Spring Foraging - Delight in the New Season

Delight in the new season that is Spring seems all the most intense coming after the cold and prolonged winter. This year I have been amazed at the amount of fresh sprouting greens available just outside my urbanish back door.  Really this is no different I am sure from any year, it’s just that I am learning a bit more and being more observant.

Heres a quick run down of the plants I have collected in early March.  It’s important as always to stress that it is vital to be absolutely 100% sure of your identification before eating any wild food.  Using the best field guides and cross referencing between them is very useful.  (I list a few that I use at the end).  However, even if all this checks out there can still be considerable issues to consider not least individual tolerances to new foods.  A great resource with tips for a tolerance test can be found here.

Lesser celandine – Ranunculus ficaria

Lesser celandine – Ranunculus ficaria

Lesser celandine is found in damp areas often in shady, woody areas.  The leaves coming so early must have provided a useful nutritional boost to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  It has also been shown that later in the year they even collected the small roots which store the starch produced in the leaves during the year.  After your tolerance test you can nibble leaves in a salad or try in a hot dish such as in this celandine stroganoff recipe.  One thing to remember is not to pick the leaves once the plant has flowered as they can become slightly toxic.  Although not my best picture the flower shown below was growing on a plant in more open ground slightly higher than the flowerless plants under the trees.  So locally this plant has been flowering certainly by the end of February this year.

Lesser celandine with its distinct yellow flower

Wild Garlic -Allium ursinum

Fresh shoots of Wild garlic coming through the leaf litter

Common names include ramsons, buckrams, broad-leaf garlic, wood garlic and bear garlic – the latter being derived from a direct translation of its Latin name Allium ursinum.

All parts of the plant (bulb, leaves and flowers) are edible, and having eaten the leaves regularly I can report that I find them to have a powerful and quite shearing garlic kick.  This is contrary to much of what I have seen written which implies lesser pungency than normal garlic.  If you are foraging for wild garlic it does resemble some poisonous plants.  As a note of caution I copy below the notes from The River Cottage Handbook number 7:  Hedgerow by John Wright on this matter:

“Lily of the Valley bears a striking resemblance to Wild Garlic and is a common garden plant occasionally found escaped to the wild.  Do be careful, therefore, if picking near habitation as it is quite seriously poisonous.  The Autumn Crocus (or Meadow Saffron) also has long pointed leaves and has caused at least one death in the UK quite recently after being mistaken for Wild Garlic.  Much more common is Lords and Ladies.  The fully grown leaves are quite unlike Wild Garlic but the immature ones could confuse, especially as they too appear from the barren ground of early spring”.

It certainly concentrates the mind to read these cautionary words, the main relief being that it is only Wild Garlic that smells so strongly of its namesake.

Although I have not tried the bulbs (and in fact to do so would be illegal as by definition it would require digging a plant up) I am looking forward to having a go at pickling the buds of Wild garlic once these set in a few weeks time – here’s a brief description of how to do so by young chef by Ben Greeno:

“One of the other things I have been pickling are wild garlic buds. After the flowers had fallen off the wild garlic I picked the bud and salted them for 6 weeks, when the 6 weeks are up I put them into straight apple vinegar, they have been in there for around 2 weeks so far and there should be enough to keep me going through the winter.  They are great for finishing off sauces adding a nice garlicy vinegar kick.”

Common sorrel

I wrote about Common and Sheep’s sorrel in a blog in November 2011 so I won’t bore you now.  Suffice to say that now in March the same plants are happily producing new leaves and a 20 minute picking session can produce as much as is required to provide a salad, an excellent omelet and a sharp addition to a spinach dish for a family of 4!

Stinging nettles – Urtica dioica

Widely regarded as one of the best wild foods now in their prime as the tender young shoots come through.  Pluck the top most leaves much as I have heard described when picking tea.  Gloves are probably a good idea although with my chefs scared hands and a firm touch I collected a carrier bag without their defence’s troubling me.  Your harvest can be put to a variety of uses (we recently used when deep-fried in a gram flour batter as a bar nibble) but probably best is a nettle soup.  Heres a good recipe taken from a great web resource devoted to nettles:

To make delicious nettle soup, all you need is a bagful of nettle leaves, about the size of a football, for four people. Also:

  • 1 large onion and garlic cloves to taste
  • 2 or 3 potatoes
  • olive oil, salt and pepper
  • some stock or a stock cube (chicken or vegetable)
  • cream to taste

Firstly to prepare the nettles wash and drain them.  Then chop up the potatoes, onion and garlic and sauté them in a 2 litre saucepan with a splash of olive oil and a bit of butter to taste. When the onion starts to soften and the potato is forming a slight crust, drop in the nettles and give them a quick whisk around with a spatula. Then add a litre of boiled water and your stock. Stir it all up and let it bubble for about 12 minutes, or until the potato is soft.

Put it through a liquidiser once it has cooled, then return to the pan to warm it when you are ready to serve. To serve, pour the soup into a bowl and add some cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Dandelion leaves -  taraxacum aggregate

I really want to try roasting and grinding dandelion root to make an imitation coffee.  I will use them from my garden where they grown in profusion to avoid the long arm of the law!  bizarre as it sounds this apparently really does make a convincing substitute although the very thought of it probably offends our friends at Sheffield’s expert coffee roaster’s Pollards.

In the meantime I have been picking the younger leaves and adding to salads even slipping a few into a sandwich to pep things up.  The flavour can be bitter so occasionally people “blanch” the leaves up covering with say a flower-pot causing over a few days the leaf to yellow and become less bitter.  But as been said this is dangerously close to gardening and perhaps not in the true spirit of foraging.

In the latin name the “aggregate” part indicates that there are a lot of microspecies – 235 to be precise.  So this explains the variety of shapes in the leaves in your weeds.

A selection of useful foraging guide books:
The River Cottage Handbook number 7:  Hedgerow by John Wright
Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman – Wild Food
Edible Wild Plants and Herbs – Pamela Michael
Food for Free – Richard Mabey