My wife and I have developed a keen interest in foraging over the past couple of years, driven by our curiosity about all the plants we saw while out walking our dog. We knew that some were edible, but apart from the obvious – nettles, wild fennel, elderflower, cherries – we didn’t have a clue which would taste great and which might kill us. We now know that there are a fair few that will kill you, and wherever you live you are very likely within half a mile of a common poisonous plant.
Foraging is a huge subject, endlessly interesting and a great way of filling anything from an hour up to a whole weekend (or more), but well beyond the scope of anything I can write. The potential dangers are such that I recommend that you book onto a half- or one-day foraging course where under expert guidance you will learn to find, identify and cook a huge variety of wild food. If you live anywhere near Hampshire, Dorset or Wiltshire, or you are willing to travel, I can unreservedly recommend James Feaver of Hedgerow Harvest who runs excellent courses in seashore, hedgerow and fungus foraging. You can find him here: www.hedgerow-harvest.com
One plant we can all safely identify is the common stinging nettle, and if you want to discover just how good wild food can be then this simple and delicious dish is the place to start.
To gather stinging nettles all you will need is a carrier bag, a pair of scissors, a pair of stout gloves and clothing offering enough protection to ward off the stings. The nettles you are looking for are the young leaves and the tops of the plants, in other words the leaves shooting off thin stems which you will most likely find in the spring – though if you live in an area where hedgerows get cut back then you will probably find new growth throughout the summer. Avoid thick stems and old tough leaves, they are not good to eat. Also avoid nettles that directly border paths where dogs are walked – though it is a brave dog who will cock a leg on a nettle I am sure it happens. Instead, push back a couple of feet where the nettles will be undisturbed by canine activity – that is why you need stout gloves and heavy clothing.
Passers-by may well think you’re mad, but once you’ve gathered your nettles and made this soup you will very probably ignore what others think and go nettle foraging again and again.
RECIPE – to feed 6
1/2 a carrier bag of young nettle leaves and tops
50g unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 litre vegetable stock
1 large potato, diced into 1cm cubes
1/2 nutmeg, finely grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
The standard unit of measurement for nettles is the carrier bag; you don’t need to be accurate, but the more you gather the more flavour you will get. When you get them home, wash them thoroughly, pick out anything that doesn’t belong and leave to drain. As long as the stems are thin then you don’t need to strip the leaves off, it will all blitz up and every part of the plant gives you flavour.
Gently sweat the onion, carrot and garlic in the oil and butter, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, with the lid on. After 10-15 minutes the onion should be soft but not coloured, and the carrot should be softening. And the stock and the potato, then pile the nettles on top and carefully push them down; they will wilt and lose volume, and as soon as they start to cook they will lost their sting. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.
Leave to cool for a few minutes, just so it is a little safer to handle, then add the nutmeg and blitz until it is perfectly smooth using a stick blender, or pour into a jug blender – you will need to do it in several batches if using a jug blender.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with a little creme fraiche or double cream, some chopped chives (wild if you can get them) or similar foraged plants such as crow garlic or wild leeks (see, you’ll need to get onto a foraging course now!)
You can also make this using wild garlic in place of the garlic cloves, though the season is very short – just a few weeks in early spring. If you do manage to gather some wild garlic then add a dozen or so leaves to the nettles and use the wild garlic flowers as a garnish – they are quite crunchy and taste like delicate garlic, quite delicious.
To make it vegan just use olive oil and omit the butter.