Fancy a Forage? Bush Picking For Beginners
They say that the best things in life are free.
Whether that is entirely true is debatable, but in these times of austerity every little helps and if there is such a thing as a free lunch then we could all do with one. Which is where foraging comes in… And here in Sheffield we're lucky to have so many green spaces as well as the Peaks on our doorstep meaning that not one of us is ever too far away from a good patch of wild garlic or a nice bilberry bush.
In fact you'll find that there's a lot on offer for foragers in the local parks, the back garden and even within the S1 city centre boundary. But knowing what you're looking for and where to go is the tricky bit and I find that, no matter how many books or websites I look at, nothing beats getting out there with someone who knows what they're doing and actually having a go for myself.
So, as soon as I heard that Patrick Harding was holding a talk (and a walk) at Heeley City Farm I booked the husband and I in. See, I’ve come across Patrick Harding before, at a lecture he gave during the Sheffield Food Festival in 2011, and I found him to be incredibly intelligent and interesting.
We started the evening by the duck pond at the Farm and before setting off for a walk around the grounds. We were a mixed bag; a range of ages and levels of experience, but we all enjoyed hearing about Patrick’s anecdotes whilst picking up a few foodie tips on the way. We learned that sweet cicely smells of aniseed and can be added to apples and rhubarb to subdue the tartness of the fruit, that chickweed can be eaten in salads and that fennel leaves make a good cuppa. If you come across a lime tree in June/July, try picking off the tiny leaves and the white flowers and drying them out to make a lime flower tea.
To be honest, I find these ingredients a bit daunting as, apart from fennel leaves, I’m not convinced I’d find them again. So I was glad when we came across an elder and Patrick told us how to make an elderberry cordial. Make up some sugar syrup by warming up some water and dissolving as much white sugar as possible into it. This then needs to cool in a bowl before sitting elder flower heads, with their stalks pointing upwards, into the liquid along with two chopped up lemons and a small packet of citric acid for 24 hours. Once everything is nicely infused, strain the liquid off using muslin. Patrick reckons that the cordial will last for about three months in the fridge, but if you’re worried about it going mouldy before you’ve had chance to use it all, you could freeze it in an ice cube tray and just pop a couple out into your water whenever you fancy one (and I do hear that it’s lovely in a G&T!).
Another ingredient that’s popular with foragers is wild garlic. Easily recognisable from the garlic smell it gives off, its thick, luscious leaves and delicate white flowers, wild garlic is treasured by chefs and home cooks up and down the country! Unlike standard garlic, it’s the leaves you’re after and Patrick explained that it’s best to cut the leaf around ¾ of the way down as this will allow the leaf to grow back. They can be used wilted in stews, casseroles, pasta dishes and risottos, or raw in salads, but Patrick had a new tip for us; wrap a piece of white fish or chicken in the leaves, wrap in foil and bake in the oven. I’ve given this a go with fish and it’s certainly worth a try. The leaves kept the fish moist whilst injecting a subtle garlic flavour into the dish. We were all encouraged to try some of the flowers too and, although I’d heard that they were edible, I had never tried them before… they’re delicious. Packed with quite a strong garlic flavour with a crunchy texture they’re lovely in a salad.
You probably wouldn’t think of dandelions when you think of foraging; more of a garden weed than a useful ingredient, but Patrick uses the root for coffee. Dig deep until you find the bulbous section of the root (but remember that you must not go digging up plants without the landowner’s permission – even in the case of weeds!), roast it in a hot oven, then grind to a powder and, well, hey-presto, it’s coffee! Patrick also explained that we can use the young leaves and open flowers in salads. Not bad for a common garden weed eh?!
If you’re interested in learning more I highly recommend Patrick Harding's events. And if you’ve got some foodie young ‘uns, how about the Fire and Food Forest School Days that will be held at Heeley City Farm on 6,16,20 and 30 August? Working around a fire pit, kids will have the chance to prepare and cook a meal out in the open. The sessions run 10am-2pm and free, but donations are welcome. Contact Gareth Hills on 0114 2580482 or drop him a line here for more information.
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