Friday, 1 May 2009

Foraging on Hampstead Heath, Nettle Soup

Clockwise: Nettles, rosebay willow and garlic leaves

Nettle and garlic leaf soup

Nettle & garlic soup garnished with garlic flowers

I spent a delightful Saturday morning foraging on Hampstead Heath.  
Miles Irving of Forager Ltd,  well known amongst the great and good of chefs in the capital who celebrate the best of British seasonal ingredients led a group of 30 to introduce the plants we all walk past every day.  We were introduced to chickweed, burdock, ground elder, cleevers, elderflower (well we all know that one), lime tree leaves (revelation), alexanders, sheeps sorrel, wild plantain, rosebay willow, watermint.   Among  my favourites were the hogweed, not to be confused with giant hogweed which is poisonous, but don't worry, hogweed is hairy and the poisonous one isn't.   This reminded me of a mad scene in a Norman Wisdom film where he is a playing a waiter under cover and has to remember that his task in serving some food is 'the one without the parsley is the one without the poison' - a Norman Wisdom moment follows with him becoming completely confused and jibbering.  Excuse the side track there, but any Norman fans out there may find that remotely amusing.  Miles' tip here was to saute the leaves in black butter. 

Rosebay willow was particularly intriguing as this is a similar stalk to asparagus.   The top tip for me was my personal spring favourite, if not all year round favourite, hawthorn flowers can be eaten!!  In several places around the country this magical tree is known as 'bread and cheese'. One of the fellow foragers recommends using them with red meat casseroles.  Although we had missed the blackthorn blossom by a week, I learned that the blossoms taste of almond, and so blackthorn blossoms can be infused and made into syrup and added to anything sweet throughout the year.  This will definitely be a feature of any menus I offer next spring.

It was possibly the most inspiring talk I have been to all year.  Since then I have my eye on the foliage all around and see that there is indeed a whole world of possibility that we completely take for granted.

Inspired by the weekend I have just made some nettle and garlic soup  served with rosebay willows.  All foraged and free from Kent.  

Miles has a new book coming out in July, The Forager Handbook, which I eagerly await.  

The recipe for the luminously green soup I made is quite simply

  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1 large potato chopped small
  • a good knob of butter (or rapeseed oil)
  • a big handful (NOT LITERALLY) nettles (the top 6 inches)
  • a big handful of wild garlic leaves
  • water and seasoning
  1. Saute the onion for 2 minutes and follow with the potato to soften.
  2. Add the water and cook till the potato is cooked through.
  3. Add the nettles - carefully
  4. When they look cooked, about 3/4 minutes add the garlic leaves and blend.
  5. Serve with a garlic flower.

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