Ahhh, I love this time of year. Yes, it helps when we have gorgeous weather coinciding with a bank holiday weekend, but I do feel like May generally seems to have more sunny days than most months of the year. Sunshine aside, the countryside is just bursting with life at the moment, a near-miraculous feat after a seemingly interminable winter. Everything seemed slower to get going this year and then, boom, within a week or two the hedgerows were flushed with vibrant green. Cherry trees and blackthorn bear frothy pink and white blossoms, yellow dandelions, buttercups and rapeseed brighten even the gloomiest of days and oh, best of all, swathes of bluebells gently nod in dappled sunlight, their delicate fragrance wafting through the air. There’s something so promising, so vital, about this time of year. The surge of new life, the first true hints of warmth in the sun, the lengthening of the days. It’s like Mother Nature joins us in breathing a happy sigh at the true end of winter.
For me, Spring marks a welcome return to foraging. It started last month, with the collecting of wild garlic to turn it into pesto (and to use in risotto, and omelettes, and stir fries….!), and there’s still plenty to be found in the woods. This month it’s about young greens. During today’s WildFire Walk we collected young beech, lime and hawthorn leaves to use in a salad (nibbling a few along the way), along with some Jack-by-the-hedge (garlic mustard). The leaves will get a little tougher and more bitter as the year progresses, but right now they are soft, almost sweet, and full of goodness. Garlic mustard gives off only a hint of garlic – certainly nowhere near as pungent as the (unrelated) wild garlic growing nearby – but it makes a pleasant addition to a salad when thinly sliced or, as was my intention today, combined with young hawthorn leaves, vinegar and sugar in a sauce which supposedly makes a good accompaniment to lamb.
During our tea break we went in search of nettles and carefully (although not quite carefully enough…thankfully there were some dock leaves growing nearby…!) collected young leaves and brewed nettle tea. If you’ve never tried it, I recommend giving it a go – simply pour boiling water onto a few nettle leaves (the hot water renders the stinging hairs harmless) and enjoy! It’s pleasantly refreshing on a hot day and tastes almost like a less bitter green tea. There are lots of theories (and possibly some bonafide research) out there that suggests nettle tea is good for helping with all sorts of health issues from pre-menstrual cramps and urinary problems to eczema and indigestion, and that it makes a good tonic for women because of its iron content. I’m certainly not an expert and would suggest you research more carefully if you want to verify its health benefits, but it does seem the case that nettles have been used in healing practices for hundreds of years. Potential health benefits aside, there’s definitely something glorious and healthful about drinking a cup of fresh nettle tea whilst sitting in a woodland meadow in the sunshine!
The fruits of my foraging were further appreciated back at home. I chopped hawthorn leaves and garlic mustard for my mint-sauce-alternative, ready to use another day, and prepared Beech Leaf Noyau – a liqueur made with gin, young beech leaves and sugar – which over the next two weeks should turn a vibrant green….I just need to have the patience to not drink it in the meantime! For dinner, I used wild garlic pesto (made after the last WildFire Walk) to flavour my spring green, cabbage and rice stir fry, and ate this with a side of my foraged young tree leaf salad and (non-foraged) tomatoes dressed simply with olive oil. Yum! There’s something incredibly satisfying about making a meal with ingredients foraged from nature. If you haven’t tried it before I highly recommend giving it a go – just make sure you know what you’re picking, take a pictorial guide or someone who knows what they are looking for. You’re probably fairly familiar with stinging nettles though, so they can be a relatively safe place to start!
In coming months the bounty will move away from tree leaves to plants – I’m looking forward to finding some “Fat Hen”, “Good King Henry”, dead nettle, comfrey and sorrel. It won’t be too long before the elderflowers start to come into bloom and should be ready for picking towards the end of next month. Then we’ll be in the realm of elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne, a sure sign that summer is just around the corner!
If you’d like to come along on a future WildFire Walk, they take place the first Sunday afternoon of every month. Find out more about them here