Category: Summer

Hop Cones - Late August, Dorset

Uses for Hops (cones / flowers)

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.

 

Brewing

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.

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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!

Flower arrangement with Hops.

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.

Do not disturb

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.

 

Hop Tea

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.

Herbal Tea

Culinary Uses

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
  • Yeast cakes
  • Sausages
  • Bread
  • 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
  • Hot chocolate
  • Churros (fried-dough pastry – a traditional snack from Spain and Portugal)
Fat Hen with its huge numbers of seeds. Here growing in the margin of an arable field.

Fat Hen – Flocking to a field near you

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.

Leaves

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.

 

Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.
Young Fat Hen (and the smaller Chickweed) growing in a greenhouse.

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.

Sprayed Fat Hen - it just doesn't look vibrant and good to eat.
Sprayed Fat Hen – it just doesn’t look vibrant and good to eat.

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

Fat Hen "tops" picked for soup.
Fat Hen “tops” picked for soup.

“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.

Making Fat Hen Soup
Making Fat Hen Soup

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.

 

Leaves

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
  • Lasagne
  • 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 Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)
Fat Hen Pesto Bake (with Sea Beet and New Potatoes)

Seeds

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.

The good, the bad and the pretty – from a walk last week:

Good

Cauliflower Fungus
Cauliflower Fungus

One of my favourites, a Cauliflower fungus. Always found at the base of a coniferous tree. Compared to many mushrooms the preparation is hard work with woodlice, pine needles and leaf litter all found inside. Breaking into smaller pieces and washing under a running tap is the way to clean them. They have a lovely nutty flavour, the portion of this one that came home made a great curry.

Bad

Death Cap
Death Cap

I usually see Death Caps about 2 or 3 times each year. These are responsible for most mushroom deaths in Europe. It is a member of the Amanita genus with their characteristic ring and (not shown) the swollen base (Volva). Other family members include the Destroying Angel, Fly Agaric and Blusher. While one or two of the family can be eaten, the advice of many including me is to avoid all Amanitas. If you have any interest in eating mushrooms you should learn to recognise an Amanita. The Death Cap is found with a pretty wide range of trees including Oak, Beech, Birch and Pine. The toxic component damages the liver and kidneys and can be fatal.

Pretty

Stinking Dapperling / stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata)
Stinking Dapperling / stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata)

I wished I smelt this at the time – it apparently smells of burnt rubber. “Edibility suspect – avoid”.

If this post interests you, we have some places available on our full day fungus forays and our 3-4 hour fungus walks in The New Forest (by kind permission of The Forestry Commission) in October.

Sea Buckthorn Berries – well worth the effort

Keep an eye out for Sea Buckthorn at the moment. While primarily a coastal plant, it does get planted in gardens and for landscaping often far inland. The berries are a “super food”, rich in antioxidants, vitamin C (15 x oranges), amino acids and other good things – so good you see Sea Buckthorn products sold in health food shops for internal and external uses. They have a long history of medicinal uses back to the Ancient Greeks. The plant (especially the seed oil) has many medical uses. The fruit pulp can be applied directly to the skin for for treating sunburn; healing wounds, for acne, dermatitis, dry skin, eczema, skin ulcers and more!
 
Harvesting the berries is an interesting challenge. John Wright describes it very amusingly in his River Cottage Handbook – Edible Seashore, suggesting you wear your loudest Hawaiian shirt that includes a lot of orange. The branches have sharp thorns, the berries are easily burst – “rubber balloons of bright orange liquid attached to a barbed wire fence”. One technique (to be used in moderation as it can be invasive), is to cut branches off, take them home to put in the freezer then knock the berries off. You can also put plastic sheet on the ground under the bush and shake it, or carefully (remembering the thorns), squeeze a cluster of berries over a bucket and catch the juice, straining it later to remove leaves / debris. You can read more on harvesting techniques here.
Sea Buckthorn - August
Sea Buckthorn – August
 
This all sounds like a lot of work but is worth the effort. The berries are very sour but have an amazing flavour. The fruit can be used to make pies, jams, squashes / syrups, liquors (a la sloe gin but with vodka), etc. A jam made with the berries and crab apples is one of my favourites. A forager’s Bucks Fizz combines some juice with Elderflower Champagne and they make a great sauce to go with a Seaweed Panna Cotta.

Particularly overseas the berries are used for many different commercially sold products – juice, oil, jam, carbonated beverages, alcoholic beverages such as wine and vodka; breakfast cereals, powder, rice pops, juice powder, toffees, biscuits; candies, gums, and fruit chews; cosmetic products such as facial cream and shampoo!

Please note it is nothing to do with Common Buckthorn or the mildly poisonous Alder Buckthorn.

Fungi-filled fun

The fungi season has arrived a bit earlier than some years thanks to the combination of hot, dry weather in late June (it seems a long time ago) and then the cooler, wet weather since the kids broke up for the summer.  On Friday, I wrote in a Hedgerow Harvest Facebook post:

If you you’re a fungi fan change your plans for the weekend and head for your favourite fungi spots. The combination of really hot weather then lots of wet days means the fungi are going crazy. Where I live we have lots of grass fields and I am picking Field Mushrooms, Fairy Ring Champignon and Scarlet Waxcaps. The fungi forums are buzzing with photos of good quantities and a wide range of species of both grassland (Parasols and Giant Puffballs) and woodland (Chanterelles, Ceps, Horn of Plenty, Chicken of The Woods, Amethyst Deceivers, False Saffron Milkcaps and many more). Of course, it’s not just the good species that are about, I’ve seen photos of some of the Amanita’s including the deadly Destroying Angel.

On Friday evening, we took the dogs for a local walk. In the grasslands we found Parasols a plenty, some visible from a few hundred metres away! In the woods we found good numbers of Chanterelles and Hedgehogs but all far to small to pick. Being the beginning of the season we had good revision lessons with a possible gone over Death Cap, Brown Roll Rim, various Brittlegills and Porcelain fungus.

Top view of Parasol Mushroom - about 8 inches (20 cm) across
Top view of Parasol Mushroom – about 8 inches (20 cm) across

 

"Snakeskin" pattern on the stem and large, moveable ring - characteristics of a Parasol mushroom.
“Snakeskin” pattern on the stem and large, moveable ring – characteristics of a Parasol mushroom.

On Saturday, we stayed in West Dorset but went a little further a field, finding many of the above and one tree “covered” in Oyster mushrooms,  some very small Ceps (too small again), a Bay Bolete, a Red-Cracked Bolete and some Deceivers.

This fallen Beech was covered with hundreds of Oyster mushrooms.
This fallen Beech was covered with hundreds of Oyster mushrooms.

 

A few of these Oyster Mushrooms came home with us.
A few came home with us.

We couldn’t resit the call of the New Forest and headed there yesterday for a lovely walk through the open forest, heather-clad heathlands and wooded inclosures. Our first find was, at first glance, a lovely group of Ceps, but closer inspection revealed them to be the quite similar looking, Bitter Bolete. One of these in a pan will spoil all the “good stuff” so worth recognising! We soon met a couple with some nice “real” Ceps and a Scarletina Bolete. Encouraged, we soon found our first “real” one, some Chanterelles (a few pickable but “hundreds” too small), a few small Hedgehog Mushrooms, Blushers, Tawny Grisettes, Oak Milkcaps, Brown Birch Boletes, a Chicken of The Woods and many Common Yellow Brittlegills. The real find of the day was not an edible but a beech stump with a large number of pristine Lacquered Brackets. I think, there are only 307 records for these for the UK!

Bitter Bolete (not edible).
Bitter Bolete (not edible).

 

Penny Bin / Cep / Porcini - one of the best edible mushrooms. Drying intensifies the flavours.
Penny Bin / Cep / Porcini – one of the best edible mushrooms. Drying intensifies the flavours.

 

Blusher
Blusher

 

Chicken of The Woods
Chicken of The Woods

 

Lacquered Bracket
Lacquered Bracket

 

Porcelain Fungus
Porcelain Fungus

When we thought we had finished for the day, nearly back at the car, we found an area with lots of Ceps, many kicked over, we took a few. Finally, we got the wiff of a Stinkhorn and soon followed it to it’s source.

Some Ceps, Chanterelles and a few Hedgehogs went home.
Some Ceps, Chanterelles and a few Hedgehogs went home.

 

Stinkhorn
Stinkhorn

When you thought it was all over, this morning’s dog walk found the local Field Mushrooms have moved on to be replaced by one of my favourite’s – Horse Mushrooms.

Horse Mushrooms
Horse Mushrooms

We’ve had mushrooms as a side dish, a wonderful Risotto and there are Ceps to get in the dehydrator this afternoon. I’m looking forward to Battered parasols dipped in garlic mayo too!

Meadowsweet – Queen of The Meadows

If you’ve walked anywhere a bit damp recently (June to September) – road verges, ditches, rivers or canals or through damp meadows, you can’t have failed to spot or smell Meadowsweet. The tall (1- 2 m) cream-coloured dense clusters of flowers have an aroma described as sweet almond, hay and honey with a hint of something medical, especially when crushed. In Tudor times, it was used as a strewing herb – thrown on the floor to be walked on and mask unpleasant smells. The original name was “mead wort” as it was used to flavour mead. Numerous herbal uses include treating colds, respiratory problems, acid indigestion, peptic ulcers, arthritis and rheumatism, skin diseases, and diarrhoea. It can also be used in many culinary ways by today’s forager.

Meadowsweet
Meadowsweet

This plant contains the chemicals used to make aspirin – named after its old botanical name Spiraea ulmaria. Unlike Aspirin, it does not have the caustic side effects on the stomach lining, however, if you are allergic to Aspirin (or have alicylate or sulphite sensitivity) you should avoid consuming it.

Culinary Uses for Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet can be used in almost any recipe that uses Elderflower. With that season coming to an end, we have a replacement. Pick the flowers on a sunny morning for the maximum flavour and don’t wash them. Just give each head a good shake to remove any insects. The flowers can be dried then stored in paper bags to retain their flavour as well as pollen and natural yeasts. Some recipes use the leaves, others the flowers or either.

Drying Meadowsweet
Drying Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet Drinks

Making Meadowsweet Champagne
Making Meadowsweet Champagne – follow an Elderflower Champagne recipe substituting Meadowsweet for Elderflower

Meadowsweet Puddings

Meadowsweet goes very well with summer fruits like Peaches, Raspberries and Strawberries. If you live in northern parts of Britain, you can add Sweet Cicely to replace some of the sugar.

Meadowsweet and Wild Strawberries
Meadowsweet and Wild Strawberries

 

Meadowsweet Rice Pudding

 

Meadowsweet Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulois
Meadowsweet Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulois

Others

  • Vinegars
  • Jams – the flowers can be added to jams made with summer fruits (Strawberry, Raspberry, Apricots etc.), giving them a subtle almond flavour.
  • Turkish Delight

Summer Cordials

While Elderflower cordial is a very popular summer drink, both homemade and commercially produced, it is not the only cordial that can be made at this time of year. We made four in recent weeks.

SummerCordials_640x480px
Undiluted cordials. From left – Pineapple Mayweed, Hawthorn, Nettle. Missing from this photo is Pine Needle Cordial.

Nettle

stinging-nettle-785292_640

I’ve eaten nettles many times in dishes such as soup and curry, and drunk them in beer and tea, but Nettle Cordial has been on my to-do list for a long time. For eating you want them young, using just the tips, but the ones I picked last week had gone to seed, and I stripped the leaves from the stems wearing thick gloves. I followed Robin Harford’s recipe on his Eat Weeds web site.

It takes a few days to steep and I was amazed at the flavour, this is straight into my list of favourites.

You can read an earlier blog post on nettles here.

Hawthorn

hawthorn-373219_640

It’s probably too late for this year, but one to make next May. Delicate floral scents are difficult to capture into drinks, so I followed the Wild Flower Syrup recipe in John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook – Hedgerow. I’ve used this for Dandelion Syrup in the past (also very worth trying). You layer sugar and then flowers in a jug and leave overnight. Next day you add water in proportion to the amount of sugar you used (100ml water / 55g sugar) and heat until the sugar dissolves before straining and bottling. Again, very nice.

Pine Needle
spruce-504637_640

This is an old favourite, I’ve written about before (here). You expect Toilet Duck but get a lovely citrus flavour.

Pineapple Mayweed

matricaria-discoidea-846635_640

This was another new cordial to me. I know Pineapple Mayweed, no points for guessing what it smells of! The recipe I found online was:

  • 1 pound pineapple weed heads
  • 1 sliced lemon
  • 2 pounds sugar
  • 5 pints boiling water
  1. Wash Pineapple Mayweed thoroughly…change water a couple of times
  2. Mix everything together in a bucket
  3. Cover with lid or teatowel
  4. Leave for 4 days stiring twice a day
  5. Pour into bottles through muslin

Best diluted 1/3 cordial to 2/3 sparkling water with a few ice cubes.

I did it in a slightly different order, covering the Mayweed in warm water, leaving it to soak, straining it, then adding the sugar / lemon and heatign it to dissolve the sugar.

It wasn’t my own favourite, but soem that tried it thought it was great.

 

 

Foraging for Cherry Plums

It is well and truly Cherry Plum time. These are small plums, rounder than your regular plum and in a range of colours too.

Cherry Plums - delicious!
Cherry Plums – delicious!

Find the right spot and the trees are nearly groaning under the weight of them!

Cherry Plums by the ton!
Cherry Plums by the ton!

They are sweet enough to eat raw. Most fall to the floor and rot. As I picked these umpteen cyclists went past, not one stopped to pick any or try this bounty for themselves.

They are out of reach with just your arm, but the perfect tool can be made easily and cheaply. From your local hardware shop buy a piece of 30 mm waste pipe. The usual use for this is taking waste water from your sink plug hole to the drain.

1. Holding it firmly, such as in a vice, use a hacksaw to fashion two “claws” on the end.

2. Out of doors (fumes!), heat the claws in a gas flame and bend with pliers to get.

Curved prongs / claws on the pipe.
Curved prongs / claws on the pipe.

It is then just a matter of hooking your Cherry plums (or Crab apples etc.) and they drop down the pipe. You can put your hand over the end or (genius!) tie one of those cloth bags to the end to catch them in.

Success!
Success!

A video bringing it all together – sorry about the road noise.

The plums are great to eat raw, in puddings, jam, fruit leather, chutney and more. A great, very quick pudding is a crumble with the Cherry plums as they are (just washed). Don’t eat in polite company and just spit the stones out as you find them!

Sea beet leaves and elderflower: Learning to forage for food

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The smell of summer,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I thought. With eyes like dinner plates.

Mackerel Time – Get Smoking!

The annual return of the Mackerel into the coastal waters is not really a miracle but for many a reason to rejoice. I’m no fisherman but do enjoy spending a warm evening trying to catch a mackerel or three. Along with many others I join the annual festival of “feather chuckers” down on Chesil Beach. We line the shore casting out as far as we can, trying to wish the mackerel to go for our “feathers”, hoping for a full-house (one fish on each of 3, 4, or 6 hooks!). Some do use real feathers, but more often its bits of white plastic or shiny silver tinsel. The Mackerel think they are young fish and, we hope, get hooked.

Mackerel caught on a Dorset beach
Mackerel caught on a Dorset beach

There’s no denying mackerel are fantastic eating. There are so many ways to cook them. Simple can be best; pan-fried they are superb. At the right time of the year the forager can serve them with sauce made from gooseberries – foraged from the woods and hedgerows of course. A French friend did once tell me that the French for gooseberry was “sauce for mackerel”. Sorrel has a much longer season and makes another great sauce to go with your mackerel. In both cases the sharp flavours go so well with this oily fish.

Wild Gooseberries - smaller than their cultivated descendants, they can be pink or white. Some will be sweet enough to eat raw.
Wild Gooseberries – smaller than their cultivated descendants, they can be pink or white. Some will be sweet enough to eat raw.

There’s lots more ways. We like cooking them in foil parcels – stuffed with herbs, such as fennel (foraged again) or sage, with apple and cider, with white wine, or as Chinese parcels with soy sauce, carrot, leeks and ginger. You can even breadcrumb or batter them!

Another way of enjoying them is to hot-smoke them. This is not a preserving technique, like cold-smoking, but a different way of cooking them. Here are a few photos showing the process and kit.

Fillet the mackerel:

Mackerel fillets
Mackerel fillets

Sprinkle lots of salt over them and leave them for about half an hour before rinsing the salt off and drying them with kitchen towel.

Salting mackerel fillets for smoking
Salting the fillets

The smoker can be a metal biscuit tin (if you can still find one!) with holes in the ends, metal skewers through and a wire rack on top. A handful of hardwood sawdust is put in the bottom. Oak, Beech or a fruit (Cherry or Apple) are recommended. The tin won’t last for ever but does the job for a year or two.

Smoking fish with a biscuit tin.
Simple hot-smoking apparatus – a biscuit tin on a camping stove.

If you want something that will last longer, find an old enamel bread bin in a junk shop. Again drill some holes on the ends for your skewers/rods and the rack to sit on.

Enamle Bread Bin Smoker
An old enamel bread bin makes a great smoker (idea taken from The River Cottage Fish Book)

Put the mackerel fillets on the rack, put the lid on very loosely, set your watch and go and do something else for half an hour.

Mackerel fillets in
Mackerel fillets in

All being well, you come back to beautiful looking and amazing tasting smoked mackerel.

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The result – mouth-watering!

The fillets are great as they are, hot or cold. They can also used in dishes such as a risotto or frittata.

Smoked Mackerel Frittata
Smoked Mackerel Frittata with Sea Beet