April is a well-known hungry gap in the market gardener’s diary. But while the task of finding fresh, local produce can leave you feeling hard done by, don’t despair. Malou Herkes has the ultimate foraging guide to satiate any seasonal hunger.
In the world of wild greens there’s so much out there to get excited about. In fact, springtime is the best time to forage for greens. You’ll find a huge range of flavours that will leave you wondering why we settle for the few select herbs and leaves available in the shops.
There’s wild garlic, citrusy sorrel and fiery lady smock. There’s salty sea purslane, mushroom-flavoured plantain and mustardy jack-by-the-hedge. There’s bitter dandelion and sweet-stemmed dock leaves, nettles, hogweed and ground elder, which tastes somewhere between parsley and celery. It’s all there. Never mind if you don’t have a garden. There are parks and hedgerows waiting to be picked.
Wild greens often have a much stronger flavour than cultivated varieties. They also tend to be especially high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, iron and magnesium. In rural communities around the world, wild greens are a central part of people’s diets.
On a recent trip to Israel and Palestine, I discovered what is locally known as hubeza; a green that grows abundantly all over. Israelis and Palestinians were picking and cooking it, wilting it down like spinach, adding it to stews and soups or chopping it into garlicky fritters without a second thought. I later identified the green to be mallow, and it grows all over the UK, too.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that picking wild greens is the remit of botany experts or hardcore foodies. But actually foraging – for anybody – is really, very easy to do. Miles Irving of The Forager says in his The Forager Handbook;
“The first step is to familiarise yourself with a few plants in the analytic sense then quickly follow this up by cooking and eating them. Before the day is out, go outside, into your garden, a local park or a nearby country lane and try and locate a familiar edible plant. You will almost certainly recognise one of the following: nettle, dandelion, blackberry, rose or rose hip.”
Like Miles says, start with what you know.
Nettles are best picked now in early spring while they’re still young and delicate. You’ll find them pretty much everywhere, in fields and hedgerows, woodlands and river banks. Remember to bring a pair of gloves with you to avoid stinging yourself when you pick them. To get rid of the sting, wash the leaves well, then pound with a pestle to eat them raw (delicious as a pesto with pine nuts, Parmesan, lemon juice and olive oil) or fry, boil or steam them, or throw them into a soup or stew.
Nettles release quite a bit of liquid when cooked. Drain off the liquid, squeeze in lemon juice, watch how the colour turns from black to yellow-pink (!), then add sugar and fizzy water for a delicious nettle pop. Or rustle up with ricotta in gnudi.
March to June is your window for finding wild garlic. It grows mainly in woodlands, and is recognisable for its pungent smell and broad, long leaves. It’s easy to find when you know what you’re looking for (I found a healthy batch in Highgate Woods), and taste incredible.
Wild garlic is eaten mainly for its leaves rather than its bulbs, which you can also cook. It’s flowers are edible too. The leaves have a distinct garlicky taste that is milder than the garlic we’re used to. They add great flavour to omelettes or to liven up mashed potato, rice or pasta. Try blitzing wild garlic into mayonnaise, bash it into a dressing with olive oil, blitz it into a pesto, risotto, or use it to flavour butter.
Naturally bitter, dandelions are recognisable for their bright yellow flowers. They grow abundantly in gardens and parks pretty much everywhere. They’re eaten all over Europe, the stems and leaves chopped and sautéed or added to tea. The flowers are sweeter than the leaves and do well added raw to salads.
These greens are just as easy to find, too…
You’ll likely find sorrel growing in your back garden if you have one. Otherwise, they’re common in meadows, grasslands and woodlands. With a sharp citrusy flavour, sorrel is wonderful thrown into a salad or paired with fish, and they discount the need to add extra lemon to the dressing. Try it blitzed into homemade mayo. Or wilt it down, and serve it with oily fish like salmon or trout.
Most commonly found in coastal areas, wild fennel is recognisable for its long stem, feathery fronds and small yellow flowers that appear between April and July. A lovely aniseed tang, fennel pairs well with pork (try throwing the seeds in with a roast), lemon, fish, olives and artichokes. Sauté the leaves and serve alongside fish, throw the flowers into a salad, or chop the tougher stalks and sauté slowly with onion and garlic to serve as a side.
Wild chervil, or cow parsley, grows all over the UK and is often the most common roadside plant. You can also find it in hedgerows and meadows. It looks quite similar to hemlock, which is extremely poisonous so identify with caution. Pick wild chervil in winter and early spring when the leaves are sweeter. Use it as a replacement for parsley, chopped and tossed through buttery new potatoes or mussels.
Like samphire, sea purslane is a salt-marsh plant. And – no surprises – is naturally very salty. It grows abundantly around much of the coastline in the UK. They’re good eaten straight up as a salty snack or used as an alternative to capers, finely chopped with olive oil and lemon for a gremolata-style dressing on fish. The Forager Handbook recommends adding wild fennel fronds and capers to the mix.
Tips for your first foraging steps
As always, when it comes to foraging, do not pick or eat anything you do not recognise.
Take a pair of scissors with you and gloves for nettles.
Cut a good section of the plant and then gather a good quantity of the leaf or flower. In the case of the dandelion, cut it just below all the leaves so they stay together.
The fail-safe method to identifying plants is to get to know them by watching them through the seasons and noticing various growth stages.
It is a good idea to begin by limiting yourself to a small but reliable repertoire. For example, you can’t go far wrong with elderflower, young nettles and dandelion.
Places to avoid
Present or former industrial sites, gasworks, petrol stations and old sawmills.
Soil by the side of roads will be contaminated by residues from car exhausts.
Happy foraging! I’d love to hear how your foraging escapades go, just let me know in the comments below.