The meadow outside the front of the house has certainly become quite the wild larder over the last few weeks, partly down to the biblical downpours that have rolled in over the Bay of Biscay and stuck firmly over Aquitaine. Over two weeks of constant rain and crap surf have kept me in the HGC test kitchen playing around with wild greens in anticipation of a delightfully rammed month of courses back in Blighty. Here in SW France everything is roughly 3-4 weeks ahead of the UK, giving a generous amount of experimental time to develop new and interesting ways to use the wild greens of spring.
My meadow (it’s not actually mine- it belongs to the local French Mafia family ‘Lesbats’ that own this little terroir) is surprisingly well stocked: Sheep’s Sorrel, common sorrel, ribwort plantain, chickweed, dandelions, common vetch, clover, red dead-nettle, nettle, Aarons rod, Round–leaved mint and even a few patches of wild chives- other than that the Allium family don’t seem to have really graced this corner of France. I cannot find any for love nor money. All the more reason to tuck in when I return to the UK in a week, having said that it is all too easy to get bogged down in Ramsons at this time of year- for obvious reasons. Little and often is good enough for me, too much wild garlic will have you crawling in Frenchman in minutes.
Another thing I have found a little odd on my forays is the French reaction to the age-old practice of gleaning the hedgerows. They seem to be completely bewildered by it. Too often whilst engrossed in gathering I hear “Excusez-moi, qu'est-ce que vous ramassez?” I was always under the impression that the French were the quasi-foragers of Europe and the practice of gathering wild plants was mere child’s play. Fighting off the urge to retort with “ Occupe toi de tes affaires” (which roughly translates as ‘mind your own fucking business’)
Not particularly polite, but when a nation tries to play on the fact that foraging is a national pastime and they do provincial cookery is to it’s bucolic best; I am skeptical to say the least. Although I am generalizing- I am looking at it from a localized point of view, it seems as thought the French attitude to worldwide gastronomy has left them trapped in medieval times. Their rigorous denial that the rest of the world can cook has been the culinary equivalent of wearing blinkers in the kitchen. It might look as If I don’t like the natives, but let me assure you- its just banter.
Anyway, back to the wild greens. Nettles, a wild super food in their own right have more uses than you could possibly imagine. In fact, that’s what the vast majority of cooking with wild food is all about- substituting common ingredients for suitable wild equivalents. Considering most everyday ingredients are distant cultivated relatives of wildings, its difficult to go wrong, but it does take a bit of experimentation…
The Red Dead-nettle, despite its name is actually part of the mint family, along with mints (obviously), yellow archangel, henbit, wood sage (inedible), wild marjoram and ground ivy to name but a few. It is an easy plant to identify and the only other plant you could confuse it with is henbit (also edible). The leaves of Red dead-nettle start green and gradually turning rusty purple as it comes into flower, the flowers themselves are pinkish/purple and have a delicate sweetness to them. These flowers are one the first foodstuffs for foraging bees in March-April, so make sure you leave some for them. This recipe uses Round-leaved mint too which I found growing in very close proximity.
Red dead-nettle makes an ideal side dish to any meal, but should it be steamed, sautéed or raw? Time to hit the lab. The best time to pick them is just after they have flowered, contrary to what I have read, they are a bit more flavorsome. Pick now, as they will disappear in the next few weeks!
Raw: Ok, but does feel like you are simply eating a plant- works well as a bulking agent in salads but distinctly unremarkable.
Steamed: Good, a bit of seasoning, but still unable to fix a tasty combo.
Sautéed: Best method- see below.
Red Dead-nettle with mint, smoked garlic and butter.
- 100g red dead-nettle’s
- 1 smoked garlic clove (finely chopped)
- 5 sprigs mint (tops only-first 3 sets of leaves)
- Small knob of butter
- Olive oil
- Salt & pepper
- Juice of ½ lime
Wash the nettles and mint and leave to sit in a colander, heat a knob of butter in a saucepan and add the garlic. Sautee gently on a low heat and add the greens and the remaining water that’s clinging to them.
Try not to stir, instead swish them around the saucepan with a flick of the wrist. Season well with S&P, Cook for about 4-5 minutes then serve immediately with a good squeeze of lime juice, its also a nice touch to collect a few of the flowers sprinkle over at the end and add small busrts of sweetness. A particularly a good side dish with Lamb.
Well, what else has been going on? Lots of pickling, preserving and wild brewing, I have been getting quite into fermenting foods ever since making kimchi, Sorrel sauerkraut is currently bubbling away under the sink. Japanese knotweed has been turned into syrups, crumbles and is currently flavouring some vodka (see Andy Hamilton’s recipe here). We have been trying to have BBQ’s, cooking up fresh Anchovies in Sorrel Verde and grilling Dorade…when it hasn’t been raining.
Back to the UK in a week for a month of HGC courses, living loo construction and quite looking forward to getting back into the woods of the Weald! We are fully booked for May but June/July/August still has plenty of dates open. Please do get in touch if you want to book a Hunter:Gather:Cook Course: email@example.com