nosh for nowt
wild food on the waterways
My love of foraging for wild food began in 2013 when my husband Phil and I were ‘locking down’ on the beautiful Basingstoke Canal. It was Autumn and we were alone on the cut surrounded by a stunning palette of burnt orange, yellow ochre and every variety of brown that you can imagine. A visual feast!
Looking around more closely we noticed an actual feast too. Hoards of sweet chestnuts lay on the ground alongside the canal so we began hopping on and off the boat collecting them in our pockets. I bit into one and was greeted by a small worm – he poked his head out looking very disgruntled as though I had disturbed his afternoon nap. Fortunately, I was not put off my snack and we continued eating the chestnuts as we went along. That evening, with our boat safely moored up, we made a delicious chestnut roast for dinner.
mushrooms & fungi
We then tried gathering mushrooms for our table (again plentiful at this time of year). Although we found a good many shapes and sizes, we were hesitant about eating them. We referred to the writings of the great fungi guru, Roger Phillips and while we really enjoyed trying to identify those we found, when it came to eating them, we heeded his advice - ‘if you are at all unsure, don’t!’
It sometimes seemed as though there were acorns everywhere and I wondered whether I could cook them. I did some research and found that acorns contain a lot of tannin which makes them rather bitter. It is possible to reduce the tannin by boiling them several times in succession. They can then be roasted and eaten as a snack but we both agreed that it sounded like more hassle than it was worth.
With the arrival of Spring, I began searching for other wild foods. I had read that stinging nettles are very nutritious and contain high levels of vitamins A and C, a fair bit of iron and some protein too so I decided to see what I could make with them. Suitably gloved, I went out one March morning and picked the tips of the youngest nettles I could find. Back on board, I chopped and sautéed a small onion, carrot and potato in a pan then added 2 large handfuls of washed chopped nettles and some vegetable stock all of which was left to simmer gently for a little while. We enjoyed this for lunch with a large hunk of bread. Incidentally, the sting had gone completely.
Wild garlic (Ramsons) also appeared during March, their pungent aromas permeating the damp woodlands where they grow. We found these were good for making infused oils for salad dressings.
dandelion and bacon salad
Did you know that that the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was really interested in cooking and entertaining? In fact he created over 200 recipes which were published posthumously in a book called
The Art of Cuisine.
One of his recipes is a dandelion and bacon salad called Pissenlit au Lard which I recreated from dandelions that were growing on the banking near our boat and a bit of bacon that we already had in the fridge. Phil was rather rude about the end result. It looked pretty but the leaves had a strong bitter taste. They were a bit like rocket but not really ‘peppery’. In contrast, the flowers had quite a delicate taste.
Each season brings its own delights and for foragers the end of the summer is definitely a time of plenty. Blackberries and violet sloes line the riverbanks and tow-paths. Sometimes we were lucky enough to discover wild raspberries, damsons or quince to use for making jams, jellies, flavoured gin and vodka which would see us through the winter.
We would never pretend to new boaters that it is possible to survive on foraged food alone but, the experience of searching for wild food is good for the soul, connecting us with ancient living, the natural environment and seasonal changes.
Wild Food by Roger Phillips
Mushrooms by Roger Phillips
The Hedgerow Cookbook by Wild at Heart
Food for Free by Richard Mabey