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. 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 beats it but produces flowers before leaves). In another month 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 their taste is quite passable. Eaten by themselves, they can seem slightly bitter, but when 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. However, on this occasion, as befits my classy lifestyle, I had them on cheese on toast – a fitting dish I thought considering their colloquial name!

    ID 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 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

  2. 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. 

    Alexanders juiceThe raw taste is pretty bitter with a fresh citrus kick and, while quite strong, it provides a fascinating insight into a forgotten flavour. For a milder taste, it's good to simmer or steam the young stems for a few minutes – a bit of olive oil and seasoning sets it off a treat. The leaf is subtler in taste and a little bit popped in a sandwich is 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.

    2013 update: 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 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 citrusy/limey; 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.

  3. 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 (Sambucus Nigra) – 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 folklore – but I digress.

    Name 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, 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 then 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 very 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!

  4. garlic n me

    Today I walked out with my good friend Tess and gathered the first spring greens of the year – handfuls of super nutritious, ultra delicious wild garlic (Allium ursinum).

    It has to be one of my favourite forages and can often be smelt from quite a distance. A few years ago, and a bit later in the season, I was walking along the Purbeck ridge, above Corfe Castle, when I was stopped in my tracks by a waft of garlic drifting up from the woodlands, hundreds of metres away in the valley. It was a magical moment to literally follow my nose and stumble across a green ocean billowing through the woodland as far as the eye could see. 

    wild garlic woodsNot only is wild garlic tasty, there are many health benefits too. It's rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants and is a very good cleanser of the blood, helping to increase circulation and so strengthen the heart. It's also very beneficial for the digestive system – helping to balance the gut flora and potentially bringing some relief to conditions such as IBS, Chrone's disease and gastroenteritis.

    Finally, the whole plant has strong antibacterial and antifungal qualities and can be applied as a poultice to cuts and boils to speed up the healing process and to tooth abscesses to reduce infection

    I admittedly picked this garlic, also known as ramsoms, from a very sheltered south-facing woodland. But over the next few weeks and months we can expect it to really burst forth in many broadleaved woodlands around the country (down here it has a marked preference for chalky/calcareous soils).

    One of the best things is it's long harvesting season, and the uses are only limited by the imagination. First come the green leaves which are  great in a salad, stir fry or omlette – I've even frozen them and, although they come out looking a bit sad, they go fine in a soup. This is followed by thewild garlic soup delicate white flowers which are perhaps even more potent and give a really fun splash of taste and colour to a salad. Then finally, we are left with the round green seeds. Pickled in a good vinegar, they are great on winter salads or in a cheese sarnie! I also use the vinegar when cooking home-made baked beans which makes things pretty interesting.

    As for our first harvest? We sat in front of a blazing fire at the local pub and ate them with a bowl of chips and a locally brewed ale!

    More on pickling: By around June in the UK, the garlic frenzy is subsiding for the year. However, there is one last forage to be made as the green seed heads (before they 'pop') are now ready for a good pickling (thanks Lucie Cowles for this one). Simply fill a jar full of them, pour a good quality vinegar (I use apple cider) over the top and leave for a few months. They’re fantastic in pretty much any savoury dish and make a potent addition to the winter-bug arsenal. You can do the same with the stems – as long as they look reasonably fresh, just snip them up and add them to the mix.

    Foraging considerations: The smell of garlic should be a distinct enough ID point. However, it's worth mentioning that, early in the season, it could potentially be mistaken for lords &

    DSC_0783ladies (Arum maticulatum). Although it often grows alongside wild garlic, you'd have to be pretty careless to mistake the two – lords and ladies has a rounded 'v' shape at it's base, is thicker and often (although not always) has spots. The opposite photo shows a comparison, with the lords and ladies on the left. It's a pretty poisonous plant but, by all accounts, tastes like battery acid and burns the lips, so if you are unlucky enough to have a nibble, your senses should tell you to spit it out before it's ingested (recorded poisonings have nearly always been from children eating the red berries). Much less common but very poisonous, so worth a mention, is escaped lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Neither of these smell of garlic, so again a careful forager should be fine. As always, if in doubt- leave it out.

    2021 update: Since writing this almost a decade ago, I've noticed a common theme on wild-food forums is the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. There will be some people posting pictures of great oceans of the stuff, and then others lamenting that they look year after year and can't find any. To this I would say, it really pays to try and get your habitat right. Wild garlic generally likes free draining land, for me that is around the chalk woodlands of Dorset and Wiltshire or the granity woodlands on the edge of Devon's moors. You can sometimes find it in the open, but generally it favours the shade, and when you do find it there tends to be great swathes.