On Saturday 26th May about thirty people gathered at Abbotts’ Hall Farm on the Essex coast for a foraging day led by two people from the Rural Community Council of Essex whose names I failed to note (sorry). Abbotts Hall Farm is a working farm and the head ofiices of Essex Wildlife Trust.
When asked if any of us had been foraging before few people confessed to more than blackberrying, but as the day progressed it was clear that most of us had dabbled with collecting wild food before now. I have gathered bilberries in Scotland and Scandinavia, wild plums and sloes in Oxfordshire and Essex. I once gathered lost of snails and purged them on bread for a couple of days before deciding that I really, truly did not want to eat them, and that the chickens would appreciate them far more than I. My earliest memory of foraging was as a child on holiday in Jersey with my grandparents. We gathered winkles, purged them, cooked and ate them with pins, dipping them in vinegar. I loved them. When visiting friends in Poole we gathered cockles, prawns, and went mackerel fishing (great).On Skye I found some luscious mussels, which I cooked and ate… with unfortunate consequences, even though I had pulled off the beards. (This has made me rather wary of gathering sea food because I was horribly ill for a few hours.) As a child I gathered crab apples for jelly (which we never seemed to eat up) and hazel nuts. I ate beech mast despite my uncle telling me it was mildly poisonous because my dad said it was OK. (It is mildly poisonous but not in the quantities we ate.)
I have read about wild food, and fancied samphire. On the foraging day I was hoping that we would go down to the sea. I have tried samphire a few years back, just a taste of tangy raw slightly salt explosions on the tongue, but I’m not sure where we are allowed to gather it. Alas. It was deemed too far to walk on that Saturday. I suppose with the nesting birds it made sense to keep away from the salt marshes, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that we didn’t go. We went for a forage round the gardens and the woods instead. Foraging in the garden can be surprisingly successful. In my view growing herbs and vegetables hardly counts as foraging, being sensible gardening, but picking a few flowers to add to a salad does.
Before the started we were advised to make sure of our plant identification, which was rather ironic as the second plant we stopped at was described as ‘borage’, and its uses outlined. The plant was actually comfrey, the same family (Boraginacea) but, I think, an even more interesting plant than borage.
When I lived in Oxfordshire I grew both on my allotment (I don’t have an allotment here because our dilatory Parish Council can’t seem to find any suitable land… and I’m not sure I’d have the time to commit to one, not with the writing, nowadays.)
Comfrey’s leaves can be made into a very stinky but potassium rich plant food. They break down readily to a brown liquor which you can dilute and water onto fruiting plants like tomatoes. The leaves and roots also contain a substance called allantoin, which encourages cell division and so helps healing. Traditionally it was used in poultices, hence its common name of knitbone. People have eaten the leaves cooked like spinach, but this is not to be recommended because there are reports that people who eat a lot of comfrey have higher incidences of stomach cancer. This is hardly surprising if it contains something which stimulates cell division. It’s also implicated in liver disease, so it’s not something to eat on a regular basis. This is a pity, though, as the leaves are rich in protein.(It’s a fallacy that just because something is natural, it’s safe. If something has healing properties it will have side effects for some.)
This brings me on to the other warning we were given. Sometimes plants may be defined as edible, but people can have allergies to some edible plants, so it’s wise to test first by tucking a bit between the teeth and the gum and wait for tingling which could indicate allergy. If that’s doesn’t happen, chew a morsel. If that’s OK, the plant food is probably OK. (This is not a way to test if a plant is poisonous, but more if you have a personal intolerance to it.)
Some plants are downright poisonous. I fear it would be quite easy to muddle comfrey with foxgloves when they’re not in flower. You have to go on touch as well as looks, and be careful and very sure before you eat. Even some plants which are grown as food plants, such as American Land Cress, can be mildly toxic in large quantities.
Other hazards are farm sprays, roadside pollution and dog ‘messages’.
Most people know you can eat stinging nettles, the first plant we looked at. It’s a bit late in the year now, and the leaves have grown grainy now that it has flowered. The younger shoots are what are gathered for cooking. The event leaders had ready prepared some nettle soup for us to try. Gloves are recommended when harvesting.
I have often fancied making nettle soup but never got round to it. I have made liquid fertiliser out of nettles in the same way as with comfrey. People used to gather mature nettles for the fibres which can be spun and woven into cloth. It’s not as strong as linen and cotton, though.
Next we looked at blackberry leaves. They can be used in a tea. We looked round the rather lovely garden. Lavender flowers have been used in cooking and as a scent for millennia. I think we were looking to use the seeds that day, but instead some leaves were taken for use in pancakes.
We looked at but didn’t gather any Achemilla mollis as the plant was rather small.
Dandelion leaves can be eaten when young, and the roots dried and ground to make a coffee substitute (I tried this as a child and hated the ‘coffee’.) I have dandelions in my garden and have been torn between applying glyphosate (my organic friends will squeal at this betrayal) or blanching them to get an endive-like addition for my salads. While I’m prevaricating these things are seeding all over the garden (but I did see greenfinches and goldfincghhes, seed-eaters in my garden today). Someone mentioned making a very nice wine with dandelion heads and raisins.
We looked at clover, which has a sweet nectar in the base of the flower.
Then we headed for the herb garden. Rosemary flowers are a revelation to anyone who hasn’t eaten them before, having a sweet herbal taste. Nasturtiums (Trapeolum) is a well-known addition to salads, both leaves and flowers. I’m decadent in that I just bite off the spur which has the nectar in it, for the sweet, hot flavour. I prefer the flowers as the leaves are a bit too full-on flavoursome for my taste. The leaves have a velvety texture on the tongue.
There was a plant of borage (really borage this time), with its lovely blue star flowers. I have frozen these in ice cubes and very pretty they look too, floating in drinks. I’m not keen on cucumber so I’m not a fan of the taste, but it is so pretty. A pity I haven’t room in my garden for it. (Or have I?) Mind you, I lost my comfrey and my anchusa so it might not grow too well. I must be the only person to have lost comfrey and lady’s mantle.
I have eaten sage flowers, and they’re tasty, and chive flowers are delicious too. I make sage tea, but this can be toxic if over-used. I use it as a medicinal tea, and my body seems to know when I’ve had enough because I just don’t fancy any more. (Iif a plant has medicinal effects it will also have medicinal side-effects.)
We walked to the woods. Some old tractor tyres had been made into raised beds in which the weeds Orache or Fat Hen (Atriplex in the Chenopodium or Goosefoot family), Goosegrass or Cleavers (Galium aparine) and chickweed (Stellaria media) were growing. I’ve pulled up chick weed in my garden and wondered if I should be putting it between slices of bread rather than the compost heap. I grow the purple orache but I can’t say I really liked it much… or maybe it was too pretty to eat when there are plenty of other things to eat in the garden. (Sometimes there is a reason why these things are not more widely grown as vegetables.)
In the same family as the hawthorn (Rosacea) the dog rose and garden roses are edible. Every year I keep meaning to gather enough to make a rose petal conserve. The heel of the petal can be bitter and is best removed. I eat them in salads, but the floral tones can take a little getting used to, not because they’re unpleasant, but because they’re different.Elderflowers were just beginning to come out. These make lovely wine, a “Champagne” fizzy drink (which we made when I was a child but the glass cider bottles blew up into smithereens, which was a bit of a shock.). I tried the flowers as fritters once but wasn’t impressed. However, the leaders’ herb pancakes have inspired me to try the flowers in pancakes. I few years ago I made ointment by steeping flowers in petroleum jelly over a bain marie then straining it through cloth. A little goes a long way. I have made ointments with oil and bees wax but that doesn’t last so long.
Finally we picked some pine needles for tea. These are identifiable because the needles come in pairs.
Once we had foraged for these things, we went to the camp fire site where the kettle was boiling and the nettle soup was heating through. The leaders cooked pancakes over the fire and we brewed blackberry leaf tea and pine tea. Both teas were delicious, if subtle, and the soup was very tasty. I didn’t try the pancakes but I did resolve to try making pancakes flavoured with elderflowers. I must also remember to make some cordial this year.
On the day one thing that puzzled me was the use of the term “ramsons” or wild garlic. To me this means the wild garlic (Allium ursinum), but here it seemed to mean garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata), a brassica ie part o the cabbage family, rather than part of the onion
family. Common names can be misleading. (Mind you, the Latin names can sometimes be confusing too, especially when plants are reclassified.)
One more story about the importance of true identification. Ramsons as in Allium grew prolifically in Wantage where I used to live, in some private woodland by Letcombe Brook and everybody knew about them because of the smell when they were in flower. When someone moved into a house in the close where I lived they took over a garden full of Lily-of-the Valley. This is extremely poisonous, so poisonous my Mother had told me when I was a child that even the vase water they stood in was deadly. I was shocked when the newcomer said they had dug out all the ‘wild garlic’. Thank goodness they didn’t try eating any of it.
All in all it was a very enjoyable morning. We need to remember the folk lore and make better use of our edible heritage. In the Scandinavian countries berry picking and foraging is a national obsession. The Italians love mushroom hunting. In Greece we saw the warden of one of the many ruins wander off from his kiosk and return with a handful of salad herbs. When I first moved into Wantage and asked the neighbours where the best place to get blackberries was, they said, “Tesco’s”.
We were given some website and book recommendations. I have several books which I browse through, some of which I list below.
A Country Harvest by Pamela Michael, ISBN 0-671-08751-7.
This is a fairly old book (which makes me feel very old!) first published in 1980. The illustrations by Christabel King are good, and the book informative and inspiring. The index is at the front, and easily missed. This is the book with the rose petal jam recipe I fancy trying. It has non-culinary uses for plants as well. I’m very fond of this book.
Jekka’s Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar. ISBN 1-85626-349-5. Well laid out and informative, it includes medicinal but poisonous plants, which is very useful as a way of avoiding being poisoned. The style is friendly and very readable and the illustrations are super. I picked this up in a charity shop. I can’t believe anyone would ever let this book go.
The Edible Flower Garden by Kathy Brown. ISBN 1-85967-879-3 This is a book to drool over. The photographs by Michelle Garrett are superb and inspiring. Kathy brown not only illustrates how to use flowers, she includes growing ideas and propagation information. One of my favourite books.
More photographs of the day.