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 a seasonal diary of some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: there's lots of good wild stuff to eat, and much of it is fairly easy to identify. Unfortunately, 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 an in-depth field guide and/or skilled teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes, but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 per cent confident you know what something is, leave it alone! Also, please be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

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  1. The winter frosts creep in and the excited mushroom forays of autumn become another sweet leaf-rustling memory.

    Blewit sunrise

    Thankfully though, The hardy wood blewit (Lepista nuda) is quite happy with a bit of cold and should keep going for another month or so.

    One of the keys to succesful foraging is building a mental map of where to go for certain foods in certain seasons. When it comes to wood blewits – which seem to like old grassland almost as much as woodland – my location of choice is a nearby urban cemetry nestled amongst old pine trees. It's a fascinating place with lots of forgotten wild corners.

    Another key seems to be serendipity, and this year I added extra shading to the mental map, when I stumbled across a lovely patch of wood blewits nestled on some nearby sea cliffs. The sun was just rising, and it was one of those magical foraging moments to savour.

    Blewit frying panBrunch a few hours later was equally memorable – I chose to simply fry them in olive oil and garlic, sprinkle them with Purbeck marjoram, and then serve on toast. Blewits have a substantial meaty texture and a classic earthy mushroom taste. Their solidity also means they dry well – just slice thinly and pop near a radiator or in an airing cupboard.

    Some foraging considerations.

    The relative scarcity of other fungi at this time of year can be a helpful starting point when learning to identify the wood blewit. From above, it tends to be a rather understated beige with just a hint of lillac. Take a peak underneath though, and the lillacy blue stem and gills should really stand out. Blewits in grass

    Other key aspects include a perfumed slightly-sweet smell when fresh, a rolled over rim and tightly packed gills. As I mention in every post, do your own research to gain confidence in identification. I have chosen to cover this fungi as I feel it is fairly common and can be identified fairly easily, but it does need practice. There are a couple of webcap fungi that are considered poisonous, and that bear a passing resemblance – the rare and garish violet webcap (Cortinarius violaceus) and the more common bruising webcap (Cortinarius purpurascens).

    I should mention that the colour of the wood blewit also fades with age, so to be on the safe side, it is best to only go for the young specimens where the colour is distinctive. As with many mushrooms, a spore print can also be really useful when it comes to identification. I simply place the mushroom, gills down, on a white piece of paper or card, pop a glass over the top and leave overnight. Both the blewits have pale pink spores – the webcaps mentioned above have rusty coloured spores.

    Finally, it's worth just mentioning that the wood blewit has a brother, the equally tasty field blewit, but I'll save that for another post.

  2. Sloe Berries close upAs autumn gathers momentum, many of our hedgerow berries are starting to fade. But not so for the shiny purple sloe (Prunus spinosa) which is just coming into its own down here in the south.

    Gin is probably the word most foragers think of when these dark-purple berries are mentioned. And with good reason, for the sweet but tangy flavour of a well-matured bottle makes for one of the finest hedgerow liquers.

    There are various recipes online, so I'll not elaborate, but it is well worth trying if you are into these sorts of things. I like to replace the sugar for local runny honey; firstly because it's tasty, and secondly because it makes my 'medicinal' justifications sound a bit more credible. Last year I also made sloe whisky which tastes almost as good – unfortunately though, the wonderful red colour that hangs so tantalisingly in the clear gin is somewhat lost in the dark whisky.

    Sloe ginI always try and leave such concoctions at least a year to really mellow, but a few months is enough for it to be passable – the trick is to get into a system of sipping on last year's creation while you're making this year's batch to replace it. For those with real patience, foraging expert, John Wright from River cottage admiringly recounts a 14 year old sloe gin that tasted like a fine madeiran port.

    Once the bottle is empty, and this applies to any spirit that I make, I like to take the fruit and add it to flapjacks or fruit cake. For goodness sake, make sure all the stones have been taken out, but it imparts a wonderful warming zing, and I'm sure it would work with all sorts of other sweet recipes too...Christmas mince pies anyone?

    Of course, there are other tasty applications for the humble sloe. They are generally extremelySloe juice tart when eaten raw; however cooking releases the sugars in the fruit. I won't go as far to say they become completely sweet, but added to stewed apples or apple crumble, they are really rather good. A similar process seems to happen after freezing – in previous years, I've eaten them straight off the branch after a few hard frosts.

    A couple of years ago I found a bag of frozen sloes that had sat forgotten in the freezer for about nine months. I simmered them very gently, and then mashed them through a sieve. With a little honey to mellow them out, they made a deliciously rich and fruity drink (see above pic).

    Foraging considerations.

    Sloe berry,leaf,thornSloes are the berries of our native blackthorn tree;  a shrubby kind of tree, growing to a maximum of 3–4 metres and often found in hedgerows. On the Purbeck coast, it perches itself along the cliff tops for miles and miles.

    Look at the oval lightly-toothed leaves and the horizontal markings on the trunk and you might well be reminded of a more familiar garden or orchard tree. The Latin name Prunus is the other clue, as it belongs to the same family as plum and cherry (and ultimately the Roseacea genus). Indeed, it's likely that some of our modern cultivated varieties of plum originate from the blackthorn.

    In case you're wondering, the spinosa part of blackthorn's Latin name comes from the fierce armour of large right-angled thorns. It's for this reason that you need to take care – gloves make things easier if you are picking large amounts. I have heard of the scratches getting badly infected due to an algae that can live on the spines. I think this may be down to personal sensitivity, as I have never experienced this, but the common advise is to seek immediate medical advice if you notice any reaction to a scratch.

    Finally, just to reiterate, there is a large stone in the middle of sloe berries, so unless you enjoy a trip to the dentist, take care!

  3. Lycium berry close up

    It's a funny thing foraging. Time and again, my best finds happen when I'm not really looking. A good reflection on life perhaps, but I got very excited last week. I was wandering along the cliffs collecting sea beet when I came across a plant that I've been wanting to meet for a while now: lycium (Lycium barbarum), bearer of the orangey-red goji berry.

    The name goji might well ring a bell, as it has been much touted in recent years for its health benefits. Originally from China, it has been naturalised in this country since the 1730's when the Duke of Argyle had it shipped over, to plant on his estate. It was wrongly labelled as a tea plant, and one of its colloquial and rather wordy names is still Duke of Argyle's tea plant. Anyway, the birds decided it was rather tasty, flew far and wide, and the rest is history.

    There has been some controversy over various claims made about this berry in recent years, one of the most interesting being the Chinese man who lived for 252 years because he took extracts of it daily (along with other herbs and lots of chi kung). I suspect this might be a little exagerrated, but chinese medicine has a long and well thought out history, so I believe there must be some truth in one of goji's translations: 'drive away old age berries'.

    lycium elderberry syrup porridgeI I don't want to get embroiled in the various claims and contradictions, so I'll stick to a few safe and proven health benefits. Like virtually any edible wild fruit, it is rich in antioxidants and vitamin C; which in turn reduces inflammation and enhances the immune system. It is also considered to be a good source of beta-carotene, this enhances the body's production of vitamin A which (amongst other things) aids healthy vision – preventing cataracts and maintaining cell growth (carrots are another good source; revealing some truth in the old saying that carrots help you see in the dark). Finally, there is also evidence that gojis serve to stabilise the capillaries, veins and arteries; which thereby aids circulation and benefits cold hands and feet (interestingly, the hawthorn berry is reputed to have a similar effect).

    The taste is wonderfully sweet with a slight astringency – reminding me somewhat of Lycium juicepersimmon. Goji is a popular ingredient in chinese cuisine, and it can be found in both sweet and savoury dishes. My exploits so far have included scattering the berries fresh on morning porridge, with a good helping of elderberry syrup, and adding to home-grown carrots and wilding apple juice. I think I will dry my next batch in the airing cupboard ready for winter use. 

    Foraging considerations.

    Lycium is generally restricted to the south of the UK and has a particular preference for the coast – probably due to the milder temperatures.

    Care needs to be taken with this plant, as it belongs to the Solonacae family which contains some rather poisonous members, including the infamous deadly nightshade. That said, tomatoes, potatoes and aubergine are also sub-members of this family so we need to see things in context.

    Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) has purple-black berries so that makes things simple. Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) on the other Lycium leafhand has quite similar red/orange berries. It is not as poisonous as deadly nightshade, but it's certainly not something you want to make a mistake with.* The main difference, to my mind, is the leaf shape. Lycium has thin elongated oval-shaped leaves (lancolate) while bittersweet has wider oval leaves that are more distinctly pointed at the tip, with small lobes at the base; in addition, the bittersweet's leaves are a darker shade of green. Lycium also has small sporadic thorns while bittersweet does not. As always, take time to study a new plant, and only pick if you are one hundred per cent confident.

    Finally, one of my favourite things about lycium is one of its rather macho colloquial names: wolf berry. I don't know how many you have to eat to start howling at the moon, or stripping off and single-handedly dominating high-school basketball matches (ignore the latter if you're not an 80's Michael-J-Fox kid) but I'll let you know.

    * Deadly nightshade and bittersweet are both used homeopathically. It also seems deadly nightshade, or atropine which is derived from this plant, is used in some conventional heart medicines. In all cases though, this is in miniscule quantities.
  4. ElderberriesThis post is something of a triple grand slam for the wild-food blog. I've already discussed the fragrantly frothy flowers and the intriguingly chewy jelly ears, so I thought it was about time I looked at elder's third delicious bounty – the shiny purple berries of late summer/ early autumn.

    After the blackberry, the elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is one of the first edible hedgerow fruits to ripen in late summer. Indeed, although it lacks the often intense sweetness of the former, the two go very well together and it's easy to combine them in jams, crumbles, fruit stews and the like.

    Last year, Twinkletoes Ruth and I made some wonderful elderberry syrup. It was a simple recipe involving the berries and some cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and muscavado sugar – there's various recipes online if you're interested. I added it to hot water for a comforting ribena type drink, drizzled it on porridge and, occasionally, when no one was looking, just ate it by the teaspoon.

    Elderflower and elderberry ginThis year, as well as a batch of syrup, I have also been conducting some new experiments. The first has involved a creation I started back in June- elderflower gin. This year I thought it would be fun to elaborate on the recipe by adding elderberries and some warming nutmeg, clove and cinammon. I'll keep it in the back of the cupboard, give it an occasional shake, and I reckon by early next year it'll be ready to sample – as it's my first attempt at this, I've been careful not to go too heavy on the berries and spices as I do not want to override the subtle floral flavours. Update Jan 2014: Yep it's good, shared some of it on a recent bushcraft walk at Hengistbury and no complaints; I love being able to taste both the floral and berry tones in one shot.

    On a more virtuous note, I have also been experimenting with dehydrating the berries. A few days on the car dashboard works well, and I'll be adding them to winter porridges and muesli or just making simple infusions with a dozen or so berries in hot water (as well as elderflower tea, elderberry tea is also available commercially).

    Indeed, for centuries this has been a common medicine in the herbalist's repertoire with a powerful elderberries carreputation for curing flus and colds. Not only are they rich in vitamin C, they also contain a high amount of flavonoids. In very simple terms, flavonoids (which give the berries their rich dark-purple colour) help to protect cells against damage or infection and aid in speedy repair and rejuvenation. 

    Foraging considerations.

    Surprisingly, it is rarely mentioned, but there is a poisonous imposter in the shape of the dwarf elder (Sambucus ebulus). This is an uncommon plant in the UK, but it's worth being aware of. The major differences are: it never grows above two metres high, it's single stemmed and it has berries that point upwards on their stems. 

    In contrast, the elder we're interested in is a shrubby multi-stemmed tree growing up to about 6 metres high, with drooping berries. Its leaves are arranged in opposite pairs with a single one at the end of the branch – when crushed, they have a slightly unpleasant 'mousey' smell. This basic leaf description is also shared by the Dwarf elder, but if you follow the rule of only picking from elders that are well over head height with hanging berries, you can't go wrong.

    Elderberry syrupIt's easiest to pick the berries at the stem, so you have the whole bunch to take home. They squash very easily, but a kitchen fork is perfect for stripping them away.They have a fairly short season, and usually by early October it's a struggle to find any fresh ones.

    I have sometimes heard it said that the elderberry disagrees with some people when eaten raw. It tends to taste better when cooked anyway, but according to my research, it seems that this is mainly referring to the red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is very rare in this country and is easily differentiated by the red berries. Nevertheless, as with all wild food, it is wise to only try a small amount of something the first time you eat it, in case of individual sensitivities.

  5. Midsummer is traditionally a time for collecting various medicinal flowers, and as our land bathes in these magically long hours Honeysuckle Purbeckof light, it's perfect for gathering native honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum).

    Appearing in Shakespeare's Midsummer nights dream, as a metaphor for entwined lovers (it likes to wrap itself around neighbouring trees and shrubs), honeysuckle is a plant that has been celebrated throughout the ages. Breathe in the intoxicating scent as it hangs heavy in the evening air, and it's easy to see why.
    Honeysuckle infusionFor centuries, maybe millenia, the flowers and leaves were used to soothe fevers and general aches and pains. While people would not have known it at the time, this is due to the high salicylic-acid content – one of the key ingredients that aspirin was ultimately synthesised from (actually using the salicylic acid contained in willow). The simplest way to imbibe honeysuckle for its medicinal purposes is as a tea, steeped in hot water for five to ten minutes. It is also reputed to have strong antiseptic qualities and is a good one to crush and use externally for small wounds while out in the woods.
    I love adding a few flowers to a salad for an unusual splash of colour, while it is also a fun 'on the go' forage – chew on the base of the trumpet and you'll be rewarded with a small but heavenly drop of sweetness from the nectar inside.
    Honeysuckle honeyThis year however, my main focus has been honeysuckle and elderflower infused honey. As is often the case, I was picking elder blossoms the other day, and the honeysuckle just happened to catch my eye.
    Honey is an excellent medium for drawing out the goodness from whatever it surrounds. Just put flowers in an empty jar, cover with runny honey, and then leave on a sunny windowsill for it to work its magic. I always try to gather on a sunny day when the flowers are dry, but it's still a good idea to leave the lids sightly off for a few days to allow any tiny bits of moisture to evaporate. After a month or so, the honey can be stored away in a dark cupboard – either strain the flowers off or keep them in there as an edible decoration.
    By my reckoning, this will be a potent winter bug buster. The antibacterial and pain-soothing qualities of the honeysuckle should harness perfectly with the fever accelerating wonders of the elderflower – while the soothing Purbeck honey is also antibacterial in it's own right.
    This sort of concoction also makes for a wonderful winter gift, bringing an echo of summer to the darker months.
    Foraging considerations.
    Do not eat the berries; these are considered poisonous! 
    As this is such an attractive plant, it is not surprising that there are also manyHoneysuckle close up kinds of cultivated varieties. As such, it is risky to make sweeping statements on ediblity. This is why I underlined the word 'native' at the beginning of this post. This plant (Lonicera periclymenum) has a long history of edible and medicinal use, and it's the one I know and stick with.
    It is a common climber of old hedgerows and woodland edges. The open flowers are trumpet shaped while the closed flowers almost resemble tiny bananas in appearance. The colour varies between white, yellow and pink; while the leaves are grey-green, oval and in opposite pairs. As always, do your own research to become acquainted with this plant. If the honeysuckle is growing in a garden or near habitation, exercise extra care.
    For maximum potency, pick the flowers when they are fully out. As with most flowers, try and pick in the middle of the day when the sun is on them, and certainly avoid picking when damp, as they will go dingey and smell a little strange. The most fragrant flowers seem to be the ones that have just opened, although getting it just right often comes down to good luck as much as timing.
    Honeysuckle will usually stay in flower most of the summer and into autumn if it stays warm, but remember this is a real jewel of the countryside that is a visual and olfactory delight for all so, as always, forage with consideration for others enjoyment.
  6. A good plant family for any keen forager to get to grips with is the mint (lamiaceae).

    Its relatives, cultivated and wild, number many hundreds in the UK and one common and reasonably tasty example isGround ivy-under the hedge
    ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Thought to originate from the Mediterranean and western Asia, it has a long history of human use and, amongst a few other plants, was popular in medieval times for flavouring and clarifying ale, hence one of its colloquial names: ale hoof. The 'hoof' bit probably comes, with a bit of imagination, from its roughly hoof-shaped leaf.

    Ground ivy and Baloo 2The young leaves added in moderation to a salad give an interesting bite. But it’s best use is probably as a simple infusion in hot water – providing a sharp and refreshing drink. A little bit of honey compliments it nicely. While the Chinese, who use it in various herbal medicines, add liquorice to it. 

    Traditionally, many members of the mint family are excellent cooling and calming herbs. Amongst other things, they have a reputation for aiding digestion after a meal and easing inflammation of the mucous membranes.  Ground ivy, in particular, is an anticatarrhal, a decongestant and an expectorant – which basically means it helps to thin the mucus and expel it from the body. Similar to pine needles, which we covered a few posts back, if you take a deep inhalation of the crushed leaves you may notice a cooling and opening of the sinuses. 

    Foraging considerations.

    Ground ivy is very common in the UK. Look for sunny banks and woodland edges on most soils. At this time of year, the purple flowers also catch the eye.

    One very helpful skill, when it comes to identifying wild plants, is learning to recognise the common features of different Ground ivy springheadfamilies (keen gardeners are often at an advantage here). I always tell people if you can work out the family you are three quarters of the way there – it means only having to flick through a section of your field guide rather than the whole lot!*  

    A very common characteristic of the lamiaceae family is a square and usually hollow stem with stalked leaves that are opposite to one another and often slightly hairy. They are also usually rich in volatile oils which gives them their strong slightly sharp smell – if you have some common mint or peppermint growing in the garden, pick a bit and have a look. Or even basil, rosemary, lavender or marjoram, which are all relatives that have been brought into common cultivation. 

    There are no obvious poisonous lookalikes, indeed, as far as I can find out there are no poisionous members of the mint family – which is not the same as saying that they all taste good!

    Traditionally, May is considered peak time for picking ground ivy for medicinal uses, however our cold spring this year actually means the plant is at it’s peak about now. Nevertheless, for a simple infusion, ground ivy can easily be found from mid-spring right through to late autumn. Alternatively, it can be picked and dried to last all year. 

    Incidentally, this is not related to ivy, which is generally considered poisonous.

    * Good wild plant guides often come with a key which can be really useful for those with patience!