Spring Foraging from Sam
My brother Sam lives in Manchester. From Monday to Friday, he works in an office (or currently his kitchen table). But come the weekend, and pretty much any free time he gets, he traverses the Northern terrain, either running, cycling or foraging for things to eat.
I love my brother, he's a stellar human being, so I thought it only right to have him write my first feature - plus, he seems to have a love for salted butter just like the rest of us Joyces, so we're definitely related. Here is Sam's advice on Spring-time foraging and what to cook with your finds.
Foraging is having a bit of a moment right now. Lockdown has caused us to spill into our parks and woodlands looking for some fresh air, and everyone’s got more time to stop and smell the wild things. Scarcity in supermarkets raises questions about where our dinner comes from and the vulnerabilities of our current food system. It’s not surprising that our response to this is either to pick up a trowel and start gardening, or to venture out to see what’s already growing in the woods.
And spring is a particularly good time to get into wild food, with the forests and hedgerows full of new green things and the first edible fungi starting to make an appearance. Although some of the best edibles are rare or hard to identify, there’s also plenty of palatable plants you can’t help but run into on your daily walk. This article sets out a few of those, as well as some ideas about what to do with what you find.
A word of caution: eating wild food is an inherently risky activity: there are plants and mushrooms in the UK that can make you very ill or worse. Don’t pick anything you’re not sure about, and try and cross reference using a good foraging book or website. Wild Food UK is a good place to start. To be safe, avoid picking any plants with sprays of white flowers and small, fern like leaves. You will miss out on edible members of this group (such as cow parsley) but also avoid the deadliest plants – hemlock and hemlock water dropwort.
Also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, this plant is found everywhere at the moment – especially in shady spots by the sides of paths. Look for tall rosettes of spiky, nettle like leaves with tiny white four petaled flowers growing from the top of the plant. A mild garlic smell when crushed is a sure identifier.
As the name suggests, it has a somewhat strong taste similar to garlic and mustard. I find the small, new leaves are the best tasting. You can throw it in a salad where it pairs well with a creamy dressing, or blitz it in dips for added flavour and colour. If you collect enough you can substitute for basil in a garlic mustard pesto.
Although it doesn’t have the most appetising name, hogweed is by far my favourite edible at the moment. Found in a mix of environments, and particularly in woodlands, this plant is best in spring when it produces delicious new leaves and immature flowers. Look for a slightly hairy hollow and grooved stem, large roughly lobed leaves and impressive umbrella like clusters of white flowers.
You must be particularly cautious however, as this plant has a very similar looking relative: giant hogweed. This plant produces a toxic sap that can burn your skin. Giant hogweed is much larger, as the name suggests, has distinctive purple blotches and lacks the distinctive grooved stem of common hogweed. A good identifier is the number of stems on the mature flowers; hogweed will have around 13, but giant hogweed will have more than 20 flower stems.
If you’re sure its common hogweed, the best bits are the purple immature flowers and the newly emerging leaves. It has a unique, parsley like flavour, and can be treated like tender broccoli or asparagus. Hogweed is delicious simmered in water then gently sautéed in butter and tossed through freshly cooked pasta.
Chicken of The Woods
Ok, this isn’t a common edible. But I couldn’t resist talking about this unique and delicious fungus which is just rearing its head this time of year.
Nothing else really looks like chicken of the woods so it is a safe bet for the novice forager. Look for a globular yellow-orange mass emerging from the trunks of trees. I’ve heard it is most common on oak, sweet cherry and chestnut trees but it can grow in the most unusual of places and a bit of luck is required to find a patch.
Another word of caution: be careful when collecting this prized shroom from the trunk of the poisonous yew tree, as this has been known to cause gastric upsets in some.
Chicken of the woods has a savoury, slightly lemony taste and a fantastic texture. It makes an excellent chicken substitute, breaded and deep fried until it golden and served alongside fresh greens. Alternatively, if you want to appreciate this mushrooms flavour it does very well on toast with some good butter.