The Thrifty Forager – Alys Fowler


Alys Fowler dedicated her book The Thrifty Forager “to my mother – thank you for teaching me to eat my weeds” – how cool is that!

It’s a terrific book; Alys’s mum taught her how to forage when she was just a tot, the first thing she distinctly remembers is sucking nectar from clover flowers.

Foraging, or searching for food ‘in the wild’ brings out the latent hunter-gatherer that exists deep in many of our physic. Nowadays it’s as likely to be in towns and cities as in the country side.

Ever since I was a child when I picked watercress from the edge of the stream by the Chapel Meadows, I have always loved foraging, except we didn’t call it that back then. Throughout the year we had little expeditions, to find wild strawberries down the bog lane, bilberry or fraughans on Cullohill mountains around Lunaghsa (the first week of August.) Later there were damsons around the old castle and wild hazelnuts, rowans and elderberries in the hedgerows.

Where others see weeds or nothing at all I can see dinner, not just fruit, berries and nuts. There are all those greens and leaves that feed and nourish and heal.

Early in the year, young hawthorn leaves are known to be excellent for your cardiovascular system. Young nettles have long been incorporated into our diet, their value as a blood cleanser is well known and the knowledge has been passed from generation to generation. Chickweed, sorrel, ground elder, sweet woodruff, bittercress, garlic mustard, oraches, daisy, borage, shepherds purse, ladies smock, mallow, ransomes and on and on.

Fowler writes “It’s true; I’ve been less than truthful to my husband for the last couple of years about where our dinners have come from. I can see his point, it is a little weird to go out and forage when there’s a supermarket at the bottom of our road. But I gain so much pleasure from foraging; every leaf, seed and berry that I pick somehow seems to connect me both to my past and my future. I think about what my mother has taught me about the outdoors. I think of the many women over the millennia that have done this.”

Flowers are also edible – violets, pansies, roses (wild and old varieties are best, avoid heavily sprayed flowers from the florists) daisies, clover, field poppy, dandelion, day lily, mallow, marigolds, nasturtiums and many many more.

Guess what, as local has become the sexiest word in food and not only over here but also in the United States and Australia where local is more valued and evocative than organic, foraging has now become so hip you can’t imagine, if you happen to wander through a park in London on a week-end you’re bound to encounter lots of foragers with bags and baskets eagerly gathering weeds, berries, fruit plants and leaves, depending on the season. And not just in the parks, there are also rich pickings on common areas, railway embankments, playing fields, along the seashore…

Once you start to think foraging you’ll see the bounty of nature in a new light when you go for a walk you’ll see delicious pickings to incorporate into your menu, even more importantly many wild foods are as nature intended and their full compliment of vitamins, minerals and trace elements to supplement what can nowadays be a diet of seriously denatured food.

So if you’d like to join the new movement, arm yourself with a good book – my Forgotten Skills book has an extensive chapter on foraging – but I totally love Alys Fowlers The Thrifty Forager published by Kyle Books and even though I reckon to be an old hand, I have discovered many new finds which I can’t wait to taste.

Birgit’s Stone Soup

Stone soup comes from an old folk story found in many parts of the world about making something out of nothing. Birgit is quite used to me turning up at her house with a handful of this or that and staying long enough for them to be whipped into something nourishing for lunch. Her version of the soup is excellent for instant positive results after foraging, and ideal when coming back cold from a long foraging walk. This is a warming soup that takes just 30 minutes from bag to bowl.

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main course

2 medium onions

Garlic (2 cloves or more to taste)

3 big potatoes

2 big handfuls of mixed foraged herbs: stinging nettles, wild garlic, chickweed, lemon balm, sow thistles,

ground elder, bladder campion, three-cornered leeks, herb bennet leaves, sorrel, dandelions, dead nettles, mallows (though these make for a mucilaginous soup if you include too many), fat hen, oraches or borage.

Or just a single green, such as sorrel or stinging nettles

Butter or good frying oil, such as rapeseed oil

Good-quality vegetable stock cube or powder

Good-quality salt (such as Himalayan rock salt or sea salt) and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bread of your choice, to serve

Chop the onions and garlic finely.

Peel and chop the potatoes into fairly small cubes.

Roughly chop the herbs.

Heat the fat in a heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the finely chopped onions and stir until they start to glaze, then add the garlic and fry until just golden. Add the potatoes and cook for 5 minutes, stirring to stop them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cover with boiling water, add a little vegetable stock (cube or powder) and cook for a further 7–10 minutes. Add the roughly chopped herbs and cook until just tender (say another 4 minutes) – do not overboil the herbs or they’ll lose their goodness. Season to taste. Serve with chunky bread.

If you prefer a smooth-textured soup, whizz it through a blender. This will also fuse the flavours together, particularly if you’ve used a lot of bitter herbs, and make it more palatable to those who may be a little wary of wild things.




Roast Rack of Spring Lamb with Membrillo




Serves 4-6




Many butchers will prepare a rack of lamb for you.




2 racks of lamb (6 cutlets each)


salt and freshly ground pepper






Membrillo (see recipe)






sprigs of fresh mint




Prepare the racks of lamb as in diagram.




Score the fat. Refrigerate until needed.




Preheat the oven to 220°C\425°F\gas mark 7.




Sprinkle the racks of lamb with salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast fat side upwards for 25-30 minutes depending on the age of lamb and degree of doneness required. When cooked, remove lamb to a warm serving dish. Turn off the oven and allow the lamb to rest for 5-10 minutes before carving to allow the juices to re distribute evenly through the meat.




Carve the lamb and serve 2-3 cutlets per person depending on size. Serve with membrillo.






Alys Fowler’s Membrillo


Quinces or flowering quinces, japonica




1 vanilla pod, split


Lemon juice and rind of 1 lemon,


cut into strips


Granulated sugar


Wash the quinces well, as they have a sticky coating that attracts all sorts of dirt, then chop them into quarters and remove all their pips – like many other rose family plants, the seeds contain nitrites that are converted into hydrogen cyanide in your stomach. Too many seeds can be toxic and result in death.


Place fruit in a large pan, adding just enough water to cover the fruit. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer until tender. This takes 20–30 minutes.


Strain the juice overnight to use for jelly (see opposite) and put the remaining pulp through a sieve or mouli, then add the vanilla, lemon juice, rind and sugar (the same weight of sugar as pulp). Return the pan to the heat and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly so that the sugar melts. Bring this to a rapid boil until it reaches setting point, when the paste will feel thick and scrape clean away from the sides of the pan. This takes between 30–45 minutes. Then take the pan off the heat and pour the paste onto greaseproof paper on baking trays to air-dry. If you have a dehydrator, use it at this stage.


The paste should be about 2cm thick. After several days, it should be slightly shiny and sticky to touch, but not moist. Wrap the paste in greaseproof paper and store it in an airtight container in the fridge. It will last many months kept like this.


Perrine Puyberthier’s Plum Tarte


For the pastry


300g (10 ½ oz) flour


150g (5oz) butter


50g (2oz) caster sugar


2 egg yolks


1 glass of milk


Mix the flour with the butter and sugar until it becomes sandy textured. Add the egg yolks and milk and mix together into a ball. Cover with clingfilm and put in the fridge to stand for 1 hour. After an hour roll out the pastry to fit a 23cm (9in) tart case. Line the pastry with baking powder and baking beans or dried pulses and bake blind at 180ºC/gas mark 4 until it turns pale brown.


Let it cool. (obviously get rid of the paper and beans first!)


Meanwhile prepare the crème patissiere:


500ml (18floz) milk


1 vanilla pod


100g (3 ½ oz) caster sugar


2 egg yolks


50g (2oz) cornflour


Heat the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod. Do not let it boil.


In a bowl, mix the sugar with the two yolks until it becomes smooth and shiny.


Add the cornflour and stir well.


Take the hot milk off the stove and remove the vanilla pod.


Put it back on a low heat and add the sugary egg mixture, stirring constantly. It usually takes about 15 minutes for the crème to cook. It should become stiff and come away from the sides of the pan, but it can take a little longer.


The plum filling


1kg (approx 2lb) plums


Wash the plums, halve them and take out the stones. Spread the crème patissiere on the pastry and cover neatly with the plums. You can spread a layer of plum jam between the crème and the plums to add a touch of sweetness. The greatest joy about this tarte was its delicious tartness.


Bake the tart at 180ºC/gas mark 4 for 15 to 20 minutes – the plums will become soft and slightly caramelised.


Alys Fowler’s Rose Petal Jam


250g (9oz) rose petals (that’s roughly a quarter of a standard carrier bag of petals). I mix pink dog rose with a creamy yellow, highly scented rose from my garden.


1.1 litres (2 pints) water


Juice of 2 lemons


450g (1lb) granulated sugar


The petals may have a few bugs on them, so gently shake them free of any intruders, place in a bowl, add half the sugar and leave for several hours or overnight. This infuses the rose flavour into the sugar and darkens the petals.


In a heavy-based pan, add the water, lemon juice and remaining sugar, then gently heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the rose petals and simmer for 20 minutes or until the rose petals look as if they are melting and have softened – pull a few out and chew if necessary, they should melt in your mouth but have a slight bite. Turn the heat up and bring to a rapid boil for 5 minutes or until setting point is reached. Remove any scum that may have risen to the top and allow to cool slightly, stirring gently so that the petals are evenly distributed. Cover and bottle as usual.


Alys Fowler’s Rose Petal Vinegar


Fill a bottle or jar with rose petals, then add very good-quality white vine vinegar and seal with a cork. If you use deep pink petals, the vinegar will go a lovely colour. Keep out of direct sunlight and the vinegar will be ready after two months.


Alys Fowler’s Raspberry Vodka


A bottle of vodka


As many raspberries as you can pick


A tablespoon of sugar (white or light brown so as not to colour the vodka)


Drink a little neat vodka so that there is space in the bottle to fill with wild raspberries. Add the sugar, but do not shake, as this will destroy all the raspberries. Instead, keep the bottle on its side or at an angle and turn every few days till the sugar is dissolved. After a couple of months, strain the contents and store in suitable bottles. This is a subtle flavour with none of the chemical taste of commercial raspberry vodkas and needs to be treated accordingly in cocktails. It is particularly good with soda water and lime.


Hot Tips


A feast of Irish food from artisan producers matched with award winning wines at O’Connell’s in Donnybrook is on Tuesday, 27th September 2011 from 7.00pm.


Donal O’Sullivan, Shellfish de la Mer, West Cork. Bill Casey, Organic Smoked Salmon, East Cork. Alan Pierce, Gold River Farm, Co Wicklow, Mary O’Regan, Organic Chicken, Co Wexford, Irish Hereford Prime Society and Gubbeen Chorizo, Salamis and Cheeses will be matched with wines from Bodegas Valdemar

from the Rioja Region in Spain. To book phone 01 2696116

Darina Allen


cookery demonstration at The Irish Seed Savers Apple Weekend on Sunday 25th September the Apple Weekend starts on Saturday 24th September at 12 noon at Capparoe Scarriff, Co Clare. Park at Scarriff National School and take the free shuttle bus to the Irish Seed Savers site. For more information 061 921866 –

Debbie Shaw (Naturopathic Nutritionist)is back on Saturday 1st October 2011 to teach Feel Good Food for Winter – a day course from 9:30am to 5:00pm at Ballymaloe Cookery School – learn how to make really delicious healthy recipes for energy, vitality and optimal health. 021 4646785.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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