My latest Wild Frontier column for Prospect magazine acts as a beginner’s guide to foraging in spring, a time known formerly as the ‘hungry gap’ – when winter root vegetables were going soft or sprouting, but before fresh crops were ready to be harvested. (They couldn’t have picked a worse time to be threatening a no-deal Brexit, and ‘living off our own land,’ in other words.)
Full text can be found on the Prospect website here, or after the fold.
A beginner’s guide to springtime foraging
It may be a bad time for farmers and market gardeners, but it’s not such a bad time to forage for wild foods
by Cal Flyn
We are just emerging from the “hungry gap,” the part of the year when winter vegetables are spoiling, but summer crops are not yet ready to eat. The onset of the first warm days prompts cabbages and brassicas to run to seed; while stored root vegetables like potatoes and onions soften and sprout.
These days we have access to fresh food year-round thanks to supermarkets and their aisles of airfreighted produce, but in the days when empty fields meant empty stomachs it was a thin, marginal period.
It’s been a dour time in more ways than one. Though the days have been lengthening, the weather has been dreich where I am in Scotland. For us wild swimmers, the sea temperature (which is linked to, but lags behind, the weather) has been at its trough. Paths, bridleways, tracks and gateways are still ankle deep in mud. I’ve always liked winter, winter proper. But the soggy, slushy start of spring leaves me a bit low and gloomy.
In a bid to knock myself out of my seasonal stupor, I turned my attention to the season’s silver lining. It may be a bad time for farmers and market gardeners, but it’s not such a bad time to forage for wild foods.
In the woods, the wild garlic has been unfurling, filling the air with their rich perfume, carpeting the forest floor in glossy green leaves and pom-pom heads bearing a dozen delicate white flowers apiece. They are very strongly flavoured raw (though pleasant if added, in small quantities, to salad, or shredded over sauce) but mellow in the frying pan to make an aromatic, spinach-like side dish.
And there are a dozen more less showy, less well-known species that also make a delicious morsel. Chickweed—a dainty plant with tiny starburst flowers and oval leaves that wear a soft fur—is delicious raw, and looks very pretty on a plate. Stinging nettles have come up in thickets along the edges of fields and paths; their soft new shoots and woolly leaves are good in tea or soup. They sting though, obviously—pop on a pair of rubber gloves.
A similar-looking species, the white-dead nettle (actually from the mint family) haunts the edges of woods. It’s less hairy, doesn’t sting, and hides attractive pale flowers like handmaids’ bonnets under its leaves. So does goosegrass (which you may know as “sticky willow”), whose long stems and leaves have a cat’s-tongue roughness, the tender tips of which can be eaten raw this time of year.
I include that last one with a caveat. When you dip into foraging, you soon learn that though many plants are edible, not all are palatable. But what a pleasant pastime it is to sample the local harvest—tasting this and that as you trundle along—and find new favourites through trial and error.
Some swear by the fresh new buds of the hawthorn or the beech; others love the umbrella-leaved mallow which can be stuffed like vine leaves, stewed or even flash-fried like leafy poppadoms. Personally, I have a soft spot for gorse, which is in bloom at the moment and filling scrubland and the scruffier uplands with a honey-sweet scent. The flowers are painstaking to pick in quantity, but can be infused into sugar syrup to create a subtle, coconut-like cordial for use in drinks, cocktails or homemade jelly.
Elderflower too is instantly recognisable, easily collected, and makes a great cordial—or, even better, a homemade champagne. (For that you’ll need proper bottles and a cellar or cupboard that will survive minor explosions. It’s worth the bother.)
Take care with identification; the lovely, liquorice-y chervil (cow parsley) is best avoided unless you can be certain of telling it apart from poisonous hemlock, for example. So play it safe until you grow in expertise—but open yourself to the flavour of spring. It’s not enough to live off. But it is a timely reminder to look for green shoots when things seem bleak.