In an attempt to do things outside the confines of our hotel room, I’ve been on a search for unique, outdoor things we can do on the weekends. And while it is definitely not as warm as back home, nor are we as deep into the season here in the UK, it is most certainly spring. Given that, I’ve been wanting to learn about the surrounding plant life, flowers, and what exactly one can expect from this island in mid-April. This search led me to discovering that there is a huge opportunity to learn about foraging, and the chance to take part in a day long spring greens foraging course with James at Hedgerow Harvest.
We were to meet the group in Dorset, which is roughly an hour and a half from Southampton. So, we had to wake the pups up a little earlier than to what they have become accustomed.
But our early departure meant that we were able to enjoy a full English breakfast at the village hall in Toller Porcorum. Never heard of it? Me either until today. To give you an idea of the area overall, later in the day we were at another nearby hall which described their village as having 175 residents and 3722 sheep. On this morning, the village of Toller was having a church fundraiser breakfast because someone had stolen the lead from the roof of the medieval church, and they are now trying to cover the nearly £60,000 it will cost to repair it. So we spent the first part of the morning with the village locals enjoying good food and with good people.
Then about 9:30 we set off with our group and guide. James has been foraging nearly his entire life, and a few years ago decided to make a business of it. In addition to events like this, he also has a truffle hunting company, which based on today, we definitely want to do as well.
We started the day in an area allotment. For those not familiar with this idea, think of a community garden where you can rent your own patch of land for growing fruits and vegetables. It made the point early on that there are lots of edible plants right in the middle of your town or city. For us, that meant Hairy Bittercress, Crow Garlic, Flowering Currant, Wild Fennel, Pennywort, Three-cornered Leek, and Dandelions before we had even left from between the homes of the village.
We also learned about the versatility of dandelions, and that during the War, people would harvest the roots, then dry, toast, and ground them to make coffee. Additionally, the greens work well in salads, and you can also extract the flowers to make things like cordials, which we were able to enjoy later. James did a great job at helping us understand that edible plants are all around us– including less desirable things like Stinging Nettles.
I had read about nettles, but I had never actually seen one until last weekend when we were walking to the pub for dinner, and suddenly my ankles felt like I had stepped in a pile of fire ants. My rational brain knew that they don’t have fire ants here, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my skin was burning. As I was jumping around, looking for the creature that has attacked me, Brad replied, “Oh yeah… nettles.” This was when I learned he had retained his instinct from a childhood in Belgium to avoid them, while South Carolina did not prepare me in the same way.
Turns out this plant is super common around here, and also super unpleasant. It has little hairs all along its leaves, which are made of hollow silica. As you brush against them, these hollow tubes inject histamine and other irritants into your skin, resulting in an immediate stinging sensation and later a rash. However, when you soak them in water or cook them, they become an incredibly protein-rich, nutritious leafy green. They’re up to 25% dry weight protein and have more iron than spinach, in addition to incredible amounts of vitamin A, C, manganese, and calcium. Given this makeup, they were a natural addition to our haul, but we absolutely made sure to wear gloves!!
We then found ourselves in a sea of wild garlic. At home, we know these as ramps or wild leeks, and they have a relatively limited geography and are very expensive. Here though, they grow like weeds! We could have collected a wagon of them, but we instead restrained ourselves to a single grocery bag for our meal later on. James also taught us about the importance of being well-informed when foraging, as without the proper resources, you run the risk of misidentifying ramps for poisonous varieties like Lilly of the Valley. We also learned about other dangerous varieties of plants such as the Hemlock Water Dropwort which, while being extremely common, can cause massive organ failure if consumed.
Along the way, we also spotted a few fungi, such as Scarlet Elf Cups (below left) and what are known to the locals as Monkey’s Ears (below right). I’m really excited about learning how to collect my own Monkey’s Ears (commonly called ear fungus or Chinese fungus), as I use them a lot in Asian cooking, especially Japchae. We hope this fall to be able to learn more about foraging for wild mushrooms!
As our journey continued, we picked several salad greens and learned about many other edible plants, including the Japanese Knotweed (JK). JK is considered an invasive species here in the UK, and the government goes to great lengths to eradicate it. For example, every taxpayer sends £3 annually to fight it, and if it’s found on a property you’re buying, you may not be able to secure a mortgage. However, one effort people aren’t normally aware of to battle JK is not a glyphosate herbicide, but to eat it! The JK we saw on our walk had been sprayed, so it was very much dead, but James had brought some that was free of herbicide for us to eat for dessert.
In addition to a foraging adventure, James planned a three-course feast using the bounty of our harvest. We broke into three groups– soup, main, dessert or sometimes “pudding” as it’s called here, and set out cooking. We started with a selection of nettle, dandelion, or pine needle cordials along with nettle beer, and then hit the kitchen.
I was in the soup group, and we made a nettle soup with onions and potatoes in a vegetable stock. It was incredible to watch this mess of greens I would have like to thrown in the compost bin turn into a pot of delicious soup. We cooked it all down and added a little cream and Crow’s Garlic for garnish. I was nearly halfway through my soup before I remembered to take pictures of it for you, but you can see the mid-way process of preparing the soup instead.
Our main was a pasta bake including a ramp (wild garlic) pesto and tomatoes topped with Parmesan cheese. It was served with a salad of foraged greens including: Hairy Bittercress, Crow Garlic, Pennywort, Three-cornered Leek, Hawthorne buds, Wild Garlic blossoms, Primrose, Goose Grass, and Common Sorrel dressed with a vinaigrette.
We then moved on to the dessert course. I’m not totally sure how puddings can be either savory or sweet, but when in Rome… This was a Japanese Knotweed (JK) and Apple Crumble. But when you put it in a crumble, it becomes a delicious, rhubarb-like treat. Brad was in the pudding group, and is to thank for this sweet ending to a great adventure.
Once our meal was complete, we all washed up, got the village hall squared away, and departed. The full day had us getting back to Southampton around 7 pm. I’m so glad that we’ve decided to kick off our time here doing things that take us out of the Southampton shopping center and instead have taken us into different towns and areas, giving us the opportunity to meet lots of people and learn a little more about things around us. I’m hoping that our time here continues to provide us more opportunities like this!