There’s a surprising amount of stuff out at the moment- especially down here near Biarritz. The mint that has grown so profusely in the meadow outside my front door has braved the winter well and is already begun throw up new patches, the sorrel is just as plentiful as ever and even the red dead nettle is poking out all over the place. Granted we don’t have any snow like the UK at the moment and our winters are not so harsh near the Spanish border, but the weather is perpetually shit, there is very little to do as it rains almost constantly and even worse- Frenchies don’t ‘do’ pubs. Not even in the countryside. The warm beer of my motherland has never been so missed.
Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is perhaps one of the most adventurous of all wild plants, in the sense that it can be found almost anywhere and is seriously invasive. Often it’s the back garden, flowerbeds and anywhere that man has disturbed the ground that will yield a good crop. You are more likely to find bittercress growing out of a crack in the pavement on the streets of London, than in a field in the countryside.
The plant itself grows in small rosettes that are easy to harvest- simply pinch the plant out of the ground and slice off the muddy root. The leaves have the typical cress-style look and small white flowers that can be seen reaching for the skies between February and September. The flavour has the peppery hit you would expect from rocket, indeed if you wish to up the stakes you can reach for Hairy Bittercress’ cousin: Cardamine pratensis also known as Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo flower (not to be confused with the name cuckoo pint/lords and ladies which is poisonous). Lady’s smock really does pack a punch, indeed it is an acquired taste with the power of horseradish…I have seen more people spit it out on courses than reach for another leaf.
As with many wild foods how we use them makes all the difference, the majority are best in their natural state and quite often don’t need cooking at all. Understanding what they work best with in terms of more common larder ingredients is an important skill for the 21st century hunter-gatherer. These days we are so lucky to have amazing ingredients from all around the world readily available to us. The internet is chock full of millions of recipes at our fingertips only a click away. Often the best way to begin when experimenting wild foods is to really taste the plant your dealing with and think of what it tastes similar to, then find a recipe that you think will showcase it well and make the substitution for the wildling.
This is partly why this blog has always featured more than just wild food, I have more cookbooks than is probably necessary and I rarely cook any recipes from them, but they are an invaluable resource for inspiration and ideas. Cookbooks should always have pictures to accompany the recipes- I want to try before I buy, I want to picture the end result and see if I like the look of it. The same cannot be said for restaurants, but then how many of you have had a cursory mooch around the room checking out what other diners are chowing down on? Thought so.
Of course this doesn’t always go to plan, I have had some epic disasters, but that’s all part of the learning curve. One recent exploration was pickling sorrel, I wouldn’t say it was a colossal balls up, more of sensory overload infliction to the palate: the sharpness of the oxalic acid combined with pickling fluid was enough to give you heartburn at 40 paces. However, left to marry and mingle with the Indian spiced pickling fluid for a few weeks and the result was quite a revelation!
Badass pickled Sorrel.
Experimentation is key. Playing with your wild food cannot be stressed enough. The most common wild food recipes you will come across will be elderflower cordial (can’t complain) and the quite repugnant wild garlic pesto. Granted wild garlic can be used in pesto, but mellow it out with other wild ingredients, rather than one big hit- all you will taste and smell of for the next few days is garlic! This illustrates the point perfectly, learn to use your wild food correctly and you will be off to a flying start.
Bittercress has always been something I have added to my Wild stinger nettle pesto for pepperiness and in the same way you can make rocket pesto, this is the wild version. Bittercress doesn’t tend to last very well once plucked from the earth and has a tendency to wilt and shrivel up, so this way you can increase its longevity indefinitely.
Please note, the original recipe for Pesto from Genoa never contained pine nuts, so neither does mine…but feel free to add them if you wish.
15 rosettes of Hairy bittercress.
2-3 TBSP good quality Olive oil
1 garlic clove
Small handful of grated Parmesan
A few twists of salt and pepper
1/2 tsp of sugar
A good squeeze of lemon juice
Firstly, clip the bottom of the rosettes off and place the bittercress in a bowl of water, give it a good swish about to remove any dirt/soil/sand. Remove and drain in a colander.
Heat up a small frying pan, take your clove of garlic and bounce it around the pan for a bit- this will help make it less pungent, alternatively if you stick a few bulbs in the freezer this will have the same effect.
Put all ingredients in a blender with half the olive oil and whizz in short bursts, add a bit more olive oil as you go until you have the desired thickness and texture.
I don’t think I need to tell you how to use pesto…
Weekend whittle: you don't always have to shoot an Deer to get a set of antlers, this beast was French and called Hazel.
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