Monday, 12 November 2012

Eat Your Greens

As far as foraging for food from nature goes I'm just a beginner. I can handle the basics of blackberries, sloes and apples while cooking up home made food from the hedges has to be in my top five things to do on a Sunday afternoon. Anything more unusual though, like nuts or rose hips befuddles me and anyone who can pick a salad out of a field bank amazes me.

So it was with some excitement this week that I watched my housemate unpack a rucksack full of bags of greenery found "somewhere in Exeter" ready for us to use in our house dinner. Armed with books and my housemates' considerable previous experience we sorted through the leaves. There were nettles, plantain, dock leaves, goose grass and dandelion. 

All were washed thoroughly several times and then the goose grass, dandelions, and nettles were steamed and fried with garlic and oil, then wrapped in steamed dock leaves.

The plantain was sliced up and mixed with pepper (from the Co-op not the wilds of Devon) dandelion flowers and served as a salad.

The dinner was a success, the plantain salad was delicious and while the leafy packages had a strong bitter-ish taste they weren't dissimilar to kale or spinach, just a bit stringier.

I'd heard of most of these plants and knew they were supposedly edible but other than nettle soup I'd never tried any of them before.  Like most greens they all contain lots of things that are good for you, a lot contain high levels of vitamin C and iron, but it's not just nutritional goodness they offer, lots are used for medicinal purposes too.

Plantain can be used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory as well as containing astringent tannins which stop bleeding. Not bad for a salad leaf.

Dandelion  is seen as a common weed in the UK but when the leaves are lain out on a kitchen counter they look little different from lettuce or spinach from a shop. The flowers are edible as well as the green leaves and the roots can be used to make coffee apparently, what a versatile plant!

Nettle  is the one plant we are that I'd has before albeit in a restaurant in London some years ago as soup. It's probably one of the better know foraging plants and is fantastic for wildlife, providing a safe nursery for caterpillars to grow before becoming butterflies to fill our summers. Other than the sting (and how often do you touch the plants at the back of your garden border?) there's nothing bad to say about them. So maybe we should be growing, or let grow, a few more of these in our borders and gardens for food and wildlife.

Goose grass, also known as cleavers, cliver, catchweed and goosebill you might remember this as the sticky plant thrown around the school playground to be stuck onto unsuspecting uniforms. I never knew this could be eaten but a quick search online shows it has varied medicinal uses too, mainly for the kidney and bowels. I'll never look at it the same again!

Dock is the plant I always looked for as a child when I'd been stung by nettles. And it's apparent ability to negate the pain of the sting was all I knew about it until this week. There are mixed messages online, some people saying you shouldn't eat dock and others saying it's great. Most of the negative comments are based on the fact that it can taste very bitter, which I found out when we ate it, but so is coffee so if you like the result and it's safe, why not! I might stick to using it for nettle stings though.

My venture into eating foraged foods was certainly informative and a new experience. I loved the plantain and will keep an eye out for that in future for yummy salads. It makes me look at the plants around me differently too. We're so used to seeing plants as decorative and unless it's in a specific veg plot we normally wouldn't consider eating most things. There are obviously lots of things that really shouldn't be eaten as they're poisonous, and even those plants that are safe must be washed carefully and picked in areas that are clear of dogs and lots of traffic. Despite all that I'm feeling a little more adventurous about foraging now. Who knows what I'll find next!


  1. Although Dandelion is French for Lion's teeth - the leaves - apparently the French call it Pis - en -lis or wet the bed so be careful! not knowing many Frenchmen I don't know if that is true or not but no smoke without fire...

    The goosegrass is a foodplant for the lovely humming bird hawkmoths, watched one laying eggs on some here a couple of summers ago.

    Hope all is going well in the SW



  2. Humming bird harmoths are fantastic. Not sure I've seen an adult before, must look next year.
    Interesting Dandelion fact, I'll remember to only eat it in small quantities!

    Thanks for the comment, hope all is well up North.