I like soup, a lot. I probably have soup for lunch two or three times a week. When I had a “real” job, I regularly took soup to work to heat up in the microwave and other users of the office kitchen were always keen to know what the “weird” soup of the day was.
Spring is a great time for fellow soup lovers that forage, there are lots of great wild ingredients around that you can experiment with. Spring being the season of new growth and greenery, it is wild leaves that we make use of. You can follow the same basic recipe and easily and cheaply produce lots of different versions using either a single type of leaves or a combination. Adopt the basic recipe as you like with other ingredients or not blending it etc. The soups can be eaten hot or cold (gazpacho) and all freeze well. I use washed out plastic milk bottles to freeze them in.
As always, check the plant identification as there are some poisonous plants that it is possible to confuse with these.
Nettles (use scissors and gloves, cut the top 2 or 3 inches including the stem. Do not use when they get older as they get fibrous).
Wild Garlic (best before it flowers).
Common Hogweed (NB Avoid Giant Hogweed, and wear gloves if you have sensitive skin)
Ground Elder (best before it flowers, double check that it is not Dog’s Mercury)
Watercress (must be cooked if “wild”)
Alexanders (really check the ID, other umbellifers can be deadly!)
Common Sorrel (mix with some lettuce, skip the garlic. Beware of Lords and Ladies which is confused with this).
Hop Shoots (beware of Black Bryony)
(Table scrolls right and left on mobiles, click on the photos for bigger / zoom-able versions)
Alternatives to a clove of garlic
Wild Garlic leaves
Three Cornered Leek – stem or leaves
Few Flowered Leek – stem or leaves
A few edible wild flowers e.g Primrose, Wild Garlic, Three Cornered Leek
Chopped herbs such as Crow Garlic
1/2 a carrier bag or a few large bunches of leaves – see above
A little oil
1 large onion – chopped
1 clove of garlic – crushed (or a handful of an alternative – see above)
1 carrot – optional
2 pints good stock (vegetable or chicken). I use Marigold Swiss Vegetable (or Vegan) Bouillon Powder.
2 medium potatoes – peeled if you like (not really necessary), chopped into large pieces
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cream or crème fraiche (optional)
Small bunch of Crow Garlic
A little extra cream or crème fraiche
Wash all leaves thoroughly.
Melt butter in a pan and sweat the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown (c. 10 minutes).
Add stock, potatoes and all the leaves.
Bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are cooked.
Season with salt, pepper and add the cream.
Put the soup mixture into a blender a bit at a time and blitz it.
When I ask a group of guests on a seashore foraging course “who has eaten seaweed before?” it’s usually about half that put their hands up. I ask if it was crispy seaweed and for most it was. However, on most occasions, it’s not seaweed that they were actually given but deep-fried spring greens – a type of cabbage! Those that have really eaten seaweed have usually done so in either Japanese restaurants or in the Welsh dish Laverbread. Almost everyone will have however eaten seaweed regularly as extracts from it are used in a wide variety of food products. For example, it keeps ice cream smooth and creamy, is used in beers for a more stable and lasting foam and in wines to help clarify the colour. As a thickener or stabilizer, it appears in sauces, syrups, and soups, mayonnaise, salad dressings and yoghurt.
Seaweeds are most popular in East Asian cuisine (Japanese, Chinese & Korean). Nearer to home, there is a long history of using some species in Ireland and Wales. Seaweeds are rich in minerals especially iodine, proteins and vitamins. One has 10 times the calcium of cow’s milk, twice the vitamin C of oranges, and 50 times the iron of spinach!
Foraging for Seaweed
Seaweeds are probably the least foraged wild food group, however, there is lots of good news for the forager:
Of the 500 or so species in British waters about a dozen are eaten, so learning them is a lot easier than plants or fungi.
There is only one poisonous species, but you won’t encounter it being only found in very deep waters, like midway across The English Channel.
If you like East Asian cuisine, we have many of the same or equivalent species on our coast.
Seaweeds can be preserved for future use.
The coast is perhaps the most dangerous foraging environment with more ways to come a cropper than other environments. I won’t go into detail here, but among the dangers are being cut off by the tide, hit by a landslide, slipping on rocks and getting stuck in mud. Take care!
The best time to gather seaweed is as the tide is falling and the best months are May and June. You should look in areas away from sources of pollution such as sewage outfalls and where rivers come to the coast. So your seaweed gathering has minimal impact, you should always cut it with scissors and not tear it off the rocks. Do not cut too near the holdfast (“root”), leaving a third of the length and it will happily grow back. You should generally, only gather seaweed that is still attached so it has not deteriorated. As with all types of foraging, take a little here and a little there.
At the coast, rinse it in seawater to remove any sand, shells or creatures. The easiest way is to put a handful into a bucket / large bowl of water, give it a good swirl then put into a colander to drain. If it is sandy, give it multiple washes. Once cut and washed, put it in string bags (e.g onion sacks) to let the water drain. I strongly recommend that you put each species in a separate bag so you don’t need to spend hours at home sorting them out! If you’re collecting on a warm day, use a cool box to keep the seaweed chilled until you get home. If it becomes too hot it will start to break down and get mucilaginous and slimy.
The usual law that applies to foragers, The 1968 Theft Act, covers fruit, fungi, foliage and flowers but not seaweed. You should be okay collecting it for personal use but technically you need permission from the owner of the foreshore (Council, National Trust or private landowner). Below the High Water Mark, the landowner is usually The Crown. John Wright’s Edible Seashore book includes excellent coverage of the legal aspects of seashore foraging.
Seaweed in The Kitchen
The key thing for cooking with seaweed is that you need to appropriately use each species. It’s not just a case of boiling any of them as you would a vegetable, each has its own role in the kitchen. They are more versatile than you would think, besides being used in soups, starters and main courses, they can be used in puddings, breads, cakes and drinks. On our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course, learning about their roles is our focus. There are, however, simple ways that you can easily add seaweed to your regular diet and enjoy the health and taste benefits.
It is easy to produce a jar of dried seaweed flakes. This is one or more of Dulse, Sea Lettuce, Laver (Nori), Bladderwrack, Gutweed and, optionally, a little Pepper Dulse. These seaweeds are washed thoroughly and then have been dried (below) and ground / flaked (below). The result is stored in a glass jar where it will keep for a long time (though once you get the flavour you will use it regularly!). You can:
Sprinkle on cooked vegetables, salads, eggs, noodles, pizza or pasta dishes, popcorn, soups and sauces.
Put in a salt shaker with sea salt and using as a condiment.
Add when making bread / savoury scones etc.
Mix into soft butter for Seaweed butter, optionally adding lemon or lime juice, chilli flakes etc. Serve on bread or with fish, vegetables, noodles or pasta. This can be frozen.
Your technique will depend upon how much time you have, the size of the seaweed and the weather. Natural drying in sunlight and fresh air is the traditional approach but if it is too windy or wet you may have to rethink – garage, conservatory or greenhouse (ideally not the house – you will get complaints!). If drying flat, turn them occasionally. Whatever your approach, they want them to be totally dry but still pliable. Dried seaweed can then be stored for years in sealed plastic bags or glass jars in a cool, dry place away from direct light. Some are used dried; others are rehydrated before using.
Cake cooling racks
Clothes drying rack
Dehydrator – 40 degrees C so the nutrients are not damaged. You can use this for drying mushrooms, fruit and veg too. C. £40
Sheets / tarpaulin
A very low oven (40 degrees C) overnight.
The washing line / a rotary drier / a sock drier
To flake the seaweed, you may need to crisp the dried seaweed removing all moisture by either:
Putting on a tray or ovenproof fish in a hot oven. Check it every minute or so to see if it can be crumbled; put back if not. The time required will vary with the thickness of the seaweed and how thinly you have spread it.
Placing in a grill pan with a piece of greaseproof paper over the seaweed to stop burning. Put well away from the heat, turning the seaweed occasionally checking if it is crisp.
When it is crisp you can crush it, your method based on whether you want flakes or powder:
Pestle and mortar
Freezer bag / rolling pin
Rub between the fingers (carefully as some seaweeds may have sharp edges)
Food processor / Coffee (Spice) grinder (shorter time for flakes, longer for powder)
Join us on our “Seaweed and Eat It” day long foraging course. You will find most of the edible species, understand harvesting and preserving them as well as working together to prepare, cook and eat a three-course meal with seaweed in every course. Afterwards we will email you lots of information including the recipes.
There are a good number of books on seaweed foraging and cookery with some wonderful recipes. You can browse and order some of our favourites here.
Elderberries are far from the most foraged berry. This is a bit of a shame, used the right way they are a great wild food ingredient. They make a good jam or jelly, but you wouldn’t really want a pudding with them “neat”. Adding another fruit like Blackberries improves the flavour. Where they do come into their own is in drinks, one of the best wild fruit wines, a great spirit-based infusion (think Sloe Gin but with Elderberries and Vodka or Whisky), or most commonly as Elderberry Syrup. This is one of my favourite fruit syrups and can be used in a number of ways.
Uses for Elderberry Syrup
Most will go in the freezer to reappear when the winter colds or flu strike. Defrosted then a little in a mug of hot water (squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of whisky are optional extras) will relieve the symptoms of colds and flu. I add cloves to mine and the fruity/spicy remedy soon starts to work wonders. The combination of certain acids, vitamin C and anti-oxidants has proven in trials that “Symptoms were relieved on average 4 days earlier …. in those receiving elderberry extract compared with a placebo“. The medicinal benefits have been known since the Ancient Egyptians and Greek. You can today buy cold remedies with Elderberry in, but why, when you can make your own cheaply. I use the recipe in Roger Phillips’ excellent Wild Food.
I’ve known people use it as a no-alcohol version of mulled wine. The spices, such as cloves, ginger and / or cinnamon, make it fill the role very well.
You can drizzle a little of the syrup on to ice cream, pancakes, rice pudding or similar.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Churros (fried-dough pastry – a traditional snack from Spain and Portugal)
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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
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 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.
To most the only Ketchup is Tomato and comes from a shop, however, there are a few you can make with a wild fruit and now is the ideal time. I’ve come across Blackberry, Crab Apple and Haw (the fruit of the Hawthorn). Like their famous cousin they are pureed fruit with vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and, optionally, some spices. They are pretty easy to make and delicious. I’ve made the Haw Ketchup one most often. This goes very well with venison, pork belly, cheese on toast, nut roast, cheese, lentil burgers or on a fried egg. A fellow forager suggested using it in place of tomato sauce on a pizza – it was great!
This is a “base” recipe from Pam Corbin’s excellent River Cottage Handbook No.2 Preserves. (By clicking this link you go to The Book Depository’s web site. At the time of writing this book as has 52% off – costing just £7.18 in hardback!). You can spice it up as you like with Cayenne Pepper, Worcester sauce, cloves, cinnamon, garlic salt, coriander etc.
Makes 1 x 300 ml bottle.
300 ml white wine or cider vinegar
170 g sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Ground black pepper to taste
Strip the haws from the stalks – the easiest way to do this is with scissors.
Rinse in cold water.
Put the haws into a pan with the vinegar and 300 ml water and simmer for about 30 minutes – the skins will split, revealing the firm, yellow flesh. Cook until the flesh is soft and the berries have become a muted red-brown. Remove from the heat.
Rub the mixture through a sieve, or pass through a food mill, to remove the largish stones and the skins.
Return the fruity mixture to the cleaned-out pan. Add the sugar and heat gently, stirring, until it dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Season with the salt, pepper and add any spices.
Pour the finished Haw Ketchup into a sterilized bottle and seal with a vinegar proof cap.
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.
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 havealicylate 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
All being well, you come back to beautiful looking and amazing tasting smoked mackerel.
The fillets are great as they are, hot or cold. They can also used in dishes such as a risotto or frittata.
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.