Category: Wild Drinks Recipes

Japanese Knotweed

Knot a weed? Foraging and Japanese Knotweed

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.

Japanese Knotweed invading bluebells
Japanese Knotweed reducing biodiversity invading bluebells

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.

Cornwall Japanese Knotweed site and sign
Cornwall Japanese Knotweed site and sign

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.

Japanese Knotweed
Gather Japanese Knotweed stems when 8 – 12 inches tall.

Among the things you can do with it:

Japanese Knotweed Chutney
Japanese Knotweed Chutney
Japanese Knotweed Vodka
Japanese Knotweed Vodka

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!

Some interesting Japanese Knotweed links:
Identification guide
The spread of Japanese Knotweed

Latest Wild Drinks Recipe – Grass Vodka

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.
Preparing grass vodka
Preparing grass vodka
  • 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.
  • Strain and enjoy.
Grass vodka
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.

There’s more to nettles than soup.

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 Chemistry of Stinging Nettles
The Chemistry of Stinging Nettles

Picking

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.

“Non-culinary” uses

Fabric

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!

Paper

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.

Dye

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.

Medicinal uses

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

Stinging Nettles
Young stinging nettles – perfect for picking.

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.

 

To Drink

  • 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 Cordial
Delicious Nettle Cordial
Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients

 

To Eat

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 Soup
Nettle Soup

Culinary Uses – Seeds

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.

Stinging Nettle with seeds
Stinging Nettle with seeds

 

Sweet Woodruff

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.

Sweet Woodruff
Sweet Woodruff

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:

  • May Wine with strawberries and sweet white wine
  • Schnapps – infused in vodka or brandy
  • Tea
  • Sausages
  • Jam
  • Jelly
  • Ice cream
  • Panna cotta

Elderflower time!!!

While technically it’s not summer yet, one of my summer favourites is ready to gather. Its flavour is one of the things that make a summer and its arrival means time to put it to good use. The Elder is a fairly common sight. It likes disturbed fertile soils – often the same places as nettles so don’t wear your shorts!– and grows in a many different habitats including roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground, hedgerows, woods and grassland. It is technically a tree though never substantial, and a bit bigger than a bush. As always with foraging be 100% confident with your identification using a plant ID book if you are unsure. There are other shrubs and plants with white flowers at this time of year. Recently, on the radio someone admitted trying to make Elderflower drinks with Cow Parsley! Don’t wash the flowers as the natural yeasts in them are needed for some of the uses, just give a gentle shake to remove any insects.

Elderflower
Elderflower

The most well known uses for Elderflowers will be for Champagne (fizz if you bow to EU “protected designation of origin” rules!) and Cordial. I’ve got my first batch of this year’s champagne on the go already. It 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.

The cordial needs quite a few more heads and again is the flavour of summer for me. Some recipes call for citric acid. You can get this from homebrew shops (best) or a chemist. 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 – friends enjoy it with white wine! The cordial can also be used for ice-lollies for the kids and a sorbet or granita for the grown-ups.

Drinks

Smoothies
Dried for tea
Vodka
Cocktails

Food

Sorbet
Ice-cream
Fool (optionally with (wild) Gooseberrries)
Fritters (dip flowers in batter, deep fry, drain on kitchen towel, sprinkle with sugar and eat while still warm!)
Panna cotta (made with seaweed of course!)
In jams e.g. Strawberry or Gooseberry
Gooseberry & Elderflower chutney
Turkish Delight
Cakes
Jelly
Vinaigrette
Sugar

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.

In good spirits – wild drinks.

I have hazy distant memories of a night out in Slovenia where we went vodka tasting. These were not just ordinary vodkas but a remarkable variety of locally-made infused or flavoured vodkas. Locally foraged ingredients such as wild strawberries, pine needles and even certain grasses had been steeped in vodka with sugar in the same manner as we make Sloe Gin. The results were amazing, all sorts of unusual, wonderful flavours, and less predictably, a rather sore head the next morning!

Back here I have made a few with Vodka, Gin, Whisky, Brandy and Rum. I currently have (separately!) Blackberry, Elderflower, Japanese Knotweed and Sloe on the go, with quite a few more on the “try” list.

These wild drinks can be drunk neat, but are better mixed such as with apple juice, soda water or tonic. There are also quite a few wild cocktail recipes that can be found on-line too. Making infused or flavoured vodkas is very straightforward though the processes do differ a little and the amount of time for the flavour to infuse also varies. Look on-line for a wild drinks recipe for the foraged ingredient that you happen to have and to see which spirit goes best with it. I also highly recommend two books which wild drinks / infusions form a part of:

Andy Hamilton’s Booze for free

John Wright’s Booze

Both books are ideal if you forage (or garden) and want to extend your repertoire into things liquid including ciders, beers, cordials, wines, champagnes etc.

Making blackberry vodka
Making blackberry vodka

Below are listed some of the wild vodkas that I have come across (not tried them all yet!)

Fruit

Blackberry
Cherry plum / Mirabelle
Crab Apple
Damson
Elderberries
Gooseberry
Haw
Raspberry
Red currant
Rosehip
Sea Buckthorn
Wild Cherry
Wild Strawberry

Wild Strawberries
Wild Strawberries

Flowers

Dandelion
Elderflower
Heather
Honeysuckle
Meadowsweet
Rose

Wild Rose
Wild Rose

Nuts

Chestnut (Sweet)
Hazelnut
Walnut

Fungi(!)

Truffle
Chanterelle

Chanterelles
Chanterelles

Herbs

Alexanders
Fennel
Thyme
Sweet Woodruff
Water Mint

Needles

Fir
Pine
Spruce

Pine needles
Needles on my ex-Christmas tree – a Norway Spruce

Other

Sweet Vernal Grass (the smell of newly cut hay!)