Purbeck – Land of Condiments
Discover Your Foraging Roots with James Warren
Foraging was once commonplace. Children snacked on shoots of hawthorn (bread and butter) on their way to school, grocer’s shelves and stallholder’s tables were full of samphire, king henry, crab-apples and sea kale.
Poverty and the opportunity to generate an income from free produce were often driving forces but post second world war intensive farming methods made vegetables more affordable and accessible, so the knowledge and desire for hedgerow food slowly disappeared.
Foraging has returned in the last decade, at first through chef’s desires for new and interesting flavours, and more recently because eastern and southern Europeans have brought with them knowledge we almost lost forever. The odd recession, also, might just give us all the push we need to discover our foraging roots.
The first and most important rule of foraging for the kitchen is to only pick and eat plants you’re sure you can identify. There are lots of helpful books and it’s a good idea to refer to more than one because descriptions vary.
In this article, I have stuck to plants that don’t have dangerous look-alikes and are plentiful and locally abundant. Remember, finding them alone is all part of the fun whether you take them home or not.
Alexanders smyrnium olustratum
Brought here by the Romans as a pot herb from the Mediterranean, it quickly became naturalized and grows prolifically where found. The leaves can be used in salads or blanched like spinach. The base of the thick main stem is already naturally blanched; cook as you would asparagus and served with melted butter. It is one of the first annual greens to show in spring, their yellow flower buds appearing early.
Everyone knows chives, an old yet still popular native, grown commercially and sold in supermarkets, but I bet you drive past loads of it on your way to buy it! Most chives are the domesticated variety gone wild, which has fleshier leaves than the spindly native – which is a protected species. Be careful, know your chives.
Thyme thymus druccei
Wild Thyme is much milder than its kitchen cousin so, against the norm, it is best picked when in flower; their scent adds not only to the taste but great flecks of colour to your dish. Looks and tastes great in salads. Often hard to find but when in flower butterflies cover the bush, lapping up the honey scented nectar.
Rock samphire crithmum maritimum
A cousin of the once again popular marsh samphire, it grows most commonly on our rocky shores and cliffs. In some areas further west they once abseiled the sheer cliffs, gathering it for sale at the city markets. Collect only the bright green, fresh-looking parts, discarding any yellowing bits, boil for roughly ten minutes and serve with melted butter and plenty of black pepper.
Goose grass gallium aparine
This is the least seasonally dependent of all our wild greens; even in the depths of winter, with snow on the ground, you can find this plant growing somewhere in the hedgerow. Although it would be hard to describe it as delicious, it is a fair addition to the diet when fresh greens are hard to come by, and as it’s high in vitamin C, it’s probably better for you than anything from the supermarket. It might be best not tell the family its lesser known common name – Sticky Willy.
Ramsons Allium ursinum
Commonly known as wild garlic, ramsons are easily the most abundant wild forage crop. This relative of the chive carpets large areas, first with its wide green leaves and later small white flowers , at which time you may often smell the wild garlic before you see it.
Both leaves and flowers are good in salads and can also be added to cooked greens to add a mild garlic-onion flavour. More fun, though, is to dig up the tuberous roots and use them; they are stronger in flavour than the leaves and work well with fresh tomatoes or stuffed into a joint of local lamb.
This is just a handful of the wild food growing in Purbeck. Try a little foraging for a taste of the wild side but please, only take what you need for that day and very little in proportion to what’s there. Then it will continue to thrive.