Anyone interested in food must be aware of the increased coverage of ‘foraging’ in food media and television programming over the last few years; indeed, hunting for food from the wild (foraging) has become somewhat fashionable, if not an obsession, for some folks. And while, for the most part, foraging is best suited to rural districts it does not preclude foraging from happening within urban areas. Indeed it can, and does; the only real difference being some aspects of foraging safety, and the struggle by edible plant species to gain a foothold within a hostile concrete jungle.
As you read this article, sadly some of the best, and favourite, edible wild greens are well past their sell-by date; wild garlic, or ramsons , three-cornered leek, and winter cress being three culinary stars. So best to scribble those down for next Spring’s plant-spotting agenda, if you decide the idea of foraging for your food ticks a box.
Well, you could look and see if there are any stinging nettles still around. They are found virtually everywhere, including city environments; are easy to identify for novice foragers; and make an excellent first foot on the foraging ladder in terms of their use. In other parts of continental Europe nettles are used by country-folk even to this day, while in the UK we simply seem to have forgotten their usefulness.
Fresh green nettle tops in Spring and early Summer may be used very much as a spinach substitute, and in the Summer months you need to look for them in shaded areas where reduced light levels have held back growth. Providing the top leaves are fresh, pale, green (a good rule of thumb is to seek out nettle specimens with green stems, not the purple-brown ones – which are old) they are generally fit to use. Another alternative is to wait for the new, ‘secondary’, leaf growth where patches of nettles have been cut back. The quality of these secondary leaves is a little more fibrous, so the cooking time needs extending: from 15 to 20 minutes. We are talking here, incidentally, of cooking the leaves like spinach as opposed to boiling them vigorously in water. New Spring growth can be cooked in around 10 minutes.
So what to do with nettles? If you like Indian cuisine, try making sag aloo with them, or cooking nettles with chana dhaal, or chickpeas and spices. In Spring use raw nettle leaves to make a nettle-pesto for pasta. It tastes great! Of course there is also the possibility of making nettle soup, but that’s a rather lacklustre offering and best left to celebrity chefs too afraid to stick their neck out when it comes to working with edible wild greens. You can do much, much, better.
Dandelion is another edible species many readers will be familiar with, and will often be found growing in the corners of city parks and neglected civic flowerbeds, as well garden space. The leaves of dandelion are bitter, but readers who like chicory or radicchio in their salads should get on fine with young dandelion greens. Because dandelion grows low to the ground – and therefore might have been visited by pet pooches in public spaces – I wouldn’t suggest you eat the leaves raw. However, if you were to collect some of the seeds and plant them in a small pot or window box, then you can have a readily growing, perennial, salad ingredient. If you find the leaves too bitter take a leaf out of the knowledge of our ancestors and grow dandelions in darkness (in a pot under the sink or stairs, or covered over with a black bin liner to light-blanch them).
In areas where there are rivers and watery habitats you could look out for the shoots and stems of the cat’s-tail or reed-mace (Typha latifolia), known erroneously to most Brits as bulrush. That happens to be another plant species in its own right. Reed-mace is that tall reed-like plant with a chocolate brown, cigar-coloured and sausage-shaped, flowering head found growing beside rivers, ponds and other wet habitats. The inner base leaves and young flowering stems make an excellent textural ingredient for Thai-style dishes, although they possess little real flavour on their own. If you decide to try them, make sure the habitat you forage from is clean since Typha absorbs heavy metals and other toxins (and is used by those who manage wetlands to purify water of such nasties). And if you suspect rats inhabit your picking zone then that area is best avoided since the pathogens of Weil’s disease could be present.
From late Summer onwards look for the purple-black berries of the bilberry which inhabits moorland, heaths, and open woodlands where the soil is somewhat peaty but dry. Pies, jams and muffins will all benefit from a little experimentation with this forgotten fruit.
If you’re down on the coast during the Summer months look out for the leaves of sea beet – one of the wild food treasures. Although the plant is heading towards its end of season at this time of year you may still be able to find a few decent leaves to try. The same goes for the wild version on fennel which could still offer up a few tender fronds to add an anise-like flavour to salads, or to mackerel line-caught from the beach and cooked up on theIn addition to truly ‘wild plants’ the urban forager may
also come across stray domesticated edible species in the urban environment; apple and plum trees, for example,
grape vines, raspberries and other similar species which have escaped a
garden or allotment environment and somehow found a home elsewhere in the
concrete jungle, and all potentially part of the urban forager’s domain and
should not be neglected or overlooked.
In every case with collecting wild or foraged foods you should observe the law, have consideration for the custodians of our wonderful county, the animals and wildlife you rub shoulders with, and never consume any wild plant without having positively identified it as one of the edibles.
If you suffer from allergies then a sensible degree of caution should be exercised, while anyone with a serious medical condition needs to do a bit of background research to check the foraged plants they want to try do not contra-indicate with medications.
Finally, a plea to forage sustainably, since foraging has become popular. Plants fall into annual, biennial, and perennial types; essentially those that have life-cycles of one, two, and three or more years. Repeated over-picking leaves of perennial plants may kill the root, while it is important to leave some specimens of annual and biennial plants to ‘go to seed’, and so maintain the resource; both for your own pleasure, and also for others to enjoy. Happy hunting or, rather, foraging.
There are some free foraging eBooks (PDF file format) and other information about foraging available at: www.wildfoodschool.co.uk