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Guest spot: Eat your greens! by Steve Kirk editor of The Bushcraft Magazine

Ramsons (Allium ursinum)The spring foraging season is just beginning and I’m determined to make the most of it this year. I was delighted when The Bushcraft Magazine contributed this article from a past issue. This magazine is great resource for tips on foraging and a whole lot more.

The Buashcraft Magazine also runs foraging courses. The first foraging course is in Kent on April 19th 2008. Check the details of their courses here.

Eat your greens! Our guide to foraging some of nature’s delights in the spring countryside by Steve Kirk editor of The Bushcraft Magazine

Spring offers major gifts to the hunter-gatherer. It is a waxing time of plenty, with salad and pot herbs for the taking for the knowledgeable forager.

The list is long, but in this article we will take a look at some of the more common and useful plants on offer.

Waysides and Waste Ground

Nettles
The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is oft reviled, but has many culinary and non-culinary uses. Here, we will only consider the culinary uses.
Culpeper thought the nettle wonderfully versatile: “The seed being drank, is a remedy against the stinging of venomous creatures, the biting of mad dogs”.

It is certainly a diuretic and also has a certain laxative effect. To bushcrafters, the nettle has at least three culinary uses:
As a vegetable;
As a soup;
As the basis for beer.

Whichever you go for, don’t forget the gloves! Pick just the fresh top two or three whorls from young plants in spring. Once the flowers start to show – usually around June – forget it! The whole plant turns gritty. With luck, there may be another flush in autumn.

“Nettles are so well known that they need no description; they may be found by feeling in the darkest night”.
Culpeper’s Herbal
Don’t worry about the sting, the cooking destroys it (the venom is a mixture of formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine and serotonin).

To cook as a vegetable, simply take off any woody looking stalks and wash under the tap. Put them in a saucepan and cook for a few minutes. You shouldn’t need to add any extra water to the pan. When they are soft, take them out of the pan, dash a little pepper over them and serve with a knob of butter.

Nettle soup made with just nettles can be a bit thin, so adding a
potato or two to the mix thickens it up. Some people prefer to add rice. A stock is helpful too, unless you are a purist. Chicken or fish stock or a stock cube will all do the trick. Blend it if you wish.

Nettle beer is one of those underrated products that is easy to make.
You need:
A clean sterilised demijohn;
A bucket of nettle tops;
A handful of hops;
1Ib of sugar;
1/2 oz bruised root ginger;
1 sliced lemon;
1/2 oz cream of tartar;
1/2 oz dried yeast.
To make the beer, place the hops, the bruised root ginger and the lemon in a saucepan. Add as many of the nettle tops as you can squeeze in and top up with boiled water. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Put the sugar and the cream of tartar in and after a few minutes further simmering, strain the liquid into a clean sterilised demijohn.

When the liquid has cooled to 15?C”20?C, add the dried yeast. Make up the demijohn with cooled boiled water to just below the neck and put an airlock in. Place in a warm place (the airing cupboard will do nicely) and let the yeast do its work.

When it has finished working rack it off into bottles and drink immediately. Enjoy!

Fat Hen
Fat Hen is another forager’s staple. It is a member of the goosefoot family. Its Latin name is Chenopodium album. The generic name Cheopodium cames from the Greek Chenos meaning a goose and podos, meaning a foot. The name reflects the shape of the leaves. It is often found in wasteland or newly disturbed earth.

As for nettles, the plant can be used for soup, as a vegetable and as a pot herb (ie add to a stew).

Seashore

Bushcraft Magazine - AlexandersAlexanders
This is a great plant, often found by the sea but also occasionally inland. It is sometimes called Roman Celery, reflecting the fact that it was

introduced by the Romans. The plant’s smell is aromatic and quite distinctive, rather like chervil.

Its Latin name is Smyrnium olusatrum. Although it is a good pot herb and can be used as a vegetable, its best use is when the spring growth produces good sized stalks. If they are not too woody, these can be cut, and peeled, then braised in a little butter in a pan for a few minutes until soft. Serve with a sprinkle of pepper. This tastes rather like asparagus and is a real delight.

The yellow-green flower buds can be eaten raw or added to salads and have a pleasant, nutty taste.

Identification;
Umbellifers ”plants like
hogweed and cow parsley, whose flowers form umbels or clusters rather like on the spokes of an upside down umbrella ” can be tricky to identify from field guides. There are several highly toxic species as well as edible kinds so it is very important to avoid confusion. If in doubt go without! The fleshy, pleasantly pungent dark green leaves of Alexanders are broader than most other members of the family. The leaflets are grouped in threes. The dense flower heads are yellow green. It is a fairly distinctive umbellifer but perhaps could be mistaken for garden angelica or lovage, both of which are edible.

Bushcraft Magazine - Sea beetSea Beet
For sea-side foragers, this old friend (Beta vulgaris) provides a dish at most times of the year, but spring provides the best and most succulent leaves.

Try cooking as a vegetable, or for very young leaves as an addition to salads.

Meadows and Grassland

Dandelion
Yes it’s the good old dandelion, but don’t knock it, it’s got hidden depths. Its Latin name Taraxacum officinale tells us something important. It’s the second word officinale (the species name) that is common enough in the plant kingdom. It tells us that this plant has some medicinal purpose and that it was produced in an apothecary or “office”.

Its English name derives from the French Dent-du-lion, the lion’s teeth.

These well known leaves can be found most months of the year. Ironically the best specimens are often found in gardens where the soil is better. This is certainly true for the roots, which can be used in a variety of ways, including dandelion and burdock beer.

Some people reckon that the leaves taste rather bitter and this is true, but they taste best if picked early in spring. The bitterness also appears
to wear off a little if the leaves are left in water overnight.

The diuretic quality of the leaves are well known as evidenced by the plant’s well known names”try a French one”pissenlit! Culpeper in his famous Herbal described it as having “an opening and cleansing quality”.

Your granny probably also knows the flowers as a source of wine making material”recipes abound in old books on country wine-making.

Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)The Cuckoo Flower
This peppery little number, also known as Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis), is a good addition in small quantities to a spring landscape salad. It comes with the cuckoo in April, hence its name. The whole of the plant is edible.

Common Bistort
This member of the dock family
(Polygonum bistorta) is a useful item in the spring. Bistort is also used as an ingredient in Ledge Pudding, a well-known dish in the Lake District.

There are competitions for this Easter dish, which comprises fresh green spring leaves (bistort, nettles, dandelions, lady’s mantle etc) mixed with barley or oatmeal and made into a pudding. One way of doing this is to chop and mix the ingredients and place in a muslin bag with the barley or oatmeal and boil in water for an hour or so. Try it and let us know what you think.

Bistort is more common in northern England where it can form dense patches. It is found in a variety of habitats from meadows to woodland, usually in damp situations.

Identification:
The flowers are pink and in dense broad, tubular spikes . Arrow-shaped leaves clasp the upper stem but broad oval leaves, dock-like in appearance but more tender, grow lower down.

Woodland

Wild Garlic (photo at the top of this article)
This really is a gem in the spring countryside. It is a member of the allium or onion family (Latin name Allium ursinum) and is found in damp woodlands in the British Isles. The bulbs can be used, but the best bit has to be the leaves, which can be added to salads, is great in egg sandwiches or just munched on the move. On a scale of 10 this ranks as a 9. If you find a patch of them in a wood, then the visual and nasal pleasures increase it to a 10!

The plant is also known as Bear
Garlic or Ramsons (or ramsoms).

Identification:
It has distinctive white, star-like flowers forming a rounded head on the end of a long stalk. The leaves are stalked from the base and are narrow to broadly oval, ending in a point. The plants usually form dense colonies.

Garlic Mustard
This mustard family member is also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, (Latin; Alliaria petiolata), giving a clue where else to look for it.

The large jagged leaves smell faintly of garlic when crushed but taste both peppery and garlicky, like fresh, green condiments. They are perfect when added to a sandwich or salad.

Identification:
Garlic Mustard has small, white four-petalled flowers atop a tall upright stalk. Alternate, large, jagged heart-shaped leaves climb the stem. They are dark green above and a lighter grey-green below


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6 Comments

  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Minamoo

    I’m going out this afternoon on a wild garlic search. If I draw a blank I might very well take up your kind offer!

  2. Minamoo

    I can post you some if you like? It lasts for ages in a tupperware container. I’ve got some that’s over 2 weeks old and still alive! 🙂

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Minamoo

    Yes the article is great. I haven’t found any wild garlic as yet this year 🙁

    Thanks for the nettle syrup recipe, much appreciated.

  4. Minamoo

    Hello! I was so happy to see this post on your blog! WQe have recently discovered a couple of huge patches of wild garlic in the green behind our department at uni and was overjoyed! I have also been watching the garlic mustard and the one good king henry plant near home growing larger and larger with glee! This weekend my best friend and I will be taking a day off work and after our Kung Fu lessons on Sunday morning we are going to his place to bake bread, make nettle syrup/cordial and wild garlic pesto to have for dinner. I cannot reccommend it enough Fiona, it tastes absolutely incredible! I thought you (and other readers like me) might like the recipe for the nettle syrup and as it’s so short and simple, I thought I’d just tag it onto this post.I hope you don’t mind! I will let you know how it turns out on sunday evening!

    Nettle Syrup (GWIN DANADL POETHION)

    Gather the tops of young nettles, wash well and to every 1lb of nettles, add 1 quart of water. Boil for 1 hour, stain and to each pint of juice add 1lb sugar, boil for 30 minutes. When cold, bottle. Can be used as a blood purifier and makes a cooling drink when soda water is added.

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Sabine

    I was so pleased with this guest post too. The photographs are really good for identification purposes and the whole article buzzes with ideas. We are so lucky to have a link up with these guys!

    Thanks also for your tip on identifying wild garlic by the smell of the crushed leaves.

  6. Sabine

    Hi Fiona,

    thanks for this lovely guest post. I check your blog nearly daily and was so pleased to be greeted by a photo of my favourite foraging herb: the wild garlic. There are so many things you can do with it: mix it with other vegetables (such as leeks, cabbage, spring greens) and gently braise in butter, add it to soups or to pasta. plcikle the flower buds …
    My back garden is swamped with it, so I hope to spend the next weekend making a year’s supply of wild garlic pesto and wild garlic butter for the freezer – the latter is to die for!

    A word of caution: in Germany there have been accidents in recent years with people confusing wild garlic with poisonous plants such as lily of the valley. To identify the plant with certainty, crush a leaf between your fingers – there should be a very distinct smell of garlic!

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