With summer finally upon us, those with gardens will be rolling their sleeves up, ready for the annual sprucing up session. But before you dump every weed in sight in the compost bin, contemplate the culinary possibilities of keeping them around. ‘There is lots of really good stuff that you could use that are common weeds,’ says professional forager, Fergus Drennan. ‘Familiarise yourself with the common garden weeds as many of them are edible and really nutritious.’ Seasonal weeds such as procumbent yellow sorrel are rich in vitamin C, while dandelion is packed with vitamin A and stinging nettles pack a serious protein punch. ‘Stinging nettle smoothies are fantastic,’ he adds.
Check what you’re picking before you eat it though or you could be in for a nasty surprise. ‘The absolute strict rule is that you must be able to identify a plant 100 per cent and know it to be edible in the condition that you have found it,’ emphasises Drennan. ‘There is a lot of fear in the UK about picking things; partly it’s down to ignorance but also because we don’t have a huge tradition unlike in Europe.’ So where do you start? According to Drennan, woodland, coastal areas, field marshes and rivers are all prime foraging locations, although even your local park will have some gastronomic opportunities available – if you know where to look. ‘Choose your location for foraging carefully,’ advises Drennan. ‘The greater the range of habitat, the greater the biodiversity so the greater number of plant species available.’ And if that hasn’t got you planning your next expedition, here’s Fergus’s pick of the finest, wild ingredients Mother Nature has to offer in June.
Wild strawberries are smaller, more delicate and have a more intense flavour than their conventional counterpart. They are generally found in woodlands, meadows and hillsides. ‘It’s a challenge to get them at the perfect stage of ripeness,’ says Drennan. The challenge is partly down to the fact that unlike traditional strawberries, wild strawberries aren't guaranteed to be in an easily reachable spot, although they are pesticide and fertiliser-free, and taste all the better for it. They are rich in vitamin C and are known for their high level of antioxidants. ‘Wild strawberry crème patisserie tartlets is wild food heaven,’ drools Drennan.
Although it looks a bit like seaweed, succulent samphire tastes nothing like it and grows on land beside salt marshes, creeks, beaches and estuaries. Marsh samphire is a relatively small plant that tends not to exceed 30 centimetres in height and is rich in vitamins A, B and D. Traditionally picked on the longest day of the year, It can be pickled or eaten raw but is generally steamed. ‘It is the classic complement to fish,’ says Drennan. ‘Alternatively, it is delicious steamed and tossed with salt, pepper, butter and lemon.’
The Burdock plant generally grows up to around 70 centimetres tall and can be identified by its round, purple flowers. Burdock root is popular in Japanese cuisine and is commonly referred to as gobo, although in the UK, you’ll have to do your homework before picking any – under the Countryside Act of 1981, foraging for burdock is illegal without the landowners’ permission. The root is also high in potassium. ‘It is very good for you and it’s so versatile – you can pickle it, roast it, grate it, boil it and stew it,’ comments Drennan. ‘Although it is easy to find, it’s not so easy to pick.’
Darwin’s barberry is a small, blue-purple berry that usually ripens towards the end of June. It grows on an ornamental plant, which is typically found around municipal buildings, parks and gardens. It grows no more than 10 foot tall and is known for its striking yellow and orange flowers. ‘It is one of those plants which are never cultivated for its fruit,’ says Drennan. ‘It has a delicious juice which is fantastic for sorbets and syrup.’
This hand-sized, heart-shaped leaf is found on a deciduous, grey-barked tree that’s found in gardens all over the UK. ‘It’s a good, tender mild leaf for a salad,’ enthuses Drennan, ‘and it’s also great in a wrap with sun dried tomatoes, goat’s cheese, wild pickles and a drizzle of olive oil. Perfect as a starter or for buffets.’
Burdock root stir fry with wild mushroom and spinach
Apart from the soy sauce, everything in Fergus Drennan’s seasonal stir fry is 100 per cent free. It’s credit crunch cuisine for forage-happy foodies.
One burdock root
One jelly-ear mushroom
• Dig the burdock root in its first year of growth then scrub the roots clean
• Chop them into matchstick size pieces
• Chop the jelly-ear mushroom into matchstick pieces
• Take the desired amount of spinach and rinse. Then separate the stems from the leaves. Drain the spinach and place it to one side
• Place the burdock root and jelly-ear mushroom into a pan and then cover them with four parts water and one part soy sauce.
• Bring it to the boil until the liquid has evaporated
• Stir-fry until the burdock root is coated
• Finally add to the wild spinach and tuck in.
The A to Z of foraging
Fed up of paying a premium for supermarket berries and herbs? Take a walk on the wild side and pick your own
Roadkill: sickening or sustainable?
The idea of eating meat sourced from the roadside - whether deer, pheasant, fox or even otter - might sound revolting to you but for some, it's a gastronomic opportunity and a way of avoiding factory farmed meat
Nose to tail eating: it's sustainable but can you stomach this type of meat?
With 15 billion farm animals killed each year for food in the UK, eating the whole animal is the ethical choice. The Ecologist follows Fergus Henderson's lead and tries a week of eating offal
Green cuisine: why low carbon eating can help save the planet
Forget low carb; it’s all about low carbon this March. And with everyone from Sir Paul McCartney to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall getting stuck in for Climate Week, there’s no excuse not to try it
How green are vegetable and rapeseed oils?
When it comes to oils we are spoilt for choice, with more than 130 million tonnes of oil consumed every year, according to the WWF. But with demand set to increase, what sort of impact is our appetite for oil having on the planet? And which is the green choice?