One of the main obstacles facing the rookie (some might say ‘budding’…) forager is self-doubt. From an early age we are ‘warned’ (rather than educated) about the dangers of eating wild food. Many adults are still scared of rose-hips even though, WHEN USED PROPERLY, they’re great for herbal tea, jam, jelly, syrup, soup, beverages, pies, bread, wine, and marmalade – in fact Rosa canina (Dog Rose) and R. majalis (Cinnamon Rose) were both used as a vital source of vitamin C during World War II.
Unfortunately some people overcome their wild food fears only to fall at the first hurdle. As Andy Hamilton (who will be accompanying Fergus Drennan at this year’s Dark Mountain Festival) warned over at the Self Sufficientish blog recently:
This year I’m sad to say I’ve come across many accidental poisonings from first time foragers. All have ingested small amounts of Arum maculatum or as it is more commonly known Lords and Ladies or Cuckoo Pint in the belief it was a lush green salad leaf. This has led to swelling and burning of the mouth due to the presence of oxalate crystals in the plant. To me this highlights a real gulf between television and the media’s representation of foraging as a safe and trouble free past time people can pick up easily. The reality is that without plenty of research, time and diligence and careful the process of elimination you can get things wrong.
This warning should not be taken lightly; caution, after all, is the better part of valour. The trick is to take things slowly and not rely solely on one book or TV celebrity.
Fortunately actual foraging is a multi-sensory extravaganza which mere words can barely hope to describe in full. Of all the clues which help the forager in their quest (understanding seasons & habitat, a good eye, etc.) smell remains one of our greatest aids.
Waiting for a plant to flower can also help avoid confusion – and seeing the plant in full bloom will aid your future identification skills.
Apart from our old friend the nettle, there are two easily recognisable plants which are abundant at this time of year who’s smell is unmistakeable – Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and Jack-by-the-Hedge (Alliaria petiolata). A clue to what they smell like can be found in their alternative common names – Wild Garlic and Garlic Mustard.
You can even catch a whiff of garlic as you walk by either plant (though Ramsons are far smellier). If you’re in any doubt simply roll a leaf between your fingers and enjoy their hunger-inducing aroma.
If you were to roll a leaf containing Oxalic Acid (the oxalate salts in Lords and Ladies) you will experience a sharp, dry burning sensation on your skin (better there than in your mouth); if you were to roll a leaf containing Hydrocyanic Acid (aka Prussic Acid) you would smell bitter almonds or peaches. It’s a good idea to crush a Cherry Laurel leaf (cautiously) and memorise the smell – if you find another plant which smells like it then avoid it at all costs (Hemlock, to be blunt, smells of mouse piss).
If you’re a fan of stronger flavours, like garlic, onions or chives (to which Ramsons are related), then Ramsons are for you. They can be found in woodland and shady spots throughout the UK.
On their own the elliptical, rich green leaves look like Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) or the aforementioned Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum), but when in full flower the white, starburst petals are very different from C majalis‘s delicate bells or A maculatum‘s bright red berries. The Ramson’s petals have a much milder taste than the leaves and make a lovely snack while out and about.
Ramsons leaves can be used as salad, boiled as a vegetable, or finely chopped as a flavouring in lieu of chives or basil.
If you’re not a fan of big flavours then go for the Jack-by-the-Hedge. As the name suggests Jack can be found by hedgerows, but he can also be seen by walls, kerbsides (though we wouldn’t recommend eating anything that grew near traffic) and – luckily for the following recipe – in nettle patches. In fact the leaves are very much like large, rounded nettle leaves making the plant look a bit like a bloated and rounded dead-nettle.
Jack-by-the-Hedge is the only plant to smell of garlic that is not related to the onion family. The leaves, flowers and fruit are edible and are best when young. The much milder flavour is a good accompaniment for spring lamb.
There are a huge number of Nettle Soup recipes available in books and online and we recommend you play around with a few of them and then start creating your own. The following is from ‘Mr Roadkill’ himself, Fergus Drennan, but we made the following recipe even more ‘wild’ by replacing the garlic with strips of Ramson leaf.
Seasonal Recipe: Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup (serves 10 ish)
1 rectangular veg.stall wicker basket full of young nettle tops. (wash well) –
or between 500g- 1kg
1 large leek (roughly chopped)
2 medium sized onions (roughly chopped)
2 very large potatoes (peeled and chopped quite small)
1-2 cloves of garlic (chopped/crushed) – or 2-4 shredded Ramsons leaves for the PermaFuture version!
vegetable stock to taste (cube/powder etc)
3 pints water
2.5 pints milk
4 bunches (of approx 50gs) wild garlic (Alliun ursinum) (finely chopped)
a little olive oil
cream (single or double)
salt and pepper
a few garlic mustard leaves for garnish (Alliaria petiolata)
Place all ingredients in a large saucepan except the cream, 1 bunch of the wild garlic and 1 pint of the milk. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, then liquidize. Also, liquidize the remaining pint of milk with the chopped wild garlic. Swirl some of this and a little cream into the soup once you have put it in a bowl. Garnish with a couple of garlic mustard leaves – only a couple though, as this is the food plant of the beautiful Orange Tip butterfly’s caterpillar.
The next recipe from Denniblog was also quite nice, but we didn’t find any need to ‘denature’ the nettle leaves as cooking does this anyway…
Wild Garlic & Nettle Soup
About the hardest bit is picking the nettles (with thick gardening gloves!). I advise to do it just after a good shower has washed away any potential bird shit, then stick the wet leaves in the microwave for 2 minutes to denature the toxin (or boil them, but note that most of the flavour will be lost to the water) before washing them briefly and stripping off the tough stalks. Only the young shoots or tips of the plants are tender enough to bother with.
1 onion; 2 cloves garlic; 1-2 tbsp olive oil; wild garlic: about 125g or 10-12 large leaves; nettles: about 1 cup worth after heating to denature the stinging poison; 1 raw potato, cubed; nutmeg; salt & black pepper; crème fraîche;
Sweat the finely chopped onion and crushed garlic then add the shredded wild garlic and wilt quickly. Add the nettles, potato and enough water to just cover. Simmer until tender (15-20 minutes) and add seasonings. Cool slightly, pureé with a soup stick (careful to keep the thing submerged unless you want to end up looking like the Green Giant) and add water to the desired consistency. Re-heat gently, adding crème fraîche and more seasoning to taste. Serve with a dollop of cream and finely chopped wild garlic leaves or chives or croûtons.
One final ingredient vital to any recipe you try is a good wholemeal crusty roll – enjoy!