Over the last few months the cracks in the pavement around Battersea are consistently stuffed with bunches of chickweed. Dandelions sit on the edge of pathways and in those random patches of grass or waste ground that just happen to be there. Although many of these plants are not in their prime in terms of consumption, they are everywhere, patiently waiting to become some of the finest spring greens.
One thing that did catch my eye was the entry I did about Rocket that grew extremely well in my Clapham raised bed system, 2 years ago. Rocket is the star of the salad bowl, it’s peppery tang adds brilliant flavour to virtually anything, be it a simple combination of Carpaccio, rocket, parmesan with a glug of olive oil or a few leaves scattered over a fish dish. The point is that in the same way bacon adds salt, sorrel adds lemon: rocket adds pepper. It also made me think why the Americans like to call it Arugala? Perhaps they think it sounds a little more polished and spiffing, but then they call spring onions ‘scallions’- weird.
As with most of our favourite vegetables found in shops and markets across the country, we are lucky to have a few substitutes in the wild, Mother Nature didn’t suddenly go “Right, celery, bosh there you go,” or “wild parsnips are a bit shit, you can have big fat ones instead.” The point is that all our vegetables today must have come from somewhere, and in many cases the domesticated lunkers we hand over pounds and pennies for all have a slightly smaller and perhaps slightly different looking cousin growing in some hedgerow somewhere in the country.
If I were to give rocket an abundant ‘wild’ distant relative (other than wall-rocket or sea rocket!) it would have to be hairy bittercress, a plant so common and so invasive it is the bane of nearly every gardener in the country. Wild foods are not always easy to find, the aim with this blog is to extract the good ones that are plentiful and showcase them for you guys.
Hairy bittercress is available throughout the year and is so easy to find. When it flowers between February and September, small delicate white flowers appear in clusters and the leaves look very similar to watercress, the best thing is that if you so wish, you can eat the whole thing, but I tend to stick to just the mustardy/ peppery leaves. Again like most wild greens, any wild food book will say the same- good in salads- Ray Mears ‘Wild Food’ lends itself to this in a big way, but then Ray Ray is a survivalist, not a chef.
The best place to start looking for Bittercress (and it shouldn’t take long) is your own back yard, my mother’s flower beds are absolutely teeming with the stuff and she is more than happy for me to do a little ‘weeding’. Out in the country moist, shady places near streams or field verges are your best bet. The bittercress seen here came from the pavement directly outside my front door.
I decided to go for a stroll around Battersea Park to see if I could get a more substantial haul, so as to do a little experimentation in the kitchen. As I passed the big stone gates, clutching a plastic bag, I began mulling over possible plans for the bittercress, perhaps I could try pickling some or make a pesto. First stop was the park’s herb garden, I was hoping that due to the adverse weather conditions of late, weeding and other garden maintenance may have fallen by the wayside. It appeared the park keepers had been more anal than ever and recently scoured the beds of anything that was not a vegetable and carted it off to the compost heap.
Battersea Park is a little disappointing in terms of gathering at any other time than spring when the elderflower starts to flourish. According to the park’s head keeper, the park is unable to support fungi because of the type of soil that was brought in from further down the Thames. Despite this, I have found the odd field mushroom and a few others, but they seem to be confined to one area.
There is one resource that is in great abundance and can always be seen scurrying through the undergrowth. One day the plan to eat a Battersea Park squirrel will come to fruition, I am not ready to abandon that dream just yet. As much as the park keepers admit that they would love to whittle down the squirrel population for the sake of the trees, culling the adorable, fluffy rodent-like lumberjacks remains a sensitive PR issue. The problem I have is how to get one off a fence post and onto my plate…perhaps I could try squirrel fishing (don’t worry it doesn’t involve hooks!)
With the sky getting darker by the minute and the prospect of having to go to the wilderness area on the other side of the park, my bittercress plans for the day were abandoned with the first few icy drops of rain. The brisk walk home yielded enough to use as a garnish for my impending brunch and I was even lucky enough to catch a few ‘what-the-hell-is-he-doing’ stares from fellow Batterseans as I photographed bunches of bittercress poking through the pavement, there really is nothing quite like the look of a bewildered Londoner, I have tried many a time to replicate it in the mirror, but I just can’t do it yet (maybe a few more years here and I’ll have it).
Back home with my minimal hoard, I whipped up a quick hollandaise, poached some eggs, toasted some muffins and sprinkled on the washed bittercress (pavements and walls around here are notorious for attracting the cocked leg of most dogs). Brunch and Egg’s Benedict are the perfect pairing and it could have been made no better than by adding a sprinkling of hairy bittercress: quite often the most simple of garnishes makes the dish.
Oh and I thought I had to shove in a picture of Sunday’s roast…in a giant Yorkshire pudding. Made in a cake tin, make up a batter mix for 12 normal ones and when ready stick in the beef, veg and tatties and drown in gravy. Awesome!