Washed out Summer… to the beach then!

It’s been one lousy summer of rain. After a sunny March that caused the spring greens to bloom too early, we had what seemed like 3 months of almost constant rain. Normally I rejoice at rain and run off to seek out mushrooms, but this is the worst time for our fungal friends. Needless to say my wild strawberry-picking hopes had been washed out and I was devastated… until I realised that there’s one kind of summer foraging that’s not affected by the rain… because the plants are underwater!

My visiting friend and I had taken the opportunity on a (mostly) dry day to head out to one of my favourite beach spots.  It’s a place of immense beauty, but it’s also a place where marsh samphire grows.  And if you’ve tried samphire before, you’d be dreaming of rivers and seas too.

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Marsh samphire grows by riverways near the sea. It needs salty water, and salty water is what makes it so more-ish.  As with strawberries, my friend remarked, you have to pick one and eat one.  We sat and picked the little stems for a while.  The sun had burned red and magenta into their little stems and into the surrounding seaside succulents.  I admired the colour contrast… probably my favourite in the world.

 

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It’s tedious work, picking samphire.  We grabbed the tender top shoots and pinched them off.  30 minutes of picking only yielded a hummous container’s worth. I suppose one could grab and rip up the entire plants to save time, but that brings dirt and mud along with them, and more importantly, it damages the plants.  Don’t ever do that.  Pick in such a way that the plant can continue growing, and seeding for the next year.  So tedium is the way to go, but the flavour is worth it.

 

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Down by the sea, we were transfixed by the powerful waves.  I feel like I always see the English Channel in such dramatic turbulence.  Perhaps it’s because on sunny days I prefer to run off to the rivers than laze about on the beach. 

 

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As my friend relaxed under the intermittent sun (she was on vacation after all) I worked my way down the coast, gathering tufts of sea lettuce, dulse and kelp.  Most people don’t realise it, but there are many seaweed species that are not only abundant along our shores, but delicious and nutritious to boot.  It’s no wonder they’re becoming a trendy restaurant ingredient.

Even I wasn’t aware of the gastronomical possibilities beneath my feet until quite recently, when my partner pointed out that kombu, that ubiquitous miso soup ingredient, was actually an exotic relative of common sea kelp.  Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, a pocket-sized forager’s bible if there ever was one, features a whole section on seaweeds, and it’s certainly worth a perusal to see which ones you should look out for.  And the summer months are a great time to look out for edible seaweeds, even if t’s been gloomy and rainy!

We sorted our haul, rolled up the kelp and packed up the sea lettuce.  We meandered around and did all the non/foragey things that people do, and returned home.  I froze off some sea lettuce straight away and hung the rest to dry.  Our boiler room smelled like the sea for days (I think it still does).  It’s quite a treat really, the essence of the sea right there in our house, in our kitchen.  That’s what I love about seaweed – that smell and that taste takes me back to the shores so much better than any photo ever could.

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Lilac Wine ~ hypnotised by a strange delight

I must admit I have failed you, my dear blog readers.  I’m still getting used to time-sensitive blogging, which is a necessity for a foraging almanac.  In any case, lilacs came and went so quickly this year, and we had gone mad with picking them, drying them, reading online accounts of euphoria from drinking lilac tea.  Indeed, we were in a state of intoxication ourselves from the heavy scent that took over our kitchen in the first week of May.  And in the ensuing May madness of work, art shows and other commitments, I did not manage to tell you about lilacs so that you too could go and gather them and make beautiful things with them.  There’s always next year, so do remember this post!

Lilac’s latin name is Syringa, which sounds beautiful but also makes me think of opiates and intoxication.  And considering (scientifically unbacked!) claims that lilac tea can cause light euphoria, perhaps this is an appropriate association.  In any case, we are eager to test this theory out.  Lilacs are strongly associated with Easter-time, because that’s when they bloom, and perhaps also because of their cross-like petals.  So think of lilacs when you think of the Easter Bunny, and head out for a big ol forage after you’ve scavenged all the chocolate eggs.  Also, the Wikipedia entry informs me that lilacs are part of the olive family, which I think is just wonderful, and makes me want to visit the Mediterranean all the more.

Credit goes to Tai for discovering lilac’s foraging possibilities.  His love of flowers warms my heart.  So Tai decided, as lilac season sprung into a frenzy, that we must make lilac wine.  The only challenge was where to get enough flower heads.  All the lilac gardens in public parks in Brighton are accompanied by signs specifically saying not to pick them.  While cycling through Lewes, I had discovered that many cottages on the western part of the town featured lovely lilac bushes.  So my plan was to “canvass” the neighbourhood and ask residents if we could pick a head or two.  It took Tai some convincing that bothering strangers in this case was justified.  I eagerly knocked on doors (years of Census and political campaigning work has come in handy!) and everyone we spoke to was fine to part with a few heads.  In the end, we had a canvass bag-full and headed home, our hands and clothing and hair full of that sweet and heady scent.

At home, we proceeded to get the flowers ready for making wine.  We pulled the flowers off the stems, our fingers getting stickier and stickier with nectar.  Once done, we licked the sweetness off our fingertips and felt giddy from the wonders of our everyday lives and from the anticipation of lilac wine.  We boiled water and slowly poured it into the two bowls containing the flowers, placed big plates to act as lids, and carried the bowls into the livingroom, where they would steep and ferment over the next two days.

For lilac wine, you should use this recipe.  It’s not special in any way, in fact it’s the same recipe you’ll find in most places.  But I say use this one because it’s so inspiring and exciting to hear the woman’s account of discovering a vintage bottle of lilac wine.  Indeed, Tai and I will be leaving a bottle’s-worth from our batch to age for a few years ~ if we can stand it!

Later that evening, I had picked a few more lilacs at a graveyard (I hope the ghosts didn’t mind) and we hung those to dry in our boiler room, a.k.a. the Magnificent Drying Closet, for making lilac tea.  I would pop my head in every day for the next week, mostly to smell the wonderful scent that had collected in the air.

After 2 days’ fermentation, we strained the liquid, squeezed the excess from the lilac must (which was so fun to shape and mold), and mixed in the sugar, lemon juice, and wine yeast.  For the next week the mixture did its thing, making our livingroom smell like cider.  Finally, it was transferred into a demi-john and fitted with an airlock.  The wine has been bubbling away in our cupboard ever since.  Now we wait until all bubble-expelling activity ceases, which is when we get to try a bit and bottle up the rest to age and mature in peace.  Updates forthcoming, for sure!

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No April Showers, but plenty of May Flowers.

May is a fairly quiet time in the garden.  Likewise, in May, you won’t find much in the way of berries or mushrooms to forager, and all the leafy greens have by now flowered, rendering their flavour too intense.  But what you will find is flowers.  Edible flowers.  And lots of them.  A good time indeed in England.

Now, this post is a little late (I’ve been quite busy!).  So if these flowers strike your fancy, go out and look for them as soon as possible, because soon they’ll wither and brown.

If you have a garden, start your edible flower adventure there.  Brassica, allium, and mint family flowers are all edible, as are those lovely pink wood sorrel flowers (oxalis articulata) I see growing in gardens everywhere.  Why not combine garden flowers with some lettuce and herbs for a lovely and colorful spring salad?

Also, you may be a little shocked to learn that you can eat peony petals.  Yup.  Apparently, in China, people par-boil peony petals and use them as gorgeously hued vegetable.  We’d tried some petals raw, and although quite tart (not unlike a rose) they had a lovely aftertaste, reminiscent of the smell of wet leaves on the ground in the Autumn.

Last year, people picked the petals before we had a chance to enjoy them.  This year, I’d made a sign asking people to spare the blooms, and it mostly worked, and started many a conversation with the neighbours!  Peonies can also be crystallized, which involves egg whites, lots of sugar, and a low-heat oven (look for crystallized rose petal recipes).  We’re planning to try this with our own pretty peonies…

There’s a lovely guide on edible flowers.  Definitely worth a perusal and a bookmark on your computer!

Up next, lilacs and elderflowers…

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Wild Garlic Recipes Galore

Wild Garlic is a bit of a muse in the foraging world.  When you walk past a forest floor covered in those tender blades, the gentle scent of garlic overwhelms your senses, and you’re suddenly fantasizing about sunny kitchens, dinner parties and impressing your friends with culinary treats.  That garlicky smell in general just makes people want to cook, and certainly to eat (even if they’re not hungry).

Our fridges have been stuffed and smelling like a pizza parlour for weeks.  We’ve been throwing wild garlic into practically everything.  As a garnish, as a salad green, pizza topping, dried for later use as an herb… Heck, if we could make ice cream with it, we would!  But perhaps the most popular use for wild garlic is wild garlic pesto, and after a night battling it out with the blender, we have jars and jars in the back of the freezer, waiting to be opened 6 months from now, when the luscious spring green leaves are but a distant memory.

Here are a few suggestions for using up all that garlic you’ve been picking.  But don’t be shy ~ throw it into whatever you’d like.  This stuff is as versatile as it is abundant.

Wild Garlic Pesto

To make this stuff, I can’t really give you exact measurements.  As with any pesto recipe, this is a matter of adding the key ingredients into the blender food processor until the taste is just right.  All I can tell you is that if you only have one of those smoothie blenders, you have a bit of a struggle ahead of you (although, I can assure you it’s worth it).

You want to start with a medium bouquet’s worth of wild garlic, washed and picked over, removing any yellowing or spotted leaves.  Your other ingredients are parmigiano regiano (or a cheaper parmesan cheese), nuts or seeds (you can use pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds… experiment!), a load of olive oil, some pepper and salt.  You can add fresh or dried herbs if you’d like, such as chives, parsley, oregano, etc.  You can even throw in some garlic, but perhaps that would be cheating?  Amounts are not set in stone, but I try to aim for 3 parts wild garlic to one part nuts and one part cheese, and enough oil to get the right consistency.

Start by finely chopping the wild garlic.  You can use the whole shebang, including flowers and stalks.  Blend some oil and nuts until you have a saucy consistency.  Then blend in half of the cheese.  Now add the wild garlic, in parts, blending between each addition.  This also ensures that you have blended and chunkier bits of garlic.  Add more oil if you need to.  Then, when the mixture is almost where you want it, add the pepper and cheese and blend for a moment.  Taste to see if it needs more salt, and add some if needed.  This makes enough to fill a 400+ ml jar

We’d made two batches of pesto for a garden party a few weeks ago, and the vegan version was by far the favourite.  Just a thought for those of you who don’t eat milk products, those who have vegan friends coming over, and those who can’t be bothered to pick up some fancy hard cheese.  In my experience, cashews (the cheese substitute nut!) and pistachios work best, because they’re creamy and have that lovely umami flavour that parmesan unleashes.  I also throw in fried onion and nutritional yeast, to round out the meatiness.  I suppose you could make this version with cheese for some serious savoury decadence if you wanted to.  I dare not because I know it would end with me eating a jarful of pesto with a soup spoon.  Sadness.

I’d suggest making a few batches, filling up some jars, and keeping them in the freezer.  That way, you can enjoy wild garlic throughout the year.  Simply transfer a jar to the fridge the day before you want to open it.

Home-made pizza with wild garlic topping

Another thing to do is to use the stuff on pizza!  No-brainer here.  If you mix chopped wild garlic with the cheese and add some on top as well, you get two lovely experiences in one – the wilted sweetness beneath the cheese, and the crispy brown delightfulness on top.  You can either get a frozen pie and add some wild garlic on top (in which case, I’d add it halfway through the baking).  OR, you can make your own pizza from scratch!  That’s what I did.  Using this recipe.  I’ve never made any other pizza dough, but I fully trust that this recipe is the best.  Bear in mind, you’ll have to start the day before for this method.  I usually freeze a few of the dough balls, and use them on the go for special occasions, such as bringing a haul of wild garlic home.  The pizza above featured a vegetarian bolognese sauce, the basics shredded cheese from Sainsbury’s (poor man’s mozzarella) and wild garlic.  A grind of pepper and that’s it.  Delight.

Pickled Wild Garlic Buds

Why not try pickling some wild garlic buds/flowers?  It’s a great way to spread the wild garlic joy throughout the year.

When Tai and I were in Moscow, we fell in love with pickled ramsons.  Back in Los Angeles, Tai would not stop talking about them, and fantasized about picking our own and pickling it.  The ramsons/wild garlic we found here in the UK is a different variety from the one in Russia, with thinner stalks and not much in the way of bulbs.  So we opted to pickle the flower buds instead.  And what results!

We used pickling vinegar (higher acidity than regular vinegar) and a variety of pickling spices.  You can use whatever recipe or method appeals to you.  Just remember that pickled foods get better with age, so be patient and let it sit somewhere cool and dark before you have your first taste.

Enjoy the wild garlic season!

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Springwatch ~ Ground Elder and other tasty weeds

March is all about young leafy greens.  They’re the first things that start shooting up out of the crumbly earth and leaf litter in February, and they’re some of the first to flower in April and May.

In the photo above, you’ll see ground elder, wild garlic, garlic mustard and goosegrass growing together in weedy harmony.

When it comes to edible weeds, they’re pretty much everywhere.  Many of these are still out in full force right now in April, so get out some carrier bags, scissors, put on your boots and head out into your nearest woods (or local park!).

Ground Elder

When I was little, growing up in the Soviet Union, our grandmother would take us on train journeys to the woods and countryside to pick bags and bags of this Spring weed.  Having moved to the US, I had held on to hazy memories of the low-growing woodland plant with its many leaves, and the tasty soups my grandmother would make out of it, but I could not remember its name.  I had gotten older and developed a passion for foraging, and desired to find this weed again, but by this point my grandma had passed away, so I could not ask her directly.

Imagine my delight when I’d moved to the UK and discovered that it is growing practically everywhere.  Indeed, ground elder is a weed, and a pernicious one at that.  The tiniest of root cuttings will grow new plants, and to get rid of it once it’s claimed a spot, a gardener must dig up to 6 feet deep and remove every last trace of the stuff.  Keeping this in mind makes picking ground elder all the more satisfying.

OK, enough with all that prattle!  How do you find it?  So, as far as looking for ground elder, keep an eye our Feb – May, look by garden hedges or fences, under trees, in the park, next to your office building, etc.  The leaves do kinda look like elder leaves, but unlike elder, they’re actually edible.  Being part of the carrot family, ground elder smells and tastes like carrot greens.  Which is to say, it’s better cooked!  Younger leaves are better, but even the older ones are fine.  ***Just make sure not to gather the plant once it’s blooming with white flowers.  Once ground elder flowers, it becomes a super-laxative.  You’ve been warned!

You can make lots of dishes with ground elder, especially classic spinach dishes.  Coming up soon, I’ll tell you about Ground Elder Soufflé and Russian Spring Green Borscht – my two favourite uses!

Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard is another pernicious weed.  Introduced to the United States as a culinary herb, it soon took over forest floors, suffocating any other native woodland undergrowth.  What’s more, garlic mustard releases chemicals that mess with the fungal balance of the soil, thus affecting the growth of other plants, including trees.  Aaand, deer want nothing to do with its garlicky taste, so garlic mustard is left ungrazed and unchecked.  Here in Europe, its role in the ecosystem is a bit more controlled.  Nonetheless, you do see massive clumps of the stuff, so don’t be shy when picking it.

This plant can be found in conditions similar to ground elder.  Take a walk through your local woods or along a stone wall, and you’re bound to find it.  Garlic mustard is best picked when it’s young, when the leaves are still round (as in the photo above).  As leaves get older, they develop sharp point, and the flowers come out.  Still, I’ll munch on the leaves and flowers as I stroll along, but do bear in mind that older plants have that bitterness common to cabbage and mustard family plants, even after you cook them.

As for uses, try them in a quiche or as wilted greens.  Garlic Mustard is also used to make pesto.

Goosegrass

Goosegrass is the stalky plant with long, narrow leaves popping out among the wild garlic above.  This is the best photo I have for this edible weed.  To be honest, I haven’t foraged this plant much, in part because as a gardener I struggle with it sticking to every article of clothing on me, and sometimes it really frustrates me.  Do you know the stickyweed that kids attach to their friends’ clothing as a joke?  That’s goosegrass.  Mind you, in the US goosgrass is the name for another plant, so do check out the  link here instead of just googling it.

In any case, people tell me it’s nice once steamed or put into soup, tasting like a wilted lettuce or something similarly mild and planty.  Take care when picking it, as it’s a bit prickly and can cause “gardener’s rash”, as I like to call it.  Its sticky spines are totally dissolved in the cooking process, so don’t worry when it comes to eating it.  Goosegrass is found everywhere, so just keep your eye out.  And it can be harvested all year long, even in the Autumn months.  The seeds apparently can be gathered and roasted for a coffee substitute.  I’ll be sure to try that this summer!

Now go get some greens!

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March Madness ~ Wild Garlic

Forgive me for playing catch-up, as I’m already more than a month behind!

For me, the seasons start with March.  That’s when the first choice edible greens appear, and the Equinox passes, so it seems fitting.  Plus, the wild foods on my mind in February are mushrooms, which are all about decay and decomposition, so what better way to end the year, no?

So here we start.  At the beginning of March, you can start seeing wild garlic.  Also known as ramsons, it’s a member of the onion genus, and a wild relative of chives.  The leaves come out in Brighton late February to early March, and stick around well into April.  Around mid-March to April, you’ll see bulbs appearing on the plants, which open to reveal delicate white flowers that fill the forest floor with the lovely culinary scent of garlic.

Wild Garlic East Sussex

Wild garlic tends to take over and entire area, so if you see a few leaves, you should see a whole carpet close by.  Although wild garlic looks like lily-of-the-valley leaves, which are very poisonous, there’s no mistaking the garlic smell when you crush the wild garlic leaves between your fingers.

Wild garlic grows on rich, moist, deep, dark soil, in the partial shade of well-established tall trees.  Bear in mind that the chalky slopes of the South Downs will not harbour wild garlic, so you need to go to woodlands or even country roads somewhere flat, somewhere near a river.  I’d suggest north of Lewes or further west.  That said, I have seen wild garlic grow in Brighton, near massive compost heaps.  I suspect that all the lovely compost has turned the surrounding soil into a rich habitat for wild garlic.

A note on wild garlic foraging (and all foraging, for that matter): don’t forage hungry!  Or else, if you do, the above scenario will happen, and you’ll find yourself running out of fridge space.

And on that note ~ coming up soon, I’ll tell you what to do once you find a haul of the tasty leaves!

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A Free Feast

Few things compare in this world.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of gathering your food in the wild (or in your urban wilderness) and nourishing your body with it.  But it just feels right.

And yet most people know so little about what is and isn’t edible these days.  We wait for supermarkets to tell us that something is fit for consumption by wiping off the soil, glossing it with wax and packaging it in plastic.


I grew up in the Soviet Union, where even the most urbane urban dweller went on regular fishing trips and mushroom forays.  Our grandparents taught us which berries to pick, which greens to gather and use for soup, and which trees nurtured the choicest mushrooms.  As a pre-teen growing up in New York, I saw nothing unusual about plucking mulberries off of low branches by my school grounds.  Surely all kids did the same, no?   Once, I’d found a rogue peach tree in the park and brought the juicy, fuzzy August fruits for my best friend to sample.   It confused me when she proceeded to inspect the fruit suspiciously, and waited for me to take the first bite to check that they were not poisonous.  But a peach is a peach!

At university in Los Angeles, I realised that very few people pulled fruit from a branch and popped it in their mouths.  It was the eco-green-gardener types, the Hispanic grounds-keepers, and me.  It just not something people did.  And it drove me nuts.  Why would anyone in their right mind pass up something so tasty, and so free, as a red pomegranate on a bush.

Perhaps we’re living in some anti-Eden, perhaps this is the story of our antigenesis, where people must be liberated from the confinement of their supermarket ignorance and taste the fruits of bliss.  As a student, I decided I should be the anti-Eve, teaching people about their edible surroundings, through photos, performances, fruit maps, and plastic bags filled with tasty berries at lectures.  Just like my school-yard friend, they had to wait and watch as I ate a fruit, and return the following week alive, but after that, most friends were surely converted.

I loved the manicured would-be Eden of Los Angeles, my exotic fruit tree playground – “for display purposes only,” of course – but yearned for the woods and pastures of my childhood.  And when my partner and I moved to Brighton, UK, we realised that mushrooms and sorrel were close at hand.  But after moving here, we also realised that there was much yet to learn about the natural rhythms of the climate, the seasons and all the living things here, about the particulars of the South Downs and their chalky slopes.  I had to know where to look, and even what to look for.  Foragers keep their knowledge sacred and secret, and wild food courses were (and are) out of my financial reach.  What I needed was an Almanac of Foraging!

Well, more than a year later, we’ve learned a bit about the what, where and when of picking food here in East Sussex.  And since there’s no Brighton-specific online foraging guide, perhaps this can be a Foraging Almanac for Brighton & Hove, and the surrounding areas.  I won’t tell you where to find it, but I’ll tell you how to find it, and what to do with it.  And I’m learning as I go along, so I welcome your input too.

Please enjoy and share.  The best things in life are free, and they often grow on trees.

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