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High-octane way to craft a meal with 100% wholesome origins

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 02, 2013

  • From far left: Nettle soup, tender green nettles just waiting to be picked (using a rubber glove, of course) and wild garlic, above

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I am going to try very hard not to mention the "H" word. It's not going to be easy. I have been banging on about knowing where your food comes from for as long as I can remember, often to polite, seemingly interested people who slowly glaze over until my wife nudges me and reminds me it's a dinner party, not a debating group.

So, rather than bang on and on about the need to support local suppliers and producers; understand and respect your food and where it comes from; bore you to tears with energy-use ratios per kilojoule of food energy consumed (you would be amazed!), I have decided to take you for a walk on the wild side. Well, more or less.

Now, whether you are a consumer of processed meats and frozen lasagne is of no interest to me: it's your choice. That's all I ever want to show people: you have a choice.

But I am often told to accept that there is simply no way that most people can afford to eat without resorting to ready meals. It's at that point that I then like to discuss the many and varied ways in which they could perhaps save a lot on their food bill AND eat better food: better for them, better for the environment and overall, when all is said and done, better tasting!

That's what food is about for me: how it tastes. There are many ways to make food taste better; you can add salt and pepper (that's a good start) but something weird happens when you become completely responsible for that food. As any veg gardener will tell you, food you have grown yourself is simply the best you will ever eat and most farmers will agree.

Now, this is the thing. I am, by nature, a haphazard person, as my long-suffering wife and anyone who has worked for me will be able to confirm, and this does not make for a good gardener.

I have, in fact, given up on attempting to grow veg after a few strong words from the allotment association made me agree that the "jungle", as it had become known, was perhaps a little too wild to be classed as a veg plot. So, that leaves me with a dilemma: how do I get my fix of extra-special food?

We keep a few hens for eggs – and, eventually, meat – and the eggs are very special. But I want something more, something that I can really take ownership of; after all, the hens do the hard work on the egg front.

That is how I find myself up to my knees in mud, covered in nettle stings, waving a wicker basket about with the dog giving me one of those looks, as I wonder how on earth I am going to get out of there with my dignity intact and dry feet, never mind the basket of wild garlic I have just picked on the river bank.

I really cannot recommend this type of "gardening" enough; it's high-octane stuff.

All the energy you expend is immediately transformed into food: no waiting, no planting, weeding or tilling. It's all done for you by nature and it will connect your food with the seasons in a way no other thing can. Gathering food from the wild is called foraging and it can take place almost anywhere and at any time of the year.

Now, gathering food from the wild is a dangerous thing, not least of all because you can become seriously addicted to it.

However, there are a lot of things that you can fall foul of – wildlife protected areas, angry farmers and landowners to name a few, as well as, of course, the good old "well it looked like parsley to me; I didn't know it was hemlock" – that could prove fatal.

Whether you like the idea of eating pigeons and rabbits is neither here nor there; we will leave foraging for animals (and fish!) till a later date, but, I think it's worth noting that if you shoot yourself a pigeon or rabbit, at least you know where it came from and how it died; how that meat was looked after and how it was treated up until the point of consumption.

Now then, dangers aside, there are two very easy-to-identify wild plants out there that are almost impossible to mistake for anything else. They are so prevalent that you won't have to work too hard to find them.

They are of course the common stinging nettle and the almost-as-common Rampson, or wild garlic. If you have never eaten either of these plants then you are missing out: not only on the chance to eat them and get to know their flavours, but on the chance to save some money, connect with your environment in a new way and avoid some gardening.

I won't bore you with long, descriptive notes here; we all know what a nettle is and if you've never seen, or smelt wild garlic then simply search online, follow your nose or, better still, ask someone! You would be amazed what is out there for the taking. I will, however, make a few points. Nettles are best harvested with a rubber glove on; I know, you will look like a weirdo in the hedgerow, but never mind.

Pick only the top four leaves and don't bother with any that are flowering or have gone to seed. Make sure you wash them; people do like to spray the countryside with chemicals, but more importantly (as nettles are unlikely to grow where they have been sprayed with herbicide), you don't know how many dogs, foxes or drunken young men may have been that way before you.

Wild garlic, on the other hand, you don't need to be so fussy; though for my preference I like it young and tend to ignore it once it stops flowering. That said, the seeds and flowers are both delicious and of course, as with the nettles, it needs a good rinse. Don't dig it up or rip it from the ground: simply pick or cut the leaves and stems above the ground.

Try making a soup with wild garlic, just like a leek and potato but without the leeks. Just as the potato is cooked, add as much wild garlic as you can get in the pot and blend immediately. Season and serve.

Nettle soup works just the same way and wild garlic and nettles are both great in pasta and pizzas. The options really are limitless... I am very fond of a wild garlic and nettle pesto and this helps to extend the life of the harvest as well. If you have the inclination, then making a big batch of wild garlic butter. Freezing it can see you through to the next spring no problem at all.

Now, not only do you have two new and versatile ingredients to add to your repertoire, but you also have a nice feeling of satisfaction gained from gathering these foods yourself.

Admittedly, a bit of wild garlic and a few nettles won't save you a fortune at the shops, but they will help a little and they have opened the gate: whether you go on to forage for other plants, fungi or animals is up to you, but at least you have gained a little knowledge and you know for a fact that there is no horse meat in your garlic butter. Oh, damn, I said it...

Find out more at Tim's website, www.greensauce.co.uk.

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