Eat The Weeds

Foraging is great – no tilling, sowing or weeding – you just jump straight in, and unlike the patient farmer waiting for their autumn bounty, you can harvest in every month of the year.
Sure, the winter months have their challenges, but treasures can still be found if you look closely and cook creatively.  With spring properly here the choice of wild goodies is growing daily, so just tune in to natures rhythm to start taking your share.  In this piece we will see how wild garlic, nettles, garlic mustard, thistles and bittercresses could change your life, or at least with our nettle beer recipe alter your state of reality for a bit(it’s great fun to pick free food, but please remember not to eat anything unless you are completely sure of its identification and that it is from a pollution and contamination free zone).

So where to look?  Start close to home is good advice as its surprising what’s lurking in your garden or even on your doorstep.  One of my favourite “weeds” is the descriptively named hairy bittercress, which typically grows as a weed in garden verges, in crevices in pavements or on your afore mentioned doorstep.

This plant will grow over the winter has hairy leaves and stems and grows from a centre “rosette”, with many pairs of small rounded leaflets.  I like it as its strong peppery taste reminds me of sandwiches made by my Grandmother, carefully finished with a sprinkling of mustard and cress, except bittercress actually seems a fresher and cleaner flavour.  Pluck some to add to your lunchtime sandwich or just add to some bought lettuce mix – it will freshen it up no end.

Bittercresses are best harvested before their small white flowers appear, when it goes a bit straggly.  I recently found that it had taken over the Japanese garden at the Sheaf Training Centre up near the Northern General, and in this volume could be collected for making soup.  This is simply done by blitzing a few last-minute handfuls into a soup made by sweating potato, onion and garlic in a butter and oil mix, followed by vegetable stock.  Although I didn’t collect the plants, the gardener at Sheaf Training may well have approved, as it would have prevented the seed pods maturing and exploding open to project the next generation into his soil.

It’s amazing that there is so much food available in spring.  Nettles are one of the best free foods to forage, and are actually coming into their prime with the young shoots still tender and fresh.  Being brave, harvesting is best done by “grasping the nettle” in an authoritative way – showing the plant who is boss helps prevent stung fingers.  I usually come unstuck when the leaves brush the less battle hardened parts of the anatomy – I’m talking about wrists!  But if in doubt use gloves. Picking is best done by plucking the top four or so leaves and simply moving onto the next plant, as this actually encourages further growth.  

Nettle and potato soup is a classic recipe, but how about nettle beer?  It’s a quick 3 to 4 day operation   Here is a recipe I have adapted from a super book – “The Forager Handbook” by Miles Irving:
Boil 1kg nettle tops in 5 litres of water for one minute and then leave to infuse for 30 minutes.  Strain and add 400g of brown sugar, 1tsp of cream of tartar, the juice and zest from 2 lemons.  While still tepid in temperature add 1tsp of normal dried bread making yeast.  At this point ideally put into a 5 litre demijohn and seal with an air lock filled with previously boiled water and leave in a warmish part of your kitchen for 3 days.  Alternatively use a plastic tub with a secure lid.  



Fermentation should start within an hour or two, and then for the next 2-3 days when using an air lock you will hear the frequent blipping as the CO2 escapes through the air lock.  If using the plastic tub method, beware of the louder explosion signalling the emptying of the contents under pressure into your kitchen.  Once the fermentation subsides it’s ready to bottle.  By putting a teaspoon or so of sugar into each bottle you can “bottle condition”.  This allows a secondary, less vigorous fermentation to occur in the bottle, the CO2 produced giving a natural carbonation. 

The danger of course is that in glass bottles the build-up of pressure causes a potential explosion in a dangerous medium.  A good alternative is to bottle in plastic bottles which, when suitably bulging, indicate that carbonisation is complete and the beer is ready to enjoy.

Our recent brew was very drinkable after less than a week – a darkish beer with a good weight of alcohol reminiscent of a Midlands style mild or a drink I remember called Worthington’s E – this recipe is well worth a go.

Keeping very much to the weed theme, it’s possible at the moment to create a completely wild salad by collecting dandelion, wild garlic, sorrel, thistles and garlic mustard.  Our modern pallates have been somewhat conditioned to tolerate  only relatively mild and innocuous salad leaves, so some of these wild cousins may at first seem a bit full on.  Bitterness, toughness and some stringiness can be occupational hazards, but judicious collection of the younger leaves and experience in blending with regular leaves pays dividends.  Thistles are actually a really good wild food, crisp and flavoursome without bitterness – their spines are their defence mechanism so they don’t need to produce bitter leaves to discourage grazing.  This week I have been eating them from the Blenheim Palace estate, which sounds quite posh but they taste much the same in good old Sheffield.  The trick is to pick young leaves and strip off the spines so that you get to the midrib.  As no thistles are poisonous as such, they make a relatively safe wild food to forage, although the commonly eaten species would be Creeping, Marsh and Spear Thistle.

Garlic mustard from a taste perspective is true to its name, giving a precise hit of garlic and then peppery mustard to the palate.  It’s worth gathering just to experience this combination in each individual leaf.  This plant is a biennial which means its growth cycle stretches over two years.  In its first year (see picture) large leaves on long stalks with crinkly edges appear at road edges and field sides.  Into year two, a tall main stem appears with nettle-like leaves and the small white flowers can be used as a great salad garnish.

Wild Garlic is abundant in damp areas, such as stream edges or in the wilder garden with a marshy, boggy bit.  I find the raw leaves a little too astringently garlic in taste but have found recently that cooking, even a little light stir frying considerably mellows the impact.  I am waiting now for the flower buds to start to appear, which can be from early April, as these can be lightly pickled to mimic capers.

So there it is – just a few of the foodie treasures growing under our noses in and around our Sheffield neighbourhoods.  There are of course a great deal more, and growing ones knowledge of not only the number of plants around but the number of parts of the plants that can be used is very rewarding.  There is a list of useful resources to aid in this endeavour at this handy site.

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