Going down to the woods

I first saw bags of wild garlic leaves for sale at a farmers’ market, but last spring I recognised it growing on either side of a burn on one of my favourite local woodland walks. I was back there recently with a wee plastic bag, trying to take only a couple of leaves from each patch but harvest away from the path (to cut down on possibilities of dog-urine contamination) without doing any trampling of other leaves. I was concentrating so hard on this that another early morning walker was almost right beside me before I noticed her; for some reason, I immediately started explaining myself. Luckily she was interested, saying that she’d like to try foraging for herself and when I told her about my plans for pesto and gave her a rough recipe, she said that I’d “inspired” her to have a go. So I felt good, twice over!

My source of wild garlic, taken earlier on in the spring before the white flowers appeared.
For the pesto, I use the leaves but also some flowers, given a quick dicht under the cold tap, tearing them up a bit; I add either pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, some olive oil (a few drops at a time) and grated hard Italian cheese. If you want it even more garlicky, you could also put in a couple of garlic cloves. Unless you’ve only got a few leaves, don’t use a toatie wee blender like this one as it took me four goes to make enough pesto to fill a takeaway tub, instead of doing it in a oner. The leaves keep without wilting in a plastic bag in the fridge for several days but make sure you seal the bag or not only the fridge but your whole kitchen will be reeking of garlic. The pesto freezes well.

The strong smell helps to identify the leaves, but watch out for other plants growing nearby; advice is to pick leaf by leaf to make sure you’re getting only the wild garlic. This point was included in Ellie Violet Bramley’s article in The Observer on 14 March this year: “Wild garlic, nettles and berries … how foraging went mainstream“, which has an excellent photo of the flowers as well as the leaves. Ms Bramley writes about how lockdown has led to a growing interest in using the wild plants which folk have been noticing on their daily walks; many restaurants are also including foraged ingredients and there are more courses available throughout the UK. She also explains how in the past “we had a much stronger connection with wild food” which started to change after the industrial revolution when the use of edible flowers in food declined; Liz Knight (see below) is quoted as saying “it was seen as being down-at-heel country stuff, unsophisticated”.

In Flora Celtica (written by Milliken and Bridgewater), we learn that a “carbonised bulb, found in the remains of Fairy Knowe broch in Stirlingshire, suggests that this plant may have featured in Scottish cuisine for a very long time”. Nowadays, they point out that it’s the leaves we eat, either cooked or raw in salads but there are also commercially-made sauces and cheeses which use wild garlic. They include a story told by a Liverpudlian evacuated to Ayrshire in 1940: “Onions were rarer than gold … but this was no problem, as we just went up the banks of the River Afton and picked as much wild garlic as we wanted. It seemed a kindly thought to keep posting some back to our next-door neighbour still stuck among the bombs in Liverpool. She was ever so pleased, but not so the postman. There were no polythene bags in those days, so his sack reeked permanently of the stuff till we returned three years later.”

I’ve heard it called ramsons, but seemingly that’s a form of wild garlic, as is bear garlic which I hadn’t come across before. There’s a very good 5-minute film on the Wild Food site you could have a look at: https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/wild-garlic-2/ If you’re wanting some this year, you’ll have to be quick as it’ll all disappear over the summer. Mind and not take too much, especially from the one spot – and don’t pull up clumps. As well as making pesto, it can go in risottos, in soups, in omelettes, into garlic butter, into sauces and there’s even someone in Oban putting it into tattie scones.

I’ve just been out into the garden, braving our May wind and rain, to get dandelion leaves to add to a salad. I was going on about this last year in Make do and mend, but now I’m eating the flowers as well as the leaves; I was a bit wary at first but eventually just put one into my gob – they’ve got an interesting texture with only a slight bitter aftertaste. I’m still tearing the leaves up quite small and mixing them with lettuce but in Grazia magazine a while ago, I found a recipe for Sauteed Dandelions by Liz Knight, included in her book Forage: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat. The leaves are boiled for 5 minutes (to take away bitter taste), then dooked in iced water, drained, squeezed and added to a pan of fried onions; this is served at room temperature with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. She also had the word Hinbeh in her title which I found out is the name of the Lebanese dish using the same ingredients, also called Hindbeh Bi Zeit; dandelions it seems have been used for a long time in Lebanese cookery. According to https://www.healthline.com.nutrition, they’re full of vitamins A, C and K and minerals including iron, Calcium, magnesium and potassium. We’ve no shortage of them at the moment, so get outside and start picking. If you can’t bring yourself to eat them, they “can be combined with nettles for a most cleansing and helpful bath” (Feed Your Face a complete herbal guide to natural beauty and health by Dian Dincin Buchman).

I now only need to go to the back garden to get sorrel though the slugs are also very fond of it and sometimes whole leaves are stripped before I get to them. As with the dandelions, I just add them in small pieces to salads but in The Herb and Spice Book, Sarah Garland says to “cook them in butter or puree with cream or add to soups and sauces”. She adds that “this cooling, cleansing herb” can be taken “for fevers, and for bladder, liver and kidney complaints” or we can “use juice from the leaves as a poultice for skin troubles”. For good measure, “A strong infusion will remove stains from linen, wicker and silver”. I should experiment using it on some old linen tablecloths.

Here’s more of the red-veined sorrel, slightly out of focus, coming up between the stones of my sitooterie, at least three feet from the mother plant in my herb bit; the herbs are currently masked by wild hyacinths but their leaves die away so effectively in a short time that I’ve taken no steps to cull them.

I’ve now subscribed to the blog The Middle Sized Garden which you can find on YouTube and recently on 8 May, they had a feature “All about edible flowers ..” to put in salads, cakes, drinks and into ice cubes. You can see an interview with Tanya Anderson who recommends adding elderflowers, lilac and lavender to gin; she uses rose petals, primroses and lilac when making ice cubes and she puts mild-flavoured primroses, cornflowers, nasturtiums, pea and runner bean flowers in her salads. In her baking, she’s used bolted rocket flowers, tulips and wild garlic but warns these have a strong taste so we’re to choose wisely to match the flavour of our cakes. I tried some of my lemon thyme in a lemon loaf once – as I saw Nigel Slater doing it – but maybe I was too timid with my amount as I can’t say there was a strong flavour. I’ve got lemon balm seeding in different parts of the garden so maybe I’ll try that next; lemon verbena is very nice in fruit salads and drinks but I can’t seem to keep it alive over the winter here.

Ms Anderson warns us off using supermarket or other shop-bought flowers in these ways as they’ve more than likely been sprayed with chemicals to delay their opening. If it’s a flowering plant you’ve bought, take the flowers off and wait until they’ve re-grown before trying to use them but even then, be aware there could still be a chemical residue.

By way of experiment, I ate one of my primrose flowers but it tasted of nothing at all. They’re very bonny to look at though, so come into their own as a cake decoration or a bit of colour in a green salad. I’m pleased to see more and more of them coming up in the garden. They were being grown for eating in Edinburgh kitchen gardens in the 14th century, along with roses, wallflowers, crocuses (for saffron) and violets; in addition, on Lewis, the dried flowers were used to soothe sore throats and their leaves were used to heal abscesses (Flora Celtica). The big leaves on the right are comfrey which I just use to make a green fertiliser but I know it was used for healing wounds and for skincare; drinking comfrey tea is no longer recommended though and the sale of comfrey products is illegal in the USA.

I was so excited to find just a few days ago that one of my sweet cicely plants had flowered (after 3 years) and Sarah Garland tells me that they “will freely self-seed”. The leaves, the seeds and the roots of the plant can all be used. The leaves can go into salads and as they have a sweet taste, “… if cooked with sour fruit such as rhubarb or gooseberries will reduce the need for sugar. As a natural sweetener it is a useful addition to a diabetic diet.” She says the seeds have a “sweetly liquorice flavour” and recommends putting unripe ones into salads, cream or ice cream; ripe ones can go into apple pies – used like cloves. “The roots are most praised by herbalists – as a protection against the plague when candied or boiled”. Let’s hope we don’t have to bear that in mind!

Sweet cicely flowers and their ferny leaves in my supposedly all-white flowerbed. It’s been invaded by forget-me-nots which I thought I’d successfully pulled out last summer; I shall carry out another purge this year as I have plenty in the rest of the garden. The spent cherry and magnolia blossoms will soon disappear.

(Maybe one day soon I’ll learn to put text alongside the pictures but this new block editor and I are still very far from being friends.)

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2 thoughts on “Going down to the woods

  1. Pingback: A mixter-maxter – Splendid, Bella!

  2. Pingback: “Ever-returning Spring” – Splendid, Bella!

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