If you think about wild food do you picture a woodland miles from anywhere full of unusual plants and mushrooms with strange unpronounceable names? Perhaps foraging is something you know a little about and you regularly take your well thumbed copy of ‘food for free’ on long country walks trying desperately to find some of the plants mentioned in the book to include in your evening meal?
Foraging can seem to be synonymous with the countryside, so it might come as some surprise that there could well be a greater diversity of edible plants in a park in the middle of Birmingham than a country lane in the Cotswolds. Urban parks often have rows of gardens or allotments containing plants from all over the world backing on to them. Many of these plants can, and do, regularly ‘escape’ into the surrounding area. Often planted with a large range of plants such as trees, shrubs and bedding plants many parkland species will have edible uses (Consider lime (tilia spp), cherry or sweet chestnut.
Now consider the country lane: it could back onto a field which is regularly sprayed with herbicides. That field will more than likely either contain a mono-crop or pasture land, both of which support very few plant species. On top of that the hedgerow is cut once a year reducing the amount of nuts or fruit that hedge may have produced naturally.
Wild food is the ultimate in local, seasonal food, travelling inches or feet to your plate rather than miles and what’s more it’s free! Although some argue that there may be an issue with pollution for urban edibles but if you avoid industrial areas or busy roads I can’t see this being any worse than a city allotment. However air pollution is not the only thing to worry about and I do always wash what ever I forage from a city, especially if it’s near dog walking territory!
Here is a top ten of some of my favourites.
1. Blackberry- Needs no introduction really, the first wild food many of us eat, versatile, nutritious and utterly delicious. The shoots in the spring are edible (they can be an acquired taste!)
2. Himalayan Honeysuckle, Leycesteria formosa – Sometimes called toffee berry as the berries do taste surprisingly toffee-like.
3. Hawthorn – Young (light green) leaves in the spring and blossom are edible and the berries make a great ketchup when tomatoes have gone out of season.
In the first part of where to garden I covered garden share schemes and community gardens. These are the obvious first choices but they are by no means all there is to offer for the garden-less gardener.
Taken from grow your food for free
You may well grow indoor house-plants, but perhaps seldom think about growing indoor vegetables. Yet a surprising amount of
produce can be grown indoors, on windowsills, in well-lit porches, in conservatories and under skylights. Modern homes are quite often full of natural light in the daytime and are heated in the winter, making them the perfect growing place for an indoor vegetable garden.
Some indoor crops
Herbs can be grown on a kitchen windowsill so they are to hand when cooking. Basil, mint, chives, thyme and
parsley are all suitable for home growing.
Salad leaves Try either whole lettuces in flowerpots or a tray of mixed leaves. Winter leaves such as rocket, mizuna and
mibuna can all be grown on a windowsill.
Mini root crops Compact varieties of beetroot and carrots have been developed, and Japanese varieties of turnips are no
bigger than a ping-pong ball. They will need to be in a large trough rather than a small pot.
Grey urban landscapes can suddenly be transformed by the wash of colour from flowers, shrubs and even food plants. What’s more, as there is zero rent or yearly subscription to pay, it can be a totally free way to garden.
The downside is it is technically illegal, it seems the practice of removing waste, clearing brambles and weeds to plant flowers and shrubs can by some be seen as criminal damage.
David Attenborough has described humans a “plague on the earth”. This ever-increasing ‘plague’ of humans has meant less room for what was once a necessity, a small patch of land which to grow food.
However, lack of land does not automatically mean no-where to grow. With a little imagination, there are plenty of places to grow your own food. If you are willing to share your growing space the possibilities are limitless.
Garden Share Schemes
Many towns and cities run garden share schemes, these are (unsurprisingly) schemes where people share their gardens or seek out a garden which to share (clue is in the name). Often, but not always, elderly people who are finding their gardens are getting too much offer whole or part of their garden to grow food. It is not a scheme to get a free gardeners but an exchange where each party benefits from increased social contact, a growing space and a way to keep an unruly part of the garden productive and well kept.
Look on local noticeboards or through local organisations such as your local Transistion towns group for more details. If you find that your town doesn’t have one, then you could consider setting one up – See the Transition Town Totnes website for more details.
Community gardens can be anything from a small scrap of land to quite a number of acres. Some run a little like allotments where people can just turn up and garden their own space and others have structured volunteer days. They are often teaching spaces and can have links with local charities. My experience of community gardens has always been positive, I have visited many and taught at a couple and never had anything but good experiences. In the UK many are listed on the Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens website
More on where to garden coming soon…
Don’t see a course in your area? Want an unique Christmas present?
Think you could get between a group of 2 to 14 people together who would like to go on a wild food walk?
Then email Dave (dave (at) selfsufficientish.com) with a list of preferred dates and locations, if you find one mutually agreeable click on the button below to book and pay for the course.
You will be sent a personalised card with a personalised voucher (or emailed if it is needed urgently). Suitable for landmark birthdays (30, 40, 50 60), Hen or Stag Days, Anniversary’s or work away days. The day will include foraging treats, handouts and a minimum of 4 hours teaching time (usually more).
A full refund will be given if a suitable date can not be found.Please note As we are all the way down is in the South West we are unable to do courses North of Birmingham unless travel expenses are paid.
Sumac is one of those plants you may have seen a thousand times but never really realised it had an edible use. It’s not a truly wild plant in the UK but it does readily escape from gardens as it sends up suckers when the roots are disturbed. In this way trees can ‘escape’ from gardens over long periods of time and become ‘wild’.
The sumac leaves are high in tannin and were traditionally they were used in the leather industry for tanning leather. However, for the forager, the furry clusters of berries or ‘drupes’ as they are known are the important part.
The drupes are very easy to identify they have a strong characteristic purple colour, collectively these drupes form a panicle (see picture), . These panicles or clusters of hairy berries grow upwards from a furry branch which resembles a stags horn (hence the name). They can stay on the tree right across the winter but are best to harvest late summer or early autumn.
For those living in polluted areas the stag-horn Sumac may not be the plant for you as the drupes really do hold onto air pollution (you can see it as a grey residue if you leave them overnight in water).
The tree is grown in arid parts of the Middle East. It has a sour taste due to tannins and acidic compounds such as Malic and Citric Acid.
This sour taste makes it an ideal substitute for lemons and a Sumac Lemonade can be made by simply squeezing the drupes into COLD water.
1.5 litres of cold water
5-6 large panicles of stag horn sumac
Squeeze the drupes into a large bowl of (1.5 litres) of cold water and leave for an hour or so. Give them another squeeze then pass through a sieve. The resulting liquid should be pink – add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Check for sweetness and add more sugar if required.
In Lebanon they use sumac to flavour a spice mix known as Za’ata or Satar. It is great with hummous or on flat bread pizzas in tomato salsas or in ‘tagine’ style soups with chickpeas. For the real selfsufficientish cook you could even try sea or beet spinach, bean and rhubarb (it is a vegetable after all!) curry flavoured with home-made Za-ata. This recipe is a loose guideline it wont make a true Za’tar you could try other toasted seeds or other herbs you may have to hand such as marjoram or oregano, wild thyme etc.
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 Tablespoons of dried thyme
2 Tablespoons of dried Sumac berries.
If using fresh sumac then leave to dry for around a week before using - A windowsill seems to be fine for this. Peal the ‘berries’ from the drupes – they should just come off with a slight touch, measure the required quantity. Mix all the ingredients in a coffee grinder or pestle and mortar.
During most of my autumn courses I either run through how to make hawthorn ketchup or I have some on hand to try (preferable both!). This year I thought I would at least get round to having the recipe up whilst they are in season . This makes a very red and very delicious ketchup which can be used in the same way as a tomato ketchup.
Please note that those on any heart medication are advised not to eat haws/hawthorn berries.
300ml vinegar – red wine, cider or malt
spices to taste – coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger
(These are approximate quantities, adjust to the amount of haw berries collected)
This should keep for several months unopened, once opened store in the fridge.
Soil is a very complex living thing. In just one gram there can be over a 1000 million organisms, most of them beneficial to the gardener. These organisms help weather rocks, releasing their mineral content for our plants and aid the breakdown of organic matter, in turn releasing further nutrients for our ever hungry crops. Recent studies have even suggested that some soil borne microorganisms may be more effective than antidepressants in boosting the mood of the gardener.
Most of these organisms live in just the top few centimetres of the soil, so leaving the ground exposed to the elements can mean they will be leached away, along with all the nutrients they may have freed up. I’ve seen many first time growers strip the ground bare and arduously dig it over, only to leave it exposed right across the winter. Leaving your soil exposed in this way for months on end allows the rain and wind to wash and blow away all these millions and millions of tiny allies living near the soil surface. In a very real sense, exposing your land to the ravishes of the winter weather is the best way of killing of anything beneficial that may be living within the top-soil.
With the exception of allowing a few frosts in to break up heavy clay (cover with black plastic and roll back when a frost is forecast), the soil should always have some kind of ground cover, be it living or artificial. This not only prevents nutrient leaching and erosion, a ground cover will also prevent the growth of weeds which can harbour pests and compete with your crops.
You can cover the ground in plastic or cardboard but a far better bet is to sow a green manure. Deep rooted green manure plants will help break up the soil and the roots of nitrogen fixing green manures can trap airborne nitrogen, improving the fertility of the soil. They can also be dug in to improve structure and provide a welcome boost to soil fertility. In addition they will provide a habitat to frogs, beetles, slow-worms and all manner of creatures which will prey on pests such as slugs and snails. So at first it may seem counter intuitive to grow something you’re not going to eat but, they can be sown at this time of year when there is little else growing.
Phacelia – Fast growing, good ground cover no problem in a crop rotation
Rye grass – Extensive roots help break up the soil
Tares – Nitrogen fixing, produce a lot of foliage which can be used as a mulch or whole plant dug in
Comfrey – not technically a green manure but makes an excellent plant feed
Field beans and broad beans – Nitrogen fixing, can be sown right through the autumn and again in the spring
All three of these green manures can be scatter sown, providing a thick carpet of plants which can be dug into the ground around four weeks before planting your vegetables. Mustard is a perfect green manure for ‘no dig’ plots as come the first frosts it will be killed off and left for the worms to take into the soil. However mustard is a member of the cabbage family and using it as a green manure can upset a crop rotation system. If you are not sure if this will affect your system then plant natural green manures such as phacelia or rye grass. August or early September as these are good times to sow both rye grass and phacelia, if you miss the window then cover your ground with cardboard or black plastic and sow as they weather warms up in March. It seems a shame to not allow Phacelia to flower as it produces a beautiful, firework of a flower bursting into a bright purple bloom. The flower acts as a beacon to bees and pollinators in the area and it is sometimes grown as wildlife plant. With that in mind it really doesn’t hurt to let a few of these flower and besides you can always collect next year’s seed saving you money in the long run. Rye grass or Hungarian grazing rye can be sown as late as early October in the North or late October in the South.
To scatter sow green manures –
Like many members of the pea and bean family (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) tares are nitrogen fixers. Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria living in swollen parts of their roots known as nodules. In exchange for their home and a little food from the plant, these bacteria convert airborne nitrogen into a form the plant can use. Leguminous green manure plants therefore have the added benefit of adding extra nitrogen to the soil when they are cut and dug in.
You can scatter sow tares but I have had disappointing results from this method, they can become quite a large(ish) plants and you end up with clumps where a lot of them compete with each other and patches where there are none at all. Instead plant in rows allowing around 2.5 cm (1 inch) between seeds and around 15cm (6 inches) between rows. September is slightly late for sowing tares in Northern counties but you might want to chance it as the autumn has been fairly mild in recent years.
Field beans are a smaller version of our common broad bean but rather than harvest the crop they are dug in before they flower in the spring. Broad beans can be treated in the same way and can be a useful way of using up any spare seed you may have lying around. If the broad bean is allowed to flower and fruit most of the valuable nutrients will be taken up by the growing bean rather than being held in the plant. If you do wish to grow them as a food crop you will gain a little organic matter and some nutrients by digging in the spent plants but ideally sow one bed as a green manure and one to eat. Both broad beans and field beans can be sown from September right until November at a spacing of 10cm apart with 20cm between rows.
Some plants have either very deep or very far reaching roots that seek out minerals which accumulate in the leaves. These plants are not technically a green manure but go by the name ‘dynamic accumulators’. Comfrey and borage both fit into the deep rooted side of this spectrum and nettles cover the far reaching side. When used in combination nettle and comfrey or nettle and borage can provide a balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (often marked as NPK on plant feeds) vital to your growing plants. They can be rotted down in bucket of water, or just used as a mulch around your plants. Comfrey can get a little out of hand and many gardeners will be digging it up around this time of year, so it’s a perfect time to get your hands on some of the roots. If possible try and plant bocking 14, a variety championed by Lawrence Hills, founder of HDRA. Find an unused patch of land, clear it of weeds and bury the root – comfrey is a pretty tough plant, so no matter how you plant it, come the spring it will start to grow into a nice big bushy plant.
The alternatives to green manures are of course to add farm yard manure or chemical fertilizers. A couple of years ago many allotment holders found their crops were dying on ground they had previously dug in farm yard manure. It later turned out that the manure contained residues of an herbicide known as Aminopyralid, a substance manufactured by Dow Chemicals. Growing your own manure eliminates the risk of this kind of contamination and can be a real bonus to vegetarians and vegans who may not wish to use animal by-products to raise their crops. If you’ve never grown them before perhaps consider growing some green manure and some leafy mineral accumulators on your plot, if they could all those soil microorganisms would thank you for it.
Town planners of 20th century often included cherry trees in their planting schemes as they loved the blossom. The fruit was something of an afterthought, but not for us foragers. It has meant that added to the list of usual places to hunt for cherries you should include housing estates and parks. You will more often than not find the bitter bird cherry. but on some occasions you can strike the jackpot and find some deliciously plump variety that will rival anything you can buy in the shop.
During June/July we are well into fruit season and the most opportunistic amongst us will not have to buy any fruit again until there is snow on the ground. This is a time when fruit is just starting to come into abundance. Strawberries are well into their season, as are raspberries and gooseberries. For the cherry grower and forager alike the blessing of a huge crop can become a curse if too many at once are picked and they are left to go off. Thankfully this needn’t happen as there are many ways to preserve the cherry that not only keep their sweet flavour but, as with cherry brandy, cherry wine and cherry jam, actually enhance it.
The following recipe has been taken from Booze for free by Andy Hamilton, to be published by Eden Project book 1st September 2011.
I think Jermaine Stewart must have know what he was singing about when he sang, “We can dance and party all night, and drink some cherry wine” at around 15% and very easily quaffable this wine really is one to get a party going.
245g (one small can) Red wine concentrate
Half a cup of cold tea
Juice of two lemons or 6 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
4.5 l/1 gallon water
1 campden tablet (if using)
Burgundy Red wine yeast
Put cherries into fermenting bin or bucket, cover with 3 litres/6 pints hot water and leave for 2 days. Add campden tablet if using.
After 2 days boil the rest of the water up and add the sugar, stirring vigorously until fully dissolved.
Strain the cherries through a muslin/cheese cloth into another fermentation bin with all the other ingredients, ensuring that the yeast and nutrient is not added until the water is hand hot.
After 10 days decant into a demijohn with airlock attached. Rack after 2 months and do not bottle until it has fully finished fermenting, which could take up to a year. Cherry wine improves with age and is best left to condition for at least another year, the results will be worthwhile!
As long as they’re unblemished, cherries will last for quite a while in the fridge. They can last over a week in sealed containers – for a small harvest this might be all you need to do!
Frozen cherries can last up to a year in the freezer but are probably best consumed sooner than that. The bonus with freezing anything is that the more you have in your freezer the more efficiently it works as each item radiates out cold.
To freeze cherries –
Jam is a very popular way to use up cherries and I’ve often found it is best to stick to a recipe for any jam. We often have recipes posted on our forum, here’s one from one of our members living in Italy – Contandina.
Homemade Cherry Jam recipe
Here’s a simple cherry jam recipe that works well. Don’t worry if the jam doesn’t pass the set test as it seems to solidify over night after you’ve bottled it.
3 Kg, 6 ½ lb Cherries
Juice of 3 lemons
1.5 Kg, 3 ½ lb Sugar
1. Stone the cherries, and tie the stones in muslin.
2. Put them in the pan, with the cherries and lemon juice.
3. Simmer over low heat until the juices begin to run and the fruit is tender.
4. Remove the muslin bag, stir in the sugar.
5. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly until setting point is reached.
6. Remove from the heat, skim, pot, cover, and label.
Cherries like most soft fruits can be bottled in alcohol, in sugar syrup or in a mixture of the two. I’ve included below is a recipe for cherry brandy, this is perhaps the simplest of all methods but all bottling methods are essentially the same.
Many old recipe books will ask you to sterilize jars in the oven, ignore this as it is the best way to end up with a kitchen floor covered in shards of glass. Instead give the jars a thorough clean either in a dishwasher or just in the sink. Then place the jars in a pan of cold water bring to the boil and boil for around 10 minutes. Add the cherries (or which ever fruit you are using) to the jars and cover with sugar syrup (sugar dissolved in water) or alcohol or a mix of the two.
Ensure the lid is on tightly and store in a cool, dry place.
These only keep well for about a week or so – it’s best as a desert not long after it’s made.
Allow a small bowl of cherries per person
Place the cherries in a pan and cover with red wine (use cheap wine, there’s no point wasting the good stuff) . You can add sugar at this point too but bear in mind the wine contains sugar and so do the cherries so it may not need it.
2-3 Star anise
A Cinnamon Stick or some Cinnamon Bark
5-6 Cardamon Pods
1 Vanilla Pod
Bring the pan to the boil then allow to cool
Place in the fridge overnight or for a couple of days
Pit the cherries and serve with crème fresh, cream, ice cream or vegan ice cream.
- The wine mixture can be used as a sauce for this or other deserts. It’s particularly nice on the French dessert Clafoutis aux Cerises.
By far the easiest recipe to preserve your cherries is to make cherry brandy, cherry vodka or cherry gin. Any spirit can be used but these three seem to be the best for flavour.
Put the cherries in a jar adding a layer of sugar after each layer of cherries – ideally the jar should be sterilised in either boiling water or with home-brew sterilising solution.
The longer this is left the nicer it gets, Christmas time is an ideal time to crack open a jar. The bonus with this is you get delicious and alcoholic cherries along with a lovely jar of cherry brandy.
This is another post from our forum, posted by a member called starchild and taken from http://www.recipelink.com
1 1/2 pounds prepared fruit
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 cups water
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups sugar
1 cup sugar
First Day: Combine the 2/3 cup sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 2 cups water; add fruit. Heat to 180F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat. Cool, cover and let stand at room temperature 18-24 hours.
Second day: Carefully remove fruit from syrup with a slotted spoon. Add 1 1/4 cups sugar to syrup and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. With a large metal spoon, skim foam from surface of syrup. Add fruit to syrup and heat to 180F. Remove from heat. Cool, cover and let stand at room temperature 18-24 hours.
Third day: Repeat process of second day, but use 2 cups sugar.
Fourth day: Repeat, but use 1 cup sugar.
After final standing time, remove fruit from syrup. Place in colander and rinse with cold water. Dry on drying trays at 120F – 140F until fruit is leathery and has no pockets of moisture. Drying time will be 1/4 that of fresh fruit because so much moisture is replaced by sugar.
Although we already have an elderflower cordial recipe on our elder article it is one for making it in bulk. I decide that as I have just made a smaller batch of elderflower cordial, some elder flower champagne and our forum is buzzing with talk of elderflower wine it would be good to put up a few recipes here. Elderflower cordial – Elderflower Champagne – Elderflower wine
For any problems with elderflower champagne please see Andy’s other site.
An easy to make drink that can be frozen in plastic bottles, leaving room for expansion, so it can be enjoyed all year round. It will keep for almost a month if just bottled, although is best to drink within 2 weeks. To ensure no mould, it is better that you freeze elderflower cordial and it can be enjoyed as a christmas drink.
20 elderflower heads
1 sliced lemon
2 tsp of citric acid (ask at your chemist)
1.5 kg (3.5 lbs) of sugar
1.2 ltr (2.5 pints) boiling water
Boil a kettle for the water.
Fill a bowl or small bucket with all the other ingredients.
Pour the water over the other ingredients and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Skin the surface of the water to get rid of the scum that can arise. Cover with a cloth (mine has a pillow case over it).
Stir twice a day for five days.
Strain though a fine sieve though a fine sieve or through muslin cloth and decant into sterile screw topped bottles. Refrigerate.
Similar to elderflower presse and another delicious summer drink
8 litres (2 gallons) water
1.25 kg (2.5 lbs/5 cups) sugar
8 large elderflower heads
4 tablespoons mild white wine vinegar
Boil the water and pour of the sugar to dissolve it.
Cool and add the elderflowers, juice of the two lemons, slices of the other two and the vinegar.
Cover with a cloth and leave for a day.
Strain with a fine sieve or muslin cloth, squeezing the flowers as you do to release more flavour.
Store in screw top bottles.
Grated rind of one lemon
500mls (1 pint) of elderflowers – to obtain this pick or shake of the elderflowers
and place into a measuring jug. Don’t push them down but do shake them down. Be careful not to add any of the bitter green stems.
3.5 litres (8 pints) of boiling water
1.3kg (3 lbs) sugar Juice of one lemon
25g (Half an ounce) yeast
Put lemon rind with the elderflowers and pour over boiling water
Allow to stand for 4 days, stirring occasionally.
Strain through a fine sieve or muslin cloth
Stir in sugar, lemon juice and yeast
Keep at room temperature to ferment, try not to let it go down to 18c (65f)
When you are sure all the bubbling has ceased, stir the wine and allow to settle for 3 days
Strain again carefully
Put in a demijohn (not bottles)
After 3 months maturing, put into bottles
For more recipes read Andy’s Book ‘Booze for free’.
Both the flowers and berries of the fuchsia are edible. There are even recipes for fuchsia berry jam! The flavour varies from juicy to petrol like.
Season – All year round in some parts of the country, will die back in hard frost
We all know that hop flowers help flavour beer but less well known perhaps are the delicious edible shoots. They can be steamed and served like asparagus.
Season - Spring
Stag horn Sumac
Dry the drupes and pass through a sieve for a lemony flavoring that goes great with hummus. Alternatively infuse drupes in cold water and add sugar to make a lemonade flavoured drink
Season –Summer onwards. Although it can be seen right throughout the winter it can lose its flavour the longer it is on the tree.
Toffee Berry/Himalayan Honeysuckle (not to be confused with regular honeysuckle)
A very decorative garden plant, seen as a bit of a pest when it escapes into the wild. Ripe berries taste like toffee. You can tell it’s ripeness by the darken calix on the darker berries. Can be bitter if not fully ripe.
Season – Late summer/early autumn
Ice plant/Sedum spectable – Common succulent and excellent salad green. Tastes a little like cucumber
Season – Best in spring before the plant flowers.
Evening primrose – Can be found in gardens and as an escapee in the wild. The flowers can be used in salads. The root is also edible but I’ve never found it to be that palatable.
Season – Late Spring onwards for the flower
Grown for it’s flowers. The fruit can be made into a lemonade or a jam
Season – Autumn