THE CHALLENGE : Modern Sweets V Stone Age Sweets (Wild Fruit, duh)

There’s a reason why children are like heat seeking missiles when it comes to sweets. Those tangy, acid-sweet flavours that are so destructive to their dental array are only mimicking the natural flavours of fresh wild fruits, stuffed with vitamins and minerals to help them grow strong, (and once that happens you can make them mow your lawn). Cut out the middleman and try these seasonal summer delights.

Packet of Haribo V CHERRY PLUM (Prunus cerasifera)

This sweet natured, short lived tree (also known as Myrobalan or weeping plum) hails from mysterious places like the mountains of Iran and West Asia, migrating North to Europe and Poland and subtly invading Britain with its lovely tangy yellow, red or purple fruits. These little nuggets are a mere 2.5cm long and smoothly oval, with a fairly large pit. The fruits are high in iron, calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphate and Vitamins B and C. They are said to be lower in sugar than most fruits. I have been munching on them for several days now and I feel damn brilliant. Try making them into a tart with some ginger. You can buy the fantastically named Polish variety ‘Zloty Oblok’ (say it, with a full mouth without spitting, come on).

VERDICT: Landslide victory to Cherry Plum!

TOXIC WASTE Super Sours V CRAB APPLE (Malus sylvestris)

Our stalwart British wild apple is sour as all hell, but has a charm all its own when added to a large volume of sugar. Since when does a Super Sour change colour from apple juice/wee amber to a stunning pink? To witness this fairylike transformation, watch the bubbling pot as you make Crab Apple Jelly. Then spread said pink and luscious jelly on Melba toast squares with cream cheese. Just don’t tell the kids that it contains 10% of your daily Vitamin C per 110g. Although admittedly not much else except carbs. Plus, erm, a lot of sugar. They are also great baked, which makes them sweeter.

VERDICT – we’ll call this one a draw.

LIQUORICE ALLSORTS V ELDERBERRIES

That smoky, musky, dark and slightly dangerous taste of aniseed, and of elderberries…is liquorice REALLY made of rats tails as Roald Dahl told us? About as much as elderberries will transport one to the gates of the Underworld to be met by Persephone. In short, no. Things aren’t quite so clear cut here, with natural liquorice from a high end health food shop being antispasmodic, soothing to the digestion and antibacterial/antiviral. But let’s face it, liquorice allsorts are not the same as a root fresh from a liquorice plant.

Meanwhile Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are antiviral, often made into a syrup to prevent colds and flu. They punch above their weight, with 87% of your RDA of Vitamin C per 145g, 41% of your fibre, 17% of your Vitamins B6 and A, and 13% of your iron and potassium.

VERDICT: Elderberries win! Except with raw liquorice.

FRUIT GUMS V BLACKBERRIES

What can possibly rival the delicate Squidge of a ripe bramble fruit, or the thrill of negotiating the evil thorns that can snare your hair, making you helpless as a sheep stuck in a fence no matter what your age? It very much depends on how good your local bushes are. The one in the council estate next to our boat was sadly cut down last winter. It was in full sun and produced blackberries that made you cry with joy at their juicy awesomeness. It was bypassed by local children until myself and my son flagged it up to them. Maybe the council cut it down after hearing one too many orgasmic cries of delight. Other berries from other bushes can be wizened, sour, wormy reprobates. Keep trying ’em.

Nutritionally, 145g (a cup) of blackberries contain 47 % of your daily manganese, 36% of your Vitamin K, 31% of your Fibre, 50% of your Vitamin C and 12% of your copper. Plus, obviously, fruit sugars. Fruit Gums contain 2% of your protein and a heck of a lot of carbs. And if you ate a whole cup of fruit gums, you deserve to be sick…

VERDICT: Erm, blackberries, anyone?

There are so many more berries out there I could list, but I’m running out of time now to pick my son from summer camp, so those will have to wait until later. It’s not like I’m going to be typing much when he’s around.

See you all later folks. xx

THE CHALLENGE : Modern Sweets V Stone Age Sweets (Wild Fruit, duh)

That Heavenly Perfume Anise…Common Hogweed as a Condiment

The name ‘Common Hogweed’ conjures up visions of ‘Me mate Dave down the pub’ but this bristly woodland margin plant is anything but. Yes, it is a cousin of the phytotoxic Giant Hogweed – you know, the one with ginormous leaves 1m long with skin-blistering sap once said skin is exposed to sunlight?! However, this diminutive relative is safe to eat for most people. (Some unlucky folks, particularly those with skin conditions such as eczema, may still react to the sap of Common Hogweed.) If in doubt, try a small amount out on your skin before eating any. Take a really good look at the leaves – do they look like large, baggy, single hawthorn leaves? If so, a good sign it is hogweed. if you haven’t already, please familiarise yourself with what Poison Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort leaves look like. They are very lacy and look very different. Also, the stem of Hogweed is bristly and has ridges running down it. Hemlock stems are smooth and have purple blotches. To be honest you are more likely to confuse Hogweed with Hemlock Water-Dropwort, as this has ridged stems too, but they are hairless and shiny. The leaves of Hemlock Water Dropwort are very different too.

These above show Common Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylum, which rarely grows more than 2m high, with flower heads up to 20cm across. Giant Hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, grows to 4m, with enormous flowerheads 50cm across. The stem of the poisonous Giant Hogweed also has purple blotches on it, a common sign the plant is telling you to step off a bit! You most often find Giant Hogweed as an ornamental near ponds in large gardens. Though I remember finding some on the roadside on the way to a NYE warehouse party on the outskirts of London, and picking one of the huge sputnik-like flower heads to turn myself into a Wood Nymph at said party. At the time I had no idea of the toxicity of this plant, being much younger and really rather merry by then. Thankfully none of us came to any harm, and I had a banging time at the party!

Giant Hogweed in flower…it’s big!! Photo courtesy of  NYS Department of Environmental Conservationis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Hemlock Water-Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)is below. The leaves are much more pinnate (divided), shiny, and hairless. It is normally found near water. It smells of bleach when crushed or cut. (Yup, it’s trying to tell you something.)

The deadly Hemlock Water Dropwort. Courtesy of  nz_willowherb.

So scary stuff out the way, what can you do with Common Hogweed? Loads. This plant is awesome, and provides through several seasons.

First, use the fresh growth of Spring to make Hogweed Lacto-fermented Kimchi. If you don’t know what a lacto-ferment is, it is when you sink your plant material in salty water to create an anaerobic environment for those friendly bacteria you get in yoghurt. This enhances the taste of the plant and preserves it, also making it more digestible. Once you have this, you can make Hogweed Borscht, a delicious Russian recipe made with the juice and leaves of fermented Hogweed, lots of beetroot and a dollop of sour cream. Add blinis and shots of good vodka for a proper Russian dinner!

Next, look out for the immature, furled green flower heads that are still within a sort of ‘bag’. Pick one from each plant (this means the plants will all be able to reproduce). You can tempura them in batter, or steam them for a few minutes if you are on a diet! They are filling and taste amazing, with a crunchy texture.

If you have missed the boat and all the flower heads have unfurled, never mind. There is more to come! Soon you will find bunches of green, flattish seeds with two darker stripes down the middle. These are what has been used in days of yore as a condiment for milk puddings! It’s a shame they aren’t used so much nowadays, as they really do impart a stunning flavour similar to star anise, and there is ruddy loads of them everywhere you look.

Hogweed seeds ready to be used!

To prepare, pick a couple of whole green seed heads and shuck off the seeds into a pestle and mortar. Crush them slightly – no need to obliterate them – you just want the flavour to infuse whatever they are put in. Make Hogweed Vodka by steeping the seeds in a jar full to the brim with vodka – a sure fire party pleaser! My enduring memory of this drink is of my friend Joe, a boxer and fellow boater, swapping half a bottle of this with me in exchange for some beer (as I didn’t want to get completely pie-eyed). The next morning I saw him slumped in a chair outside his boat, in a semi comatose state, with his girlfriend scolding him, having necked the lot. So be warned – a little bit goes a long way! Add a shot to a cocktail with some cream…mmmm.

Milk puddings go so well with this herb! Try my Hogweed Seed Pannacotta, which I developed on my full day cookery courses with the Parks Trust.

HOGWEED SEED PANNACOTTA

You need:

Half a cup of green hogweed seeds

1/2 pint soya milk/normal milk

1 sachet Vegi Gel

2 tbsp honey

Seasonal berries (for sauce & garnish)

Oatmeal biscuits

1 tbsp butter/margarine

  1. Slightly crush the hogweed seeds in a pestle and mortar.
  2. reserve 200ml of the plant milk in a cup.
  3. Pour the rest of the soya milk into a pan and add the hogweed seeds. Simmer for 5 minutes until you can smell the aroma of anise.
  4. Strain out the seeds.
  5. Put the infused milk back in the pan. Add the honey and stir til dissolved.
  6. Mix the Veg Gel with the cold milk in the cup, then quickly add to the infused milk.
  7. Bring to the boil, then just as quickly pour into moulds (I use empty china cups).
  8. Crush the oatmeal biscuits and mix with the melted butter in a bowl.
  9. Once the milk is firm enough, add the biscuit as a layer on top of the cup. this will be the bottom of your pudding!
  10. Leave until solidified (several hours in fridge, or 6 hours if no fridge).
  11. Run a knife around the edge of the pannacotta and tip onto plate. Bang the top (but not too hard!)
  12. The pannacotta jelly should come out onto the plate.
  13. Boil some soft seasonal berries n just enough water to cover, and pour once cooled over the pannacottas. garnish with a sprinkle of Hogweed seeds…voila!
Hogweed Pannacotta (I got lazy and ate the biscuits separately instead)

They’re out now..so go get ’em tiger…or, um, plant eating beast of some sort.

That Heavenly Perfume Anise…Common Hogweed as a Condiment

The White Man’s Foot: Plantago sps

You’ve probably trodden on this humble herb a thousand times, or tried to eradicate it from your lawn. Like the first pioneers discovering America, this is a pioneer plant – tough, coping with most soils, springing back from punishment by lawnmower and boot. Did you know it is also incredibly useful, both as a food plant and medicinally? Plus, it is actually tasty, with a creamy mushroom flavour. You do need to know what parts to use when however.

Once known, this plant is rarely confused with anything else. All subspecies of Plantain (Plantago) have multiple, lateral sinew like ribs along the length of the leaf, with leaves coming out of a central rosette close to the ground. The leaves are thick and leathery. Greater plantain (P.major) has round leaves, whilst Ribwort plantain (P.lanceolata) has spear shaped leaves. All can be used the same ways. The flower is produced atop a tough central stalk and is a compact head with yellow-purple or white stamens respectively. These are the two most common subspecies you are likely to find inland.

On the coast line you may find Sea Plantain with its strap-like leaves (P. maritima) and Buck’s Horn Plantain (P.coronopus) a little further inland on coastal grasslands.

All these are edible, so scout about wherever you are. Their preferred habitat is open ground near pathways, as their seeds are spread by humans and other path-using animals!

Early in the season, you’ll be wanting the leaves. Pick a couple of the tenderest leaves beginning to unfurl in the centre of the rosette. These are less likely to have been peed on or stamped on, too! Wash them well. These thick leaves can stand up to cooking well in a stew, soup or sauce. Plus, it’s always safer to cook these plants as they grow so close to the ground and can get muck on them. Plantain is full of Vitamin A, the same vitamin in carrots that gives you good eyesight. There are also good levels of Vitamin C. Not only that, but Plantain leaves contain a mucilage that soothes inflammation, both internally and externally – useful in cases of IBS.

Once the tender young green flower heads come up on their stalks, you’re in for a treat. these have a lovely mushroom flavour and delicious texture, can be eaten raw, (I’ll risk it if they are high off the ground and in pleasant surroundings) and are in my humble opinion the best part of the plant to eat. They contain high levels of protein (one study in S.America found protein was as high as 17%) plus three important fatty acids (linoleic, oleic, linolenic). They don’t have many carbs, however, so if you are looking for energy, try some other plants with starchy roots.

Try my recipe below for ‘Baby Snake Surprise’: (Creamy Plantain Gnocchi!)

‘Baby Snake’ Gnocchi! (named by my son)

You will need:

I packet gnocchi

150g green plantain flower heads

Half a pint of soya or dairy plain yoghurt

3 tbsp mayonnaise

3 slices Shredded or diced ham/bacon/vegi bacon

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

I clove garlic, minced

OPTIONAL Fresh chard and pickled sweetie drop peppers

Salt and pepper

  1. Melt the butter with the olive oil. Toss in the plantain flower heads and bacon and saute for 5 minutes til tender.
  2. Stir in the garlic for 1 minute.
  3. Boil the gnocchi in salted water for 3 mins til fluffy.
  4. Take off the heat and leave to cool for 2 mins.
  5. Mix the mayonnaise in with the bacon and plantain. When cooled, mix in the yoghurt.
  6. Stick it in a bowl and add your sides. Doesn’t it look like baby snakes!?

Right, so now later in the season we are looking at the mature seed heads. These are ready when they turn a golden brown and feel ‘crispy’. I have collected Greater Plantain seeds and added them to baked breads. This species has the biggest seeds, black in colour, which need to be rubbed out of their husks. That’s not to say they are big, because they are not. If you are actually trying to collect enough to survive in the wild, or make your own wild flour as forager Fergus Drennan did, you are unlikely to gain enough energy out of this process compared to what you put in collecting, husking, then milling the seeds! (Fergus had to give up his year long plan of living entirely off vegan foraged foods for this reason.) They make a lovely bread roll topping however, or try adding them to sushi or salads.

And it doesn’t stop there. Suffering from an itchy bite or sting? Just find a plantain leaf and rub it between your fingers, squeezing out the juice. Help it along with a splash of water or (shock horror) saliva. Place this on the affected part and feel the relief. Plantain contains antihistamines, and is far superior to ‘dock leaf’ in this respect.

Stay tuned for more fun with plantain, as I experiment with fermenting and pickling the flower heads.

(Come on, foraging is the most fun you can have without paying. Except for sex.)

Laugh, you lot…

The White Man’s Foot: Plantago sps

Tempura Reedmace Flowerheads

Just thought I’d share this tapas recipe I dreamed up using young green Reedmace flowerheads from Astral Park.

Pick the central stalk like a sweetcorn.

I made a batter with sparkling water (no ice – no fridge on the boat), 1 egg and normal plain flour, sieving the flour well. I have to admit I preferred them with mayo in the ends it didn’t swamp their delicate flavour.

I boiled the flower heads first for 5 minutes in just enough water to cover. This makes them more tender. I patted them dry with kitchen towel then rolled them in flour and then in batter. I popped them in a deep saucepan with 3cm of hot rapeseed oil for 5 minutes, then left them drain on more kitchen towel. I ate the lot in one sitting. (Pig.) They are very high in quality protein however, especially good if you are vegan (though you’ll need to use cornflour then, not egg).

Tempura Reedmace flower heads with chilli jam dip.

I also made a chowder type soup by shucking off the flowerheads and cooking them with coconut milk and veg stock. You can basically use these things in any recipe that calls for sweetcorn.

Reedmace chowder with sweet peppers.

Consult my earlier post ‘On the Trail of Typha’s Gold’ for more info on this amazing plant. if you can’t find any green flower heads, the next thing in season is the amazing yellow pollen, great in baking recipes.

Tempura Reedmace Flowerheads

Sipping on… Tangy, Spiky Oregon Grape!

My Mahonia syrup, mint leaf, grape juice, lime and sparkling water mocktail. I got the recipe from Lottie Muir’s book ‘Wild Cocktails’.

Mahonia syrup and gin! Start building your cocktail cabinet now…

While flicking through Lottie Muir’s ‘Wild Cocktail’ bible, I was astounded to find that the ill tempered looking evergreen shrub I walk my son past every day to school actually has edible berries! Mahonia, or Oregon grape, is commonly planted in hedgerows and park boundaries by councils as it is drought tolerant, shade tolerant, can handle most soils and most pests can’t eat it. It also presents a fearsome obstacle to a would be burglar with its leathery, pinnate (divided) leaves with thorny teeth. It has attractive yellow clusters of flowers in Spring, which ripen into oval, purplish blue berries that have the same opaque flush you find on blueberries. In Mahonia’s case this is caused by a waxy coating which is quite harmless.

Mahonia with ripe berries outside Tesco car park, canal side!

There are over 70 species worldwide, but the most common Mahonia planted in the UK are Mahonia japonica and Mahonia aquifolium. M.aquifolium has rounder berries. You can use them both the same way.

Interestingly enough, there are divided opinions on the edibility of the berries. Healthline.com states that the berberine they contain is helpful in the oral treatment of IBS and other gut inflammation, and they have been used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) for centuries to treat psoriasis, stomach issues, heartburn and depression. However, some sources claim the berberine is harmful. I had a look at some studies by scientists at http://www.frontersin.org, in a paper titled ‘Toxicological Effects of Berberine and Sanguinarine’ they state that low doses berberine encourages the growth of cancer cells, whilst in higher doses it acts to slow their growth! Confusing or what! The same scientists also tell us berberine is antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Compounds in Oregon grape are shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi. You can buy all sorts of herbal supplements containing berberine, so in my humble opinion sticking a far more dilute version (I.e. fruit) in some booze or syrup and drinking it very occasionally is pretty safe.

Various foraging websites such as http://www.eatweeds.com, http://www.wildfood.uk, http://www.growinghealthykids.co.uk, http://www.natureandgarden.com and http://www.pfaf.org all state that mahonia berries are tasty and edible, used in jams, beverages, and smoothies. Pioneers of the Pacific North-west of America used the berries as an important source of Vitamin C, especially as it is evergreen and around in the winter. It is great for jam as it is naturally high in pectin. And it’s a good idea to add sugar anyway as this stuff is on the tart side…

Mahonia berries ready for use – watch out, they are messy, with a purple dye!

It was also used medicinally by Native Americans for internal bacterial infections – from sinusitis to pneumonia and even TB. It has also been useful in fighting off food poisoning and dysentery, anything where bacteria is being naughty in your guts… To use a decoction of Mahonia medicinally, boil some pieces of the root, inner bark or dried leaves until the water reduces by half, then top up with half the lost amount of water.

I made some Mahonia Gin and some Mahonia Syrup, both from Lottie Muir (of The Midnight Apothecary cocktail bar) in her book Wild Cocktails.

MAHONIA GIN

100g/1 cup mahonia berries, stripped from stems

100g white sugar

Gin – enough to fill a large jam jar

  1. Shuck the berries off the stems and weigh.
  2. Prick holes in the berries with a fork.
  3. Bang in a clean (sterilised) jam jar and add the sugar. Mix well.
  4. Pour the gin over til the jar is full.
  5. Seal and give it a good shake.
  6. Store in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Check back in a month and taste.
  7. Strain using a fine sieve into a sterilised decanting bottle.
Mahonia gin…straight after pouring. Will check back in a few days.

MAHONIA SYRUP

2 cups mahonia berries

2 cups white granulated sugar

1 cup water

  1. Put the berries in a non reactive pan (stainless steel or enamel) and heat gently til they start to boil.
  2. Quickly switch down to simmer.
  3. Crush with a potato masher til the liquid is purple red.
  4. Pour into a measuring jug.
  5. For every cup of juice, add 1 cup of sugar.
  6. Return to pan and bring to the boil.
  7. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.

This can be mixed with more mild juices such as grape or apple to make a lovely mocktail with lime, grape juice and mint leaves. Yum. Will do some experiments and come back with the results later…and possibly a bangin’ head from the gin.

My take on the ‘Only the Mahonia’ mocktail recipe by The Midnight Apothecary

juice of 1 lime

5 mint leaves

65ml white grape juice

40ml mahonia syrup

Sparkling water to top up (as I live on a boat with no freezer for ice!)

  1. Mix the mahonia syrup and the lime juice in a cocktail mixer.
  2. Rub the mint leaves and add ice if you have it!
  3. Add the grape juice.
  4. Top up with sparkling water
  5. Garnish with a sprig of mahonia berries, slice of lime and a mahonia leaf sprig. Enjoy!
Sipping on… Tangy, Spiky Oregon Grape!

The Edible Ornamental Garden

Spring is rushing into Summer, and that means flowers aplenty. It’s quite amazing how many of our new acquisitions from the garden centre can be edible (and equally amazing how some of them can be really lethal…DO NOT just go grazing away).

Day Lilies (Hemerocallis sps) are a splendid addition to any salad, especially if entertaining guests. Their showy trumpet-like blooms radiate colour and have a filling, substantial texture – try stuffing them with soft cheese as you would a courgette flower. Just try not to gorge on your neighbour’s prize blooms. If you are caught doing this, it is only fair that you invite them to try your salad and your wine!

Another unlikely edible is Fuchsia, with its eye watering tropical plumage. Most of the time we suspect brightly coloured things of being poisonous – this is definitely the case in the animal world – yet Fuchsia’s blooms are harmless and quite tasty. In its native Central and South America, the fuchsia flower is pollinated by hummingbirds, who drink its honey-sweet nectar in exchange. This means it sometimes doesn’t get pollinated in other countries, (unless you happen to have a hummingbird as a pet!) So the main edible in this case is the flower with its honey sweet centre, and not the purplish berry. If you are lucky, you may get the berries. They have a mild, sweet flavour. Slightly insipid, but great if you don’t like tangy fruit.

Fuchsia flowers
Fuchsia berries (by In Memoriam)

Okay, so now for something a little closer to home. Ox Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a quaint English cottage-garden perennial, a giant relative of the daisies we get in our lawns. Both its deep green spoon shaped leaves and its cheerful big round daisy flower heads are great eats. I ate this along the way as I hiked the North Downs NT (It also grows wild). It has a cleansing, invigorating flavour reminding one of yarrow and pleasant texture. The flower heads can be added to the top of a pizza and slightly wilted with cheese – great for children!

Ox Eye Daisies (Leucanthemum)

What about foliage, however? Sculptural edible greens come served up in the form of Hostas, as well as Ice Plant.

Hostas are always being attacked by slugs, deer and chickens, so go where the slugs go and try some. They are juicy, a bit bitter like lettuce and tender, the best bit being the young furled leaf shoot that comes up in Spring. Stir fry them with a bit of soy sauce. Just don’t give them to your dog – they contain saponins (as does quinoa) which dogs can’t digest. I’m sure your dog would rather steal a pizza off your table anyway.

Hostas – by Chris M70

Ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) is a fleshy leaved succulent, so named for the crystalline structure on its leaves that make it look like it is covered in glittery frost. The leaves and stems are used by the Japanese to make tempura (battered) dishes. It tastes crunchy and slightly salty – really nice in a salad with fish. I did, admittedly, take my first taste of this in the ornamental gardens of Brentford Park. Which also had some delicious mulberries in it. But more about THAT later.

Last but not least, let’s not forget that queen of ornamentals, the Rose. From the wild dog rose (Rosa canina) to the showy blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show, roses (Rosa sps) are edible. Their petals can be candied or added to cakes and drinks. Once this show is over, and the rose hips come out, they can be made into jams, jellies or just squeeze out the paste and eat raw (once softened by cold weather or the freezer). They contain large amounts of Vitamin C. Don’t eat the seeds, they are very itchy!


Wild Dog rose (Rosa canina) by Janie Easterman

Ornamental rose, by Bitsorf

That’s all for today, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. I will be back with more on this fascinating topic. So get growing your own decorative edibles (yes, there is a way to subtly harvest leaves and petals so it doesn’t look dodgy from the front).

The Edible Ornamental Garden

‘Tis May – Time For Fiddleheads!

It’s May. They’re out, now. Go into the pine, oak and birch acid woodlands and scout about on the ground for those swan-necked shoots of Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinium). They are graceful things, and when cut from their juicy base they smell of almond cream. Almonds, you say? Doesn’t that mean cyanide?

Well not exactly. It’s not cyanide, but bracken does contain an alkaloid called ptaloquiside. This is what makes it poisonous to livestock (and people) in its raw state. Before you chicken out and buy cucumber instead, it pays to remember that in Korea and other Asian countries, bracken fiddleheads (sometimes known as ‘warabi’) have been enjoyed and consumed for centuries as part of traditional dishes such as bibimbap. You can buy them dried in an Asian supermarket. In the US, picking fern fiddleheads is a big thing. Over there their preferred dish is made from Ostrich fern (Maleuccia sthruthiopteris) or Lady fern ( Athymium filix-femina) to name a few. There is bracken in the US, but with so many ferns to choose from, it’s not their favourite. Some of the ferns have higher levels of ptaloquiside than others, such as bracken.

The lovely bracken woods of Stockgrove.

The real point is in the preparation of the bracken fiddleheads. Pick only the ones that are still tightly curled. These will have much lower levels of ptaloquiside. One of my first introductions to foraging came when my father (who hadn’t read many foraging books or done much foraging homework) told us as children that bracken was edible and encouraged us to eat a mature, raw frond each. I vaguely remember having terrible diahorrea after this. (After this incident I read books instead of listening to my Dad!) Mature bracken fronds are much more toxic. And not very tasty.

Next, you want to soak them in a big pot of water and wash them thoroughly. Throw the water away and boil those fiddleheads in fresh water like no tommorrow for 10 to 15 minutes. Temperature fluctuations (ie boiling) denature the ptaloquiside and render it harmless. When I boiled mine, the water came away a deep brown, as if it had iron in it. Although this could just have been from my crappy old saucepan.

Why bother with this hassle and possibly get poisoned, huh?

Bracken fiddleheads contain Vitamins A, C, and iron, fibre, beta-carotene and the omega oils 3 and 6. Plus, even kidney beans, yes, those old faithful that you buy from Aldi in a 12p tin for your chilli con carne, contain a poison that can hospitalise you when in their raw state. I mean, the ones in the cans have already been cooked to get rid of the toxin, which is called phytohemagglutinin. But kidney beans that haven’t been cooked, and which are then dried, MUST be soaked then BOILED for at least 10 minutes. Many recipes suggest 30 minutes boiling. Even common potatoes contain a powerful and sometimes even lethal alkaloid called solanine when raw, and especially when they go green. There are many other examples I could name, from the wild too, such as the Cuckoopint (Arum Lily). So it’s more about the processing, and being aware of these risks rather than avoiding these foods completely. Having said that, fiddleheads are a seasonal treat, and it’s better to be safe than sorry and not to eat them too often.

I made Pickled Fiddleheads and a Korean ‘Gosari Namul’ inspired dish. Those boiled and stir fried had a tender texture, much like asparagus. Here are the recipes below.

FIDDLE PICKLE!

You will need:

1 large cup fern fiddleheads (bracken)

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tbsp salt

1/2 cup water

1 tsp black peppercorns

1/2 tsp chilli flakes/chopped red chili

1 crushed garlic clove

Rock or sea salt.

1)Wash the fiddleheads well in a big bowl of water. Transfer to a saucepan, add 2 tbsp salt and boil the cup of fiddleheads with 2 litres of water for at least 10, if not 15, minutes.

2) While the fiddleheads are boiling, heat 1/2 cup of cider vinegar, 1/2 cup of water and 1 tsp of salt. Bring this to the boil. Find a sterile pickle jar (a glass jar that you have sterilised by boiling) and crush the garlic clove.

3) Put the clove and the other spices into the bottom of the jar.

4) Put the boiled fiddleheads in a colander and drain away the water. Rinse in cold water.

5) Decant them into the pickle jar and pour the pickling mixture over the top of them. Top up with more vinegar if there isn’t enough. Seal and boil the jar in a big pan for ten minutes if you are thinking to keep the fiddle pickle for more than a few months. This way, it should last a year.

GOSARI NAMUL INSPIRED STIR FRY

You will need:

1 cup fiddleheads

2 litres of water

1 clove crushed garlic

Soy sauce (1 tbsp)

Fish sauce (1 tbsp)

Half a lime

A handful of toasted pine nuts or sesame seeds

3 tbsp raisins

2 tbsp red sweetie drop pickled peppers

Sea salt to taste

OPTIONAL noodles and soup as sides.

  1. Follow all the same steps to prep the fiddleheads as above. make sure to boil them for 15 minutes.
  2. Toast the seeds or pine nuts in a dry pan.
  3. Take the seeds/nuts out. Add a few tbsp of sesame oil to the wok or pan and heat gently.
  4. Crush the garlic and add. Tip in the drained fiddleheads.
  5. Stir fry briskly for just a few minutes, adding the fish sauce, soy sauce (and chilli flakes if wanted.)
  6. Take off the heat and squeeze half a lime over the stir fry.
  7. Sprinkle the pine nuts or sesame seeds on top.
  8. Serve with rice noodles and laksa soup. Enjoy your wild food!

‘Tis May – Time For Fiddleheads!

GORSE: A Snatch of Tropical Summer!

There’s a knack to picking gorse flowers. Gorse, or Ulex Europaeus, is spiny as all hell. The trick is to pluck the open flowers right at the end of the twigs – the open flowers have more of the scent that you want to impart flavours to your drinks (be they alcoholic or otherwise). Plus, always pluck AWAY from the twig – if you push your hand towards it you are going to get spiked.

This is what gorse looks like. it is common in Britain on sandy, acid soils. Look out for it on heathland, moorland, near the beach, and near pine trees.

There is actually loads of gorse right near my boat, in Tesco car park, but that’s not where you want to be picking – they’ll be covered in exhaust fumes and probably contain rats and empty cans of cheap cider. Far better to pick somewhere away from all that. I trotted over to Rushmere Country Park and immersed myself in the tranquility below tall windswept Scots pines, like the middle class reprobate I am. So here is a poetry warning. Look away now if you need to.

warm coconut lemon wind,

bumbles humming;

fingers pricked as they pluck

silken imperial yellow.

soft grass like hay,

birds fluting stunning morse

and those orchid blooms

held by gladiators fearsome.

After picking my way like a deer through snares of bramble, I managed to collect about three pint cups worth of gorse blooms. It did take quite a while, (two hours), but perhaps that was due to me suffering from a few too many down the Black Lion the night before. Things were made more amusing when a man and dog came over to check I hadn’t met my end in a bush, having seen what they thought was an abandoned bag!

One pint I bunged straight away into clean jam jar and filled it to the brim with white rum, adding just half a tsp of sugar and half a lime zest.. Hey presto! Gorse rum! Strain the flowers out after 24 hours.

I had a go at mixing a generous shot of gorse rum with a shot of gorse cordial, then topping it up with sparkling water and a slice of lime in a Prosecco glass. The result? Very moreish, but a bit on the sweet side!! I will do it with bitter lemon water next time, and maybe half as much cordial…

Check out Riverford Organics take on a classic Dark & Stormy cocktail, using ginger, citrus and soda water and lots of gorse rum.

For those of you that need to operate heavy machinery in the next 12 hours, or if you are under 18, try Gorse Cordial.

The recipe I used called for:

2 cups gorse flowers (1 pint glass)

250g sugar

1 lime, with zest grated

1 orange, zest grated

1 pint of water

All you do is put the water and sugar in a saucepan, boil it for 10 minutes, then let it cool for a few minutes. Add the grated citrus zests and squeeze in the juices. Then bung in the gorse flowers and cover Leave it in the fridge or in a cool place overnight. If you want to use it in the next few days, you can just sieve out the flowers and zest and bottle it. If you want it to last longer, boil it again for a few minutes then pour into a sterilised bottle and seal. A voila! Gorse cordial. Make it into a pretty gift by wrapping some hessian or that checker cheesecloth stuff over the top of the bottle, and make a label.

Gorse cordial, Gorse rum and a glass of cordial, not rum. (It was a weekday, just before picking the kid up from school).

Next I thought id try a Gorse Jelly, after reading exciting accounts from previous Master Chef contestants. (Yours truly is NOT a previous Master Chef contestant). I used a sachet of Vegi Gel, the Gorse cordial, half a lime, some Oatly since cream, some grated dark chocolate and grated ginger and a handful of Gorse flowers.

Gorse jelly (I made 2 of these) with dark chocolate and ginger flakes.

My verdict? Maybe I should have used fresh gorse flowers instead of the cordial. Some recipes seem to use these. It was tasty enough, but I couldn’t taste much of the ‘coconutty’ scent and taste of the gorse. I guess ginger is quite overpowering too. So next time I will use twice as many flowers and leave out the ginger…

Stay tuned for some wild booze cocktail experiments with my friend Rick the cocktail barman soon…

GORSE: A Snatch of Tropical Summer!

Hedgewitch Adventures Foraging Courses – Spring 2022

Here’s what’s on at Easter (when my Mum has my hyperactive 7 year old…)

Sat 9th April : Spring Forage and Pub Quiz : 2 hours of foraging tuition in the lovely Ouzel River Meadows, then back to the pub for a fun quiz!

The Globe Inn, Linslade, 10am-1pm, max 15 spaces

£15 adult/£7.50 child 5-15

To book: Links on my Facebook page ‘Hedgewitch Adventures’/ Eventbrite/ Paypal to hedgewitchkat@gmail.com

Weds 13th April: Lacto-fermentation Cookery School – Making Wild Kimchi: One and a half hours of foraging then back at the Globe we will be making Kimchi from wild and traditional Asian ingredients.

The Globe Inn, Linslade 10am -1pm, max 10 spaces

£25 adult/£12 child 5-15

To book: see Facebook page ‘Hedgewitch Adventures’ to click on events link / Eventbrite/ Paypal to hedgewitchkat@gmail.com

Sat 16th April: Spring Foraging with Tapas Tasters : 3 hour forage with tapas style tasters!

Tiddenfoot Waterside Park (meet at car park)

£15 adult/£7.50 child 5-15, max 15 spaces

To book: see Facebook page ‘Hedgewitch Adventures’ to click on events link / Eventbrite / Paypal to hedgewitchkat@gmail.com

For more info: See my Facebook page ‘Hedgewitch Adventures’ or email me on hedgewitchkat@gmail.com

See you there!

From Hedgewitch Kat

My latest article for Kitchen Garden magazine
Hedgewitch Adventures Foraging Courses – Spring 2022

COW PARSLEY: The Story of ‘Mother-Die’

Cow parsley, or Anthriscus sylvestris, is so entrenched at the sides of our ditches, waysides and collective consciousness that we are almost blind to its creamy flurry of umbrellalike blossoms, its ferny carrot top fronds of vibrant green. it is often one of the first plants to show its head come Spring. As you may have guessed, it is a member of the Umbellifer or Apiaceae family – that majestic hall of fame that involves some delicious edibles, yet also some that have been used historically as Greek execution poisons. A very good reason to do extensive homework before picking cow parsley, abundant though it may be.

So – here’s the important homework.

We are looking at a plant that starts life as a rosette of 2-3 times pinnate leaves. Pinnate means ‘divided’. So you are looking at how many times the leaf splits into smaller leaflets. The base of the plant, where it meets the ground, may have a pink blush but NOT have spots or blotches. If it has got spots or blotches, avoid it like the plague, as it is likely to be Hemlock (Conium maculatum) with no less than three lethal alkaloids (including conine), and it will send you to the hereafter in half an hour if you mix it in a potato salad. Plants are fighting to survive too, and some fight dirty!

If you pick a stem of cow parsley and hold the stem up to the light, you should be able to just make out a fine line of downy hairs that runs down the length of the stem. The main stems are hollow and slightly ridged, and in times past were used by errant school children as pea shooters.

Hemlock, in contrast, has smooth, perfectly rounded, hairless stems (that are also hollow). The leaves of hemlock are also more finely divided, 3- 4 times, giving them the look of intricate lace. if you look at the leaves and your’e thinking ‘how lovely and lacy’, don’t eat it! I have seen hemlock growing in London that has leaves only 3 times pinnate, so never go by leaf divisions alone to identify cow parsley. Use every sense. This really does come to the fore when the plants flower, as hemlock flowers stink of mouse urine, or the sickly sweet smell of failing kidneys. Listen to the hemlock – its really trying to tell you something! Their flowering seasons are also different, with cow parsley flowering first and hemlock after. Cow parsley rarely grows higher than 1 metre and hemlock can easily overshadow a 2 metre high man. Most poisonings happen when hemlock is young and close to the ground, sometimes growing with cow parsley and an incautious forager tips it in with the rest of their haul. If you think you or someone else may have eaten hemlock, call an ambulance. Fast.

Anthriscus sylvestris can be roughly translated from the Latin as ‘woody chervil’. It is also known as wild chervil, Mother-Die, Queen Anne’s lace or ‘keck’. One can always tell how enshrined a plant is in our traditions and history by the amount of nicknames it has! The rather morbid name of ‘Mother-Die’ came from rural villages, where parents spread the rumour that if a child brought cow parsley into the house, their mother would die. This was probably intended to stop children picking the dangerous hemlock, cowbane, or hemlock water-dropwort by accident. It is a shame that cow parsley has this reputation, which is thoroughly undeserved. It is in fact a harmless edible, with a fresh, slightly peppery taste. However, pregnant women are advised not to eat it (just like they are advised not to eat many other things) as it may contain chemicals which cause the womb to contract. In the past it was used as a contraceptive, though not a very effective one!

Now for the recipes. What can we do with this abundant gift of Nature?

So far I have made lacto-ferments of the finely chopped leaves, which brings out the intensity of the celery flavour. It doesn’t look all that appetising prepared like this, it looks like some gaseous green sludge in a jar with a brown broth on top, but it is bursting with Vitamin C, probiotic bacteria and other elements that have been made more readily digestible. I promise It tastes nice. Really. Try it mixed in a soup, stew, curry, smoothie or sandwich. Anything goes. It adds a tangy, umami richness to an otherwise bland dish.

Used like parsley, cow parley can be chopped and added to a potato salad. It tends to be a bit on the dry side, so dishes with plenty of creaminess such as mayonnaise or white sauce are ideal. The clarifying flavours of cow parsley contrast well with the fats of the other ingredients. Use the fresh stems chopped like celery for that juicy, peppery crunch in a salad with raisins and nuts.

Cow parsley stems and leaves finely chopped – potato salad with raisins and walnuts a la Waldorf!

Or try finely chopped leaves in a creamy fish sauce with trout, as chef Heston Blumenthal does with foraging outfit Woodland Ways.

Like I said, don’t be put off foraging for cow parsley. Just do it mindfully – always check the base of each plant as you pick. You will soon get the hang of identifying it. Or else you will die of multiple organ failure. It’s a jungle out there.

COW PARSLEY: The Story of ‘Mother-Die’