Saturday 24 February 2024

Wild Food

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. Their most promising pieces were swelled and sweetened, made fleshy or fertile, made unrecognisable to fit our tastes. 

Yet colour and tastes go in and out of fashion with each generation; look how swiftly the perfectly white eggs of supermarkets were replaced by brown ones, with an identical taste but a trendy “natural” image. The centuries have done the same to our crops, leaving behind legions of purple carrots, blue potatoes and other victims of our whims.

In the last century, moreover, we have shipped more and more food across the planet, so that rows of Australian maize or Moroccan tomatoes can fill shelves in Iowa or Scotland. Our crops had to be bred to stand out as consumer products and yet survive the journey, leading to the massive sizes and cardboard flavours of supermarket produce.  The “fresh vegetables” most of us grew up with were, typically, nothing of the kind.  

Genuinely fresh and wild food still exists all around us, though, and this time of year the Irish hedgerows create a vertical salad bar of fruits and berries. Many wild plants are edible and few were bred into groceries, and even those that were domesticated can still be found in their original form -- which often tastes better, as anyone knows who has tasted a wild strawberry.

Hawthorn trees will soon be sprouting shoots, and lindens after them, and both have leaves that when young are edible and delicious. The fruits of the hawthorn, while bland in taste, are also edible and can make an addition to wines and jams.

When summer comes properly, Fat Hen will appear everywhere. It was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today; it formed part of the meal given to Tollund man, one of the “bog bodies” fished out of Denmark. It is basically a wild version of spinach, and its pale green leaves can be cooked the same way. The garlic –flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but a new crop sometimes appears this month, so this is a good time to go looking for it. Its large, deeply green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers make a great ingredient in salads or sauteed. The shamrock-like leaves of wild sorrel carpet forest floors beginning in spring, and can still be seen this time of year. Its lemony leaves make a perfect addition to salads. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly. 

In later summer, the blackberries and raspberries will appear. Many people here take the traditional route of preserving them in jams for winter vitamins, but you can also make them into wine, fruit leathers, add them to salads or spread them with meat. Dandelion leaves are best when young, but the roots should now be at their fullest; try pulling them out and roasting them like coffee. 

Rosehips look similar to haws and are almost as numerous along the hedges. Packed with Vitamin C, their syrup has famously been used as a medicine, but they can also be made into jam or wine. Most of their bulk, though, consists of the sharp seeds, which can be a fiddly job to remove.  Elderberries darken with the days here, and are just at the right stage to be made into wine, jam, pies, syrup, meat sauce or cordial. To make the syrup, boil the elderberries and stir in sugar as you would jam, but without the pectin to make it firm.

Medlars were a popular fruit in medieval times but are rarely recognised anymore, perhaps because they must be slightly over-ripe to be edible, and did not fit well with our modern demand that fruit sit for days on store shelves. Nonetheless, they are very tasty and make a great a pie filling, so remember their appearance and keep an eye out.  

Do remember not to remove plants from the roadside, where they could have been bathing in toxic fumes, or from anywhere you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Do look up what these plants look like to make sure you pick them and not a similar-looking poisonous plant, but most of these look very distinctive, and telling them apart is quite easy to do. 

Have fun! 


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