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Wild Food Walk with Christopher Robbins

This is a guest post from Christopher Robbins, medical herbalist, nutritionist & lover of wild plant food, who hosted our recent Wild Food Walk on 31st May 2012. Here, Christopher shares his trip notes from the day, and some useful advice for those of you who'd like to do a bit of foraging on your own.

Looking for Sheeps Sorrel

The first essential of a planning a wild-food walk is to choose a beautiful walk.

Bath is a beautiful city and blessed with excellent countryside right in its heart as well as all around. We decided to head to Northend, a wild valley only 10 minutes drive from the Vegetarian Cookery School. Half a mile along a barely single-track lane almost hidden under overgrown verges that any botanist would happily walk along on hands-and-knees we started at a Wessex Water Company nature reserve.

The Vegetarian Cookery School course was a half-day wild-food walk ending up back in the cookery school where a lunch was being prepared from the foods gathered plus some interesting additions from other sites. That meant a 2 hour walk, first around the nature reserve then setting off down an ancient footpath bordering a somewhat rustic hedgerow on the left with some gently cultivated fields and then a wildflower meadow on the right. It was a beautiful walk but also one likely to offer a good selection of the edible leafy treats available in spring.

Christopher Robbins talking up Nettles

I find most people are interested in the idea of eating wild plants. However many are soon put off by the fanatics who present them with great lists of greenery that may look interesting but be either tasteless or simply unpleasant to eat. Of course nearly everything can be eaten, but relatively few plants are a delight. I eat wild foods for pleasure not for principle nor for performance. This was the second essential of the wild food walk.

The nature reserve surrounded a spring-fed pond edged with yellow flag iris just coming into bloom. The damp borders were paved with mints (Mentha spp) of at least two varieties. Wild mints are common and a cursory attention can provide both abundance and such a delicious range of flavours that mint tastings could well overtake wine tastings as trendy evening classes. Wild comfrey (Symphytum oficinale) and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) were spotted. Both are medicinal, and hence valuable items for the forager, but comfrey has also been a food for centuries and we had some succulent young leaves already waiting to be frittered for lunch.

Wild comfrey (Symphytum oficinale)

Down the footpath we stopped at a healthy encroachment of nettle (Urtica dioica). I was surprised how few of the group had ever tried nettles. I consider the spring leaf-pick one of the best wild foods. The flavour is unique and they are so versatile. Think of using it like spinach. Divya, an experienced Indian cook, suggested nettle made great curries, which was my new-info treat for the day. We were planning a nettle risotto for lunch so described picking only the top two opposite leaves and the tip. Lower 2-4 leaves are ok if soup is planned, but the leaves can be stripped from the whole stem length if being dried for the tasty nettle tea. After flowering the leaves lose their succulence, but a timely swish of a reaping hook or strimmer will be followed by a flush of new, tender growth. I was impressed how many overcame their scepticism and were picking nettle tops with bare fingers without getting stung. (I kept thinking of walking on a bed of burning coals).

Christopher Robbins with a nettle top

Along the way, tucked close by the hedge were burdock (Arctium lappa) and hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), both of which have fleshy petioles that make asparagus substitutes when young. The roots of burdock, though needing Herculean dedication to dig them up as they may grow thirty feet down, used to be combined with dandelion roots to make a popular drink.

Hog Weed (Heracleum sphondylium)

Through a kissing gate we came to a wild-flower meadow, which was a true salad bowl. Visible from as far as 50m are the slender, red flowered spikes of wild sorrels (Rumex acetosa and acetosella) sticking above the grasses and signalling the treat of clean, sharp acidic leaves around the bases. Also the pink, sweet flowering heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), that offer sweetness and colour to salads. The delicate ladies smock (Cardamine pratensis) flowers are easily spotted and provide sharp mustard-oil tang to salads. These are members of the bittercress family that include the bitter cress and land cress that inhabit vegetable gardens and are closely related to watercress.

Wild Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Nearby, the well overgrown hedge had flowering hawthorn (Crataegus oxycanthoides), (whose flowers can be eaten fresh from the tree or left to provide a harvest of berries in the autumn for hedgerow jellies) and hazel (Corylus avellana) where crunchy, nutritious nuts can be harvested from late summer. The hazel tree also provides the straight shoots for harvesting ‘thumb-sticks’, the perfect walkers stick!

Tucked under the lowest part of the hedge and running away under the shade of the trees beyond was a spread of ramsons (Allium ursinum) or wild garlic. These were ‘over’ and had even moved from white flowers to clusters of green fruits. Though the leaves still had green they are inedible by now, becoming slimy on cooking and too fibrous. Even the delicate garlic flavour deteriorates soon after flowers appear. Still, they have been noted for another spring.

Other plants harvested from other sites for the lunch included Bath Asparagus, elderflower florets and comfrey leaves. The Bath asparagus (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum) is not the true wild form of cultivated asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), but another member of the Lily family that happens to have a tight flower spike when in bud that looks like the freshly-sprouted vegetative shoot of asparagus. It grows around Bath, is an uncommon plant that is rare in many places and best not harvested from the wild. The spikes we had to show the group came as a gift from a friend’s private field.

Bath Asparagus (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum)

Further wild-food walks will be offered by the Vegetarian Cookery School at different seasons, when different plants will be available to gather and enjoy.

Christopher Robbins © 31.May 2012

The next Wild Food Walk with Christopher will be on the 18th October. Find more photos from the Spring Walk on Flickr.

Here was the day's Wild Food Menu with links to recipes where available:

Wild Food Forage & Lunch

Thursday 31st May 2012

Small Eats

Nettle Soup

Herb Salsa Verde

Comfrey, Nettle & Hop Shoot Fritters

Larger Eats

Nettle Risotto with St George’s Mushrooms

Sautéed Burdock & Hog Weed

Large Wild Salad

Sweet Eats

Elderflower Fritters

Elderflower Cordial

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