Chef and food writer Tom Hunt on foraged spring greens
What’s in season?
We’re just seeing the first of the ramsons (wild garlic)—be quick, they’re only around for mere weeks. Watercress and wood sorrel—one of my favourite foraged ingredients—are also around at the moment, as is three-cornered leek (similarly short-lived, with a season of just four to six weeks depending on the weather) and beautiful edible flowers such as dandelions and primroses.
What do you do with them?
Quite often foraged greens can be bitter—particularly things like dandelion leaves, which have an acquired taste, so chop them up small and include them as part of a bigger salad. Wood sorrel has a citrusy, lemony note to its flavour. It’s very tasty and works beautifully alongside peppery watercress, or with just about anything where a lemon would usually work—have it as a side for fish, or even as a flourish for desserts. Nettles are slightly sweet in flavour and can be used in all sorts of ways—try chopping them up raw to make a pesto. One of my favourite dishes is a nettle soup I’ve adapted from a recipe I learned at River Cottage, made with oyster sauce. Ramsons can be used very widely. I particularly like to chop the leaves up raw and mix them into a grain or pearl barley salad. The buds are great pickled and can be used like a garlicky caper. Primroses are so pretty—wilt the leaves in a little olive oil, that’s all they need; the flowers are mainly aesthetic. They look beautiful atop champagne jelly.
Any foraging tips?
Some wild plants are poisonous, so you need to be very cautious. Obviously, when it comes to nettles, be careful not to get stung—though they will lose some of their sting after you’ve picked them. You can forage watercress, but again be wary—they are really absorbent, so you need to check the cleanliness of the surroundings. When picking dandelions, I would say leave the bud and the flowers for the bees; always be sparing.
What can I do to prolong their freshness?
Don’t wash them until you want to use them, and store them in the fridge in a container with plenty of room. You could keep them in a damp kitchen towel, but generally speaking it’s not necessary—wild greens are surprisingly hardy, much more so than supermarket-bought leaves.
Where can I get buy them?
Noel at Fitz Fine Foods is a forager, so keep your eyes peeled for the first of the wild garlic and three-cornered leek. You’ll find homegrown watercress and wood sorrel at Chegworth Valley and Ted’s Veg along with an array of edible flowers, and Paul Wheeler will happily get hold of nettle tops if asked.