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12 British ingredients to forage

12 British ingredients to forage

by Great British Chefs 25 March 2013

We've rounded up 12 ingredients you should be foraging for in Britain, and reveal when and where's best to find them, as well as how to cook with them.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Nettle

What a topsy-turvy country we live in when a wonderfully abundant edible weed like nettle remains unloved and unused by most of the general public. Obviously, its sting does it no favours – but cook nettles and guess what, their eye-watering venom is nullified.

When to pick: All year round, though younger leaves are more desirable

Where to find: They are often found in overgrown areas and are easy to find

How to spot: A dank green colour with venomous hairs

Use: Most people know about nettle soup, but lesser known is its ability to be used in a similar way to spinach - folded into a curry or a pie. You can also use nettles to make excellent (and super thrifty!) beer!

Chickweed

Despite being adored and eaten by chickens for centuries, it has taken us human folk a little while longer to catch on to the brilliance of chickweed. Aside from being used as a flavour enhancer, it has many other qualities – thought to be a cure for maladies such as eczema, painful joints and bedsores. Chef Adam Simmonds professes to be “fond of chickweed”, relishing its “flavour of freshness”.

When to pick: At its best in early spring, but can be found all year round

Where to find: Anywhere where weeds are found - gardens, roadsides, meadows, your local park etc.

How to spot: Difficult, but your best chance is to look out for the small, daisy-like flowers that sprout from its tender, rocket-like stems

Use: Its spinach-y flavour makes it perfect for salads or as a garnish.

Seaweed

As an island nation we should be eating lots more seaweed – and not just of the Asian variety, which, although lovely, has the carbon footprint of a well-travelled yeti.

We have 700 varieties of it in Britain – and almost all of them are edible. Rich in vitamins and with a miraculously low fat content, it surely won’t be long before more of us are making the most of this native superfood. Pick it while you can.

When to pick: All year round

Where to find: Most coastal environments – rockpools, beaches etc.

How to spot: Varies in size, colour and shape, but anything washed up that is straggly and slimy to the touch is most likely seaweed

Use: Can deep fry to make crispy and add to salads, is also good in fish dishes or as a replacement for cabbage. Most forms will need to be boiled before using and make sure to wash well.

Wild fennel

Chances are you’ve stumbled past wild fennel many times; it often sprouts up in unexpected places and can be obscured by taller plants. If you can identify wild fennel, though, you have gold dust. Unlike the cultivated variety, wild fennel is not used for its bulbs, in fact, the bulbs are pretty small and inconsequential – it is the seeds, fronds, stems and pollen that chefs and cooks treasure. Marcello Tully says: “Wild fennel has an amazing flavour and is delicious served as an accompaniment with fish. I also add gently steamed fennel to the base of parsnip and Pernod soup and can be just as delicious in vine tomato or roast red pepper soup.”

When to pick: Stems should be picked quite young (late spring), harvest the seeds once they develop stripes but before they turn a brownish colour

Where to find: A graveyard or a roadside, perhaps. Frequently found in seaside locations or near water

How to spot: Wispy fronds with bright yellow, dandelion-like flowers. Hoverflies will often gather around the plant

Use: Cured meats, fish, in a salad – its flavour partners are plentiful. Seeds can be used in sauces or to make a crust. Dry the pollen overnight and use as a luxurious condiment.

 

Samphire

Samphire used to be given away free with fish - now supermarkets charge a small fortune for this most saline of sea vegetables. There has to be a better way. Well, if you live near water there’s a good chance you can source it naturally for diddly-squat. There are two types of samphire - marsh and rock, both can be used but marsh has a slightly more agreeable flavour.

When to pick: Its short season runs from July – August

Where to find: Coastal areas, mudflats, salt flats and estuaries

How to spot: Thin (yet more robust than you would expect) green pipes poking out of coastal ground – take your chances when the tide goes out!

Use: To add saltiness to salads or, as nature intended, with fish.

Sea purslane

If you are put off by samphire’s short season then sea purslane is a good alternative. It grows in similar areas and also has many health benefits – rich in Vitamins A and D.

When to pick: July - September

Where to find: Coastal areas: mudflats, sand flats, tidal pools and rocky cliffs. More abundant in southern parts of UK

How to spot: Dull yellow flowers, glaucous green leaves carry a passing resemblance to sage

Use: Like samphire, sea purslane is often used with fish or in salads. Try lightly pickling it for a difference.

 
 
Cobnuts

Cobnut

Cobnuts are simply cultivated hazelnuts, and can be used in much the same way. Originally developed in the early 1800s, they were enjoyed by Victorians as an after dinner accompaniment to Port. Somewhere along the way they fell out of fashion but top chefs like Adam Simmonds, Mark Poynton and Simon Rogan are helping to bring them back.

When to pick: Early autumn

Where to find: Mostly grown in Kent. Search the ground around a cobnut tree when in season

How to spot: By their green husks. If still attached to the tree, they will sprout from nettle-like leaves

Use: Can be eaten raw or crushed up and toasted. Pair with other autumnal ingredients like venison, duck or even figs.

Rosehip

In many ways, and you’ll have to stay with me here, the cycle of the rose plant can be seen as a metaphor for love itself. First come the flowers, with their lusty colouring and alluring, honeysuckle aroma. But once the flowers wilt and the heat of summer fades, something more enduring, less transient begins to bloom: rosehip, a fruit to preserve and cherish over the cooler months. Just watch out for the hairy bits…

When to pick: Rosehips bloom in autumn but wait for the first frost before picking - their flavour will be much more rounded as a result

Where to find: Hedgerows or wherever roses have grown

How to spot: Cherry-sized but with a red/orange colouring

Use: Turn into a syrup by straining the juice and boiling with lots of sugar, then use in cocktails, tea or to finish a jus or sauce, or use for jelly or jam. Remove the hairy seeds before consuming.

Allium ursunum goes by many names – stinking Jenny, ramsons, bear leek, buckrams...

Wild garlic

Allium ursunum goes by many names – stinking Jenny, ramsons, bear leek, buckrams – but it is most widely known as wild garlic. Along with blackberries, it’s the foraging equivalent of a ‘gateway drug’, often being the first thing people learn to pilfer. The reasons for this are simple: wild garlic is easy to spot and easy to smell. It carries a softer flavour more comparable to chive than regular garlic, perhaps.

When to pick: In spring – usually from April - May

Where to find: On the floor of damp woodland, often nestled among some bluebells

How to spot: Star-shaped white flowers give it away, but the best way of making sure you have wild garlic is by crushing and sniffing

Use: Chop up and stir into risottos, omelettes or soups. Match with other springtime ingredients - asparagus, crab, mint etc.

Borage

With its coruscatingly blue flowers, Borage can brighten up the dullest of dishes. The flavour of its leaves has been compared to cucumber (so pretty mild) and has been used in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries.

When to pick: It’s flowering season runs from June – September in the UK

Where to find: Gardens (ask permission first!). Uncultivated it grows in woodlands and pastures

How to spot: Blue flowers, hairy stalks and grows up 1 metre high

Use: To garnish, with fish or other fresh, zingy ingredients – it’s great in a jug of Pimm’s. Borage seed oil is also cultivated and is used as a health supplement.

Elderberry

Go blackberry picking and you are likely to find some elderberries along the way, as they often profilerate in similar terrains. And they should not be ignored. Representing the autumnal phase of the elder tree (elderflower is also useful), elderberries are small yet plump, frequently munched on by birds and other hedgerow creatures. For that reason, pick them responsibly.

When to pick: Late summer and throughout autumn (blackberry season)

Where to find: Hedgerows

How to spot: Purple little berries

Use: Boil down and make a cordial or syrup. Paul Foster says, “I always sweet pickle the berries and serve them with game or oily fish.”

Hawthorn berry

The fruits of the hawthorn are great for the heart. Not only do these miracle berries help prevent heart failure and ease high blood pressure, but the results of cooking them in a jelly or jam can be heart-warming, too. Pick them when ripe and their flavour is wonderful – just remember to remove the seeds before use as they are poisonous.

When to pick: Late autumn - October or November. If picked when overripe the flavour will be not as nice

Where to find: Hedgerows or anywhere with lots of brambles

How to spot: Ruby red berries surrounded by large thorns

Use: Can be made into jelly, jam (it contains lots of natural pectin) or even ketchup. Inspired?

 

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