Foraging for food

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had a great time picking blackberries last weekend, and it got me thinking about why we don’t turn to our hedgerows and woodlands for food more often. For most of us, a trip to the greengrocer’s is about as exciting as it gets, but maybe it’s time to get adventurous.

That said, this post does carry a health warning. It’s all too easy to mistake a poisonous fungus for an innocent field mushroom, but with a bit of common sense, foraging is a great way to get out into the countryside and re-establish that connection with nature.

Wild garlic

Wild garlic is abundant in the UK and is highly versatile. The plant is easily identifiable in woodlands, as it forms lush green carpets near to patches of bluebells and emits a distinctive garlic scent. It tastes much like cultivated cloves, but has a milder flavour.

The leaves can be used to spice up salads and stir frys and can also be used to flavour soups and stews. Wild garlic has many health benefits, including reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Mushrooms

Wild mushrooms grow across most of the UK, with parks and woodlands providing a good place to start looking. We have a huge diversity of native species, but autumn is prime mushroom-picking season, as this is when most edible varieties appear.

Wild Mushrooms Online has some great tips for fungi foraging. Once you’ve identified and collected your mushrooms, you’ll be spoilt for choice for things to do with them: grill them, stuff them, put them in soups or pies, or fry them with wild garlic and parsley.

Woodland

Woodland

Elder

Elder is commonly found in hedgerows and woods. The bushes are  covered in sweet-smelling flowers by the end of June, followed by berries between August and October. The flowers and berries are sweet and aromatic, but the stems and leaves are poisonous.

The fragrant blooms can be eaten raw, cooked or dried and can be added to cordials, jellies and jams, as well as ice cream, cakes and biscuits. The flowers can be eaten straight from the tree. Visit the Sacred Earth site for more recipe ideas.

Nettles

Although painful stings have taught us to avoid nettles, they are actually a very healthy and versatile plant. You can protect your hands with a decent pair of gardening gloves and boiling the leaves will get rid of the sting.

Nettles are packed with vitamins and minerals and, believe it or not, contain more vitamin C than oranges. They should be harvested before the flowers appear in early spring and only the youngest leaves should be collected. Use them to make tea, soup and even beer.

Dandelions

The old wives’ tale may tell us that dandelions make you wet the bed, but in fact, they are healthy and freely available throughout the UK for most of the year. The whole plant can be eaten, from flower to root.

The leaves can be added to salads, while the flowers, which are in bloom between February and November, can be used in anything from risotto to omelets. The roots can also be dried to make dandelion coffee, which has a hint of chocolate.

Just one final word of warning. Don’t forget to check whether the land you’re planning to forage on is public and remember to get permission if it isn’t. Always remember the countryside code and don’t over-harvest. Have fun!

Photos: kh1234567890, colros, markpeate, Sir_Iwan, Anja Jonsson, Mark ac photos

Happy Gathering

Spring rolls

Spring rolls

Chinese cuisine is not always ideal for vegetarians. I’ve often ordered a vegetarian chow mein, only to discover a rogue prawn hidden beneath the noodles. But Cardiff’s Happy Gathering provided an extensive vegetarian menu.

Exceptional food

Situated in Canton, Happy Gathering was named “Cardiff’s finest Chinese restaurant,” by the Independent. From the outside, the shabby neon sign certainly didn’t distinguish this restaurant from the countless Chinese take-aways on Cowbridge Road East, but the food turned out to be exceptional.

The restaurant was bigger than it appeared from the outside and was traditionally decorated, with a dark red and black colour scheme and oriental prints and drapes. A grand piano dominated the room and live music added to the lively atmosphere.

Extensive vegetarian menu

My guests were all keen meat-eaters and were spoiled for choice with fish, duck and beef. I was expecting to have to settle for the only vegetarian option on the menu, but to my surprise, there were many vegetarian and vegan dishes available.

I opted for vegetable spring rolls as a starter. These were beautifully presented on a rectangular glass plate, with the salad artistically crafted into a flower. The spring rolls were filled with fresh vegetables and were deep fried, to give a light, crispy texture.

Traditional and authentic

The chop sticks added to the authenticity of the restaurant, but eating spring rolls in a socially acceptable manner with these awkward utensils proved a challenge. Fortunately, a few drinks made the whole thing much easier!

For the main course, I ordered fried bean curd in chilli and black bean sauce with egg fried rice. This dish gave new life to the tofu, which is so often dull and flavourless. It had been marinated in chilli and then lightly fried, making it spicy and succulent on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Ginger and chilli

The black bean and chilli sauce was delicious, with a mild spicy flavour and hints of ginger and garlic. It went well with the egg fried rice, which was cooked to perfection and served with peas to add to the colour and lift the presentation.

Although the rice was served in traditional small bowls, the portions were just right and we all left feeling satisfied. The meal was good value, with the starters priced at around £5 and the main courses priced between £10 and £15. A vegetarian set menu is available for two or more people to share, priced at £13 per person for a starter and main course.

Photo: Robyn Lee