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. It’s late this year. But in the last few weeks, and with gathering momentum, vibrant splashes of green have started to burst from the bare winter trees. beech coast path 2

    It’s an uplifting sight to see winter releasing its final fragile hold. And even better is the fact that some of the leaves are edible while young and tender. I mentioned hawthorn last year, so this year I thought I’d tip my hat to one of our most magnificent of trees – the beech (Fagus sylvatica).

    The most famous use for the leaves involves gin and is called beech leaf noyau. There’s plenty of recipes online and it’s worth a try, producing a light green, slightly fruity drink. Personally, I prefer to save my gin for the elderflower that will soon be here or for certain autumnal delights, so generally I just enjoy the leaves raw – I suspect the subtle flavour would be lost if cooked although I have not tried it.

    beech pot saladOne of my favourite ways of enjoying wild food is simply to browse as I walk, and beech leaves are perfect for this – making for a refreshing snack while ambling through the countryside. The top pic was a small copse on the west Dorset coast path last week.

    A few leaves also go nicely in a mixed salad, while I tried them for the first time in a potato salad this year – they added great colour, with the mild fruitiness really complimenting the mayo. 

    Foraging considerations.

    The beech is a common and reasonably easy tree to identify. It has a smooth grey trunk and can grow to heights of 40 metres, although for obvious reasons, you’re better off finding a shorter one!

    The pointed leaves at this time of year are an almost translucent bright green with a slightly wavy outline and beech leafa fine hairy texture. But don’t hang around – in the next few weeks they will darken and toughen up until they lose their flavour.

    As with all foraging, sustainability is an essential consideration. Avoid stripping whole branches bare – much more responsible to take a few leaves from different branches.

  2. Plants are like humans in many ways. When it's cold outside it can be hard getting out of bed, and our recent semi-arctic weather has meant a lot of spring greens have been reluctant too.Hogweed leaf 2

    One plant that I've been noticing in the last couple of weeks is hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) – not to be confused with the notorious giant hogweed (see later).
    I can guarantee that if you have ever taken a walk down a British country lane you will have seen our common hogweed, with it's roughly lobed leaves – often so heavy that the hairy stalks seem to bend out of the hedgerow, beckoning the hungry forager.
    This plant has a long history of use in eastern European countries, but I decided to do some oriental experimentation this time. No, nothing like that, I made a hogweed stir-fry!
    Hogweed stirfryThe stems are tougher than the leaves, so I chopped and cooked them first, along with some alexanders and jelly ear mushrooms, before popping in the leaves. The two parts of the plant are quite different once cooked – the very young stems are fleshy and succulent, while the leaves crisp up and turn similar to a crispy seaweed. The taste of both is difficult to describe, perhaps somewhere between asparagus and parsnip. The emerging flower buds, which look like little heads of brocolli, are apparently also delicious, but I've not experimented with them yet. As is the case with many spring greens, once the flower opens the whole plant becomes tough and bitter, and it's best left alone.
    Foraging considerations.
    It's the carrot/ umbelliferae* family again with some of the most deadly plants known to humans – I'm thinking in particular of hemlock and hemlock water dropwort and, to a lesser extent, fools parsley.
    It's a real pity about these renegade relatives, as this family also contains lots of delightful gifts for the forager, for example, ground elder and alexanders, which I've covered in previous posts. However, the visual similarities with the dangerous ones is very superficial, and anyone taking time to study what they're planning to eat is extremley unlikely to have a problem.
    The harmful fellow that really needs mentioning is giant hogweed. Introduced from central Asia by the Victorians, for its ornamental appeal, it can grow over 4 metres high, and its very toxic sap burns and blisters the skin when exposed to sunlight.  
    If it happens to be full sized, that is an obvious clue, as normal hogweed doesn't grow above a couple of metres at best. However, as hogweed is a spring forage, when both plants are young, this is not quite so helpful. More useful perhaps is to look out for the previous year's dead growth, which often hangs around into the next spring. If you don't have this to help then look at the hogweed stemsleaves – which are markedly spikier than the round lobes of our native hogweed. Giant hogweed also has purple blotches on the stem and very coarse long bristles, while common hogweed has striped purple and green stems and much finer bristles.
    Finally, pay attention to habitat. Stopping and looking around is one of the best identification skills a forager can learn, with practice this can really help one work out what plants to look out for in different locations. In the case of giant hogweed, it has a marked preference for damp ditches and streams – the only time I've noticed it in the three years I've been in Dorset is by a stream that enters the river at Wick, near Christchurch. 
    While nowhere near the level of giant hogweed, it seems a few people find the raw sap from common hogweed to be an irritant (same with carrot tops for that matter). Personally, I have been picking it for a few years now, and I've never noticed any irritation, but if you know you have sensitive skin, some gloves could be worth it. The heat from cooking should totally break down the sap but, as with all new wild food, it's always best to just try a little the first time.
    * The other widely used genus name is apiaceae.
  3. The briney edges of the land can offer all sorts of exciting wild foods.Sea_Purslane

    I've covered a few in previous blogs (alexanders, sea beet and seaweed), so I thought this month it would be fun to do some experimenting with sea purslane (Atriplex portulacoides).

    Sea purslane is a common plant of estuaries and salt marshes and last weekend’s foray saw me walking the edge of Christchurch harbour – straight into the teeth of  a late-winter blast coming off Siberia – complete with snow flurries and red-raw fingers (foraging in gloves is very hard).

    If it could express an opinion, sea purslane would no doubt sneer deprecatingly at me. For it’s a tough and hardy life-form that seems to thrive in the harsh salty elements.

    I occasionally pop a few leaves in a sarnie, while last years coastal wild-food walk at Colourfest saw us all having an impromptu nibble. This time however, I thought I would sea purslane- colourfest 2be more experimental by utilising its crunchy texture in a  wild risotto. The main ingredients, alongside the risotto rice and sea purslane, were common mallow, wild garlic and jelly ear mushrooms. It made for an excellent meal, and even after a fairly lengthy simmer, the purslane retained a satisfying crunchy texture.

    sea purslane risWhen cooked, the intense saltiness seems to diminish so that it becomes just like a tasty wild green that might be foraged in the woods or fields. This is a good thing when eating a fairly generous amount, but also a shame in some ways, as I rather enjoy the salty taste.

    My second experiment therefore was to use purslane raw. I dehydrated it for a couple of days in an airing cupboard, and then, once it was dry and brittle, I put it through the blender. The result was a crunchy salty condiment that should last for many months. It will be sprinkled sparingly over salads, stews and scrambled eggs (and various other things too). The pic below was taken prior to blending; with the leaves just roughly crumbled over some wild-garlic soup.

    sea purslane condiment

    Foraging considerations.

    Sea Purslane can be found throughout the year around most estuaries and salt marshes in the UK, and it does not have any obvious lookalikes. Its distinctive habitat is a very helpful ID point – I’ve never seen any on the open coast or inland.

    It’s a low straggling plant with tangles of succulent oval leaves between one and two centimetres long. If you look closely, the leaves have tiny papery scales. These act as armour against the elements, as well as giving the plant a slightly-silver sheen – indeed it's likely that its common name comes from the word ‘porcelain’. The photo at the top of this post was taken in the summer with the simple red flowers (also edible). At the moment you will only find the leaves.

    It is hard to find reliable information on the nutritional content of sea purslane. However, there is a good chance that it shares some of the nutritional value of a cultivated, but related, inland plant simply called Purslane. This is often eaten in the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia, and according to Cookipedia, contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable – as well as a good dose of vitamins A and C and dietary minerals.









  4. A recent walk in the white winter forest got me pondering – what wild food can I forage when everything isPine snow buried in snow? Looking around, the first thing I saw was pine needles.

    I've been wanting to experiment more with these health-packed little beauties since making my first cup of 'woodsmans tea' some years ago. This is basically pine needles steeped in hot water, and was a drink once consumed by the intrepid explorers of the boreal forests. The taste varies depending on species, but generally, it has a citrusy, slightly-tangy taste and is very refreshing. Bruise them up a bit for extra flavour.

    Pine teaThe Native Americans, masters of herbal medicine, used pine needles (and resin) to treat, amongst other things, illnesses of the mucous membranes and respiratory system – take a good sniff on a bunch of crushed needles and you may notice an opening of the sinuses and lungs. European herbalists also utilised them as a powerful flu and cold buster. Undoubtedly this is partly due to their very high vitamin C content. However in 2010, researchers in America made the breakthrough discovery that pine needles also contain significant amounts of shikimic acid. In simple terms, shikimic acid prevents flu from reproducing itself, thus reducing symptoms and duration. It's apparently a key ingredient in Tamiflu – an antiviral drug used in the treatment of swine, bird and seasonal influenza. The research was mainly focused on white pine and some varieties of spruce, but it is presumed other pines contain it in varying amounts, and research is continuing with a view to extracting it commerically.

    For my research of a more culinary nature, I sourced needles from a couple of different trees, the first was a young scots pine in the New Forest, and the second was a maritime pine from a nearby town park. 
    My first concoction was needle vinegar, I have sung the virtues of vinegar already (see dandelion post), so I will simply say that a good quality vinegar, as well as being Pine vinegarhealthy and balancing in its own right, is an extremly effective way of drawing out the nutrients from whatever plant is soaked in it. I will leave this concoction to do its work for a month or so; before adding to dishes for an extra vitamin C kick. According to my sources, it should end up with a taste similar to balsamic vinegar which, if that's true, will be a great compliment to the stash of various dried mushrooms from last autumn. 
    Pine needle and honey rum was my second experimentation, and I think it may be rather unique. There are a number of recipes on line for pine needle vodka (unsurprisingly a russian recipe in origin), but since I had a small amount of rum left over from making rowan-berry rum, I decided to exchange this for the vodka – plus a couple of good dollops of local Dorset honey. I'll leave this a few months to 'mull', but I remain hopeful that it will bring me fame and fortune. Along with the vinegar, I'll update this post when a verdict is passed. (Jan 2014: both turned out well, the vinegar does indeed have a balsamicy taste, and the pine-needle rum gives an interesting, slightly-medicinal kick –  I shared some of it with Claire's hen party last summer where there were no complaints (not out loud anyway!). I've since made it with gin too, this has a 'cleaner' taste and is my slight preference over the two. 
    Foraging considerations:
    Do not consume yew leaves! They bear a superficial resemblence to pine, but can be deadly poisonous. Pines are generally easy to 
    Pine- close upidentify, with the long and thin needles usually growing in bunches (see pic on left). In contrast, yews have small flat needles that run continously up a branch. The smell test is also useful here; yew does not have the citrusy smell of pine. You can be extra safe by making sure there are cones – most have dropped by winter but it's usually possible to find one or two trees with a few hanging on *. 
    Also, common sense here, never actually swallow pine needles, as they are too tough and prickly to digest – the emphasis is on harnessing the goodness within them, rather than just chowing down on them!
    Flavour apparently varies quite a lot, there's around six fairly common pines within the UK, with dozens more planted as ornament **. A good way to decide if it is worth picking is to take a needle or two and chew for about 20 seconds. This is actually an ultra simple and effective way to utilise the goodness of the needles without any preperation – spit them out of course! 

    It is also worth briefly mentioning that, as a wild food source, pine trees have a lot to offer. The seeds are edible and packed with protein, as is the yellow pollen of early summer, while the inner bark was sometimes ground up by some Native-American tribes to make into flour. There are also some interesting recipes online for needle flavoured honey, needle infused olive oil and needle cordial.

    * There is some discussion whether pine needles may be harmful to unborn babies. This is a nutrient source that has been utilised by humans for millennia without any recorded problems. However, it is known that some pines contain a toxin called isocupressic acid. This is poisinous to livestock and there are occasions when pregnant cattle have eaten large amounts of the needles and aborted. There are so many other sources of food out there that, if you are pregnant, it is probably best to be ultra cautious and avoid.
    ** Pines (Pinus) are actually members of a genus called Pineaceae, this includes the likes of spruce, fir, conifir and larch. As far as I can find out, any needles from these trees can be used but, as with all foraging, only do so if you are 100% confident with your ID skills.





  5. Sea beet- HengistburyIt's mid-winter, but on the coast one of my favourite nutrient rich greens is still braving the elements – sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima). 
    It's a regular feature of the cliffs and harbours around Dorset and much of the SW coastline (generally if a plant has vulgaris in its botanical name it means its common – hence snobby Victorians refering to the masses as 'vulgar').
    And we have a lot to thank this humble plant for, as it is the ancient ancestor to popular garden veg such as perpetual spinach, chard and beetroot. Even sugar beet, which supplies the UK with around 50 percent of its raw sugar, has its origins in this unassuming plant. 
    The leaves can be eaten raw, but I find them quiteSea beet,chanterelle,bean in creamy cheese tough.* However, a few minutes light steaming and they're transformed into a succulent veg – very similar to a rich, full-bodied spinach. And like spinach, the culinary applications are virtually limitless. The pic to the right was tonights meal – sea beet, winter-chanterelle mushrooms and kidney beans in a light cream-cheese sauce.
    Foraging considerations.
    Some books will tell you this plant doesn't grow through the winter, but I find it year round in the SW of the UK. The top pic is on the edge of Christchurch harbour a few weeks ago. 
    The leaves vary quite a bit in size, from around 5 cm in length up to 20 cm, but once you've 'got your eye in', they have a pretty distinct appearance – they are a dark glossy green in colour with a thick succulent texture, and they always grow from a central rosette. In summer, sea beet produces tiny flowers in tall dense spikes, which can further aid identification (these are also edible). It's presence close to the sea is another helpful ID point.
    sea beet leafI must finally mention that Sea beet contains oxalic acid which can inhibit the body's ability to absorb calcium and other minerals, and in frequent large amounts may contribute to kidney stones. For someone eating a balanced diet, there should not be cause for alarm, as most green vegetables contain oxalic acid**. The fact that sea beet is uncultivated and has a fairly strong taste, suggests it probably has quite a high amount, but from the research I have done across various sources, unless you are eating it very frequently and in large helpings it should not be an issue – let us not overlook the fact that this humble little green is incredibly rich in essentials such as folic acid, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C and K.
    * Cooking also helps to break down oxalic acid.
    ** Some medical professionals advise, as a precautionary measure, avoiding all vegetables with oxalic acid if you suffer from kidney disorders, gout or rhematoid arthritis.
  6. As autumn fades into winter, the mushroom season is drawing to a close (sniff). There are still a few fungi hanging around though, and a recent meander amethyst decaround a local Dorset cemetry (often great places for wild food, due to old grassland, abundance of wild corners and lack of passing dogs) convinced me there was just enough time to squeeze in a post on amethyst decievers (Laccaria amethystina).

    I realise the name and appearance probably does nothing to encourage their consumption, but this is a common and tasty mushroom. It's very good at blending into the forest floor, but if you spot one, stand still and slowly scan around – chances are there will be dozens of them scattered nearby.
    am dec salad
    Unlike many wild fungi, these can be eaten raw. They have a mild aniseedy flavour, a slightly crunchy texture and look great in a salad – perfect for scaring nervous dinner guests, as mushroom guru John Wright points out. Of course, they can also be cooked, but unfortunatly the colour fades a bit.
    Foraging considerations:
    Amethyst decievers can vary quite a bit in size and cap shape, hence the second part of their name (although this is the case with many mushrooms).
    Young specimens are quite convex in shape and can be just one or two centimetres wide; while older specimens will flatten out, become more convex and grow up to about 8cm wide. The colour can also fade with age and rain so, to be on the extra-safe side, I always choose ones that still have the rich purple colour. The gills should be the same colour and quite widely spaced, while the stem is tough and hollow.Amethyst dec gills
    They also dry very well which is ideal because, during autumn, there is scarcily a walk in the woodlands where I do not spot a few patches.
    Potentially, there is one poisionous lookalike that can harm the careless forager, and that is the lilac fibrecap. However, the colour is much more faded (one good reason for choosing the more vivid amethyst decievers), and it has creamy gills and a brownish nipple on the top of the cap.

    I should also mention the closely related deciever that is basically a brown version of the amethyst deciever. It is also edible and tasty; however, much more care should be taken as there are plenty of little brown mushrooms out there that can do harm. My advice would be to become confident with identifying the amethyst deciever first before considering the brown version – in its favour, the deciever is the only mushroom I know with a cool gangster rap nickname, that even the most serious of mycologists will sometimes use – Lac Lac (short for Laccaria laccata).