A walk on the wild side

SPRING foraging is so good for the body and soul. The wild flora of the Irish countryside provides a myriad of treasures for our pantry and medicine chest.

Many of our grandparents and certainly great grandparents were deeply knowledgeable and knew exactly what to pick, and how to use nature’s bounty to nourish and cure and indeed as preventative medicine. Some families still have hand written copy books which document old cures together with favourite recipes and formulas for furniture polish and cough bottles.

Much of this knowledge and skill which hitherto would have been passed from generation to generation has been lost. However, we can all have an exciting and fun time relearning the forgotten skill of foraging in the wild for culinary and medicinal plants plus it adds a whole extra element to a walk when you are keeping an eye out for tasty shoots and greens.

Slow Food East Cork had a Spring foraging event recently at Glenbower Wood in Killeagh, Co Cork. The walk was guided by local medical herbalist Kelli O’Halloran (tel: 087-965 2822.) who is passionate about nature; she has a background in chemistry and science.

She holds an Honours Degree in Herbal Medicine from the University of Westminster, London, and spent some time working at Whipps Cross NHS Hospital in London. It is obviously wise for novices to be guided by an experienced and responsible person and as ever “if in doubt leave it out” is a good policy.

O’Halloran stressed the importance of being totally sure of what you are identifying before eating. “I would like to emphasise to the wild crafter that only plants growing in profusion should be harvested and then only in amounts that will not damage the overall viability of the colony. It must look like you were never there,” she says.

After the long winter we need a vitamin boost. For those of us who live in the country many of the beneficial plants are easy to identify. Nonetheless a good herbal is a must, O’Halloran recommended Cassell’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Christopher Grey-Wilson with beautiful illustrations by Marjorie Blamey.

The flowers and berries are also edible and the latter make a great hawthorn brandy or gin in autumn. The berries like sloes and damsons are best after a night or two of frost but you can cheat by popping them into a freezer for a few hours before putting them into a bottle or Kilner jar. Top them up with brandy, gin or vodka and it’ll be ready to sip by Christmas.

Young dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are one of my favourite spring greens, they add a delicious bitter note to a green salad and are a known aid to digestion as well as an effective diuretic — hence the French word pisenlit.

Bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta) with it’s peppery leaves and tiny white flowers is another little gem packed full of vitamins. It’s pungent flavour is really delicious in white bread and butter sandwiches or with cream cheese.

Bramble leaf (Rubes fructicosus) tea cures diarrhoea in children and the flowers are pretty in green salads. O’Halloran also encouraged us all to eat the young leaves of sticky cleavers (Galium aparine). Apart from nibbling them raw one can make cleaver tea. Infuse the leaves in cold rather than boiling water, leave for 24 hours, strain and drink. Brilliant for the lymphatic gland but beware they are slightly laxative.

The value of nettles (Urtica dioica) as a blood cleanser was emphasised by Kelli and the knowledge is very much alive in folk memory. Older people strongly believe in the benefits of eating “four feeds of nettles in the month of May to keep away the rheumatics”. The young leaves are mild and delicious at present, Nettles can be used in a variety of ways, soups, purées, nettle champ, nettle pizza, nettle sauce for pasta… perhaps the simplest way of all is to make nettle tea.

Fill a bowl with young nettles (use rubber gloves to pick them), cover with boiling water and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain and drink a small glass a day.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) also grows in shady woodland in late March and April — the leaves are great in omelettes, salads, frittatas, pesto and of course soups.

We also use the leaves of the earlier (Allium triquetrum) which grows in abundance along the roadside and ditches. They resemble white blue bells but have a distinctly garlicky taste and smell. We scatter the flowers of both onto salads and use them for garnishing throughout the month of April. Wild garlic has strong anti microbial qualities — a guard against colds and flu.

As we ambled along we came across lots of darling little wood sorrel which looks like a large shamrock with pretty white flowers, and it grows most of the year. Its sharp clean taste is delicious in salads.

O’Halloran suggested scattering it over a plate of smoked salmon or serving it with roast belly of pork — a great aid to digestion. Look out for lamb’s tongue and buckler leaf sorrel which is also growing in little clumps at present in grass or on verges.

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) are also in season in late March and April and are easy to recognise. They grow along the roadside, about three to four-feet tall with thick stalks and greeny yellow umbelliferous flower-heads. The hollow stalks are delicious when peeled and boiled until tender and eaten like asparagus with melted butter.

If you are planning a walk on the beach look out for sea spinach, it is easy to spot on the verges and resembles a robust spinach plant. It has a ton of vitamins and although tougher than cultivated spinach it makes great soups, salads and purées.

Many of these wild foods contain precious vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are sadly lacking in our modern diet. Foraging is free and fun for the family but be sure of identification and just harvest what you need, never endangered plants no matter how tempting.

Wild Salad Leaves

THE secret to a really good salad is something bitter, something sharp and something a little more bland in flavour to add texture and bulk. Dressing can add sharpness. Use roughly four parts oil to one part acid.

The oil can be a mixture of clean flavourless oils such as sunflower or canola with a little good olive oil or nut oils such as walnut, sesame or hazelnut for extra flavour. The acid element can be wine, lemon juice, yoghurt, buttermilk or vinegars. Sweeten with a little sugar or honey, season with salt and pepper and add some crushed garlic, shallot or mustard for extra flavour.

Hawthorn, Chickweed, Dandelion, Ground Elder, Watercress, Wood Sorrel, Common, Sorrel, Hairy Bittercress, Salad Burnet, Ramsoms, Hedge Mustard/Garlic, Three-cornered Garlic.

Cleavers Cleanse

2 handfuls fresh cleavers (Galium aparine)

Cold water

Quickly wash the just picked cleavers, roughly chop them and place in a bowl. Add enough cold water to just cover the herb, cover and leave to soak over night.

The next day strain, and drink the liquid throughout the day (about two glasses).

Scott Walsh’s Nettle Soup

We can still feel chilly on spring days and there is nothing more satisfying than a hearty soup made possible by an enjoyable afternoons foraging. It never ceases to amaze me how previously rejected green vegetables suddenly take on a magical appetising quality when children have donned gum boots and spent an afternoon in the woods!

Serves 6

2 large onions sliced

3 medium potatoes (roosters)

6-8 fistfuls of nettle heads

1 litre (approx) chicken/vegetable stock

salt & pepper

100ml single cream

Fry finely chopped onion and potato for three to four minutes in sunflower/olive oil. Add stock and simmer until cooked. Bring to the boil and add nettles. Remove from heat, add cream and purée immediately. Garnish with buttered croutons and a little fresh goat cheese or lardons of smoked streaky bacon.

You can use the same method but replace the nettles with two handfuls of wild garlic for a yummy wild garlic soup or 3-4 handfuls of sorrel or watercress.

Roast Pork Belly with Cannelloni beans, Woodland Sorrel, Apple & Mustard

Serves 6

200g cannelloni beans (cooked and chilled/canned)

1-2 apples (hard crisp variety)

1 tbsp flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

pork belly (roasted)

Mustard dressing

3 handfuls of woodland sorrel (leaves and flowers)

Mustard Dressing

Mix four parts oil with one part white wine vinegar, one tsp Dijon mustard and season with salt and& pepper and add sugar to taste.

Cut the apple into small cubes and mix with parsley, beans and a light dressing of the mustard vinaigrette.

Serve a portion of warm roast pork belly on top and garnish with a sprinkle of the woodland sorrel leaves & flowers.

The sorrel adds a zesty sharpness to the dish, aiding digestion by helping to ‘cut’ the fat of the meat.

Dandelion leaves can be substituted for a delicious alternative.

Woodland sorrel is delicious with hot smoked salmon, yum yum…

Scott’s Spring Foraging Tart

Serves 6

Tart Base for 8-10” tart tin

225g (8oz) plain flour

50g (2oz) chilled unsalted butter

50g (2oz) chilled vegetable/animal fat

3-5 tbsp full fat milk

Tart Filling

2 large free range eggs

1 egg yolk

1 cup of double cream

25g (1oz) grated parmesan cheese

1 clove of garlic

Zest of half a lemon

2 handfuls of watercress finely chopped

Place flour and fat in a food processor and pulse until very finely crumbed. Add enough milk while pulsing the mixture until it just forms a mixture resembling bread crumbs. Gently bring this mixture together in a bowl and allow to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Line a greased tart tin with rolled out pastry, prick with a fork and blind bake at 180C, 350F, Mark 4 until barely golden.

While the pastry is resting combine the filling ingredients, cover and leave in the fridge to let the flavours infuse the custard.

Pour filling into a cooled blind baked tart base and bake at 180C, 350F until set (the middle should wobble like jelly). Allow to cool and serve with a mixed wild salad.

You can substitute a handful of wild garlic for watercress.

If you haven’t enough time to make pastry and are feeling ravenous after your busy afternoon spent foraging, then whisk three eggs, add parmesan, season and add your chosen herb for a delicious omelette made in minutes.

Foolproof food

Spaghetti with Wild Garlic and Herbs

Serves 6 — 8

450g (1lb) spaghetti or thin noodles

Sauce

110g (4ozs) butter or ½ butter and olive oil

2 tablesp parsley, chopped

1 tablesp mint, chopped

2 tablesp wild garlic leaves, chopped

2 tablesp basil or lemon balm

2 large or 4 small crushed garlic cloves

55-110g (2-4 ozs) freshly grated hard cheese preferably Desmond, Gabriel or Parmesan

Garnish:

Wild garlic and chive flowers

Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente — approx 20 minutes for shop pasta, 2-3 minutes for home made pasta. Mix all the herbs and mashed garlic with the melted butter. Sweat gently for two minutes not longer.

Stir into the hot spaghetti and serve with grated cheese, preferably Parmesan, though we often use Irish Cheddar. Sprinkle wild garlic and chive flowers on top for extra excitement.

Hot Tip

Eco-friendly garden sleepers: Suirside Joinery and Sleepers in Kilkenny supply new hardwood oak sleepers for use in vegetable gardens. They last for more than 80 years. Unlike old railway sleepers they don’t contain any hazardous chemicals. For more info, contact Fintan Dermody on 087-2693095 or email: suirsidejoinery@eircom.net

Isle of Man Queenie Festival: The Isle of Man Queenie Festival is a food festival which celebrates the local delicacy of the Manx Queenie, the local name for the Queen Scallop caught in and around the Isle of Man’s clear waters between June and October each year. The festival runs from June 29 to July 5. For a full programme of events visit www.queeniefestival.com

Maggie Beer’s Sangiovese: Verjuice Sangiovese Verjuice is made from unfermented grapes, a perfect companion to desserts or as a summer cordial. Available in the Ballymaloe Cookery School Farm Shop 021 4646785.

Allotments ready for planting: Ballintubber Farm, Midleton, Co Cork. Contact David and Siobhan Barry at tel 021 4883034; or e: ballintubberfarm@gmail.com

Thrifty tip

Freeze left-over wine in ice cubes to put into sauces.


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