So Spring is upon us and this is the time when nature bestows on us some of the most beautiful and tasty greens and flowers going, and if your very lucky, you might even find a few edible mushrooms.
Foraging is a fun and healthy activity for you and your wallet, but it’s also something that needs to be practised with great care and attention to detail. There are some very poisonous and very dangerous plants in the UK, so don’t just run to the woods and start thinking you can be the next Nigel Forage straight away… (Thanks Finn 😉 )
Here are some tips on staying safe and enjoying foraging
DISCLAIMER – I AM NO EXPERT, NEITHER BITTEN OXFORD OR I ARE IN ANY WAY RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY ILL EFFECTS YOU MAY HAVE FROM MISIDENTIFICATION
The first rule of forage club is – NEVER eat something unless you have identified it 100%.
There are many books out there that can get you started, with lots of information on what to look out for and what seasons you will find various species, but never use these as an exact guide. There are lots of plants that have very poisonous and or dangerous relatives and look-alikes, so going from a book alone is never advisable. The best way to start is by finding a local course or guide who will give you invaluable advice. There have been many cases of people getting extremely ill or injured, or even dying, from a lack of education and misidentification – so beware.
Never pick plants that could be in the ‘’Dog Wee Zone’’.
This is basically anywhere next to paths or clearings where dogs can wee. Anything over waist height is generally safe, plus quiet secluded areas too. Rain will wash off a little bit of urine anyhow.
Never dig up without landowners permission. It is illegal, so never do this.
Start off with the easy ones.
There are species out there that can be very easily identified and foraged without worrying too much and can be used to make some very simple, healthy meals. Here are a few that you could look out for –
The bain of your childhood or that annoying patch in your garden is actually a very nutritious plant that has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for millennia. Is can be made into stews, soups, cordials, beers and much more. Always use gloves when picking and simply blanch for a few minutes to disarm the brute.
The fleeting wild garlic season is one of my all time favourites. Its garlicky aroma and taste are subtle and delicate. It is often found in sheltered woodland on undisturbed ground. I have been told that the soil type in Oxfordshire isn’t the best for wild garlic, but I have found a patch so it is out there. There is a very dangerous lookalike that grows in the same conditions, sometimes even side by side called Lily of the Valley. Also, Bluebells look very similar and believe it or not these are poisonous too. They are easy to tell apart when you know how, just do your research beforehand.
This is a member of the mustard family and has a faint garlicky hint to it. It’s in full season right now and can be used as a salad leaf, parsley substitute, or spinach substitute, plus you can use the flowers as a very pretty garnish. It has a slightly bitter flavour similar to Cimi de Rapa, but so have a lot of these wild genus. It’s something you will grow to love through eating these regularly.
These look very similar to stinging nettles and are found in similar habitats too. If you forgot your gloves don’t worry as these are harmless, and actually a member of the mint family. Again you can use as a salad leaf or spinach substitute, or whizz up into a pesto. There are two types, one with purple tops and flowers and one with white flowers. These flowers also make for a lovely garnish.
Be prepared to get spiked as this prehistoric looking plant packs a mighty sharp spike. Those brave enough and patient enough to pick it though will be delighted with the lovely coconutty yellow flowers you can get. Best picked early in the morning on a sunny day, you can use to make syrups, cakes, add to salads or get your fermenting hat on and make some wine!
Hawthorn Leaves and Flowers
These can be found in abundance now and the flowers used exactly like gorse flowers, with the young tender leaves added to your salads.
There are many other plants in season now like Ground Alder, Cow Parsley, Common Hogweed among others, but these need careful identification as there are similar plants that could be very dangerous to pick. The carrot family has some deadly and very harmful species in it, so know what you’re doing before risking any of these. There is also a plant in the UK called Giant Hogweed, the sap of which contains furocoumarin, which makes skin extremely sensitive to sunlight (phytophotodermatitis). If the sap gets onto your skin, then you are exposed to sun, your skin can blister badly and blistering can reoccur over months and even years.
Things to come – Just round the corner, we have one of the most acclaimed seasons of the mighty Elder Flower. I could do a whole blog on this alone so keep posted.
Recipe: Spring Onion, Asparagus and Wild Green Soup with Maple Dukkah
5 spears of asparagus
1 potato, diced small
Spring onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
Bunch of wild greens (wild garlic, nettles, dead nettles, garlic mustard or ground alder. Or all of the above. Alternatively, if you want, just some peas and spinach)
A mix of seeds and chopped up nuts
50ml maple syrup
Salt and pepper
Snap off the woody bits of asparagus, then sweat down the spring onion, potato and garlic in a little oil on a medium heat until the potato is soft. Make sure you dice this all up small and season well.
Add enough vegetable stock to be able to cover the amount of greens you will be using. Bring stock to a boil, add your greens and asparagus spears and simmer for no more than 5 minutes to keep the colour nice and green.
Take a few of the spears out for garnish and whizz up the rest in a food processor until it’s as smooth as possible.
While this is going on, take your nuts and seeds and lightly toast them in a dry pan. When they start to colour, add in your turmeric, season, then drizzle over a little maple syrup. Let this cook down slightly so seeds are nice and sticky but don’t burn.
Garnish with some foraged flowers and a little chilli sauce and bob’s your uncle, lunch in minutes.
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