As the dark nights of winter are gradually squeezed out by the slow approach of spring foraging, the hunt of edible foods in the wild, takes on a new urgency.
Winter foraging offers some fantastic tastes, textures and culinary surprises from the Wood Ear fungus (used by Japanese-themed noodle bar Wagamama in their soups) and Velvet Shank mushrooms giving your game casseroles and winter stuffs extra depth and flavour to mussels, oysters and whelks found at low tide on the seashore.
New growth on nettles is starting to show, and are now seen as a superfood packed with vitamins A, C and D with a dollop of iron. Taking just the top four or five leaves and picking away from roadsides and areas sprayed with pesticides, these leaves combine deliciously with potato for a warming, nutritious soup in place of spinach. Cooking the leaves removes the sting.
Sweet violets, often found crystallised as cake decoration or infused in to the delicate flowers found shivering under hedgerows and woodland glades and edges, can be sprinkled on salads adding a dash of colour or by infusing into syrup for use in cakes and drinks.
Another flower that should be eaten is the humble dandelion, regarded as a weed by most people. Again packed with vitamins, the whole plant can be eaten with flowers (February through November) chopped and added to omelettes and rice dishes, particularly risottos, while roots can be tossed into stir-fries.
Before picking any fungi or mushrooms get expert advice. Specimens with names such as Destroying Angel and Death Cap are best avoided! There are plenty of great foraging courses available around the country including
Foraging with Don and Ed in Pembrokeshire Foraging in a beautiful part of the world with access to the coast and woodland.
Fat Hen Walking and cycling around Cornwall with chef and ecologist Caroline Davey.
www.eatweeds.co.uk Professional forager Robin Herford runs course across Britain.
A personal favourite of mine is wild garlic also known as Ransoms. It’s a little early for this at the moment, but is a great sign that spring has finally overtaken winter and now rules the seasons. Ransoms are around for only a couple of weeks from early March and are found in woodland dotted along the paths of streams. The leaves can be eaten raw or blanched.
Finally chop the leaves to flavour omelettes or make a wild pesto (blitz with olive oil, basil, European pine nuts and some Parmigianino Reggiano cheese, stirred into risottos or used in place of garlic with meat or fish.
A good starting placed is reading the classic wild food book, ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey, or ‘Wild Food’ by outdoorsman and survivalist Ray Mears.
So get out and forage!