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Go wild in the city
7:00am Saturday 11th August 2012 in Lifestyle
You don't have to be in the heart of the countryside to get your dinner from the great outdoors. Diana Pilkington has a crash course in urban foraging and learns how to hunt for edible, leafy treats in green spaces around town.
When I heard I was to spend a day urban foraging, visions of rummaging through bins flash through my head.
Imagine my relief, then, when I find myself in the leafy surrounds of London's Richmond Park on a gloriously sunny day.
"Urban foraging isn't about hunting for weeds between paving stones or anything like that," explains our guide Nick Weston, a real-life hunter gatherer who runs foraging courses near Lewes, East Sussex.
"To get the good quality stuff, you want go somewhere like a park, especially if it's near rivers or canals. Most urban places have somewhere you can do it.
"Apart from ornamental species of trees, it's not hugely different from foraging in a rural environment."
And sure enough, this green space just a few miles from the heart of the big smoke has edible treats growing in abundance.
No sooner have we set off through a densely wooded path than we stumble across a plant with spiky, heart-shaped leaves, charmingly called Jack-by-the-hedge.
Also known as garlic mustard, its slightly bitter taste makes it a useful ingredient for salads.
A little further along, Weston hands us a piece of wood aven, also called herb bennet.
"Scrunch up the roots and smell it," he instructs. "Now think Christmas."
On cue, a warm, clove-like aroma hits my nostrils, as Weston reveals it can be used to make mulled wine.
As we progress towards the river bank, we come across yet more plants that pack an unexpected flavour punch.
There's ribwort plantain (has a hint of cream of mushroom soup), yarrow (smacks of cucumber), sorrel (has a lovely citrus-like taste) and rosebay willowherb.
This pretty plant with delicate purple flowers, known as fireweed in the US, will often colonise burnt areas of ground.
"Blanche it in boiling water and add vinegar and lemon juice and it's the poor man's asparagus," enthuses Weston. "But it doesn't make your pee smell."
Another useful find is the three-cornered leek, which looks like a white bluebell and makes a good substitute for wild garlic. "It's quite mellow and won't make you smell as much. And the flower is nice for salads," says Weston.
Down by the river we are greeted by a wealth of stinging nettles. Although my instinct would be to avoid these pesky plants, Weston insists they are packed with vitamin C and protein and are one of nature's superfoods. And he has a few tips for picking them painlessly.
"Use your thumb and forefinger or wear gloves. We only want the tops," he says, before adding solemnly: "They smell fear so if you hesitate you will get stung."
The risk of being stung isn't nearly as worrying as the idea of tucking into our next discovery, the innocent-looking hemlock water dropwort.
Its leaves are similar to that of cow parsley, but we're informed that if we ate it we'd be "dead by the afternoon"!
It's a sobering thought, and one which underscores the importance of being both clued up and cautious when foraging.
But, in the safe hands of our guide, it's an exhilarating experience and I can understand why it's become so popular.
Weston says: "Foraging is a natural instinct in everyone. The fact it was popular in the 70s and is now one of the top food trends is a sign of the times.
"It's food for free and can be experienced by everyone, from a penniless tramp to a billionaire."
Urban foraging - Top tips
:: Find out who owns the land and never uproot anything without the landowner's permission.
:: Only take as much of something as you would need for yourself - leave some for others to enjoy.
:: Try and pick plants from above the height at which a dog can cock its leg.
:: Avoid picking from the roadside as plants may be contaminated by exhaust fumes.
:: Avoid areas where weedkiller has been sprayed.
:: Take a handbook with you so you can identify everything you eat. Never eat anything if you're not 100% sure what it is. Weston recommends The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving and Food For Free by Richard Mabey.
:: If you haven't tried something before, taste a small bit first to check your reaction.
These recipes are inspired by foraged ingredients...
Fried duck egg with wild leaf, hop shoot and flower salad and truffle mayonnaise
100ml truffle oil
100ml extra virgin olive oil
200ml vegetable oil
30g Cabernet Sauvignon wine vinegar
20g truffle trimming, chopped small
60g free-range egg yolk
4 duck eggs
20 hop shoots
4 handfuls of wild leaf
4 handfuls of flower salad
Salt and pepper to taste
For the truffle mayonnaise:
In a bowl mix the egg yolks, vinegar and 50ml of water with a whisk until mixture is light and airy.
Mix all the oils together and slowly drizzle into the mixture until it's all incorporated. If the mixture is too thick, add a small amount of hot water.
Season with salt and pepper then add the chopped truffle trimmings.
For the fried duck egg:
Heat a pan and add some oil. Crack the duck eggs into the pan and cook on both sides for 2-3 minutes.
For the hop shoots, wild leaf and flower salad:
Rinse the hop shoots, wild leaf and flower salad well under cold water. Cut the hop shoots down to the length of the plate.
Arrange the duck egg, truffle mayonnaise, flower salad, wild leaf and hop shoots on a dish.
Pan fried salmon trout with dandelion ravioli, sorrel butter sauce, jelly ear fungi and crisp fennel
135g diced raw salmon, skinned & pin boned
100ml ice cold water
1/2 lemon, juiced & zested
1 bulb of fennel
1 onion, sliced
1 sprig of thyme
50g washed dandelion
200ml white wine
350g unsalted butter diced
100g of jelly ear fungi
Parsley or chervil
1 clove of crushed garlic
20g sheep sorrel
50ml Chardonnay wine vinegar
150ml double cream
50g of cooked and peeled brown shrimps
400g of type '00' flour, plus a little extra for kneading
200g of fine semolina
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat the oven for 30 minutes at 100C, and slice the fennel bulb in half through the root, then into 1cm thick slices.
Turn the oven off, then place the sliced fennel on parchment paper and into the oven for 2-3 hours, or until it's dried out
To rehydrate the fungi, place them in a bowl of cold water and leave for about an hour until they've doubled in size.
For the dandelion, shrimp and salmon ravioli:
Add the diced raw salmon, 100ml of ice cold water, 2g of salt, one egg and half a lemon's juice and zest into a food processor and blitz until smooth.
Add 50g of cooked peeled brown shrimps and pulse the food processor for a few seconds until the mixture is coarse. Finely chop 50g of picked and washed dandelion & fold through the mixture.
Mix the 400g of type '00' flour, 200g of fine semolina and a half teaspoon of salt in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, add 6 eggs and one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, break the yolks with a fork then whisk for about 30 seconds.
Slowly mix the egg and oil mixture into the flour/semolina mix until fully incorporated - making your pasta dough.
Sprinkle leftover flour onto your work surface and knead the dough. Add a little more flour so the dough becomes 'tacky'. Finish kneading once the dough is pliable and does not stick to your hands or the work surface.
Wrap the dough tightly in cling film and put it in the fridge for at least an hour before using.
When ready, roll out the dough until it's about 1.5mm thick.
On one half, place heaped teaspoons of the dandelion mix onto the rolled out dough, in dollops, leaving inch-wide gaps around each one.
Lift the other half of the dough over the top, and push down around the edges, using water and a pastry brush to form a seal. Then, to complete the ravioli shapes, use a pasta cutter to cut evenly - with one dollop of filling in the centre of each.
Cover in cling film until you are ready to cook.
For the sorrel butter sauce:
Add the onions, thyme, wine vinegar, wine and half the sorrel in a saucepan and simmer until reduced by three-quarters.
Add the cream and reduce by half, turn the heat down then add the diced butter, whisking all the time until all the butter has incorporated.
Season with salt and pepper, pass through a fine sieve then leave in a warm area so the mixture does not split.
Preheat a frying pan with a little olive oil and season the fish with fresh ground white pepper and sea salt and fry for five minutes per side.
Put some lightly salted, boiling water in a pan and blanch the ravioli parcels for 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat a pan on the stove. Add some sliced shallots, crushed garlic and olive oil to the pan, then add the rehydrated jelly ear fungi and fry for a good couple of minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add some chopped parsley or chervil.
Once both sides of the fish are cooked, squeeze some lemon juice into the pan and leave on the heat for an additional 2-3 minutes.
To serve, place the ravioli and salmon on a plate. Decorate with the crisp fennel and jelly ear fungi. If necessary, mix and reheat the sorrel butter sauce and drizzle on top. Use the remaining fresh sheep sorrel to sprinkle on top.
Elderflower panna cotta with pine needle jelly
250ml cranberry juice
30g Douglas fir pine needles
500ml semi skimmed milk
500ml double cream
100ml elderflower cordial
260g caster sugar
1 Vanilla pod or 1 tsp of vanilla essence
14g of gelatine, softened in cold water
For the jelly:
Put the cranberry juice, pine needles and 100g of caster sugar in a saucepan.
Bring the pan to just below a simmer and then turn off the heat. Add 5g of soaked gelatine then leave the mixture to infuse for an hour.
Finally, pass through a fine sieve and set the mixture in jelly moulds. Leave to set in the fridge.
For the panna cotta:
Place the milk, cream, 160g of sugar and vanilla in a saucepan and bring to the boil slowly. Take the mixture off the heat, add 9g of soaked gelatine and wait until dissolved.
Pass through a fine sieve and pour into moulds. Allow to set for at least 4 hours.
Ensure both the panna cotta and the jelly are set before turning them out and arranging them on a plate.
Serve and enjoy.
:: Recipes are supplied by The Crooked Well pub in Camberwell, London, where they're on the menu
:: Nick Weston runs foraging courses at Hunter: Gather: Cook near Lewes, East Sussex. For more information see huntergathercook.typepad.com/