Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
Description: Upright perennial, to 1.5 metres. Leaves heart-shaped, opposite on stem, serrated edge, covered in stinging hairs. Stems tough and fibrous, also with stinging hairs
Habitat: Woods, waste ground, hedgerow, near habitation
Distribution: Throughout the UK
Season: Spring – before the flowers form, though the younger the better. New growth will appear in summer and autumn from cut-back plants. In March the whole plant can be picked, but as they mature, just take the developing leaves from the top. At the first sign of flowers developing you must stop picking. The plant will start producing cystoliths which can interfere with kidney function. By this time the texture and flavour has deteriorated anyway. Cooking completely destroys the nettle's ability to sting.
Half a carrier bagful of stinging nettle tops, or fresh-looking larger leaves
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock, or even light fish stock
1 large potato, peeled and cut into cubes
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp crème fraîche
A few drops of extra-virgin olive oil
A few drops of Tabasco
Wearing rubber gloves, sort through the nettles, discarding anything you don't like the look of and any thick stalks. Wash the nettles and drain in a colander.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the onion and cook gently for 5–7 minutes until softened. Add the stock, nettles, potato and carrot. Bring to a simmer and cook gently until the potato is soft, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Using an electric hand-held stick blender, purée the soup and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle into warmed bowls and float a teaspoonful of crème fraîche on top. As this melts, swirl in a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil and Tabasco.
Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)
Description: Short/medium perennial, to 50cm. Leaves broadly elliptical and pointed, soft and often damp to the touch. Flowers white, star-like, five-petalled in round sprays. All parts smell strongly of garlic
Habitat: Shaded hedgerow, woodland, doesn't like urban areas
Distribution: Very common throughout the British Isles, except for the north of Scotland. Also less common in central eastern England
Season: Leaves February–June. Star-shaped flowers and seed heads April– June. Root bulb all year
The younger the leaves, the better they will be. Certainly try to pick them before they flower – after this the flavour becomes fainter and coarser. The leaves wilt very quickly so either use them as soon as you get home or keep them covered in the fridge.
The decorative flowers and the young seed heads are also edible as is the underground bulb (make sure you identify the right root and have permission from the owner of the land if you plan to dig this up). There are several poisonous plants which lie in wait for the careless wild garlic collector - lily of the valley and the autumn crocus (or meadow saffron) bear a striking similarity, as do the the immature leaves of lords and ladies plants. There is no need for concern though – wild garlic smells strongly of garlic when crushed and none of these impostors do.
Makes 1 small jar
50g wild garlic leaves, washed
30g pinenuts, lightly toasted
30g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
80ml olive oil, plus extra to cover
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
The simplest method is to put everything except the oil in a food processor, blitz for a few seconds, then continue to whiz while slowly adding the olive oil through the funnel.
Transfer to a jar, pour sufficient olive oil on top to keep the pesto covered, close the lid and store it in the fridge. It will keep for several weeks.
Watercress omelette with cream cheese and smoked salmon
Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum)
Description: Large trailing aquatic perennial. Leaflets more or less opposite plus terminal leaflet, very shallowly lobed edges, dark green, often with a bronze tinge.
Young leaves form a rosette around emerging flower heads. Taste peppery. Flowers small, white, four-petalled.
Habitat: Shallow streams, often chalk streams, ditches
Distribution: Common, less so in the North
Season: Late March until November
Every part of the plant is edible, but I usually collect the rosette around the developing flower head. Annoyingly fool's watercress (Apium nodiflorum) looks similar and is edible, though much inferior. It grows in precisely the same locations, often found intertwined with true watercress. The distinguishing features of fool's watercress are finely and bluntly toothed edges to the leaflets, shiny yellow/green opposite leaflets and a taste of carrots.
Fasciola hepatica, a small creature which spends part of its time stuck to aquatic plants waiting to enter the digestive tract of a sheep or other herbivore, is a problem. The tiny metacercarium will gradually develop and eat its way through you until it is at the 3cm, flat, slug-like adult stage, whereupon it finds its way into your liver. I presume you will not be wanting a family of slug lookalikes taking up residence in your liver so my advice must be not to bother with raw wild watercress.
There is of course one simple way of removing the parasite – cooking. Quickly sweating it for a sauce or adding it at the very last minute to a soup is the best way to retain the flavour. If you still want to eat it raw and wild, and even if you don't, pick from fast running water upstream of any grazing animals, avoid streams with muddy banks and pick from plants that are growing in the middle of streams and high out of the water. Finally, soak your collection for 10 minutes in 10% white vinegar solution or a chlorine-based steriliser such as the type used for baby's bottles. Rinse thoroughly.
85g watercress, washed
4 eggs, separated
2 tbsp crème fraîche
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little oil for cooking
For the filling
75g cream cheese
100g smoked salmon slices
Handful of sorrel leaves, washed and shredded (optional)
Blitz the watercress, egg yolks, crème fraîche and some salt and pepper together in a blender for a few seconds.
Beat the egg whites in a scrupulously clean bowl with a balloon whisk until they form soft peaks, then carefully fold into the watercress mixture.
Heat a little oil in a medium frying pan and pour in half of the omelette mixture.
Cook for a couple of minutes until set and golden brown underneath, then carefully transfer to a warmed plate. Repeat to cook the second omelette.
Top with the cream cheese and smoked salmon and sprinkle with shredded sorrel if you have some to hand. Fold to enclose the filling and eat straight away.
Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus agg)
Description: Scrambling, arching shrub, to 3 metres. Leaves with three to five leaflets – oval/pointed, serrated edge, hairy white underside. Stem with backward-pointing strong, sharp thorns. Flowers five-petalled, white to pale pink. Fruit consisting of many dark purple/black segments
Habitat: Woods, hedgerows, waste ground, gardens. All soil types, but does not like very wet conditions
Distribution: Extremely common throughout the British Isles, except the Scottish Highlands
Season: Berries from August until mid-October
The best blackberries are early in the season when the sun is strong, before the flies have pierced them and the grey mould Botrytis cinerea has taken hold. The biggest and sweetest berry is usually the one at the end of the stalk. This ripens long before all the others and is the one to eat raw; the rest are better for cooking. Blackberries do not keep, not even for a day. If there is no time to make your jam or crumble, at least cook the berries through by simmering them on a low heat for a few minutes. Or freeze them.
500g blackberries, washed
7g leaf gelatine
Juice of ½ lemon (omit if your blackberries taste strongly acidic)
3 large eggs
100g caster sugar
200ml double cream
Set aside 50g of the best blackberries (the plumpest and juiciest) for serving. Put the rest into a saucepan, cover and cook gently for 5 minutes until softened. Meanwhile, soak the gelatine leaves in a shallow dish of cold water to soften.
Crush the cooked blackberries in the saucepan using a potato masher, then pass through a sieve into a bowl, pressing with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible. Pour the blackberry juice into a clean pan, add the lemon juice and heat gently until almost simmering, then take off the heat.
Squeeze the gelatine leaves to remove excess water, then add them to the hot blackberry juice and stir until dissolved. Set aside to cool until tepid. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the caster sugar until thick, pale and mousse-like. Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the blackberry juice, followed by 150ml of the cream. Pour the mixture into glasses and place in the fridge for a couple of hours until set.
Before serving, pour a little cream on top and decorate with the remaining berries.
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)
Description: Large tree. Leaves large, long, pointed/oval, saw-toothed edge. Husk covered with very sharp spines. Nuts two or more to a husk, slightly hairy!
Habitat: Park or woodland. Not on lime
Distribution: Common, scattered around England but with a southern preference. Less common in Scotland, Northern Ireland and central Wales
The husk of the sweet chestnut is covered in a large number of long, fine bristles and contains more than one nut, whereas the horse chestnut has a few rather stumpy spines and only ever contains a single nut. The traditional method of removing the nuts is to make a small pile, stamp on it and search through the debris for the bright shiny treasure. Sweet chestnuts of an edible size are not necessarily found every year, but sometimes the weather suits them and we get a bumper crop. And sometimes only one or two trees in a forest will set good fruit.
Makes about 8
100g chestnut flour (see below)
20g rice flour
200g caster sugar
2 large egg whites
25g shelled hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
To make the chestnut flour, place the chestnuts in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Cook gently for 10 minutes, or 15 minutes if they are large. Turn off the heat, but leave the chestnuts in the hot water. Don a pair of rubber gloves.
One at a time, remove the chestnuts, cut into the pointed end on the flat side and start to peel the skin. Usually, both layers come away together. Cool the peeled chestnuts in the fridge, then grate them in a Mouli grater. Spread thinly on a non-stick baking tray and place in a very low oven (40°C), with the door slightly ajar, for an hour or until perfectly dry.
Preheat the oven to 170°C/Gas mark 3. Line a large baking tray with rice paper.
Blitz the dried chestnut flakes in a blender to a powder.
Mix the chestnut flour, rice flour and sugar together in a bowl. Beat the egg white lightly and stir into the mixture. Drop heaped dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to the prepared baking tray, spacing them well apart. Sprinkle the chopped hazelnuts on top. Bake in the oven for 20–25 minutes until golden brown. Leave the chestnut macaroons on the baking tray for a few minutes to firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.
• These recipes are taken from The River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook by John Wright (Bloomsbury, £14.99). To buy a copy signed by the author for £8.99, and for the chance to win a day's foraging with John, followed by a meal at River Cottage HQ visit rivercottage.net