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

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Disclaimer: There's loads of good stuff to eat out there and much of it is fairly 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 an indepth 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 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. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

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  1. One of the things I love about Bushcraft is the glimpses it can offer of the ancient people who once roamed this land.hazel nut

    I was vividly reminded of this on a recent visit to the British Museum. As I entered the long corridor of British prehistory, something caught my eye that made me stop dead in my tracks. Sitting nonchalantly alongside some early hand axes was a case full of broken and charred hazelnut shells- remnants of a meal eaten around 10 thousand years ago by some of the earliest people to return after the great ice receded and the forests reclaimed the land.

    I stood looking at that case of discarded shells for quite a while. And in those mesmerising minutes, as the modern city manically whirled around me, I felt a visceral connection to those ancient people. A realisation that in the moment when I reach out to a hazel tree (Corylus avellana), and pluck a nut from its branches, a little portal opens up between this world and a world long forgotten. For in that brief moment we share an experience that crosses the millenia and brings us together. 

    hazel leafAnd now, as another summer comes to completion, it's time again. It's always a gamble between waiting for the nut to fully ripen, and risking the squirrels taking them all, or picking them when they are still quite young. Sadly, I cannot emulate the foraging skills of a creature that lives full time in the woods, so I hedge my bets- picking them while they are fresh now but making a mental note to keep an eye open over the next couple of months for any trees overlooked by the squirrels.

    In their early stages, they lack the richness of the ripened versions but have an appeal of their own, offering a fresh fruity crunchiness .The first two pictures are from a tree nestled in an old hedgerow near Wimborne last week. Unfortunatly, they will not ripen after picking but this means I can justify eating them on the spot- at this time of year the shell is often soft enough to break in your hands. Otherwise, continuing the way of the ancients, a couple of rocks does the job. If I can find a few ripe ones, come late September or October, I’ll save them and roast them up on the embers of a winter fire- there are all sorts of recipes online but, as with a lot of wild food, I like to savour things as simply as possible.

    Foraging considerations: This is an easy one to identify, the hazel nuts resemble the shape of the shelled ones you would typically see in the shops- although usually a bit smaller (most of the commercially sold ones are from cultivated varieties). At the moment they are a pale green colour but they will get browner as the season progresses.

    The hazel tree is one of our most common trees. It grows to 5 or 6 metres tall with a smoothish grey brown bark and a rounded leaf with pointed tip. It grows in old hedgerows and often as a neglected coppiced understorey in the woods. In this habitat it can appear more like a shrub than what most people consider to be a tree. 

    Those deep in the woods are unlikely to produce nuts though and, even in a tree that is producing a good harvest, it’s common to get a few blanks where the shell is hollow- Mother Natures way of preventing complacency perhaps.

    Incidentally, in Celtic mythology there is much legend behind the Hazel. The nut was esteemed by the druids as it was considered to bestow great powers of wisdom. The old saying ‘in a nutshell,’ meaning to condense some important information into its essence is thought to stem from this.

  2. When I talk about eating seaweed, people often look at me in a slightly concerned way.  Yet it’s a much loved part of oriental cuisine and with good reason-seaweed- morning swim it’s tasty, can be used in a diverse range of dishes and is a remarkably rich source of essential minerals, vitamins and protein.

    With the recent sunny weather, I’ve had great fun stocking up on some of Dorset’s finest seaweeds to keep me going through the winter-that's me on the right heading off for an early morning forage at Dancing ledge on the Purbeck coast last week. Normally I’ll start foraging in the spring, as this is when they start to put on their vibrant new growth, but with all the stormy weather, the sea has been a bit too murky until now.

    There is not space to go into all the edible varieties here so I’ll touch on the three main ones on my recent ‘shopping’ list- all of which are very common and easy to recognise.

    Bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus).

    seaweed- bladder wrackOlivey brown fronds - see photo on left- with lots of air bladders that allows them to float in the current- it’s the same seaweed that pops when you squeeze it. It has a fairly strong flavour but dries very well and can then be broken up and added to soups and stews over the winter. It also works well as a simple steamed vegetable (the air sacks give it a really succulent texture) or just add a potato or two and liquidise for a serious seaweed soup. I have seen 150g bags of this (the equivalent of a few handfulls) on sale in a health food shop for nearly £3.

    Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and Gutweed (Enteromorpha agg). seaweed-sea lettuce

    Sea lettuce, as its name suggests, looks rather like a lettuce leaf, all be it a soggy slightly glowing one- see photo below. I have a favourite spot off Mudeford spit where big underwater fields of it billow gloriously in the current.

    Gutweed- below and to the left- has a similar taste. Unfortunately, its name does nothing to advance the wild food cause. However, it simply refers to the hollow tubular nature of the fronds which, as the plant photosynthesises in the sunlight, produce oxygen and float upright in the water.

    seaweed- gutweedBoth these seaweeds are much loved in Japan, where they also grow, and are nutritional super foods-containing amongst other things, massive amounts of Vitamins B1 and C and over 20 % by dried weight in protein. They can be eaten fresh but I prefer to dry and then either eat them raw by crumbling them into other dishes or stir frying and adding a dash of soya sauce. I made some wonderful savoury biscuits, while sitting around the fire last year, they involved crumbled sea lettuce, rice flour (any flour would work), soya sauce and water and were pretty tasty. seaweed- bannock

    Foraging considerations: There are no poisonous seaweeds in this country (apart from the Desmearestia species which only grow in deep water, far from the shore). That said, some are certainly tastier than others. In my experience, it seems the general rule is- the darker the seaweed, the stronger the taste. The green seaweeds such as Sea lettuce and Gutweed tend to be milder and perhaps more suitable as a beginners’ choice with the Bladder wrack perhaps being an intermediate one.

    Always rinse a few times to get rid of any sand or debris. Ideally I like to get in the water and pick the seaweed as it floats in the current. That way it is far less likely to contain debris plus it also feels more exciting diving down amongst the rocks to forage- a total wild food immersion one might say. Obviously make sure you are a confident swimmer for this and know local currents and tides.

    Alternatively, look for decent sized rock pools at low water. Always make sure that you leave at least 10 cm or so above the hold-fast on the rock (a bit like a plant's root) by breaking or ideally cutting the seaweed above it. That way it will continue to grow and your impact is minimal.

    I always assess water quality before collecting any seaweed but around the South West I generally pick with confidence. That said, I always wait for decent periods of dry weather when there is not going to be any run off from the land and would stay clear of industrial areas or old mines such as the coastal tin mines in some parts of Cornwall. If collecting near a harbour mouth, it's also sensible to wait for an incoming tide- in order to minimise any polution that may be coming down the river (of course, if you believe pollution to be a significant issue then better to stay away from that area altogether).

    seaweed carFinally, I have found one of the most efficient ways of drying all sorts of wild food is a car- with a window slightly open to prevent moisture building up. With seaweed. it bestows an interesting ‘seasidey’ scent which you won’t get from your average Halfords' air freshener but, on the plus side, it dissipates after a couple of months and makes an excellent burglar deterrent in the meantime.

  3. DandelionThere’s been a slightly alcoholic theme to my last couple of blogs, so I thought it was time to return to what really excites me about foraging- the opportunity toDandelion- Hengistbury head eat fresh, nutrient rich food that nourishes the body and mind- and what better plant to kick that off than the vibrant yellow dandelion?

    The first couple of pictures are of a forage in the meadows near Hengistbury head last weekend. The dandelion is a  plant most of us can recognise, but not so many people realise that it’s a real powerhouse of minerals and vitamins and was widely respected in the past for its many medicinal virtues-the botanical name is Taraxacum officinale which roughly translated from its Greek origin means ‘The official remedy for disorders.’

    Perhaps its most well known use is as a mild diuretic. This word can have negative connotations but a natural diuretic in moderation is very helpful for eliminating toxins through the kidneys, thereby benefiting over all body function. It can also be beneficial for high blood pressure, bloating and fluid retention. Furthermore, while pharmaceutical equivalents or caffeine products deplete the body of potassium, dandelion is rich in the stuff.

    The whole plant is edible. The flowers are best picked when the sun is shining as they close up in low light and lose their sweetness. Last year I picked a jar full on the summer solstice and gave it the vinegar treatment.

    I’ve touched on this method before but I'll go into more detail now- a good quality vinegar is very effective at leaching out the nutrients from whatever plant is placed in it (I like organic apple cider vinegar as it has a slightly fruity tone and many health benefits). After a month or so of soaking it can then be strained and used sparingly over salads, pastas, soups or whatever takes your fancy. As well as containing the essential goodness of the plant, the vinegar has a positive alkalising effect on the digestive system.

    Dandelion oilThis year, I’ve also been experimenting with some dandelion olive oil, an almost identical process to the vinegar but using olive oil- I put a small pebble from the beach into the top of the jar to weigh it all down and prevent any flowers from being exposed to the air and becoming mouldy. I reckon this will be delicious after a few months of infusion.

    The leaves are great mixed in with a green salad. To the modern palette they can seem somewhat bitter but this is a taste our hunter gatherer ancestors would have taken for granted as quite a few wild plants have this characteristic. While you may not want to munch down on a whole bowl of the stuff, it is really good to include some bitterness in the diet as it encourages the production of acids in the stomach which aids digestion and also stimulates bile in the liver which helps to break down fats in the body.

    This photo is of a green salad I picked from the garden a few weeks ago- it’s asummer salad combination of dandelion leaf, yarrow, clover, pink campion and common sorrel.  It’s best to cut out the central vein of the leaf as this contains a latex like substance that is particularly bitter. This is a great green to know as, even in winter, there are nearly always a few leaves around. 

    Finally, of course, we have the roots. Dandelion coffee is one of those mythical wild food concoctions which mainly gained popularity in the Second World War when supplies of real coffee were low. It's even available commercially online and at specalised food stores so there must be something to it, but it doesn't do much for me (give me acorn coffee anyday). Personally, I regard the root as more of a survival food due to the fairly tedious process of collection- if you rush the extraction it usually ends up snapping in the soil. That said, it's quite tasty as a roasted vegetable and a fun thing to try. Autumn is the best time to have a go as the roots are at their fattest.

    Foraging considerations:There are over 200 sub-species of dandelion in this country! Hence the second part of its formal name is sometimes listed asDandelion leaf 'agg' or 'aggregate', a kind of botanical shorthand for 'lots of types that look very similar and are too complicated to list.' They can grow up to about a foot off the ground but consistent features include a hollow stem that exudes a white fluid when cut and shiny and hairless, serrated leaves growing in a rosette on the ground. Incidentally, the word dandelion is thought to come from the French ‘dente de lion’- teeth of the lion referring to the jagged nature of the leaf.

    Sometimes the dandelion is mistaken for it's relative the cats ear but these are also edible with similar health properties so no need to worry.

    Since I cannot hope to cover all the health benefits of this plant in a short blog, here’s a mind boggling link:

    http://www.leaflady.org/health_benefits_of_dandelions.htm

     

     

     

  4. Rather windy of late wouldn’t you say? 

    Well there's been one good result of that for us humans- the cherries that Wild Cherriesoften sit high in the Wild cherry trees (Prunus avium), until they turn ripe, and are munched by the birds are now scattered on the ground.

    It’s not the best year for them, due to the cold April when they were trying to blossom, but never turn your nose up at an opportunistic forage is what I say (a philosophy that’s got me into trouble for rifling through supermarket skips in the past but that’s another story).

    There’s various recipes out there for jams, pie and tarts but I’m afraid the small size of the cherries makes for a rather tedious job of pitting so I avoid that by creating a far more worthy concoction- cherry brandy. Look on line for recipes but it basically involves brandy, wild cherries, sugar, the occasional good shake (of the bottle not yourself) and at least a few months of virtuous patience.

    It’s no great surprise that the wild cherry is rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants but the bark has also been used over the centuries for making a potent and soothing cough syrup- something I hope to experiment with.

    Wild Cherry treeForaging considerations: With its creamy white blossom in spring and fiery display in autumn, the Wild cherry is a distinctive tree that sprinkles itself around most broadleaved woodlands. It has a dark purple tinge but more distinctive is the thick horizontal lenticils on the trunk- in older specimens the bark also becomes deeply fissured and starts to peel.

    The cherries look like smaller versions of shop bought ones (Prunus avium is after all the grandaddy of many of the modern cultivated varieties) and they usually taste a little tart by themselves- which is why most recipes seem to involve sugar. The stones have been found in prehistoric sites across Europe so we can only guess at how our ancestors prepared them in the days before imported sugar- perhaps they fermented them to make a wine or combined them with honey for some kind of desert.

    Don’t worry if they are not fully ripe (chances are they won’t be if they succumbed to the recent winds). Put them on a warm window sill for a few days and all will be well.

     

  5. There are a few wild foods out there that have managed to find their way on to the supermarket shelf. elder tree and willElderflower (Sambucus nigra) is one of them, with teas, yoghurts, wines and cordials all readily available. But I shall forgive its treacherous ways as its heady scent and flamboyant spray of white flowers are a joyous site at this time of year.

    They seem to be frothing all over the Purbeck hills at the moment and a trip out there last weekend with the delightful Kimberley yielded a big bag of fresh blooms. Upon our arrival home,and hungry from a long walk, we whipped up a thick elderflower pancake (a slightly healthier version of the famous battered elderflower). It was just a simple pancake recipe, with a dozen big heads of elderflower and a table spoon of honey added, but the result was delicious with a fresh floral flavour lingering on the taste buds.

    elderflower pancakeThe next day I continued my kitchen adventures with some elderflower gin. This is a first for me so it’ll be a few months before I can venture an opinion but it simply involved filling a jar two thirds full of elderflowers putting a good dollop of locally made Dorset honey in there and then topping it up with gin. I’ll shake it every few days for the next few weeks to get everything mixed and then store it until autumn- I love making spirits from seasonal fruits and flowers, it’s like bottling the joys of a particular season to savour at a later time. (Jan 2014 update: a very good concoction that I have shared with a few different groups now and will probably become an annual tradition).

    It’s seems honey has a natural affinity with the elderflower- elderflower honey
    enhancing the soft floral tones- so the next logical step was to make some elderflower honey. Honey is a good medium for harnessing the power of herbs and summer flowers as, when placed in the sunlight for a few weeks, it draws out the nutrients of whatever plant is placed in it and becomes infused with those flavours. A good quality honey also has significant antibacterial qualities so, harnessed with Elderflowers’ herbal reputation as a ‘fever breaker,’ this will be great medicine for any bugs next winter.

    My final treatment with the remaining flowers was to dry them off on the dashboard of the car for a few days and store in a jam jar, elderflower makes a fresh and soothing tea with the herbal benefits outlined above.

    'What about cordial?' you may be asking. Well, I probably won’t get round to making it this year as I’m not keen on the large amounts of sugar involved. This may not be a logical stance considering I have been frying the flowers and mixing them with alcohol so, if you have never tried it before, it is worth getting a recipe off the internet. It's easy to make and an iconic taste of summer that every wild foodie should experience. Incidentally, the Italian liqueur Sambuca contains elderflower as a main ingredient and is named after the tree's latin genus- Sambucus.


    Foraging considerations:
    There are a few other white blooms that could be mistaken for elder but, as long as you get some simple tree ID right, there shouldn’t be a problem- as always look online or consult a field guide for help. Key points for the elder are a shrubby short tree with soft corky bark and pinnate green leaves with, some would say, a slightly unpleasant 'mousey' smell.Elder leaf

    The exact timing of the flowers seems to vary from year to year but roughly around the end of May till the end of June is a good time to go looking. Avoid picking when damp as the flowers get soggy and smell strange and avoid washing before use as it disperses a lot of the flavour. There are enough trees around, so be a bit fussy and pick the finest white blooms you can find- these are fresher and less likely to have bugs- a quick shake should disperse any hangers on. Flowers picked now will mean no berries in the autumn, so best to take a few blooms from different trees to minimise your impact.

     

  6. Wandering up the zig zag path which leads from beach to home, I sometimes stretch over the fence and nibble the seed pods of Common Mallow. They have a mallow and searefreshing and slightly nutty flavour, but it was only last week that I got round to experimenting with the thick glutinous leaves.  

    A bit daft that I haven’t done so before, as Common Mallow (Malva syIvestris) fits all my favourite foraging criteria: healthy, tasty and abundant - it scatters itself all along the cliffs here.

    So, after a quick forage for the juicest leaves, I got busy in the kitchen. First, I tried them raw but found them rather tough- though the edible flower petals are softer and would add an interesting splash of colour to a summer salad. Next, I thought I would try a stir fry. I got a bit distracted, left them a few minutes too long and, to my surprise, they turned really crunchy. With a sprinkle of salt they were a delicious crisp like snack, although I suspect much of the nutritional value was somewhat negated by this method.

    Feeling quite adventurous by this stage, I had a quick look online and decided to make a popular Middle Eastern dish called Jews Mallow or Molukhia soup. Jews Mallow is in a different genus from Common Mallow but has very similar mucilaginous qualities. From what I can understand, Common Mallow also thrives in many of these countries and is sometimes used as a substitute anyway. In fact, during the siege of Jerusalem in the 1948 Israeli- Arab conflict, food supplies were cut off and near-famine conditions prevailed. However, Mallow which grew in abundance, was chopped up and fried as patties and helped the population survive.

    bowl of mallow soupThere’s lots of recipes online but the basic ingredients in my dish were shredded mallow leaves, chick peas, lentils, tomatoes, garlic, onion, paprika, cardammon and olive oil. I put some in a pot and took it to Smiley Angie’s beach hut where we dined while watching the sunset over Christchurch harbour- just to have a bit of fun with the Middle Eastern theme we had pitta bread and houmus on the side with a desert of dried apricots. mallow and beach hut

    From a medicinal view point, most of mallow’s virtues arise from its high mucilage content, around 7% in the leaves. This is what creates the velvety texture and also makes it very soothing for colds, dry coughs and gastrointestinal upsets such as IBS and stomach ulcers. It was also once a common external remedy for rashes, dry skin, cuts, and insect bites- the leaf was soaked in warm water and then wrapped around the skin.

    I’m so impressed with it that I am currently experimenting with drying some leaves on a window sill for later use- I’ll let you know how I get on.

    Foraging considerations: This is an easy to identify plant although it’s just about conceivable thatP1010260-2, from a distance, it might be mistaken for poisonous foxglove.  It grows up to 1.5 metres tall and has thick, hairy, crinkled leaves on long stalks. At this time of year the five petalled pinky/ mauve flowers are also a good ID point. There's a few other less common varieties of mallow that you might come across but all are edible.

    If you live by the sea, on the south coast at least, head for the cliff tops, otherwise waste ground and field edges are common hosts. It’s usually a perennial, so once you have located a patch, remember it for next year. Pick the most vibrant green leaves you can find and do it fairly soon as, once the summer is in full swing, they will start to look a bit sorry for themselves- in the Middle East it is considered a winter plant. The soft nature of the leaves means they can pick up a lot of dust and pollution, so factor that in if you are picking near roads. Because it grows reasonably tall, it is easy to pick leaves beyond dog pee level. The leaves also wilt very quickly so don’t leave them hanging around the kitchen too long.

    In case you’re wondering, the Common Mallow is a relative of the Marsh Mallow which is now a rare plant in this country due to habitat destruction. It’s roots were once used to make a kind of herbal sweet- before someone decided that a concoction of refined sugar, gelatine and E numbers could be passed off as the same thing!