Thanks to the folk that came on our Spring Greens foraging course in Wiltshire over the weekend. The session included:
- A countryside foraging walk along hedgerows, through fields and woods.
- Cooking and eating a three course wild food-based lunch.
Thanks to the folk that came on our Spring Greens foraging course in Wiltshire over the weekend. The session included:
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.
Among the things you can do with it:
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.
They are tricky to spot looking a bit like young brambles, superficially the leaves look similar, but last year’s old dry hop stems woven up through the hedge will point you in the right direction. The leaf will look a bit familiar, Hops are in the same family (Cannabaceae) as cannabis! The shoots look like asparagus but with tiny, soft spines. They have been used medicinally for thousands of years for everything from toothaches to tuberculosis. As always make sure you get the ID right. The shoots of Black Bryony are also found in hedges at this time of year, they are poisonous and look similar (check a wildflower book).
Hop shoots are considered a delicacy in many parts of Europe. They have been called “poor man’s asparagus” but now are sold for large sums of money. In Belgium, a kilo sells for nearly $1400, making them the most expensive vegetable in the world!
There were attempts a few years ago to get UK chefs interested with a London Hop Festival and chef’s days out to hop gardens in Kent.
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:
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.
Cheers! Best enjoyed on 1st April only!
Come on one of our Spring Greens foraging courses to try this and some other wild infusions.
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.
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.
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.
While most foragers are familiar with the use of young nettle leaves in dishes such as the above. There are some uses for nettle seeds. Gather these in late Summer or early Autumn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Articles / Pages with collections of Wild Garlic recipes
I get email alerts when news articles appear on a variety of things, not surprisingly, including mushrooms. For the last while, a good number of these have been American and about Morels. We get them in this country too but they can be difficult to find. All these alerts eventually got my attention and I thought I would find out more.
Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.
One report says, “Morels are America’s mushroom, more so than any other”. This could be “because they’re widespread, they’re easy to identify, and they come up in the spring, giving people a reason to get out and enjoy warm weather after a long winter. Or, it could be they’re popular simply because they taste so good“. Interest in them is enormous, far greater than in this country’s mushrooms. The harvest is a very valuable one, possibly 10 million dollars per year for the North West Territories alone with some pickers making more than $500 cash per day! To manage the harvest, and harvesters, there is often permitting, random inspections in the woods and checks of restaurants. June marks the unofficial end of morel mushroom season in the US and it’s been a bumper season in many areas thanks to rain and warm weather at the right time.
Morels should not be eaten raw. They must be cooked through completely or they can make you ill. Heat is required to destroy a toxin in the same way as you have to cook kidney beans. You can also be ill if you overeat very large quantities or occasionally if you consume them with alcohol.
According to reports, even people who have eaten morels for years can develop an allergy to them and begin to experience gastric problems. Unfortunately, once that happens it’s going to continue to happen again and again.
Some wild mushrooms that look similar to edible morels are very poisonous. Even experienced pickers have been known to harvest “false morels” by mistake. The toxin produced by false morels is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.
Recently, again in the US, a family of four had to go to the hospital after eating poisonous mushrooms. Investigators say they used a phone app to figure out if what they gathered was edible. They say the family misidentified the mushrooms using the app. You should never rely on just one source or photo to decide if a mushroom is safe to eat.
Morels like the areas of forest burned in previous years. It is not difficult to find these areas. Wildfires are common in interior Alaska; an average of over 700,000 acres burns each year and in a “bad” year over 2 million acres can burn – a bit bigger than the whole of Devon!
A United States Department of Agriculture and United States Forest Service report published the results of a study on after-burn yields. They found the dispersal of spores during a “major event” is massive. Events that significantly disrupt an environment include timber harvesting, insect infestation or wildfire, according to the study. Larger yields may last for the first two years after the event.
While I would have said safety, according to one source, the first rule of morel hunting is to not talk about morel hunting! Most mushroom foragers will not divulge their secret spots. Once you give up your spot, it is gone forever.
The rules on commercial collection vary from state to state and which government department owns the land. Some state landowning bodies have “blanket bans” on commercial collection while others, for example, in Alaska, charge $100 for an annual land use permit for the commercial harvest of mushrooms. 2 day and 30 day licences are available too. In addition, a fee of $0.20 per pound, which is 5 percent of the current average fresh price per pound, is charged for mushrooms.
Commercial collectors are required to have their mushroom permit in their possession at all times when gathering mushrooms. If you don’t get a permit or don’t carry your permit with you, you can be fined. Requiring a permit to harvest morel mushrooms for commercial use helps “ensure public safety and environmental responsibility“. It also ensures that forest users contribute to “sustainable and responsible use of natural resources“.
In some states authorities look further up the supply with restaurant owners who buy from an uncertified local picker risking a $20,000 fine for buying from an uncertified picker. “The reason wild mushroom foragers are required to be certified as mushroom experts is a matter of food safety and public health”
The large influx of commercial harvesters is carefully managed with designated camp sites to avoid garbage, camp fires and sanitation problems. In some states closed areas are defined each year and roads closed for the duration of the morel season.
Again rules vary but as an example, in one state a harvest of three gallons per day is free and a permit is not required. Maps are published showing “potential personal use mushroom harvest areas”. The maps show the general areas of past fires where mushrooms may or may not be growing.
In some states, people harvesting for personal use are required to make a vertical cut down the stem of each mushroom or remove the stem immediately after harvest. This makes the mushrooms worthless as a commercial product. Rangers will inspect the contents of people’s mushroom baskets to check this is being followed.
Some states have woken up to the economic opportunity that is offered in the form of morel mushrooms. In the North West Territories they anticipate this harvest could generate as much as ten million dollars per year. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment there has worked to prepare residents to take advantage of this opportunity and keep some of these revenues within the territory. They have hosted significant numbers of morel mushroom information sessions in communities where the impacts of the anticipated season are expected to be greatest with nearly 1,200 residents participating. These sessions covered potential harvesting areas, methods for gathering and storing morels, and best practices for selling and marketing their harvest. They also emphasized the message of harvesting in a way that is safe, legal and respectful of the environment and Aboriginal peoples, whose lands some of these mushrooms will be on.
A Morel Mushroom Harvester’s Handbook and field guides have been produced to ensure pickers have adequate information at their disposal when they venture into the harvest areas. On-site, “walking workshops” have also been run in areas where the mushrooms have appeared to provide hands-on experience for those interested in harvesting. Communities have welcomed the pickers hosting community barbeques for them.
As on all issues, not everyone sees it the same way, with headline of “Are morel pickers more trouble than they’re worth for N.W.T.?” and articles saying “It’s like a mushroom rush out there“.
Are there any lessons to be learned for Europe here? Concerns about the sustainability of harvesting edible fungi arise with claims that the productivity of many species of edible fungi is declining. Most of these concerns, however, involve species of fungi that fruit in the same place year after year. Because morels fruit prolifically for only a year or two after disturbance, they present a different set of questions.
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: