Many of the plants we see in the hedgerows or fields can make fantastic additions to your cooking. Here's what you need to know...
Visitors to Hampton Court Palace Flower Show last month will have noticed some surprising choices in the displays. More usually famed for its well-tended and genteel roses, the show was overrun with uncouth visitors, the wild and weed-like massing on the borders.
Far from being an oversight in the Royal Horticultural Society’s weeding schedule however, these were the stars of the show, forming part of the RHS centrepiece, 'The Edible Garden' – a celebration of the diverse and delicious growing in our soils.
The 'Food for Free' area was the busiest area in every sense. A nod to the delights of the hedgerow and field, it was stocked with everything from wild strawberries to burdock, meadowsweet, Jack-by-the-hedge and sweet cicely; a veritable feast for the eyes and an inspiration for the menu.
This is a marker of our changing attitude to wild plants. Gardeners have always enjoyed something of an embattled relationship with the weeds and wild flowers that abound in Britain.
They know them only too well and begrudgingly develop a secret respect for the incessant dandelions and nettles they pull daily from the soil.
Yet, there are clear lines of demarcation too. They are still viewed as the enemy, the industrious and relentless colonisers that choke up our valuable fertile spaces.
Altering our perspective comes very simply; by taking the time to learn how wild plants can be turned to a purpose.
Chefs, natural medics and foragers have led the way, placing a renewed emphasis on the healthy and flavoursome growing wild all around us. These aren’t the high maintenance, genetically altered prima donna plants we must nurture, feed and house in polytunnels lest they throw a hissy fit and die.
No, these are the hardy troops; the entrepreneurs that require no mollycoddling, remaining unchanged since prehistoric times, often retaining higher levels of nutrients and vitamins than many of our ‘bred’ food crops as a result.
As the RHS displays demonstrated, they can also be every bit as pleasing to the eye as the stomach.
So, as both beneficial and beautiful, isn’t it time we celebrated the hedgerow harvest properly? The best way is by using its free bounty, and there’s no better season than now.
Foraging is all a question of getting your eye in and shouldn’t be feared. After all, we don’t think twice about picking blackberries. The trick is to stick with the easy to identify and build up from there. Here are a few to try:
The wonderfully named, but distinctly un-chickeny, fat hen is routinely ripped from our gardens and allotments, yet it is one of our nicest and most nourishing natural greens.
Found on the fringes of farmer’s fields, particularly around potato crops, in hedges and on waste ground, fat hen has matt green leaves which vary between thin oval and wide serrated-goosefoot shapes with a pale underneath. It grows to a metre in height and is most recognisable by its telltale pale-green clusters of round seeds around the stem and top.
It contains more iron and protein than spinach and evidence of its consumption in Britain dates back to the Bronze Age.
The seeds can be eaten whole or ground into a flour with a taste similar to buckwheat, but for our money fat hen is at its best when you simply turn the leaves and seeds over a low heat in a pan with butter, garlic and salt.
Elderflowers and elderberries
A larder for the wild foodie, the elder tree provides a wealth of delights throughout spring, summer and autumn.
The creamy petals of elderflower in spring can be dried and added to boiling water to make a medicinal and relaxing tea or stewed with equal water (in litres) with sugar (in kilograms) and lemons and strained through muslin for an unrivalled summery cordial.
Similarly delicious is a wine made from the clusters of deep purple elderberries. Their thick scent is opiate-like in itself, but even richer when crushed, boiled, strained, and mixed with wine yeast, sugar and spice and left to ferment for several years into wine.
Often overlooked but with a surprisingly subtle garlic flavour that makes it a fantastic ingredient, Jack-by-the-hedge is incredibly common in…well, hedgerows.
Growing up to about a metre in height, the leaves are a crinkly, pale green and start life kidney-shaped but become more spiky and diamond-shaped with age (see photo at the top of the article).
The leaves smell noticeably of leafy garlic if lightly rubbed or crushed and it produces tiny white flowers and thin seedpods, which share the same garlic scent. Cut up the leaves and blend with walnuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil for a lovely hedgerow salsa verde.
Possibly the easiest thing to identify in the world, nettles are a common scourge but a wonderfully nutritious green. Pick the young plants before they reach more than a few centimetres high or the new ‘crowns’ at the top of more established banks.
The stinging hairs are only really on the surface of the leaves, so a brave grasp and sharp tug upward can theoretically strip a bush without injury. Alternatively, wear gloves.
Nettles are an excellent spinach substitute and make a great addition to risottos. For a lovely soup, boil stock, potato and onion, before adding the nettle leaves and blending with plenty of pepper and salt. Finish with a large dash of cream.
Once the flowers of this lovely field and meadow herb were cast about houses to impart their sweet, almond and honey scent. Now they are put to a much better use cooked with gooseberries in a fool or made into a tea that is a mild painkiller.
Their smell is unmistakable, as are the clusters of candy floss-like cream flowers towering above other vegetation.
The toothed, lobed leaves grow either side of a reddish stalk and leave a wonderful summer taste when steeped in white wine for 48 hours that is then mixed with apple juice and sugar.
The blackthorn shrub grows to about five metres high and with spiked, thorny shoots and oval dark green leaves up to 4cm in length. The fruits appear in autumn, turning from green to bluish-black. The berries grow singly or in pairs and to a size of 1.5cm.
They are incredibly sour raw but pick and freeze them overnight. This splits the skin. Put 200g in a clear jar with 130g of sugar and top up with gin. Leave for three months or, preferably, a year, and you will have a fantastic, pink-purple sloe gin you can serve long with tonic or short as a digestif.
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