuts and stir in.
Season to taste.
Pesto Pasta Bake
400g pasta e.g. Penne
1 – 400g can of chopped tomatoes
1 – 2 cups of cheese (mozzarella or cheddar)
1 onion, chopped
Preheat the oven to 180C Fan/Gas mark 6.
Get some hot water heating up for the pasta.
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.
Add the tomatoes, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and turn down the heat. Gently simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the pasta in a pan of salted boiling water according to the packet instructions.
Once cooked, drain and pour into the pan with the tomato mixture.
Add the pesto and some of the cheese and mix well.
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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.
200 ml vinegar
½ tablespoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
15 black peppercorns
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
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.
4. Put the vinegar, sugar, salt and spices into a saucepan.
5. Heat until the sugar dissolves.
6. Pour over the garlic buds.
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
Sea Kale shoots
Salt / sea salt
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.
8. Label and date each jar.
9. Store in a cool, dry and preferably dark place.
Japanese Knotweed – just the name sends terror through people. Introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant that could stabilise riverbanks and railway embankments it has managed to find its way into all sorts of corners of our towns and countryside costing the UK economy around £150 million per year in control measures. Successfully eradicating knotweed from the Olympic park in London cost £70 million (getting on for a pound per person living in the UK) and took several years! There are companies whose sole businesses is its removal, councils employ teams or officers to attempt to eradicate it and if it grows in the garden of a house you want a mortgage on, forget it. It is common on sites that are disturbed by human activity – railway lines, old rubbish tips and derelict land, being spread with loads of rubble, soil and rubbish. It also spreads along watercourses and on machinery and vehicle tyres. Growing 3 centimetres per day, it displaces other plants and is and able to break through concrete! This is about as close as to triffids as we get! Watch time-lapse photography of Knotweed growing a metre in three weeks here.
Why mention it in a foraging blog? Of course you can eat it – but. Yes – a few big buts:
1. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to introduce Japanese Knotweed to the countryside. Just a small fragment of root can spread the plant. Handle it responsibly.
2. To control it, sites may be sprayed with herbicides.
To avoid falling foul of either of these points:
1. The plant is spread during ground disturbance and fly tipping. However, it is recommended that any waste (stripped leaves etc.) should be boiled / burnt and then binned – not put in your compost!
2. Check for any notices showing it has treated and look for signs of unhealthy (wilting / yellow spots etc.) vegetation.
You should also note it is rich in oxalic acid and if you suffer from gout you should only eat small quantities of it or avoid it.
If you have still want to eat it what are you in for? It is rather like rhubarb – “Rhubarb but nicer” I’ve heard from many I have fed it to; less tart than rhubarb.
If it gets too big it will be stringy and not good eating. Aim to pick it around now. You should be looking for bits that are about 30 cm high or just the last 30 cm of taller bits. Cut them off with a knife. Back in the kitchen, strip any leaves and scrape off the papery tissue that divides the sections of the stem. Tough pieces will need peeling.
There are great collections of recipes here and here including soup crumble, vegetable dishes and wine.
Japanese Knotweed is also rather good for you containing high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C, certain antioxidants, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese and resveratrol, the substance in grape skins and red wine that lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attacks!
If Japanese Knotweed is continually cut (and eaten) it will eventually give up – a far better way of controlling it than gallons of chemical sprays. In fact, some US authorities have given up trying to eradicate it and instead run annual Japanese Knotweed festivals!
Very happy to find my first hops of the season yesterday – the young shoots are one of my favourite wild vegetables. Even in areas without any history of hop growing they can occasionally be found in hedgerows.
Spotting Hops / Hop ID
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).
Eating Hop Shoots
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.
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?
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