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. 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/ jews ear, which I covered in an earlier post,  and the rather elusive morel, the St George's mushroom is the first edible mushroom of the season- 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 George's 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 George's 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's Mushroom 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's, 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 thought. 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.

     

  2. If I was the type of forager who occasionally enjoyed feeling a little bit smug I think I would google 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 great in a sarnie, see bottom pic.
     
    Foraging considerations: The most important thing to say is, like Alexanders, which we looked at a 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 3 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 rely purely 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 as 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 vigorously popping up again next spring- to the forager's delight (and slight smugness).
  3. 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 and have 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’s 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 but if you’re really not sure- touch it! 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?

     

     



     

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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 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 of 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!