This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts which will highlight some of the seasonal wild foods available to forage across the UK. Pavla (owner of Hejgro) will be taking Claire Jefferies (a Frome-based food writer) on monthly walks across Somerset to see what is ripe for the picking. Claire’s posts will share tips on how to safely identify and prepare these foods, and will offer suggestions of how they can be enjoyed in a range of dishes. A full recipe will also be featured each month, using at least one seasonal ingredient found on the walk.
Where did we head for our first forage?
Green Heart Campsite, Chesterblade Hills in Batcombe, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset UK.
What did we find there?
Within a cluster of trees in the centre of the campsite stands a Hazelnut tree. Its nuts are ready to harvest from late August to October. You will have stiff competition from squirrels for these nuts so don’t wait until they have fallen to the ground. Pick a couple of nuts from the tree and open them to check their size. If they are big enough, go ahead and harvest more.
Stinging (common) nettles are in abundance. Harvesting is best done when the leaves are young (small and heart-shaped). Larger, older leaves and stems can be tough and stringy. At the first sign of flowers you should stop picking them. The plant will now be producing cystoliths - microscopic rods of calcium carbonate - which can be absorbed by the body and interfere with kidney function.
You can think of nettles as a substitute for spinach; use in a Spanakopita (Greek spinach pie with feta), with blue cheese on toast, or in fresh pasta. Nettles can be substituted for wild garlic in pesto, or combined with it to make soup. Drinks-wise, options include tea, nettle-ade and cordial. Nettles even work in cakes and bread. Check out this weblink for a range of sweet and savoury recipe options: https://www.growforagecookferment.com/stinging-nettle-recipes/
Blackberries are appearing in bushes everywhere on-site, ripening early due to the recent heat waves.They are around until October but the berries that ripen earliest are best. Social historian Dorothy Hartley suggests first eating the lowest berries that ripen earliest (raw and at their sweetest), followed by mid-bush berries (in pies and puddings), and finally the high-up fruits late in the season (mixed with apples for a balance of tart and sweet).
Umbells - umbrella-shaped flower heads - of elderberries are also ripening in the hedgerows. These are not to be eaten raw, which is the perfect excuse to give Hejgro’s own Pontack Sauce with elderberries a go, as the prep work is done for you. The sauce adds a lovely depth of flavour to gravy, soups, marinades, dips, salad dressings, sauces or even smoothies. You can also use it as a vegan Worcestershire sauce, or a lightly spiced and fruity balsamic.
Finally, in the lanes just outside the campsite, another umbell is ready to harvest: the seedheads of Common Hogweed.
Photos by Claire Jefferies. Hazelnut, Common (stinging) nettle in flower, Elderberries, Blackberries, Common Hogweed Seed
Of all these wild foods, we are going to focus in this post on Common Hogweed. It is not widely foraged by the general public, perhaps avoided because of its questionable relative; Giant Hogweed, but it is really worth seeking out.
Included in the same (Apiaceae) family as Common Hogweed are parsley, carrot, parsnip, cumin and coriander.
Common Hogweed in flower. Photo by Galloway Wild Foods
Common Hogweed history and where to find it
This plant gets its name from days of farming past, when it was once collected by villagers to be used as pig fodder. It can be found almost anywhere, mostly in damp ditches and hedgerows, along riversides, in open woodland, meadows and rough grassland.
Given that many people know that Giant Hogweed is not to be touched or ingested, it is probably helpful to highlight the visual differences between the Common and Giant varieties:
Common Hogweed grows to about 2m in height before it flowers, whereas Giant Hogweed is typically 4m at this stage. Common Hogweed flowers from May to August with an umbell of 20cm in diameter - Giant Hogweed flowers in June and July with larger umbells, reaching 50cm across. Common Hogweed has a purple hue to its grooved and hollow stem, whereas Giant Hogweed has distinctive purple blotches on a similarly-shaped stem. Common Hogweed leaves are more rounded and slightly hairy, whereas Giant Hogweed leaves tend to be very deeply divided, angular, pointed and hairless.
Eating Common Hogweed
All parts of the plant can be consumed but should be cooked first. The best parts are considered to be the young shoots (high in vitamin C), stems and seeds. Green flowerbud florets are one of the most popular foraged foods in the UK and are reminiscent of asparagus and parsley. They are often prepared deep-fried, tempura style. The plant will produce more shoots after harvesting and can provide a steady crop throughout spring and early summer. Stems can be sauteed with wild garlic, and served on bruschetta with Parma ham. Given we are now in late summer, let’s look at the plant’s seeds in more detail, which are ready now, in mid-late summer.
Common Hogweed’s dried seeds heads. Photo by Claire Jefferies
Hogweed seeds: a grounding flavour profile
Hogweed seed aroma is complex. The fragrance becomes most apparent after the seeds have been toasted and ground. I have heard it described as similar to cardamom with a hint of coriander. To me, it is freshly cut wood, freshly-baked bread, a hint of citrus and vanilla, and a far less pungent version of Mixed Spice. As I said, complex! A close relation to Common Hogweed is Golpar, a spice long-used in Persian cooking and pickles, and often sold as Angelica Seed. It pairs well with the sweetness of beetroot, the tanginess of pomegranate or the earthiness of lentils and potatoes. It is definitely worth researching more dishes that use Golpar, so you can substitute it for Common Hogweed. As well as savoury dishes, Golpar/Common Hogweed works well in spiced or orange flavoured cakes and biscuits.
Here is a recipe for a simple Parkin cake that will fill your kitchen with a gorgeous earthy, ginger aroma. I can confirm it is delicious when gently warmed in the oven or microwave, and eaten with a scoop of vanilla ice cream!
Hogweed Seed Parkin Cake
(Adapted from recipe on gallowaywildfoods.com)
A note on preparing the seeds: When harvesting the umbells, leave them on the main stem and shake them into a bag, otherwise you lose many seeds to the ground. A little filtering by hand is then required to get rid of unwanted debris or insects. Next, spread the filtered seeds on a baking tray and toast them for 5-6 minutes at 180oC in the oven. You can take them out once they start to release their heady aroma. Finally, grind the seeds to a powder, in a spice or coffee grinder.
I've taken this recipe from Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods website (which includes a deep dive into the wonders - and dangers - of common hogweed), but Mark firmly credits Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods with the original idea of using the gingery flavours in hogweed seeds to make parkin.
● 200g butter, plus extra for greasing
● 4 tbsp milk
● 3 tablespoons dry hogweed seed shells, roasted then ground. Use more if you want to up the spiciness of the cake.
● 200g golden syrup
● 85g treacle (Or the same of heavily reduced birch syrup, if you are feeling decadent!)
● 85g light soft brown sugar
● 100g medium oatmeal
● 250g self-raising flour
● Optional: 1 ½ tablespoons of dried, ground magnolia petals (which have a lovely floral-ginger flavour)
● 1/4 tablespoon ground ginger (Or more, or less, depending on your taste…or none if you want to go fully wild-spiced!)
● 1 teaspoon sea salt
● Prepare the Hogweed Seeds as above
● Heat oven to 160C / 140C fan / Gas 3
● Grease a deep 22cm/9in square cake tin, or one large equivalent, and line with baking parchment
● Beat the eggs and milk together with a fork and set aside
● Gently melt the syrup, treacle, sugar and butter together in a large pan until the sugar has dissolved then remove from the heat
● Mix together the oatmeal, flour, salt, ground hogweed seeds, ground magnolia petals (if using) and ginger and stir into the syrup mixture, followed by the egg and milk, stirring well until thoroughly combined
● Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 40-45 minutes until the cake feels firm and a little crusty on top.
● Cool in the tins then run a knife around the edges before flopping it carefully out onto a chopping board.
● Well-wrapped in foil, cling film or baking parchment, it will keep well for a week, and actually improves after about 2 or 3 days, becoming softer and stickier the longer you leave it as the oatmeal swells up (up to a few days).
Hogweed Seed Parkin freezes extremely well. Eat it as is, or with an inch of butter on top.
Hogweed Seed Parkin Cake is a warming, gently spiced introduction to Autumn flavours. Photo by Claire Jefferies