Foraging for wild foods

Foraging for wild foods is one of my favourite pastimes, relaxing, rewarding and yummy – this primeval activity somehow touches very basic cords in our psyche - links us to our hunter gatherer instinct. Doesn’t have to be confined to Autumn – the season of full and plenty. It can be a year round exercise.
The Wild Garlic blooming all over the countryside at present is a true harbinger of Spring. There are two varieties Allium Triquetrum, three-cornered garlic and Allium Ursinum also called Ransomes. We use them both, but I’m particularly fond of Allium Triquetrum, with its umbellliferous heads and pretty star-like flowers. We scatter both the leaves and flowers into salads and use them for garnishing. They make a delicious addition to a potato soup. If you have wild garlic in abundance the leaves made a delicious wild garlic pesto. We’ve also been enjoying wild garlic in champ in addition to the usual spring onion.
A walk through the woods at present is such a joy not only because the bluebells, wood anemones and primroses are in bloom, but I’ve been enjoying the fresh green leaves of the wood sorrel. These cute little shamrock-like sharp fresh tasting leaves are also delicious sprinkled into salads or as a garnish.
Buckler leaf sorrel and lamb’s tongue sorrel are also worth seeking out, as is the common field sorrel Rumex Acetosa.
The little leaves are easy to spot with little ‘pointy ears’ at the base of the leaf. 
For those of us who live close to the coast, sea spinach is at its best at present, easy to identify, it resembles slightly coarse perpetual spinach and can be eaten and cooked in exactly the same way. This is also the very best time of the year for nettles. They are young and tender. Remember our ancestors swore by four feeds of nettles in the month of May to clear the blood and keep the rheumatics at bay.
The darling little primrose and violet flowers can also be eaten and are particularly irresistible when crystallised. We use them to decorate cakes and buns, my daughter-in- law Penny makes adorable little cup cakes and decorates them with crystallised flowers, which have now become known affectionately as Penny’s buns.
So how about a walk on the wild side this weekend to discover the gastronomic delights of the hedgerow and seashore. 

Lydia’s Almond Cake with Crystallized Violets and Angelica

In Lydia Strangman’s time they used to pick the violets at Kinoith and send them off to Covent Garden in London. When I started gardening at Kinoith I gathered up all the remnants of the violets I could find and made a violet bed. We do not know of a better way to remember Lydia than to crystallize the little flowers to use as precious decoration. We often make this delicious, rich little cake that keeps well in a tin for ages. A tiny slice is just perfect to nibble slowly with a demi-tasse of espresso or a cup of China tea. Violets appear early in spring and are over by May. The art of crystallizing flowers simply takes patience and a meticulous nature - the sort of job that drives some people around the bend but others adore. If it appeals to you, the work will be rewarded - the violets look and taste divine. If properly done they will last for months. We store them in a pottery jar or in a tin box interleaved with kitchen paper.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.

Serves 10

110g (4 oz) ground Almonds
110g (4oz) icing sugar
75g (3oz) white flour
3 egg yolks
125ml (4 fl oz) melted butter

175g (6oz) icing
1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or boiling water

Crystallized Violets (see below)
7" round tin with shallow sides - A pop up base is handy but is not essential. 

Grease the tin well with melted butter and dust out with a little flour. 
Put the ground almonds, icing and flour into a bowl and mix well. Make a well in the centre and add the egg yolks and the cooled melted butter, stir well until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Spread the cake evenly in the prepared tin, make a little hollow in the centre and tap on the work top to release any large air bubbles. 
Bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes. It should still be moist but cooked through. Allow to sit in the tin for 5 or 6 minutes before unmoulding onto a close wire rack.
Allow to cool.
Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl, mix to a thickish smooth icing with the lemon juice or boiling water. Use a palette knife dipped in the boiling water and dried to spread it gently the top and sides of the cake.
Decorate with the crystallized violets and little diamonds of angelica.
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Crystallized Flowers – 
Use fairly strong textured leaves. Smaller flowers are more attractive when crystallized eg. primroses, violets, apple blossom, violas….
The castor sugar must be absolutely dry. Allow to dry in a very low oven for about 2 hour approx.
Break up the egg white slightly with a fork. Using a child's paint, brush the egg white very carefully over each petal and into every crevice. Pour the castor sugar over the flower or leaf with a teaspoon. Arrange carefully on bakewell paper to ensure a good shape. 
Allow to dry overnight in a warm dry place, e.g. close to an Aga or over a radiator. If properly crystallized these flowers will last for months, even years, provided they are kept dry. We store them in a covered pottery jar or a tin box.
Remember to do lots of leaves as well as flowers so one can make attractive arrangements - e.g. mint, lemon balm, wild strawberry, salad burnet or marguerite daisy leaves etc. 

Sea Spinach Soup

If you live near a rocky strand, look out for sea spinach - it's shiny green leaves are unmistakable. It can be cooked exactly like garden spinach and it also makes a delicious soup. Not surprisingly because sea spinach is washed by the tides it is full of iodine, minerals, and other trace elements and it has an addictive salty tang. As with all marine plants it should be gathered from an area where the water is clean and unpolluted.
Serves 6-8

2 ozs (50g) butter
4 ozs (110g) chopped onion
5 ozs (140g) chopped potatoes
8-12 ozs (225-350g) chopped spinach
1 pint (600ml) home made chicken stock
:-1 pint (450-600ml/22 cups) creamy milk (3 cream and : milk)
salt and freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons whipped cream (optional)
freshly chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When it foams add the potatoes and onions and turn them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Add the boiling stock and milk, bring back to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are soft. Add the spinach and boil with the lid off for about 3-5 minutes, until the spinach is cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Liquidise, taste and add some freshly grated nutmeg. Serve in warm bowls garnished with a blob of whipped cream and some chopped parsley.

Wild Mushroom and Garlic Frittata

Frittata is an Italian omelette. Kuku and Tortilla all sound much more exciting than a flat omelette although that’s basically what they are. Unlike their soft and creamy French cousin, these omelettes are cooked slowly over a very low heat during which time you can be whipping up a delicious salad to accompany it! A frittata is cooked gently on both sides and cut into wedges like a piece of cake. Omit the tomato and you have a basic recipe, flavoured with grated cheese and a generous sprinkling of herbs. Like the omelette, though, you’ll occasionally want to add some tasty morsels, to ring the changes perhaps some Spinach, Wild Garlic, Ruby Chard, Calabreze, Asparagus, Smoked Mackerel etc... the list is endless but be careful don’t use it as a dust bin - think about the combination of flavours before you empty your fridge!
450g (1lb) mushrooms - flat, oysters, shittake, washed and sliced. 
8 large eggs, preferably free range
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
110g (4ozs) Gruyére cheese, freshly grated
25g (1 oz) Parmesan cheese, grated
4 tablespoons wild garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons thyme leaves
25g (1oz) butter
1 tablespoon basil or marjoram

non stick pan - 7 inch (19cm) bottom, 9 inch (23cm) top rim

Serves 2-4

Preheat the oven to 180/350/regulo 4. 
Heat some olive oil in a hot pan, add the sliced mushrooms. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and cook over a high heat until just wilted, cool.
Whisk the eggs in a bowl, add the salt, freshly ground pepper, chopped herbs and wild garlic, mushrooms and grated cheese into the egg mixture. 
Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. When the butter starts to foam, tip in the eggs. Turn down the heat as low as it will go. Leave the eggs to cook gently for 15 minutes on a heat diffuser mat, or until the underneath is set. The top should still be slightly runny.
Preheat a grill. Pop the pan under the grill for 1 minute to set and barely brown the surface. 
Slide a palette knife under the frittata to free it from the pan. Slide onto a warm plate. 
Serve cut in wedges with a good green salad and perhaps a few olives. 

Nettle or Wild Garlic Champ
Nettles have been valued in Ireland since ancient times, not only as a food, but also as a purifier of the blood. The belief is still strong particularly among older people in the country that one should have at least three dinners of nettles in April and May to clear the blood and keep away the 'rheumatics' for the coming year.
Serves 3-4

12 lbs (700g) old potatoes, eg. Golden Wonders
1 tea cup chopped nettles or wild garlic
2 pint (300ml) milk
1-2 ozs (25-50g) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Meanwhile, chop the young nettle tops and cook in the milk for approx. 20 minutes. As soon as the potatoes are cooked, drain and peel immediately while they are still hot. Mash until soft and free of lumps. Pour in the boiling milk add the nettles and a good lump of butter, beat until soft and creamy. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve hot with a lump of butter melting into the centre.
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Wild Garlic Pesto

2oz (50g) wild garlic leaves
1oz (25g) pinenuts 
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed 
6-8 fl ozs(170-225ml) olive oil
1½ oz (40g) freshly grated Parmesan, (Parmigiano Peggiano )
salt and sugar to taste

Whizz the wild garlic, pine kernels, garlic and olive oil in a food processor or pound in a pestle and mortar. Remove to a bowl and fold in the finely grated Parmesan cheese. Taste and season. Store in a sterilized, covered jar in the fridge. 

Pennys Buns

Makes 12

150g (5oz) butter (at room temperature)
150g (5oz) caster Sugar
150g (5oz) self raising flour
2 large eggs
2 tbsp milk
½ tsp pure vanilla extract.

Icing sugar
Freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 muffin tray lined with 12 muffin cases.

Preheat oven to Gas Mark 5.

Put all ingredients except milk into a Magimix, whizz until smooth. Scrape down sides of Magimix, then add milk and whizz again.
Divide mixture between cases in muffin tin.
Bake in preheated oven for 15 –20 mins or until risen and golden.


Scented Geranium Cupcakes.

8 Medium sized Geranium Leaves.

Follow the master recipe but put the geranium leaves in to the milk and bring up to simmer. Allow to cool before adding to Magimix.

Put a crystallized rose petal on top for decoration.

Foolproof Food

Flavoured Butters

Flavoured Butters are delicious served with pan-grilled fish

Parsley or Herb Butter 
4ozs (110 g) butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley or a mixture of chopped fresh herbs - parsley, chives, thyme, fennel, lemon balm
A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice

Cream the butter and add in the parsley or mixed herbs and a few drops of lemon juice. Roll into butter pats or form into a roll and wrap in greaseproof paper or tinfoil, screwing each end so that it looks like a cracker. Refrigerate to harden.

Wild Garlic Butter

Substitute wild garlic leaves for parsley in the recipe above. Garnish the fish with wild garlic leaves and flowers.
Hot Tips

Growing Awareness is a Skibbereen based food and farming group established in 1998 with the aim of ensuring that everyone has access to food grown and produced in a way that restores respect for the earth, respect for food and respect for farmers and growers. They run Garden and Farm Walks, Sustainable Food and Farming Workshops including Forest Foods and Edible Seaweed.  Tel Madeline McKeever 028-38184

Foraging – A Walk on the Wild Side with Darina Allen – 18th September 2004 at Ballymaloe Cookery School –  Tel 021-4646785

Megabytes by John & Sally McKenna – An up to the minute selection of news and reviews which will tell you everything you need to know about who and what is happening in contemporary Irish food –  

L’Apéritif a la Francaise is a celebration of French gastronomy and its going to take place every year on the first Thursday in June. This year 16 cities are taking part on 3rd June , next year the number is set to rise to 33. In Dublin the party will happen from 4-7pm in the Round Room of the Mansion House. Tickets for the event at €15 each will be on sale from 10th May in selected Dublin off-licences and directly from The Dubliner magazine, supporters of the event –

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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