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Foraging in Suffolk

January 31, 2012

 Why forage?

Dandelions inspired me to become a wild food forager. I am passionate about dandelions – I adore them – there is nothing nicer than to see my garden in early spring with its rich green colour (yes I am lucky enough to live in Newbourne where the rich dark soil stays moist all year round and the grass green and lush) and it’s sprinkling of vibrant yellow flowers. They remind me of little lots of little suns – there just to cheer me up after the long winter.  My love of dandelions is a cause of marital disharmony as my husband thinks they are weeds and need to be removed but I won’t let him. Dandelions with their magnificent sabre edged leaves (in folk lore known as lion’s teeth plants) are a rich source of nutrition and historically a natural medicine chest.  I am an Aromatherapist with a particular interest in plants in medicine so dandelions are of great interest and from there I was inspired to look at other nutritious plants which we so often pass by.

I forage also because I love the outdoors and I love cooking especially cooking to entertain for friends and family.  I have no interest in formal gardening – my wild garden (which my mother in law says is full of weeds (including the dandelions) is my pride and joy. I even love the nettles hiding away in the corners with their delicate white flowers and fan club of exquisite butterflies

Since I started working from home I have also got to know some of the elderly villagers who came to Newbourne as children after the war when it was a government land settlement site  with every house having a pig sty and some land) They grew, bred, caught and collected most of the food they ate because they were children of the depression. Maybe it is fashionable or maybe it is because we are once more facing a period of austerity but there is definitely renewed interest in cooking with foraged food and luckily a lot of those people who did it because they had to are still alive to inspire us even more.

One very elderly lady said to me recently “The plants that live around me have developed immunities to all the bad things around here (from what is in the ground to what is in the air) to survive, so when I eat them I benefit from their strength and immunity too. When I go to Tesco and get food from across the world, what good does it do me?”

Suffolk logic that made sense I thought!

Why forage in Suffolk?

We are lucky in Suffolk to enjoy one of Britain’s finest landscapes. It includes wildlife-rich wetlands, ancient woodlands, and vast sandy heath lands.  Unusually it is common to find areas such as Newbourne where these different landscapes are all evident in one area (geoSuffolkhttp://www.geosuffolk.co.uk/ is a great resource if you want to find out more).

The result is a wide diversity of plant life and rich pickings for the foraging enthusiast.

What are you foraging for? – in this article I am interested in plants for cooking – however in Victorian times foraging had a central role to play in most households.

 Personal and beauty care- a plant grown for its cleansing or skin enhancing properties

Cooking – a plant grown as a food source or spice

Animal food

Dyeing – a plant grown for use as a dye

Fiber – a plant used for making thread/cloth

Fragrance – a plant grown for its scent

Fulling – a plant used in the process of turning raw fiber into thread/yarn

Medicine – a plant grown for medicinal uses

Repellent – a plant used as a pest repellent

Strewing – a plant used to lay around a room or chest to provide pest repellent and a pleasant fragrance

Soft fruits including elder berries, blackberries, crab apples, sloes and rosehips are readily available and in season it is quite entertaining to see the lay-bys full of cars and lots of people out along the hedge. My recommendation is to leave the road side and explore the pathways particularly those alongside woodland. It takes you away from roadside pollution and any chemicals that may have been used and invariably there is more availability.

Sloe gin is so easy to make and such a glorious Christmas present.  My children make it under supervision of course. When the fruit starts changing the colour of the gin it is just glorious and the children make the most delightful labels.  I am sure mums-net would not approve of my autumn half term craft activity but the recipients of our endeavours are always delighted.

One 70 cl bottle of gin (remove 1/3)

175ml wine glass full of sloes (topped and tailed and left in the freezer overnight after picking)

175ml wine glass of caster sugar

Add the sloes and then the sugar, top up to within an inch of the top so that there is some room for shaking.  Shake very day for a fortnight then leave to mature….just watch that glorious colour developing.

Serve alone alongside coffee or with a very dry prosecco or cava …..or my dinner party pudding favourite.   2 tablespoonfuls of sloe gin in a wine glass, top up with hot water.  Prick a Madeira cake (I sometimes cheat with a bought one but don’t tell my visitors) all over then drizzle the sloe gin and hot water carefully all over letting it sink in.  Serve with extra thick double cream and garnish with some of the sloe berries.

It is also nice made into a jelly and served with pork, duck or venison as a very glamorous alternative to cranberry jelly.

Hawthornetrees and their berries are another passion of mine. Berries were historically foraged for food but no longer. The Hawthorn Tree – Queen of the May is known as the “faerie tree”, this beautiful, often gnarled, thorny little tree can live to a great age, and can be found growing in the harshest of spots.

The keyword for the Hawthorn is the heart, and this is reflected in its herbal uses as well as its symbolism and place in folklore and legend.

Houses were decked with May blossoms (“bringing home the May”). The popular rhyme “Here we go gathering nuts in May” is thought to have been sung by the young men, gathering not “nuts” (which do not grow in May) but “knots” of may blossoms for the May Day Celebrations.

The blossom can be drunk as a tonic tea, which is believed to have a beneficial effect on the heart If you collect the flowers, they need to be dried quickly in newspaper rolls hung in an airy place.

Hawthorn is believed to be the home of the fairies, and if you forage from the tree without making your peace with the fairies bad luck may happen to you.  If you do want to harvest from the tree then folklore has it that you should sit a while and make your peace with the fairies before you help yourself.  Of course this legend and others similar maybe just have been publicised by landlords wanting to stop people helping themselves! However last year during the Aldeburgh festival fringe I was taking a party of Londoners foraging and told this story. One lady who had just moved into a house immediately called her gardener to stop him moving aHawthornetree that she had planned to replace with something more contemporary

 

Green salad vegetables

Dandelion

The dandelion flowers can be added raw in a salad, herbal wines are made from the flowers and the flowers can also be dipped into a batter and deep fried for a tasty treat.

The roots can even be roasted and ground to make dandelion coffee! If you love coffee, but your doctor has advised you to stay away from caffeine, or if your body just can’t tolerate it this coffee may be the perfect substitute.

Dandelion has been used as a blood purifier, used to relieve constipation, joint aches and pains; it has even shown to aid in liver conditions like jaundice and hepatitis!

Most diuretics not only relieve the body of excess water, they also relieve the body of potassium. Dandelions have very strong diuretic properties, but they don’t lower the body’s potassium levels.

Dandelions can be used for the treatments of kidney and urinary tract infections, gall bladder problems including gall stones, cirrhosis and even oedema. The fresh juice derived from the roots and stems helps to heal wounds and even fights bacteria. This white sap can also give relief from the pain associated with insect stings and bites

Dandelion leaves are very rich in Vitamin B and are an excellent alternative to rocket. I love cooking with them as they add such a dynamic colour and offer me an alternative to rocket at no cost.  Note avoid foraging along footpaths due to dogs.

Julie Foster’s Dandelion scone starter with Suffolk Salsa

  • 200g self-raising flour , plus a little more for dusting
  • 50g butter , at room temperature
  • 25g porridge oats
  • 75g Suffolk Gold cheese http://www.suffolkcheese.co.uk/where.html#farm_shop
  • 150ml milk
  • 4-6 clean dandelion roughly chopped leaves (tastes like strong rocket so adjust quantity to personal  taste)

For the fresh salsa

Roughly chop local cucumber and sweet  local tomatoes and add finely chopped red onion to taste – stir in Stokes balsamico dressing http://www.nothingbutthebest.co.uk/productList.aspx?cat=0&brand=2&uid=57

Locally grown cucumbers and tomatoes are recommended from Newbourne (former land settlement  site)  http://www.newbournefarmshop.co.uk/ – they also stock Stokes dressings so usually have the balsamic dressing if you prefer not to buy online.

1. Heat oven to 220c/fan 200c/gas 7. Place the flour in a large bowl, then rub in the butter. Stir in the oats, chopped dandelion and cheese, then the milk – if it feels like it might be dry, add more milk, then bring together to make a soft dough.

2. Lightly dust the surface with a little flour. roll out the dough no thinner than 2cm. Using a 4cm plain cutter, firmly stamp out the rounds – try not to twist the cutter as this makes the scones rise unevenly. Re-roll the trimmings and stamp out more.

 3. Transfer to a non-stick baking sheet, dust with a little more flour or grated cheese, then bake for 12-15 mins until well risen and golden.

 4. Serve hot or cold  with butter a small green salad (more dandelion leaf can be added if you like it garnished with dandelion flowers (the flowers are edible but not recommended as more bitter but the yellow looks fantastic against the red of the tomato salsa and the green of the salad.

 Ps. If I am doing this recipe with children who are too young to “rub in” or older children with suspect finger nails I use a scone mix and add the other ingredients and extra milk.

Nettles

There is a misconception that Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) was brought into this country by the Romans and started by a man called Camden who in the 16th Century produced a book on the history of England called Brittania. He writes “… the Romans brought seeds to the Nettles to which they sting themselves to keep themselves warm”.

In fact traces of Stinging Nettle have been found in archaeological sites going back thousands of years.

From 1100 AD there is evidence of Stinging Nettle being used as food.

Around 1150 we have Hildegard von Bingen a famous herbalist promoting Nettles as nutritious food. In the 1700’s Nettles were routinely added to gruel.  They are rich in the B vitamins which are water soluble (so have to be ingested regularly) and are vital for skin and brain health

In the 1870’s Nettles were used for beer, and for making Nettle porridge. Even now in Northern Italy Nettles are sold in markets for human consumption like spinach.

Until the beginning of the 20th Century Nettles were common as a food source in work houses. Maybe this is the source of the stigma as they were  seen as Poor Man’s food .

Nettle soup is very popular Nettles can be used as an almost direct substitute for spinach. I prefer to mix spinach and nettles.  I have tried a lot of nettle soup recipes but this is my favorite from the River cottage collection.  I like the use of bacon stock as it adds an authentic t9ouch given that until the 1950s most ruralSuffolkhomes would have had a pig sty

http://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/the-ultimate-nettle-soup-recipe/ollection

I also make nettle tonic as an alternative to metatone and similar vitamin B tonics which I used to buy at great expense for my friends who were ill or run down.  Wash and dry fresh nettle leaves and layer them with vodka in a wide mouthed kilner jar.  Add 1 wine glass full of caster sugar. It is vital that the botanical material 9the nettles stays below the surface of the vodka or you will get fungus).  Shake regularly and after a month strain out the liquid and bottle in medicine bottles.  Take 5-10 mls in hot water with lemon and honey when you are feeling run down.  I am often asked to talk to WI about my foraging activities and last winter I took my nettle tonic around to a few meetings. Most people were fascinated by the gorgeous rich green color and a few brave souls had a sip. They decided that it was good enough to have as an alcoholic drink like a liquor.  One elderly lady said “I wouldn’t waste my champagne in with it but a nice sweet asti spumante would be just the job to counteract the bitterness without losing the flavor”..I tried it and I agree!

Primroses (Primula vulgaris) are the quintessential Spring time plant in theUK. It is questionable whether they should be foraged.

As far back as the 15th Century Primrose buds were used as food often mixed with egg and fried and sweetened with honey. Also in the 16th Century, around 1535 you have Macer’s Herbal where it is mentioned that the leaves are good for pottage. A pottage is a dish which combines meat, cereals and leaves. Primrose leaves were also mixed with eggs and cream.

The flowers can be frosted and used as a garnish. If you pick Primrose flowers in sunlight, then the sunlight develops the fragrance and the sweetness in them. So get a little bit of a flavour-edge if you pick them on a sunny day.

Primrose, like most edible plants, becomes bitter with age and can be an allergy risk for some sensitive people.

In the 17th Century dried Primroses was used as a herbal flavouring like mint or parsley

Fat Hen, Chenopodium album, (also known as: white goosefoot, lambsquarters, or pigweed) is a fast-growing plant considered a virulent weed by most gardeners , Depending on where you forage it and how much you eat it can contain potentially harmful levels of nitrates, however cases of poisoning or allergic reaction are extremely rare. It is very efficient at extracting nutrients from the soil so is usually a healthy looking plant. The leaves are a source of ascaridole, an oil used to treat infestations of round worms and hook worms.

Fat Hen can be eaten as a vegetable, either steamed in entirety, or the leaves cooked as a leaf vegetable (like spinach). Each plant also produces tens of thousands of black seeds. These are very nutritious, high in protein, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. In the past it was grown as a poultry feed (both seeds and leaves). Indeed, Fat Hen seeds are some of the most common seeds found in neolithic sites indicating widespread consumption of the plant during prehistoric times.

 

Fat hen potato gratin – I love serving it with a simple roast chicken or adding  a ham layer and a sweet corn layer as a one pot quick family supper.

Ingredients

1kg waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cupfuls of fat hen leaves
3cups whole milk (about)
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
freshly-grated nutmeg, to taste
1 head of fresh garlic, crushed
25gm butter

Method:

Take a large baking dish and rub with garlic then place a thin layer of potatoes in the base. Season with a little of the garlic, salt and black pepper along with a little nutmeg. Place a thin layer of fat hen leaves on top.

Now repeat the layering and seasoning process until all the ingredients have been used up (finish with a layer of potatoes). Pour in the milk until just level with the top of the potatoes. Dot with the butter then transfer to an oven pre-heated to 230°C and bake for 10 minutes then lower the oven to 210°C and cook for a further 50 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the potatoes are cooked through.

Safety

There are risks associated with foraging.  They can be minimized by following the protocol outlined below. However foraging with children is not recommended beyond the obvious things such as hedgerow fruit and my recommendation nettles and dandelions which are almost impossible to miss identify.

For healthy adults with no underlying medical condition and  free of medication the risks are much lower and can be minimized by following the protocol here.

Identify an edible plant – if there is any uncertainty discard.

Rub the leaf (or whatever part you plan to eat) between your fingers until the flesh breaks down.

Using the tip of your little finger touch a minuscule amount of the macerated plant and juice on to the outside of your lip.  If you have any reaction such as burning or itching discard the plant.

If after fifteen minutes there has been no reaction repeat the exercise on the tip of the tongue

If after another fifteen minutes no reaction then swallow a minuscule amount. 

If after four hours no reaction then takes a small amount of the edible plant and use it with other food. Wait for 24 hours and if  you have no reaction then if and only if you re 100% certain y9ou have correctly identified the plant as edible can you go ahead.

Caution is advised and if unsure forage with someone who is experienced at plant identification.

Some edible plants are well known and well used for instance Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and Nettles (Urtica dioica) so if in doubt stay with the very familiar.

Daisies are edible (Bellis perennis) and relatively easy to identify for beginners – however there is a view that if eaten in any quantity they can cause upset. My advice is to use  sparingly for garnish.

Elder (Sambus nigra) berries are a common plant that is foraged for the flowers (cook them in batter and sprinkle with sugar or drizzle with honey like fritters) or of course make them into wine, juice or jelly. 

Some people report that eating any part of the elder plant results in migraines.  My view is that all foods potentially can cause problems but most people should be able to enjoy them without any risk. It is about managing the risk and knowing your own body.

If you have a medical condition or are unsure, it is advisable to avoid eating foraged food.

If you are new to foraging or like to involve children in foraging don’t miss out on roasting and cooking with chestnuts. Contact me if you would like the recipes.

About Julie Foster

Suffolk Mum and business woman Julie Foster is a natural health expert and toiletry producer. She has lectured and written for the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Good Housekeeping and been featured by Country Living and Country File as a rural entrepreneur. Julie started her career with the National Trust and designed a herb garden themed stand for Chelseaflower Show. Later she moved to Mercedes Benz where for nearly fifteen years she was the only female executive marketing (and after gaining a Class I) driving 40 ton trucks. After a cancer scare she left the corporate world and retrained as an Aromatherapist and  started her own business Potions and Possibilities which supplied the Royal Palaces and House of Lords as well as exporting to international spas. She sold the business three years ago to to concentrate on teaching and studying and to spend less time travelling and more time with her young children. She has a passion for the natural world including plant folklore and medicine, geology and local history and enjoys sharing this interest as a workshop leader for the National Trust. She is also a qualified community health coach with a special interest in healthy fast food for weight loss and exercise. Her local schedule of Zumba classes are very popular.  www.facebook.com/zumbainSuffolk

 

For more information on Foraging or Zumba contact julie.foster@btinternet.com http://www.juliefoster.org.uk

 

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