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. 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, pies 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 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 in the future.

    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 (offering great tinder, if harvested respectfully).

    The cherries look like smaller versions of shop bought ones (Prunus avium is the distant ancestor 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 when you collect them (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.

     

  2. There are a few wild foods out there that have cunningly 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 tablespoon 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 was 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 car dashboard 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 in the south and south-west of the UK. Avoid picking when damp, as the flowers get soggy and smell strange. Also 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 over some grass or undergrowth 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.

     

  3. 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 molukhia soup. It uses a mallow that is a little different to 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 dessert 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 drying some leaves on a window sill for later use.

    Foraging considerations: This plant is easy to identify, although it’s just about conceivable thatP1010260-2, from a distance, it might be mistaken for poisonous foxglove. It grows up to two 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 are a few other less-common varieties of mallow that you also might come across, but all are edible.

    If you live by the sea, on the south coast at least, head for the cliff tops and beach edges, 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 so 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 realised that a concoction of refined sugar, gelatine and E-numbers could be passed off as the same thing!

     

  4. Ever since last autumn, there’s been a sense of something missing in my life. st georges

    Don’t get me wrong, I love my spring greens, but my wild-mushroom affection has been sadly neglected – until the last couple of weeks that is.

    St George’s Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa) is what I’m talking about. Apart from the ever present jelly ear, which I covered in an earlier post,  and the rather elusive morel, the St George is the first edible mushroom of the season that I'm aware of – and an excellent starter it is.

    There seems a general concensus amongst the foraging forums that this year is particularly good, probably thanks to all the rain. 

    St Georges ought to rate up there with the traditional gourmet mushrooms. They have a strong meaty flavour to them and are much revered in continental Europe, where mushroom collecting is part of the culture.

    st georges 2Foraging considerations: Wild mushrooms scare a lot of people. A healthy degree of respect is essential, but St Georges are a fairly easy mushroom to become acquainted with (I'll delve deeper into mushroom identification when the season is properly with us in late summer/early autumn). One of the positive ID points of the St George is its early appearance when there are only a few fungi around – it gets its name because it traditionally comes up around St George's day (which was about 2 weeks ago) and usually keeps going through May and the start of June. Other back up ID points include an irregular creamy white coloured cap around 5-15 cm wide (sometimes with a light browny colour in the centre), tightly packed creamy-white gills of different lengths, a strong mealy smell (sometimes one can smell them from a few metres away) and a liking for woodland edges and old grassland –  a walk on the chalk ridge behind Swanage last weekend revealed some beauties!

    As always, there’s loads on the internet. So if you are interested, do some research to be sure you are picking the right thing – it's wise to just try a little the first time in case of allergies.

    On a different note, but a great companion to the St George, the wild-garlic woods are wild garlic woodsspectacular at the moment. You might remember my first blog post, back in January, when the first tender leaves were greeting the world. Fast-forward a few months and it's a billowing ocean of green and white that must rank as one of the natural woodland wonders of Britain – in the distant background, you might be able to see a haze of bluebells, which surely must be another.

    I find it strange that people will clamber over each other to get at the discounted shelf in the supermarket but will nonchalantly stroll past natural free larders like this without a second glance. Of course, if everyone was picking them, the woodlands would be stripped bare, but it would take a prodigious effort as there must be hundreds of tonnes of the stuff in Purbeck alone. It's on the verge of going over, so get out there and experience it soon if you can. If you are in Dorset, head for the Purbeck hills or any chalky downs such as those north of Dorchester or around Cranbourne Chase.

     

  5. If I was the type of forager who occasionally enjoyed feeling a little bit smug, I think I would Google (I prefer Ecosia, but it doesn't have the same ring) ground elder and chuckle at the dozens of gardeningground elder garden forums full of desperate pleas for a soloution to this invasive 'weed.' 
     
    My answer is eat it! After all, it was originally grown as a green vegetable (probably another legacy of our Roman friends), and it is really very tasty, with a strong fresh parsley flavour. What's more, being such an effective coloniser, it seems to sprout up all over the place. As well as your garden, churchyards are a good place to look and probably give rise to one of its colloquial names, Bishop's weed.
     
    The picture on the right is a patch in the corner of our back garden – it's been out for about the last 6 weeks. I picked a big bowl of the stuff in 5 minutes, took it straight inside, cooked it with a potato and a stock cube, and a short while later was tucking into a really fresh zingy soup. As with most of my soups, I usually cook the base ingredients first, and then pop the greens in at the last minute, that way, more of the nutrients are preserved. It's also great as a tender salad green when young and goes lovely in a sarnie, see bottom pic.
     
    Foraging considerations: The most important thing to say is, like Alexanders, which we looked at recently, this is a member of the umbelliferae/ carrot family, which contains some deadly plants – mainly Hemlock, Hemlock water dropwort and Fools parsley. I hesitated to write another carrot family post so soon after the last, but its sheer 'under your nose' abundance, plus it's unfair persecution, persuaded me otherwise.
     
    With care and a little bit of studying you should be able to recognise this plant easily enough. Key points to look out for include shallow serated leaves that are in groups of three with a point at the end, a grooved stem and an early spring appearance. It also has a distintly parsley smell when crushed – although don't purely rely on this. Despite the name, it is not related to the elder tree, although the leaves have a similar shape. ground elder close up
     
    Ideally, pick this in the next few weeks, as its flavour becomes course when it matures. It responds well to the 'cut and come again' approach, soground elder sandwich with a bit of forethought you can get a few harvests before the autumn. The roots will stay in the ground over winter, before the plant vigorously pops up again next spring – to the forager's delight (and slight smugness).
  6. Wnettle baskethat more could you want from a wild food? Plentiful, very easy to identify and packed full of goodness. Yes nettles are awesome – in case you're wondering, just a few seconds in boiling water will completely neutralise the sting.

    They are particularly high in vitamins A, B and C with a protein content of around 5% and iron content of 2% which, for a green vegetable, is huge. Just a few of the health conditions that nettles have been found to help are:

    • Hay fever and general allergies: nettles contain anti-histamines and anti-inflammatories.
    • Diabetes: nettles reduce blood-sugar levels and stimulate circulation.
    • High blood pressure: they dilate the peripheral blood vessels and promote urination – in turn lowering blood pressure. 
    • Anaemia: nettles have long been considered a blood tonic due to their high iron content.

    nettle juice me and sarah

    Last year, I delivered an hour-and-a-half session on the culinary uses of nettles, which ended up being quite a culinary adventure – soup, puree, pesto, cordial, vinegar infusion and bread were all on the menu. It also prompted a three-day experiment consuming only nettle juice (crushing also neutralises the sting) and nettle tea. There were some hunger pangs but, by the end, I was buzzing with energy, and it dawned on me how incredibly sustaining nettles really are.

    An interesting experience, and yet I still love the two simple bushcraft approaches – wilt the whole plant over the campfire for thirty seconds for a crunchy delicacy, or pick the young leaf, fold it from the outside, crush it well between thumb and finger and then pop it in your mouth. This is great fun for freaking out nervous adult foragers, but kids generally love it and are eager to have a go!

    Foraging considerations: Hopefully everyone should be able to recognise a nettle. There are some stronger variations of this plant in other countries, but if you are foraging in the UK, there shouldn't be anything to worry about. It’s possible it could be mistaken for the red or white dead nettles or yellow archangel but these are also edible, although their taste and medicinal values differ – they belong to a different family (lamiaceae).

    At this time of year the whole plant can be picked, I tend to use a long pair of scissors to cut, and then gather with gloves. However, as thenettle vin season progresses, it’s best to just go for the fresh tips. Once the flowers have started to form, usually around June, they are best left alone as they become coarse and mealy and produce calcium carbonate which can interfere with kidney function. One option, if you have a patch nearby, is to treat it like a 'cut and come again' vegetable – harvested every few months it should produce fresh greens well into the autumn.

    Alternatively, once the flowers have turned to seed at the end of summer, cut down a bundle, hang it up to dry and then shake over some newspaper. You’ll get a small pile of seeds which are mega rich in omega acids and protein and were even pressed into oil by the ancient Egyptians- Cleopatra’s secret to youth and beauty perhaps?