Spring has finally sprung and we are starting to see the signs that things are about to get a lot more green. Finally! It’s been a long, tough Winter so the warmer weather is definitely welcome, not least because the hedgerows start to produce their abundant wild harvest. In this month’s box, we have included some early-Spring classics, along with a wild spice just crying out for a Bloody Mary.
Another month, another escapee. As with so much of the wild produce available to us in Britain, Ground Elder was brought here by the Romans (who else?) to be grown as a pot herb in a climate where their delicate, Mediterranean herbs simply wouldn’t survive. As anyone who has it growing in their garden will testify, it is a prolific grower and takes all manner of work to get rid of it. Perhaps, instead of spraying harmful weedkiller to eradicate it and everything else in the area, hand-picking the most feral specimens to keep it under control would suffice, with handfuls of the stuff then being available for the cooking pot. It’s particularly good for you, with over four times as much vitamin C than spinach, for example.
Regarding the ID of the plant, some care still needs to be taken. It does have some similar features to other members of the carrot family (regular readers of this page will know just how dangerous they can be) but can start to be distinguished by its smooth, celery-shaped stem, along with three distinct leaf stems. It is ‘elder’ by name only, given such a label due to the similarity of appearance between its leaves and the tree of the same name, but the two species are not related. Albeit one of the easier plants to identify within its botanical family, please don’t let this brief description be your only guide - go and find a more comprehensive description and remember to cross-reference with other sources. Once you know it, however, you’ll spot it growing everywhere you look!
At this smaller stage of growth, the plant is a perfect parsley alternative, with a bit more of a vegetable flavour dimension that means it is as happy as a side dish as a garnish. Chopped up to whatever size you fancy, it will sit very comfortably atop egg dishes, soups, salads, fish, meat, curries, sauces, dips, roasts and indeed anywhere you would have found parsley (let’s not forget that in the 1970s, this was any dish not on the dessert menu) but we find that it is best incorporated into a sauce. A simple beurre blanc sauce would be a good place to try it, or perhaps in a ground elder ‘parsley’ sauce for use in a fish pie.
Any communal waterside green space with a dedicated ‘Friends Of The Park’ group will no doubt be familiar with Himilayan Balsam, with ‘WANTED!’ posters plastered over every noticeboard for miles, calling for the collective destruction of this prolific invasive species. Visitors to parks and paths where Himilayan Balsam has colonised are encouraged to uproot any offending plants to try to keep the plant under control, and for good reason - invasive species such as this are hugely damaging to our native ecology. What great news, then, that it is edible, fairly unique in texture and delicious. Plus, nobody is going to mind if you completely strip a location bare.
Identifying Himilayan Balsam in its mature stage is very easy. It is a tall but fairly fragile plant with bright pink flowers and exploding seed pods that are fun for children of all ages to squeeze. At this time of year, when the first shoots (AKA the cotyledons, before any true leaves have appeared) are the only things to be found, identifying this plant is slightly trickier, but the distinct crunchiness and slight translucency - not to mention the vast swathes of the stuff - help narrow it down accordingly.
In terms of flavour, we are looking at a typical, crunchy salad leaf. Something like the inner parts of iceberg lettuce with the satisfying bitterness of endives and crunch of cultivated beansprouts. You can enjoy it cooked into a dish, maybe sweated in some celery and onions as part of a sauce or in a stir fry, but the real joy of this is eating it raw as you would any salad leaf. Try it for lunch as part of a salad or sandwich, or even nestled between a piece of crusty toast and something saucy.
Please note: Himilayan Balsam should not be consumed raw in large quantities due to its high calcium oxalate content, which increases as the plant matures so the young shoots should be the only part collected. The portion size we have sent you is perfectly safe for one person and it is also worth noting that cooking breaks down the calcium oxalate so the risk of harm is removed altogether. Those with kidney issues should avoid consuming the plant raw.
If there was ever a starting gun to mark the start of Spring, this is it. A truly special phenomenon, the ‘rising’ of sap occurs for barely two weeks at around the start of March (the start of which will vary depending on your latitude) as birch trees force all their energy reserves into new growth. The first time one witnesses such a bounty being collected is a memorable one - it really does flow out of the tree and can fill a 5 litre demijohn overnight.
The method for collecting is of great debate among the foraging community, with a neat divide between those who do and don’t drill into the trunk of the tree, and further still, those who do and don’t plug the tree afterwards. The arguments on both sides of the conversation are convincing enough but here at Forage Box, we have removed ourselves from this debate as much as possible by simply snipping the tips of low-hanging branches to minimise any damage to the tree (it’s essentially very light pruning, which as any gardener will know is a perfectly safe way to keep any tree nice and healthy) before collecting the free-flowing, clear liquid that drips from the freshly cut branch.
By the time you read this, the Silver Birch sap season will already be over until next March. What you have in your box this month, therefore, is a snapshot of what this symbol of Springtime can offer us. Crack open the bottle and take a swig. You’ll be familiar with the watery consistency, but the delicate ‘woodland’ flavours will glide across you palate and you will try to put your finger on where you recognise that sweetness from. We think it is a bit like watered down honey, but please don’t let that put you off. Savour it, because this is a rare treat and one that has the most limited availability that nature has to offer.
You may be wondering whether hogweed is safe to eat. In this instance, we have used Common Hogweed, rather than the rightly-feared Giant Hogweed that sees councils throw up red tape on country footpaths. So it’s a resounding YES - it is edible!
The part of the plant we have used for this product is the dried seeds. On their own, they’ve been said to taste a bit like cardamom, a bit like orange and a bit like soap. Not the highest praise really, but when blended to a powder and mixed with sea salt, as we’ve done here, you get a much more pleasant account of what these abundant seeds can taste like.
Comparable to celery salt, this sits very nicely atop a Bloody Mary cocktail, or mixed into a tomato soup. We like to pair it with boiled eggs (quail eggs are even better) or to rub it on something before it hits the BBQ grill. However you choose to use it, it should remain a kitchen cupboard staple for years to come, and you’ll soon be using it instead of your bog-standard salt in everything!
Some people just don’t get foraging. Blinkered by celebrity survivalists eating questionable things as a stunt, or cliché-riddled perceptions of hippies with flowers in their hair (we love you, hippies - you are our people), the go-to sneer for cynics always seems to about bloody nettles. Nettles. Those perennial so-called weeds that we are warned about from such a young age are always used as a stick to bash foragers with as if it is totally absurd that we eat such a maligned plant. This is where foraging smugness steps in. Not only are nettles free, common, abundant and easily identified, they are also incredibly good for you, versatile and delicious. Often used in place of spinach but offering so much more in terms of complexity of flavour and nutrition, they will happily sit anywhere on the bitter-sweet spectrum and are a great ingredient for cordials, beers, hearty stews and everything in between.
You may be pleased to hear that we haven’t got any plans to send out something that will sting you upon opening your box any time soon, so don’t expect any fresh nettles from us. Besides, nettles are a great beginners plant to begin any foraging adventure with - it would be hard to think of a more commonly recognised plant in the UK - and not imaginative enough to warrant replacing our more interesting fresh ingredients with. So for our first nettle product, we have created Nettle Matcha, which is a great way of preserving its distinct ‘iron’ flavour whilst hanging on to all the nutrional value that nettles are renowned for. It is a fine powder that can be enjoyed as a hot drink by mixing in boiled water, or as a key ingredient in a sweet or savoury dish.
Let’s get one thing clear before we suggest better ways to serve this amazing product: if you want the maximum health benefits, it isn’t going to taste that great. It’s fine, but enjoying it mixed into hot water alone is done purely for the nutrient injection, rather than the taste sensation. Try it instead incorporated into an oily sauce, rolled into pasta dough or iced on top of a cake (bit of icing sugar, bit of lemon/apple juice, bit of nettle matcha). It’s very versatile so let your imagination do the work! Don’t worry - however you decide to prepare it, the notorious ‘stinging’ characteristic of the plant is removed through the drying and powdering process.
If you decide to pick nettles for yourself (you definitely should), avoid dog-walking hotspots and any questionable waste ground - stinging nettles love freshly disturbed soil but have a tendency to absorb pollutants from the earth they grow in. It sounds obvious to say that wild food picked from a lush woodland edge rather than a building site is better for you, but it’s certainly worth a gentle reminder every now and again.