One of the most enjoyable things about foraging is the way in which it compels a greater awareness of one’s surroundings – the need to slow down, pause and look. My walk (run) to the station each morning plots a dishevelled and hastily coordinated line towards town – it’s only as the dust starts to settle in the evening and I make my way home that I spot what I’ve missed. Lime, sweet chestnut, ash, elder, common mallow, dandelion – last week I found clumps of wild fennel just a couple of hundred yards from our front door. Bit of a poor show that they’re marooned in a central reservation on the A331.
It goes without saying that a major aspect of foraging is identifying not just what to eat, but what to avoid. It’ll be a long while until I explore certain plants in the umbellifer family; wild chervil’s uncanny resemblance to a dangerous cousin is a little too close for comfort. There’d be few complaints from the family if I stirred a handful of finely chopped hemlock into a herby risotto, mostly due to the fact that we’d have expired at various points around the dining room. That said, spotting poisonous plants can provide clues to finding edible ones; foxgloves like soil with a higher PH, acidity loving sustenance may well be nearby.
Robin Harford runs a number of wild food courses in and around Sidmouth, East Devon (www.foragingcourses.com) – a great start if you’re keen on foraging. It was a revelation to discover that dried hogweed seeds have a lightly citrus, cardamom flavour; similarly I had no idea that German uniforms were woven from nettle fibre during World War 1. Nettles are a fantastically versatile plant, higher in vitamin C than oranges and packed full of protein. Why we use them so infrequently is something of a mystery.
Reedmace (bullrushes, as I erroneously knew them as a youth) is in flower about this time of year; slender spikes poking out of riverbanks and ponds with a fuzz of cottony pollen on top. When flour was rationed during the forties reedmace was regularly used as a substitute in bread making (roughly 20% pollen, 80% flour), apparently the roots are tasty too (not entirely dissimilar to hearts of palm). I could be onto a winner with the ‘hedgerow pizza’ – reedmace dough base, steamed nettle and ricotta topping with a scattering of mallow flowers at the end to add a bit of colour. Might work on an alternative title for the ‘Chocolate and hogweed torte’ though.
Posted on bbcgoodfood.com 26th July 2010