The land can provide everything you need in this troubling time, throughout the entire year – or, at least, a few bits and pieces to supplement a diet. John Wright rounds up his favourite foragable treats.
From tasty sorrel rosettes to gooseberries, wild samphire and even lichen, the countryside offers a hedge fund (pardon the pun) of edible treats throughout the year – if, of course, you’re prepared to search for them.
I always enjoy January; it expects very little of me beyond some peaceful book research and I reciprocate by expecting little of it. However, against the desolate browns and greys of deep winter, there are stirrings of green and, occasionally, the bright flash of mushrooms.
In pasture, the basal rosettes of sorrel are very common and, in truth, at their best in winter. For anyone south of Leeds (and preferably by the coast), fresh stands of the winter-loving black mustard can be found. It’s burning hot, but with an underlying complexity that fills the palate. And the bright flash of mushrooms? This is the velvet shank. It forms dense tufts of brilliant orange on dead broadleaved tree stumps. The small caps are beautiful, tasty and slimy – but slimy in a good way.
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Although invasive species are a terrible trial, some attempt to make up for their uncivil behaviour by being edible. One such is three-cornered leek, a plant that forms dense clumps in odd locations in much of England and in South Wales. In February, it resembles pencil-thin leeks and, by April, there is a substantial bulb. Leek and potato soup, perhaps?
Winter laver, one of the seaweeds used in making laverbread, is among the very few true February specialists. It grows as thousands of thin, translucent-brown filaments covering large rocks on the upper shore and looking like a coat of brown varnish. It is a fast food among laver (Porphyra) species, taking a mere five hours to cook, compared with 10 for the more robust summer species. You could even bake it into oatcakes.
The dull tones of winter might linger in March, but things are finally on the move and, around the middle of the month, I make an expedition into the woods to tap birch trees for their sap. Apart from it being a fun thing to do, why I make the considerable effort is questionable.
The sap is 98% water with a hint of sweetness, yet it is the best water you will drink and perhaps worth it in itself. You can also make a pointless wine (it is no different if tap water is used instead) or a syrup. The latter requires the reduction of 10 litres of sap in a bain marie to produce only 120ml of a syrup that is closer to slightly burnt molasses than maple syrup. I am off to the birch wood, anyway – as I say, it is fun.
The familiar bulrush (Typha latifolia, right) will be a foot or so high at some time during April and is a perfect, if unusual, vegetable to put in a stir fry. It is a common plant that can take over domestic ponds, so it should be easy to find some that are surplus to requirements.
You will need Wellington boots or, preferably, waders and a short-sleeved top, as harvesting them is a down and dirty process. Slide your hands down the emerging shoot into the water and mud until you reach the base where it attaches to the rope-like roots. Sever the shoot with a sharp knife. It looks almost exactly like a leek and is trimmed in the same way. The flavour when raw is that of a school playing field, but very acceptable when cooked.
May is the most giving of months, with about 70 species available to the forager. It is difficult to select only one of these, but the humble, common and much underappreciated water mint is a worthy choice. Living up to its name, it is found by streams, in ditches and just about anywhere damp. And it is very mint – mild peppermint, perhaps. As do all mints, it has a distinctly square section to its stem. The leaves are in alternate pairs, furry and some-times with a bronze tinge. Simply pull off a few or cut sprigs with a pair of strong scissors.
It makes a pleasant ice cream and a superb lemon and water-mint sorbet. Or a tea, of course.
Gooseberry, wild marjoram, wild strawberry and marsh samphire are at their best in June. However, together with elderflower, it is Japanese rose that I collect in quantity every year.
It is a non-native, found in gardens as a hedging rose, and also wild, where it frequently makes a nuisance of itself. The flower is similar to our native roses, but much larger and much more fragrant.
Pick the petals on a dry day, just as they open. Pack them gently into a Kilner jar and top up with vodka. Decant after three days and you will have a glorious rose-petal vodka, superb as a cocktail ingredient. Or you can use the fresh petals, held in a muslin bag, to flavour Turkish delight, ice cream or a sorbet.
There is much to find in July, but early vigour is largely spent and mellow fruitfulness only just beginning. It is an in-between month for the forager. Three mellow and fruitful exceptions are cherry plum, raspberry and redcurrant, although only the first of these is particularly abundant and then irregularly so due to its risky choice of flowering time – February.
Watercress is, however, always abundant in July (below right). In the right spot, it is possible, although not recommended, to fill a couple of bin bags with the stuff in a few minutes. The wild plant is identical to the cultivated, but must be cooked, if only lightly so. This destroys any attached metacercariae of the deadly liver fluke that would otherwise hatch, Alien-like, inside you. There are (unreliable) ways around this problem described in my The Forager’s Calendar.
Anyway, bon appetit!
Many mushroom species make their first appearance in high summer, especially a traditionally wet one: the penny bun, horse mushroom, giant puffball, oyster mushroom, chicken of the woods and many more. Arguably the most spectacular, and certainly one of the tastiest, is the parasol. This statuesque mushroom (I have found it with a cap diameter of more than a foot) grows mostly in rings in grassland.
These rings can be enormous – the largest I have seen being 30 yards across, indicating an age of about 120 years. They are unmistakeable, but, as with all fungi, you must check carefully that your anticipated dinner will not be your last. The caps tear radially and it is best to fry the resulting wedges in batter or breadcrumbs. Sautéed, they are like mushroom-flavoured dishcloths.
There are a handful of species that I collect in quantity every year, no matter how many things conspire to distract me. One of them is the red seaweed, dulse. It is common on rocky shores all around Britain’s coast and is found easily at low tide attached to wrack species.
Its Latin name, Palmaria palmata, gives a pocket description, in that the fronds are shaped like a cut-out of a hand. It is dull red, shiny and with the texture of thin card. Fronds should be cut carefully, not torn from their holdfast. This is important for ecological reasons, but also gives you the chance to cut only those in good condition.
It is superb when dusted with flour and deep fried, but most of mine is dried and powdered for use throughout the year in roux or for sprinkling on fish.
October is the time for collecting chestnuts and any of about 50 species of mushroom. It is also the time to pick sloes. Some people wait for the hard frosts of winter, but it makes little difference to the resultant sloe gin beyond a small degree of prune flavour. Pricking, too, has but small benefit. What really makes the difference is time. Sloe gin made in October will be ready for Christmas, but it will be Christmas two years hence.
I leave the sloes in the gin and sugar for six months before decanting off. This provides time for the almond flavour of the pip within the stone to migrate to the gin, where it imparts an amaretto flavour. It will be a further year before it is ready to drink. Patience is all.
Blewits were once the only mushroom other than the field and horse mushroom to find their way to the markets of the conventionally mycophobic British. In the Midlands and elsewhere, field blewits were collected as a cash crop by farmers making good use of their permanent pasture. This species and its relative, the wood blewit, are still common and both seldom appear before the end of October.
Field blewits are particularly hardy, often making it through to January. With their lilac coloration (confined to the stem of the otherwise cream field blewit), they are fairly easy to identify, although the wood blewit has a few unfortunate look-a-likes. One key feature of blewits is that their caps always feel slightly damp. Assuming you have done your identification homework, they are a great treat, with a pleasant, if unusual flavour and a welcome sticky/slimy texture.
Although Nature is enjoying its annual slumber, there are still things to find – provided it is not under a foot of snow. The spinach-like sea beet can still be found on warmer shores, trumpet chanterelles continue to grow in pine forests and the acquired taste of jelly ears (Auricularia auricula-judae) is there to acquire. A walk through an oak wood in December will find fallen twigs adorned with the lichen Evernia prunastri, the oak moss. You will need to dig out your Observer’s Book of Lichens as it’s easily confused with other species, but it’s worth the effort. Just about.
Heated over a gentle flame, the lichen produces an extraordinary aroma that I always liken to that of a department store. How to use it? Dry gently, then powder a few fronds and mix with breadcrumbs for croquettes.
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