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’

Winter BUSHMOOT: Fire Cookery Masterclass

Myself and the lad are fresh back from the deep woods of Cranham Scout campsite in Gloucester. Here we camped in about a foot of thick, curd-like February mud and learned of the further arts of camp fire cookery from Wayne and Beth (and other Chefs!) of Forest Knights Bushcraft School. Whilst my son threw himself into the stream a few times.

SAND PIT FIRE TABLE

The first inspiring idea was the wooden table with a fire on top of it. Er, wooden table? Fire? How do they mix without the obvious happening? In my oblivious state, it took me a while to realise the what I thought was solid wood was actually a wooden sandbox about 6in deep, chock full of sand. Clever. We had our food cooked on this solidly for almost a week and it didn’t burn down. Great if you don’t fancy all the squatting and bending over a fire on the ground, and you can store stuff underneath the table.

Curry night, cooked on the fire sandpit table at back.

DEER BUTCHERY

The guys then brought in two (already deceased) deer, a muntjac and a fallow, and showed us how to butcher them. Fans of my earlier posts will know that I have already done this, badly, with a roadkill muntjac. So it was interesting to see how to do it properly. the main idea was to completely gut the Deer as soon as it is killed to prevent spoiling (which I didn’t do before). Wayne let everyone get stuck in learning how to do it, but I had to go off and pull my son out of the stream again. Here you can see the two skins after they finished and the meat was carried to the kitchen.

KEFIR SWEET & SAVOURY FLATBREADS

Beth showed us all how to mix kefir, vinegar, bicarb of soda, flour, and either rosemary or raisins into little flatbreads which we cooked in a pan with garlic butter and oil. Delicious on a cold and damp day in the woods! The kefir contains healthy bacteria which help you digest your food, and gives bread that lovely sour-dough taste. Marty got stuck right into this bit, (even if he did have to wash his hands three times before Beth would let him near the dough).

SMOKING VENISON

The fallow deer was jointed and the leg joints spread with Jamaican jerk seasoning before they were put in the smoker. The smoker looks like a large metal barrel with metal racks inside, where the meat Is stacked in layers over the internal embers. One of our chefs, Tim, had an electronic control with which he could adjust the temperature of the smoker and time how long it had been in there. It took most of the afternoon to smoke the venison and we ate at 1830.

SPATCHCOCK MUNTJAC

The muntjac was split in half and tied onto a wooden frame, which was hung over the fire pit. Wooden stakes held out the bottom half. At first it wasn’t close enough and had to be brought down lower to cook. Judging the distance can be tricky. There was also a great design for a wooden stake kettle holder which had notches in the back to adjust the height of the kettle. I was worried the kettle would slip when I let it go, but the tension of the bent stake prevented it doing so.

BUSHMOOT DEBRIEF!

Every day we were stuffed to the gills with food. English breakfast rolls, which were very generous, were £3.50, and dinner was £7.50. If you didn’t want to buy it you could bring your own food. The whole week’s camping and workshops cost £120 for me and £70 for Marty (child 5-15), and the camp site had showers and toilets. The only downside was that because of the gale forecast we had to evacuate our camping spots in the woods on Thursday and drag our stuff to the other side of the site. Of course, yours truly left half her stuff in the woods, including the hot water bottles, as we spent most of Thursday warming up in TGI Fridays in Gloucester and only moved when it got dark!

To do the Winter Moot again ideally I would want a bell tent with a stove. You can get one for about £300. Though Marty was absolutely fine, I got cold on some nights, especially when we we on the other side without a fire. Good air beds or self inflating mattresses a must, also lots and lots of spare lanterns, as Marty dropped the batteries out of ours and lost my headlamp right underneath the double mattress for three whole days. My ukulele and tongue drum went down a treat too, as did a bottle of Carnivor Zinfandel. When in the woods in Feb, you need the heat in a decent red…

Winter BUSHMOOT: Fire Cookery Masterclass

Sap from Quick Silver

We can all feel the quickening, so now’s the time to talk about Birch, that fast growing speeding deciduous, first into the fray in the epic poem ‘Battle of the Trees’ from the Celtic ‘Book of Taliesin’. Birch is a useful tree in many ways. It really is first to colonise new spaces, being a pioneer species. It marks January in the Celtic tree calendar, under the ancient name of ‘Beithe’. It is the tree of new beginnings and rebirth.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is the most common species in the UK. When young, it forms a slender tree up to 26m high, with a narrow crown and a smooth white-silver bark with horizontal brown darts on it. Older birches tend to spread out more, and their bark is patterned with dark triangles or diamonds.

Close cousin Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) is differentiated by it’s more oval leaf shape, and the softly downy buds in Spring. The other two you will come across in people’s gardens and verges are the Paper-Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera) and the Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis), with its pretty golden-white peeling bark. When I was a kid (and even now, if I had the time) I loved collecting the semi translucent sheets of papery bark and putting them up to the light, imagining making the most delightful artists paper out of them. So apologies, folks, it’s time for a poem.

columns of Viking daydream;

powder greys of gunshot, white satin bride’s regalia

where Brunhilde walked with Beowulf

amongst those slender icy silver halls;

thirsty for the crystal gift of waters

from the Newest born.

Anyway…

What can we do with Birch?

Birch sap can be tapped and drunk straight, purified by the filtration system of the tree. if you are ever stuck out in mid-March (approximately) without access to clean water, this will save your life. No matter how unlikely you are to be that far from a pub. I have tapped birches in the woods near me, and yes, the sap is like very pleasant soft water. Not as sweet as I’d expected, but it tasted decent.

So how do you do it? The process is akin to giving blood.

You will need:

  • Plastic water bottles (2 litre lemonade ones are good, but smaller is fine)
  • Strong twine
  • Hand drill with bit the width of the drinking straw or slightly smaller
  • Scissors
  • Knife
  • Drinking straws
  • First aid plasters!

1 ) Find a large birch in mid March. Older ones are better as they are bigger and carry more sap.

2) Drill carefully and neatly with the hand drill at an angle of 45 degrees, slanting upward, into the trunk.

3) You should only need to drill about 1cm -1.5cm before the sap starts running out. When this happens, don’t drill any further. Take out the drill.

4) Insert the drinking straw into the hole. If you have measured it to the drill bit, it should be a tight fit.

5) Position the water bottle just below the dripping straw, close enough so you can angle it into the neck of the bottle.

6) Tie the bottle firmly to the trunk with the twine.

7) Leave it for several hours, or most of the day, or overnight, depending how much you want and how much time you have. I got about a litre in 2 hours.

8) Collect your birch sap and enjoy!

9) It is considerate to the tree to protect the wound, just like we do, from fungal spores and other tree germs. I like to stick a first aid plaster over the hole to help the tree heal.

If you can be bothered, and you have a LOT of birch trees nearby, and a lot of free time, you can try to make Birch Syrup by boiling down the sap. This is quite a tax on the trees however, you need a lot of sap just to make a tiny amount of syrup. If you ask me, I’m sticking to honey.

Fresh green Birch leaves can be used to make a cleansing tonic tisane (posh word for tea). Boil the leaves for several minutes then strain them out. Great if you need vitamins after a long winter stuffing yourself with chocolate! Birch leaves contain flavonoids and astringent tannins, having long been used as a beauty tonic, invigorating drink and facial wash by Celtic maidens attempting to snare the man of their dreams. Well, you never know.

Sap from Quick Silver