Will's Wild Food Diary

 Wild food diary

Fresh, organic and free! Of all things bushcrafty, nothing gets me more excited than a foraging adventure.

From time to time, I update this page with a different wild food that is in season- gradually building up an online reference on some of the foraging delights available to us.

In addition, I write a 'Wild in the kitchen' blog for the UK's leading site for professional chefs. 

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Disclaimer: There's loads of good stuff to eat out there and much of it is very easy to identify. Unfortunatly, there are also some plants and fungi that can make you seriously ill or worse. This diary is a brief overview intended to inspire and not a substitute for a good field guide and teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 percent confident you know what something is then leave it alone! Please also be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions so it is good practice to always try just a small amount first.

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  1. What beautiful weather of late!

    It certainly seems to have turbo charged all the spring growth and I’ve noticed that the hawthorn trees all over Dorset are enthusiastically unravelling their fresh green leaves. The hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is one of the first trees to really wake up after winter (blackthorn just beats it but produces flowers before leaves). In a month or so’s time it will  toughen up and become unpalatable but right now the fresh young leaves are perfect for the picking.P1010073

    In the past the leaf and unravelled flower were a favourite forage for children- known as bread and cheese- the leaf being the bread and the flower the cheese. It's a fanciful comparison but the taste is never the less pretty good, eaten by themselves they can seem slightly bitter but, added to other dishes, the fresh and slightly nutty side of their character appears.

    I picked these leaves from a tree on the edge of Thorncombe woods near Dorchester after last weekend’s family Bushcraft event. I nibbled a few straight from the branch and then took a handful home. Normally I'd add them to a green salad and toss them with a little balsamic vinegar and I’ve heard of people cooking a kind of suet from them. On this occasion, As befits my classy lifestyle I had them on cheese on toast- a fitting dish I thought considering their colloquial name!

    I.D points: The hawthorn tree is very common through the UK, It dots itself around the woodlands but typically it’s a tree of hedgerows- haw being old English for hedge while the thorn bit should be obvious on close examination. There’s lots of tree id guides available in book form or online but it’s generally a shrubby short tree. The thorns are probably the clearest id point, they are short and at roughly 45 degrees to the branches. The blackthorn is the only other common tree with thorns but these are normally much stronger and longer- the leaves look nothing like the simple lobed leaves of the hawthorn below.

      P1010072- haw2

  2. alexanders and hand

    Over the last few months the lanes and tracks around the Purbeck hills have been dazzling with an early spring friend- Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum).   

    Thought to be named after Alexander the Great who came from modern day Greece where the plant is abundant, this is a predecessor of our cultivated celery and was most probably introduced by the Romans.

    It remained a widely cultivated green until the 18th century when more succulent varieties of celery were developed and it fell into culinary obscurity.

    Nowadays, although it can sometimes be found inland, especially on the sites of old kitchen gardens or monastries, Alexanders is more commonly associated with the coast. I love John Wright's image of it lingering there awaiting a ship to take it back to its Mediterranean homeland, but it is most likely due to it being a bit of southern softy and not liking hard frosts- presumably in its cultivation days it was pampered with cloches and the like.

    Alexanders juiceThe raw taste is pretty bitter with a fresh limey citrus kick and, while quite strong, it provides a fascinating insight into a largely forgotten flavour. For a milder taste, it's good to simmer or steam the young stems for a few minutes- a bit of butter and seasoning sets it off a treat. The leaf is subtler in taste and a little bit popped in a sandwich is a bit of fun while sauntering along the coast in early spring. By May or June it is flowering, the taste has deteriorated and it's best to move on.

    Update March 2013: For the last couple of months I have taken to regularly juicing alexanders- usually with apple and ginger and a bit of water to mellow out the strong flavour. Mixed with orange, ginger and honey it also works very well- although this is slightly less detoxifying due to the high sugar content of the honey.

    ID points and warning: This is a member of the umbellifer or carrot family which includes some deadly plants- mainly hemlock, hemlock water dropwort and fools parsley. However, if you can forgive its unfortunate family background and take the time to study it, it really is a great plant to know as, when it is found, it is usually in abundance.

    The fact that it comes out very early in the season (down here it shows by late autumn/early winter and by now it's in full profusion) is a strong identification point and should be backed up with a closer examination using a good field guide: leaves should be shiny and relatively shallowly lobed with a sharply serrated edge; the smell when broken should be tangy and limey/citrusy; while at the base of the stem you should see a broad pinky veined sheath. To be ultra safe, avoid picking from damp ditches/ water courses where hemlock water dropwort may be lurking. Also keep an eye out for dark reddy purple blotches on the stem too as this may be hemlock.

  3. Chances are, if you've eaten a few chinese meals or wandered through China town and peered into those intriguing large sacks outside the shops you'll have already encountered something very similar to this tasty morsel. The chinese produce around half a million tonnes of a cultivated relative of this species every year and use it regularly in their cuisine.

    They're called photo2Jews ears or Jelly ears (Auricularia auricula- judae). The foremost name is a reference to its main host -the elder- the unlucky tree upon which Judas Iscariot hung himself in shame. It's an unlikely story and more likely cynical propoganda promoted by the early Church in order to villify what was once a much reveered and celebrated tree in celtic folk lore- but I digress.

    Name, and to some extent looks, aside this really is a great little mushroom and the only one I know of that can be picked year round. Just look on the underside of old and decaying elders and you should find some pretty easily- these ones were growing along a track near Wick meadows on the edge Bournemouth.

    IMG_0005They need to be cooked and the best way to prepare them is to dry for a couple of days, cut into chunks with some scissors and them simply add to soups, stews or currys. The pic on the left is after a couple of days on the radiator. As they rehydrate they absorb whatever is in the pot and impart a mild mushroom flavour and slightly chewy texture to the dish.

    It's difficult to mistake this for anything poisinous. It should have a distinctive ear shape and be growing on an elder tree- use the internet or a book to check what this tree looks like if neccesary (I have found it on other trees but that's fairly unusual).

    In fact, the real word of warning must be to anyone thinking of frying these in their fresh state. Don't- their high moisture content causes them to explode scattering tiny pieces of scorching hot mushroom around the room!

  4. garlic n me

    Today I walked out with my good friend Tess and gathered the first spring greens of the year- handfuls of super nutritious, ultra delicious wild garlic (Allium ursinum).

    It has to be one of my favourite forages and can often be smelt from quite a distance. A few years ago, and a bit later in the season, I was walking along the purbeck ridge, above Corfe Castle, when I was stopped in my tracks by a waft of garlic drifting up from the woodlands hundreds of metres away in the valley. It was a magical moment to literally follow my nose and stumble across a green ocean billowing through the woodland as far as the eye could see. 

    wild garlic woodsNot only is wild garlic tasty, there are many health benefits too. It is rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants and is a very good cleanser of the blood, helping to increase circulation and so strengthen the heart. It's also very benificial for the digestive system- helping to balance the gut flora and proving benificial in conditions such as IBS, Chrone's disesase and gastroenteritis.

    Finally, the whole plant also has a strong antibacterial and antifungal quality and can be applied as a poultice to cuts and boils to speed up the healing process and to tooth abcesses to reduce the infection

    While I admittedly picked this garlic, also known as ramsoms, from a very sheltered south facing woodland, over the next few weeks and months we can expect it to really burst forth in broadleaved woodlands all over the country (down here is has a marked preference for chalky/calcareous soils).

    One of the best things is it's long harvesting season and the uses are only limited by the imagination. First come the green leaves which are  great in a salad, stir fried or added to an omlette- I've even frozen them and although they come out looking a bit sad they go fine in a soup. This is followed by thewild garlic soup delicate white flowers which are perhaps even more potent and give a really fun splash of taste and colour to a salad. Then finally, we are left with the round green seeds. Picked in bunches and pickled in a good vinegar, they are great on winter salads or in a cheese sarnie!

    As for our first harvest? We sat in front of a blazing fire at the local pub and ate them with a bowl of chips and a locally brewed ale!

    Update, June 2012: If you haven’t managed to harvest any yet,wild garlic vinegar all is not lost. The leaves and flowers are pretty much finished but the green seed heads are now ready for a good pickling (thanks Lucie Cowles for teaching me this one). Simply fill a jar full of them, pour a good quality vinegar (I use apple cider) over the top and leave for a few months. They’re fantastic sprinkled sparingly over pretty much any savoury dish and make a potent addition to the winter bug arsenal.

    Foraging considerations: The smell of garlic should be a distinct enough ID point. However, it's worth mentioning that, early in the season, it could potentially be mistaken for Lords &

    DSC_0783Ladies (Arum maticulatum). Although it often grows alongside wild garlic, you'd have to be pretty careless to mistake the two- Lords and ladies has a rounded 'v' shape at it's base, is thicker and often (although not always) has spots-the opposite photo shows a comparison with the Lords and Ladies on the left. It's a pretty poisinous plant but, by all accounts, tastes like battery acid and burns the lips, so if you are unlucky enough to have a nibble, your senses will tell you to spit it out before it's ingested (recorded poisonings have nearly always been from children eating the red berries). Much less common but very poisinous, so worth a mention, is escaped Lily of the valley and Autumn crocus/ Meadow saffron. None of these smell of garlic so again a careful forager should be fine. As always, if in doubt- leave it out.