Walks in the countryside have helped to keep many of us sane during these past few troubling months. At this stage we know every inch of our local area intimately, those of us who live close to the sea or a woodland feel fortunate indeed to be able to breathe in sea air and gather sea beet along by the seashore.
I’m a foraging nerd and now that Spring is definitely here, a walk takes on a whole extra dimension. I scan the hedgerows, streams, woodland and seashore for wild things to gather. There’s an abundance of fresh growth to nibble on and the young leaves of ground elder are at their best at present, eat them raw, in salads or add to a foragers soup, cook them like melted greens or make a ground elder champ. Gardeners regard ground elder as a pest, a perennial weed that re-emerges and spreads every year but, where others see weeds, I see dinner…
For weeks now, we’ve been enjoying both kinds of wild garlic, both ramps and the snow bells that grow along the roadside and resemble white blue bells. Allium Triquetrum or Three-Cornered leeks are named because of their triangular stem, leek like leaves and pretty white, bell like flowers. The broader leaved ramps or ramsons unlike its namesake, grow in dappled shade, under trees or in woodlands. The leaves come first followed by the delicious flower buds, then the pretty white pompom like flowers and finally the pungent green seed heads that make a feisty pickle – all delicious.
JP McMahon described wild garlic as ‘the gateway drug for the novice forager’ because of its distinct garlicky aroma which makes it easy to identify. It’s also super versatile in the kitchen and we keep finding more and more ways to enjoy it. Add some chopped leaves to white soda scones, dip the top in cheddar cheese and how about this spicy riff on the wild garlic pesto recipe in my Grow, Cook, Nourish book. The perky young leaves are also delicious in salads – I particularly love them with devilled eggs but try adding some to a Alfredo sauce with strips of roast red pepper to anoint some pasta before sprinkling with a shower of the pretty white wild garlic flowers.
Do you have a clean stream closeby? Wild watercress is almost at its peak just now, before it begins to go to flower. For identification purposes, remember the top leaf of the cress family is always the biggest and the leaves get progressively smaller as they go down the stem whereas the opposite applies to the wild celery that always grows side by side with watercress in the stream. Make sure the water is clean and fast flowing and wash well before you use in soups, salads or your favourite recipe.
Ever had butterfly sandwiches? A memory from my childhood – simply, sliced white bread, slathered generously with butter, filled with chopped watercress and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. Press down and cut into triangles, surprisingly delicious, better still, add to egg and mayo sandwiches.
I also love to nibble the first young leaves of hawthorn, we call this ‘bread and butter’. These are known to be good for your cardiovascular system, an old wives tale that’s now backed up by science but don’t over do it…
You’ll find wintercress or bittercress growing everywhere at present, in gravel paths, flower beds. It grows in basals and it too has a slightly mustardy flavour. It’s also one of our favourite Winter and early Spring treats. Enjoy now because it’ll soon get leggy and go to flower. Add it to salads or use as a garnish to embellish starter plates. The soft new growth of spruce look like pale green tassels, gather them to make a pine flavoured syrup before they get prickly.
Finally, I must mention primroses and sweet cicely. The latter is one of the earliest perennial herbs to re-emerge in Spring. Add it to rhubarb or simply use it as a stencil on top of a cake. Sprinkle with icing sugar and remove it to find a delicate fernlike pattern. Primroses also make a pretty garnish or a delightful addition to a salad but are most enchanting when crystallised to decorate Wee Primrose Buns.