Wild food throughout the year

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(C) Andy and Dave Hamilton, www.selfsufficientish.com

Early spring

Full of expectations, March is an interesting time for any forager. Everything is coming up for its first peek of light and it’s easy to fill a whole day looking at the variety of edible plants available.

Dandelion root

Dig up the roots with a trowel, cut off the tops (which can be made into beer – substituting the hops), and wash them. The resulting white roots can be slow roasted in the oven. A baking tray full of roots can be put in the oven after cooking, meaning no extra heat is needed to roast them. They normally need four or five oven sessions.

Grind them to a fine powder in a blender and use in a similar fashion to coffee granules. They taste similar to barley cup and make a great drink.

Dandelion roots can also be chopped, lightly fried for a couple of minutes, then covered in water and simmered until soft. They are an acquired taste, but soya sauce disguises the flavour which may be a bonus when first tasting.

Habitat: meadows, wasteground and everywhere you wish to cultivate vegetables (grrr).

Uses: As a food and a coffee substitute.

Nettles

Nettles are available all year round, but picking is easier in March. They have many uses including nettle beer, nettle haggis and nettle soup. Do wear gloves when picking to avoid being stung, and wash the nettles before use.

 

Late spring

May feels like the time when England has put its party clothes on with so many tree and plants in blossom. The weather is hotting up, it is almost summer and all the expectations of what the next two seasons can bring are laid before us in a truly beautiful floral display.

Elder flower

By the end of May, elder flower’s floral scent can be smelt from hedgerow to parkland and heath. The season varies slightly across the country and I’ve seen it growing as late as July in Edinburgh.

Habitat: waste ground, out of walls, parks.

Parts used: the flowers (later in the year the berries).

Uses: elderflower cordial and champagne.

Hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn blossoms look good in a salad. They also make a great tea.

Habitat: parks, edges of old fields, the edge of public rights of way.

Parts used: the young leaves can be used in place of parsley, the blossom in tea and the haw berries can be eaten raw or in jams (avoiding the pips which contain cyanide!)

 

Summer

Things really start to hot up in July. The evenings are still long, schools are out and Americans celebrate Independence Day. In the world of plants and fungi, a celebration of its own occurs and real gluts of food can be found by the keen forager.

Giant puffball and puffballs

I found my first puffball on an industrial estate while working as a driver’s mate. It went into a risotto and ever since whenever I find this mushroom I do the same with it – rice, stock, pepper, mushroom, tarragon and cream – delicious.

When you cut into the flesh of a puffball it is pure white with a uniform texture. If it is grey or a dark colour then it’s best left alone. Similarly if you cut it in half and there appears to be a small mushroom forming inside then don’t eat it. This is an immature poisonous mushroom and not a puffball.

Habitat: open fields, on industrial estates.

Parts used: the fruiting body (i.e. the whole puffball).

Blackberry or bramble

Blackberries are just about everyone’s introduction to foraging. Across the summer, humans, birds and animals alike flock to these bushes to take advantage of this abundant fruit.

The first berry to ripen is that on the very tip, and then each berry in order heading back from the tip berry. For this reason the tip berries are always the most choice and best eaten raw. Save the sometimes slightly bitter rear ones for cooking.

Blackberries are very versatile and can be made into fools, ice-cream, wine, summer puddings – and even ketchup.

Habitat: everywhere!

Parts used: berry. Leaf can be made into a tea.

Mint

One my favourite uses for mint is to make it into a tea. I also like to mix it with yoghurt and cucumber and serve it with curries or spicy food.

Habitat: water mint by water, wild mint by roadsides and gardens.

Parts used: all except root.

 

Winter

In the midst of winter you’d be fooled into thinking there’s not much wild food around. While there’s a lot less than at other times of the year, something can be found even on the coldest of days. I’ve found it best to keep an open mind about what I might want to pick that day. So, rather than go out with the idea to pick just mushrooms, just berries or just leaves I will see what’s about, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.

Mushrooms

Once the main mushroom season is over there isn’t much that you’d pick for flavour alone. One way around this is to pick more autumn mushrooms than you need and dry them. Come winter you can rehydrate them and mix with the less abundant winter foraged mushrooms.

A couple of small ceps, some blewits or chanterelle mushrooms will be enough to impart a little flavour into the slightly bland oyster or velvet shank mushroom. However, spices, herbs and cream all have their place in flavouring fungi and any good recipe book should give you plenty of ideas (including our book The Selfsufficientish Bible).

Oyster mushrooms are perhaps the easiest to identify as they are sold in many greengrocers and supermarkets. It might be worth buying a small amount of them to familiarise yourself and identify them correctly while out foraging.

Wood ear is also easy to identify as it looks like a misshapen brown ear! It grows mainly on Elder trees. Pick only the larger pieces – the very small (size of a fingernail) ones when left will grow in a matter of weeks, or even days. Some find the texture of this fungus a little off-putting, and it can be somewhat an acquired taste. Try it in a Thai mixed vegetable stir-fry, flavoured with chilli, coriander and lime to help get you used to the gelatinous texture.

Leaves

It is often the more fiery salad leaves that survive into winter. Their strong tasting compounds ward off predators that may be tempted to have a nibble. Winter cress or American land cress can have an extremely powerful kick to it and grows even in the depths of winter. It generally grows in clumps and looks a lot like watercress.

 

Note: try not to over-pick any wild food as they are important winter food for small mammals, birds and insects.

Never eat any wild food you have collected without being 100% sure of its identity and its edibility. Check on google images, a good foraging book or look it up in a gardening book.