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. watercress cornwall 1I will remember the floods of winter 2012 for a sad, if self-centred, reason. They washed my favourite Dorset watercress bed clean away.

    Since then, there have been fleeting moments of watercress wonder, such as the babbling Cornish brook above. But it is only recently that I have found the time to go looking for a regular supply nearer to home.

    This one is on the River Avon as it makes it's final dash to the ocean, but I’m saying no more – if you put in a bit of time and effort this is not an uncommon plant to find growing in our streams and rivers – just prepare for a bit of wadingwatercress will

    Wild watercress has a long season, from spring to early winter, and is identical to commercially produced plants. I therefore will avoid a lengthy description, except to say it will often grow taller and a bit more unruly having no-one to pamper it like it's civilised cousin. 

    Foraging considerations

    If all this sounds too good to be true, there is one unfortunate drawback, although easily surmountable. It goes by the name of fasciola hepatica. A catchy thing to roll off the tongue if you want to impress people with your Latin. Unfortunatly however, its basic translation is liver fluke. This organism has a complex life cycle, of which one part involves waiting around on plants (usually in muddy water) for an unsuspecting animal (humans included) to consume it, where upon it sets up home in the liver causing all sorts of gratuitous damage.

    Revolting I know, but in reality this just means you can’t eat it raw. I always source my watercress from plants that are growing clear of the water in fast-flowing streams, typically chalk or gravel bottomed, and as such am 99.9 per cent sure it poses no threat; however, this is not a risk I take lightly so I always lightly cook it as a precaution. watercress close up

    Fortunately, watercress makes one of the tastiest soups out there, so this is no great hardship, and I feel a fresh organic watercress soup must be at least as nutritious as some limp, plastic wrapped, chemically-laced offering from the supermarket. 

  2. Perhaps it's time to publish a survivalist guide to vampire evasion, as this will be the third wild garlic I've covered in theHedge garlic 2 last few years – the other two being ramson and crow garlic.

    This time around I thought I'd chat about probably one of the most common of them all – the hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata).

    It's often present all winter, but in the last few weeks it's started to stretch towards the light and make itself known. The photo to the right was taken in April so it's still got a way to go. *

    I should say at this point that, strictly speaking, this plant belongs to the brassica family and not the alliums like the other garlics. Nevertheless, it has an undeniable garlic taste – allbeit with a distinct fire that can take some getting used to, another name is garlic mustard which is a pretty accurate description I reckon. **

    It’s rather puzzling why a humble cabbage should have such flavorsome ambitions but it may well have figured out a long time ago that grazing animals generally don’t like garlic. Unfortunately however, it didn’t take into consideration the human palate – this plant has been used as a flavouring for millenia, with remains turning up in archaelogical digs in the Baltic dating back to 4000 BC.

    Other than a quick stir fry, I prefer to eat this plant raw – a few leaves chopped finely and added to a dressing really perks up a mixed salad. Or I'll often pick a few and pop them in a sandwich as I’m out and about.

    Hedge Garlic drawingWhether it's hedgerow, forest edge or even urban park or flower bes it's not hard to find hedge garlic once you have 'your eye in'. Compare this to the rather contrary ransom or the secretive crow garlic and this becomes a handy plant to know.

    Foraging considerations

    As with the true garlics, smell is a useful ID point – just crush a leaf between your fingers. Another thing to look out for is the kidney-shaped leaf with rounded, almost frilly, teeth. The sketch above was drawn by a clever participant on one of my walks a while go, and I couldn't resist a shot. 

    * Hedge garlic is a biennial. In the first year, plants appear as a rosette of green leaves close to the ground and are quite easy to miss. In the second year the plant shoots up, often reaching over 60 cm tall if conditions are right – although it's fairly bitter when it's mature.

    * Other colloquial names include 'jack by the hedge' and 'sauce alone.'

     

  3. Wild Marjoram 2
    One of the things I love about foraging is the chance to visit the same places year upon year and catch up with the plants like they are old friends. One such example, is the wild marjoram alongside a track that leads to my favourite wild-camping spot on the Dorset coast.

    Over the last few years, I’ve added it to various beach cooking creations including a delicious limpet stew on a survival experiment last year. On a recent trip though I decided toWild marjoram try a variation on a River cottage marjoram scone recipe. I used flour and oats half and half, the last remenants of wild garlic stalks from the valley behind the beach, olive oil and a splash of sea water (for the salt). I cooked them slowly over the fire, and then dipped them in more olive oil before devouring them with an appetite that only outside living can arouse.

    Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) works in just about any dish, but it has a particular penchant for those mediterranean staples of tomatoe, onion and garlic. It also dries very well, I strip off both the leaves and flowers, for adding to hearty soups and stews right through the winter.

    Foraging considerations.

    Wild marjoram can be found between early summer and early autumn and seems to have a particular liking for old chalkland. The cultivated marjorams are very similar in appearance to their wild relation, so If you’re a keen gardener you probably will not have any difficulty recognizing this one, with it’s pointed oval leaves and pink flowers on a long stem.

    Smell is another useful ID point if you are familiar with it from cooking (it's sometimes known as oregano). The aromatic smell comes from the rich volatile oils, and if you rub a flower between your fingers you’ll notice a slightly sticky residue.

    And of course, one of the best characteristics of this plant is it is a perennial grower – find your spot, and it should look after you for years to come. Marjoram dried

  4. Lime blossom branchIt's a fickle forage, sometimes only flowering for a week or two a year, but all this warm weather means the scent of common lime blossom (Tilia europaea) is hanging heavy in the air right now. 

    Lime blossom honey 2I recently dried a batch out to keep for night-time herbal infusions. Lime blossom has a mildly sedative effect and was administered in the field hospitals of World war II for this reason. It is possibly one of the finest herbal teas; gold in colour with a smooth taste and smell. It's particularly popular in France where they call it tilleul and have elevated it almost to an art form.

    A second batch has gone into a honey infusion – possibly my favourite way of preserving flowers. See the elderflower and honeysuckle posts for more details on this super simple approach, but to summarise, a good runny honey is wonderful for drawing out the goodness in any plant, preserving it long into the winter, and adding a potent anitbacterial kick to the proceedings.

    Foraging considerations.

    The lime tree in question is completly unrelated to the lime fruit that you see in the shops. The young spring leaves do have a slightly citrusy taste, which perhaps gives rise to its common name, but I'll write about that another time.


    Lime blossom hatThe small-leaved lime was a dominant tree in the forests that formed in the UK after the last Ice Age, sadly though it is now relatively unusual here. However, common lime is widely planted, especially in parks and city streets, making this a great one for the urban forager – no need to worry about dogs either.

     

  5. At some point in the past, you've probably reached out to this plant and plucked a plump dark berry from it. But did you know the tender spring greenery makes for a really healthy and slightly-fruity spring forage?bramble leaves

    I'm talking about bramble – the rough and ready rogue of the plant world. Popped straight in the mouth the leaves are a bit bitter, but a decent handful infused in hot water for 5 minutes, perhaps with a drizzle of local honey, yields a fruity herbal tea that is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants.

    Bramble (Rubus fruticosa) is also a member of the rosaceae family (rose family) which gives it strong astringent qualities. In other words, it dries and tightens – chew a leaf, and you'll probably notice the saliva in your mouth starting to dry up. This makes it a handy treatment for conditions such as mouth ulcers, bleeding gums or sore throats: it dries and tightens what is basically an open wound, thereby accelerating the healing process.

    This astringency also makes it useful for many digestive/intestinal-tract issues. Indeed, legend has it that during the American civil war in the 1800's, 'bramble truces' were a fairly common occurence. Dysentry was rife amongst both sides, and so the warring factions would lay down their weapons to pick bramble leaves for their sick comrades – before continuing to kill each other. Bizarre species we are indeed.

    bramble leaf tea

     

     

    Foraging considerations.

    Bramble is a notorious micro-hybridiser which means there are over 100 species in this country alone. Nevertheless, the basic characteristics tend to be the same: straggling long stems, thorns and a generally greeny red tinge. It's possible, at this time of year, that bramble could be mistaken for wild raspberry or one of the wild roses, but these are also forageable and have very similiar medicinal qualities.

    The leaves are in their prime right now as they start to spread to the sun. Drink fresh or gently dry and store them in an airtight container away from direct light. They'll last until next spring and can be enjoyed as a herbal tea or utilised as a medicine, should the need arise. As with all foraging, please do so with consideration for the plant, much better to spread out the picking than strip a whole plant bare.

  6. crow garlic 1There are many positives to this time of year.

    One of them is the low undergrowth that allows crow garlic (Alium vineali) to stretch to the light. It's actually present for much of the year, just smothered by brasher wayside relatives as they clamour for the sunshine.

    Crow garlic bears a very similar appearance and taste to cultivated chives (including the flower later in the year) and, while my research is inconclusive, I wonder if it is simply the wild ancestor of this plant.

    It's a versatile little herb and can be added to almost any savoury dish; for best results, chop it finely, as it can be a bit tough. In the past, I've enjoyed it in omelettes, humous and salads; but last week, when it was cold and wet and strong winds blew across the land, I cooked it into a potato and chickpea stew – warm and nourishing comfort food with a potent little kick.

    crow garlic, pot and chickpea stewThere are a few types of garlic growing wild in the UK and all have similar wonderful health boosting properties (see wild garlic post). They all come out by late winter, which strikes me as an insightful example of Mother Nature's awsome intelligence. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have spent the last few months living mostly on meat, fish and anything they had been able to preserve from the autumn. By late winter, their digestive systems would have been crying out for a decent cleanse, balance and boost; and garlic would have been the perfect plant for this – generously provided at exactly the right time.

    Foraging considerations:

    Look for chive like plants growing under hedgerows and alongside country lanes – crow garlic favours sunny spots, and it can often be found in large clumps on protected south facing banks. As the photo at the top of this post testifies, undisturbed corners of grave yards can also be worth a look. The plant should be a matt-green in colour and hollow and tubular in shape, but the most definitive ID point is the strong garlic/onion smell.

    In a couple of months, crow garlic will quietly disappear beneath the spring vegetation. However, if you find a good patch now, make a mental note of the location, and with a bit of rummaging, it will provide good foraging until early summer.