Foraging for food around the garden and beyond
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch! However, with the right plant knowledge it’s possible to access a larder of free ingredients from the natural landscape around us. Indeed, whereas foraging was simply the way of life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, nowadays it’s an increasingly popular method of supplementing our cultivated and shop bought food. The key to success is to be sure you know what you’re eating, to check you’re on public land where you’re allowed to forage or ask the owner’s permission, and to only take what you need whilst being mindful of the natural habitat and fouling dogs that may have passed by.
Now it’s April, a plant that’s ready for picking and a good one to start with is wild garlic (Allium ursinum). Usually found growing on shady, wet ground alongside wooded streams, it can be identified fairly easily by its fresh green pointed leaves and subsequent white flowers which both give off a recognisably garlicky smell. We have it growing in our woodland area and once picked, the leaves can be eaten raw to give flavour to a salad, added to a multitude of soups and other savoury dishes or blended to make a delicious pesto to accompany pasta. If you end up with any over, remember to either keep the stems fresh in a glass of water in the fridge or simply freeze them until needed.
Another plant that has sprung up here at the garden over recent weeks is Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), otherwise known as parsley of Alexandria and introduced to Britain by the Romans. Across Thanet it typically grows along the coast and in hedgerows, up to a metre and a half tall. It’s characterised by bright green leaves grouped in threes on each leaf stalk and greenish yellow spring flowers arranged in umbels. It tastes similar to celery and the leaves and stalks can be prepared in a similar way to asparagus by boiling or steaming for 5 or 10 minutes, or simply added to soups and stews. The stems can also be candied in sugar for using in cake decoration, whilst the flower heads can be deep fried Japanese style in tempura batter.
If you are foraging down by the seaside then another plant that’s easily found is sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. Maritime), or wild spinach. Its leaves are a similar triangular shape to cultivated varieties, though the glossy dark green leaves tend to be slightly thicker and taste even better when cooked. Whilst it’s best to collect the young leaves in spring, they can be harvested all year round.
Should you fancy getting your toes wet, then marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) is a seasonal delicacy to be had between May and September. Its vibrant green, succulent jointed stems are similar to asparagus and grow in muddy, salt water marshes and estuary fringes. Collect them by snipping with scissors to avoid uprooting the plants. Then enjoy them boiled for a few minutes and served with butter, as a perfect accompaniment to fish and seafood or anything else requiring a maritime twist such as a choice joint of salt marsh lamb.
Back here at the garden we’re lucky to have several swathes of beautifully scented sweet violets (Viola odorata) that are ideal for making into violet flower syrup. Mixed with water later in the year this makes for a cooling and refreshing drink to look forward to on a hot summer’s day. To make the syrup it’s important to use freshly picked flowers and to carefully remove the petals from their stalks.
A simple recipe is to then place a cup of the petals into a glass jar, cover them with a cup of boiling water, seal the jar and leave them to steep for 24 hours. Then strain the blueish liquid to remove the petals, pour it into a saucepan and add the juice of a quarter of a lemon and 2 cups of caster sugar. Bring to the boil, turn down and simmer for 10 minutes. Then cool and pour into a suitable jar for storing and refrigerate. The syrup can then be used for making drinks or flavouring baking.