Walks in the countryside have helped to keep many of us sane during these past few troubling months. At this stage we know every inch of our local area intimately, those of us who live close to the sea or a woodland feel fortunate indeed to be able to breathe in sea air and gather sea beet along by the seashore.
I’m a foraging nerd and now that Spring is definitely here, a walk takes on a whole extra dimension. I scan the hedgerows, streams, woodland and seashore for wild things to gather. There’s an abundance of fresh growth to nibble on and the young leaves of ground elder are at their best at present, eat them raw, in salads or add to a foragers soup, cook them like melted greens or make a ground elder champ. Gardeners regard ground elder as a pest, a perennial weed that re-emerges and spreads every year but, where others see weeds, I see dinner…
For weeks now, we’ve been enjoying both kinds of wild garlic, both ramps and the snow bells that grow along the roadside and resemble white blue bells. Allium Triquetrum or Three-Cornered leeks are named because of their triangular stem, leek like leaves and pretty white, bell like flowers. The broader leaved ramps or ramsons unlike its namesake, grow in dappled shade, under trees or in woodlands. The leaves come first followed by the delicious flower buds, then the pretty whitepom pom like flowers and finally the pungent green seed heads that make a feisty pickle – all delicious.
JP McMahon described wild garlic as ‘the gateway drug for the novice forager’ because of its distinct garlicky aroma which makes it easy to identify. It’s also super versatile in the kitchen and we keep finding more and more ways to enjoy it. Add some chopped leaves to white soda scones, dip the top in cheddar cheese and how about this spicy riff on the wild garlic pesto recipe in my Grow, Cook, Nourish book. The perky young leaves are also delicious in salads – I particularly love them with devilled eggs but try adding some to a Alfredo sauce with strips of roast red pepper to anoint some pasta before sprinkling with a shower of the pretty white wild garlic flowers.
Do you have a clean stream closeby? Wild watercress is almost at its peak just now, before it begins to go to flower. For identification purposes, remember the top leaf of the cress family is always the biggest and the leaves get progressively smaller as they go down the stem whereas the opposite applies to the wild celery that always grows side by side with watercress in the stream. Make sure the water is clean and fast flowing and wash well before you use in soups, salads or your favourite recipe.
Ever had butterfly sandwiches? A memory from my childhood – simply, sliced white bread, slathered generously with butter, filled with chopped watercress and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. Press down and cut into triangles, surprisingly delicious, better still, add to egg and mayo sandwiches.
I also love to nibble the first young leaves of hawthorn, we call this ‘bread and butter’,
These are known to be good for your cardiovascular system, an old wives tale that’s now backed up by science but don’t over do it…
You’ll find wintercress or bittercress growing everywhere at present, in gravel paths, flower beds. It grows in basals and it too has a slightly mustardy flavour. It’s alsoone of our favourite Winter and early Spring treats. Enjoy now because it’ll soon get leggy and go to flower. Add it to salads or use as a garnish to embellish starter plates. The soft new growth of spruce look like pale green tassels, gather them to make a pine flavoured syrup before they get prickly.
Finally for this article, I must mention primroses and sweet cicely. The latter is one of the earliest perennial herbs to re-emerge in Spring. Add it to rhubarb or simply use it as a stencil on top of a cake. Sprinkle with icing sugar and remove it to find a delicate fernlike pattern. Primroses also make a pretty garnish or a delightful addition to a salad but are most enchanting when crystallised to decorate Wee Primrose Buns.
Wild watercress has more depth of flavour than farmed versions, so see if you can find some. This soup has been a favourite on the menu of Ballymaloe House since it opened in 1963.
45g (1 1/2oz) butter
150g (5oz) peeled and chopped potatoes
110g (4oz) peeled and chopped onion
salt and freshly ground pepper
900ml (1 1/2 pints) water or homemade chicken stock or vegetable stock
300ml (10fl oz) creamy milk (1/4 cream and 3/4 milk)
225g (8oz) chopped watercress (remove the coarse stalks first)
Melt the butter in heavy bottomed saucepan. When it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the watercress. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the hot stock and boiling milk. Bring back to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the watercress and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes approx. until the watercress is just cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser. Taste and correct seasoning.
Wild Garlic and Cheddar Cheese Scones
Makes 9-12 depending on size
450g (1lb) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda)
1 – 2 tablespoons finely chopped wild garlic
350-400ml (12-14fl oz) approx. sour milk or buttermilk to mix
110g (4oz) grated Cheddar cheese,
First fully preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients and add the chopped wild garlic. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky.
When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured board, knead lightly for a second, just enough to tidy it up. Pat the dough into a square about 2.5cm (1 inch) deep, brush with egg wash, cut into 9-12 square scones. Dip the top of each scone into the grated Cheddar cheese, place on a baking sheet.
Bake on a hot
oven for 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to
200°C/ 400°F/Mark 6, for 6-10 minutes or until cooked. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with soup or as a snack.
Buffalo Mozzarella with Spruce Syrup and Wild Bitter Greens
We collect the soft spruce tips in April while the new growth is still soft and green, try them – they have a delicious, mild piney flavour.
4 handfuls of wild bitter greens – e.g. bittercress, wood sorrel, watercress, dandelion, pennywort….
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 buffalo mozzarella (we use Toonsbridge)
2 tablespoons spruce syrup (see below)
Toss the greens in the olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper.
Strew on a plate, top with torn mozzarella – 1/2 a ball per person. Drizzle 2 teaspoons of spruce syrup over each mozzarella. Serve with crusty white bread.
Makes 300ml (10fl oz)
100g (3 1/2oz) of fresh spuce tips
200g (7oz) granulated sugar
150ml (5fl oz) cold water
pinch of salt
freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
Whizz the spruce tips in a Magimix. Place in a saucepan with the cold water and sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 minute. Allow to cool. Strain through a muslin lined sieve. Discard the solids. Add the freshly squeezed juice of one lemon. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for 1-2 months.
Serve with cream cheese or soft goat’s cheese.
Spicy Wild Garlic Pesto
Chilli adds extra oomph to this wild garlic pesto, use 1 or 2 depending on your taste and the heat of the chilli.
Makes 3 x 200ml (7fl oz) jars
110g (4oz) wild garlic leaves, destalked
50g (2oz) cashew nuts, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 – 2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
350-450ml (12-16fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
80g (3 1/4oz approx.) freshly grated Parmesan, (Parmigiano Reggiano)
sugar to taste (it can take quite a bit towards the end of the season)
Wash the wild garlic leaves. Spin and dry very well.
Whizz in a food processer with the chopped cashew nuts, crushed garlic, chopped chilli, salt and olive oil or pound in a pestle and mortar. Remove to a bowl and fold in the finely grated Parmesan cheese. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary. Store in a sterilized covered jar in the fridge.
Roast Rhubarb and Sweet Cicely
450g (1lb) red rhubarb, e.g. Timperely early
4 tablespoons of sugar
4-6 leaves of sweet cicely
Cut the rhubarb into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces. Chop the sweet cicely and scatter over the base of an ovenproof dish. Lay the rhubarb on top in a single layer. Sprinkle with sugar and allow to macerate for an hour or so until the juices begin to flow.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
Cover the rhubarb with a sheet of parchment paper and roast in the oven for 10–20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until the rhubarb is just tender. Keep a close eye on the rhubarb as it can disintegrate very quickly
Decorate with wispy bits of fresh sweet cicely and serve with softly
Wee Crystallised Primrose Buns
These adorable buns or cupcakes make an enchanting present to bring cheer to a friend during the challenging times. This is our favourite basic cupcake recipe, they can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion!
Makes 9-10 cupcakes or 16-18 buns
150g (5oz) butter (at room temperature)
150g (5oz) caster sugar
150g (5oz) self-raising flour
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
225g (8oz) icing sugar
zest of 1/2 – 1 lemon depending on size
2 – 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 bun tins lined with 18 bun cases.
crystallised primrose to decorate
Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Put all ingredients except milk into a food processor, whizz until smooth. Scrape down sides of the bowl, then add milk and whizz again.
Divide mixture evenly between cases in the bun trays or muffin tins.
Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until risen and golden.
Meanwhile make the icing.
Put the sieved icing sugar into a bowl. Add just enough lemon juice to mix to a spreadable consistency.
When the cupcakes are cold,
spoon over a little icing on top of each one.
Arrange a crystallised primrose at an angle on top of each cupcake –
Flowers and leaves crystallized with sugar will keep for months, although they may lose their initial vibrant colour. This is what we call a high-stool job – definitely a labour of love and not something suited to an impatient, Type A personality. The end result is both beautiful and rewarding and many family and staff wedding cakes have been embellished with crystallized flowers over the years.
Flowers and leaves must be edible and are all worth doing.
Smaller flowers are more attractive when crystallized e.g. primroses, violets, apple blossom, viola’s, rose petals….We crystallize lots of leaves as well as flowers so one can make attractive arrangements. Use fairly strong textured leaves – e.g. mint, lemon balm, sweet cicely, wild strawberry, salad burnet or marguerite daisy leaves.
The caster sugar must be absolutely dry, one could dry it in a low oven for about 30 minutes approx. Break up the egg white slightly in a little bowl with a fork. Using a child’s paintbrush, paint the egg white very carefully over each petal and into every crevice. Pour the caster sugar over the flower with a teaspoon. Arrange the crystallized flowers carefully on silicone paper so that they retain a good shape. Leave to dry overnight in a warm, dry place such as close to an Aga, over a radiator or in an airing cupboard. When properly crystallized, these flowers will last for months, even years, provided they are kept dry. We store them in a pottery jar or a tin box with an airtight lid.