Thanks to Verity Murricane from The Rats Whiskers Natural Infusions for her demonstration at our May 2023 market and this introduction to foraged spring greens.
There is always something wild to forage. In summer you have linden flowers, elderflower, meadowsweet, chamomile, pineapple weed, in autumn there are a whole host of seeds, berries and nuts, even in mid winter you have gorse flowers, a second flush of nettle tips, the last lingering hawthorn. Spring is the prime time for lots of fresh young shoots and leaves.
The thing to remember is that wild plants are wild, they haven’t gone through the long process of being selected for specific qualities by generations of farmers. So this means taste can be quite varied between different plants of the same species, and often the nice edible bits come attached to spikes, prickles or tough inedible stems.
But it also means you get strong vibrant flavours that haven’t been tamed or bred out among cultivated crops. Sometimes this can be extreme- try tasting little of the wild prickly lettuce, for example -astonishingly bitter, it is hard to accept this is the wild ancestor of crunchy bland iceberg.
I have taken my inspiration from the classic salad nicoise, to use a few of these lovely spring greens,solidity of potato, and a strong salty element mixes nicely with these plants.
Two or three midsized cold cooked potatoes
A little olive oil
Something salty- the classic is anchovies, but I use shreds of slow baked salted fennel
Hardboiled egg, or another protein of your choice.
Green beans – in the spring I use hop shoots which are like asparagus
Goosegrass – the straggly plant with the Velcro leaves (also known as Cleaver). In spring the young tip leaves are great, before they become tough and fibrous. Can be blanched in hot water to soften.
Chickweed – a common garden or hedgerow plant, and again, it is great for salads for just a few weeks.
Shepherds purse – from the family of plants known as scurvy grass, because their high vitamin C content restored health to sailors, or after a long winter without fresh food.
Garlic mustard – the flower tops, immature seed pods and top leaves of this are wonderful, a mustard abrasiveness, mixed with garlic.
Wash and mix the leaves, being sure to pick out any older fibrous stems. Slice the potatoes, quickly plunge the hop shoots into boiling water, then cool. Toss everything together, sprinkle with shreds of salted fennel, and a quartered hardboiled egg, drizzle with olive oil, and enjoy.
Resources for anyone who would like to forage.
I have a lot of books, mainly gathered second hand, so keep your eyes open in charity shops, as some of them are definitely out of print. Starting at the beginning- Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. While there have been other, and possibly better guides since, and personally I find his bouncy style a little irritating, especially his need to find everything delicious rather than merely okay, this is still an excellent place to start.
The other books I use are:
River Cottage Handbook no 7: Hedgerow by John Wright (this covers less plants, but in more detail, and with better pictures).
The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler (I like this because it has a far more urban focus, covering many of the new foraging resources, plants that have escaped, been abandoned, or have been planted as ornamentals, but can also be eaten
Wild Food by Roger Phillips. This, like his wild flower, tree and other guides is excellent.
Naturetrek Guide: Wild Herbs of Britain and Europe, by Jacques de Sloover and Martine Goossens (focuses on herbs, medicinal or culinary, rather than the wider range of wild food, but is very good).
Wild Food for Free by Jonathan Hilton, printed by Gaia books (a useful cross referencing guide).
The Wild Foods of Britain by L Cameron. This is a 1970’s reprint of a guide written in 1917. Some of the suggestions are pretty outdated -nobody these days would think of eating a hedgehog, or sparrow eggs, but it is fascinating as an historical source
Wild Food by Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman This is a guide, but also experimental archaeology, using Ray Mears’ knowledge of bushcraft and technology used by modern subsistence cultures to suggest ways that the Mesolithic first settlers in the British Isles might have gathered processed and used a wide variety of plants.
Good wild flower, shrub and tree guides are also useful, to help identify things before you find out if they are edible. I also have a photographic guide to poisonous plants and fungi, published by HMSO in the late 80’s.
There are lots of online foraging guides out there. Some are very good, some are good but based in the USA, so of limited value for the UK. Some are not so good.
My favourites are wildfooduk.com and eatweeds.co.uk. Both of these are advertising their foraging courses; however they have lots of good free information.
The Woodland Trust also has lots of information.
I also like Mountain Rose Herbs USA-based online shop, because it has a lot of fairly reliable information on herbs including wild ones.
Remember- cross reference, use at least two sources.
Do not rely on it looks good so it must be safe- for example groundsel always looks really succulent to me, ideal for a spring salad, but it is quite toxic, and should only be used medicinally in small quantities, by people who know what they are doing.
Be sure you know you have the right plant- for example the umbellifers contain both edibles and highly poisonous species, including hemlock. Some like ground elder are very distinctive, but others look dismayingly similar. Never eat anything you are not certain about.