Spring has been all about foraging. I have been attending the fascinating Invisible Food Walks around the Loughborough Estate in Lambeth for the past few months and learning what a wealth of foods can be foraged even in this urban environment…
Run by the very friendly and ever welcoming Ceri Buck, these walks aim to encourage, educate and enlighten local people as to what plants and sources of food can be found even in the heart of Brixton if you know where to look. They run on the third Saturday of each month and involve foraging and exploring in the surrounding area before preparing the gathered food to share amongst the group.
The late winter walks have been interesting in themselves, but the glorious warm weather of April have brought a new dimension to the walks and the surroundings. Bathed in sunshine, free of the harsh elements of the past winter, new shoots and leaves are unfurling everywhere you look and it feels like everything is coming back to life. That alone promised to make it a special meal, but when Ceri announced we would be having mashed potatoes with horseradish leaves and stuffed nettle leaves, I knew it would be great!
After checking in on the community herb garden in Angell Town estate and gathering some chickweed and dandelion shoots for a salad, we took a leisurely stroll in the sun to Ruskin Park to collect some young tender horseradish leaves near the tennis courts. After amusing the tennis players, we headed back to the community centre with our spoils to get cooking.
My Irish expertise was called into action and I was put in charge of the spuds. Luckily I had a few helpers and we easily got a mountain of potatoes peeled, chopped and onto the wood pellet burning stove within about 15 minutes. This gave plenty of time to watch how the stuffed nettle leaves were to be prepared.
Ceri had carefully (with gloves) picked some of the larger lower leaves from nettle plants near the Minet Library and these were boiled lightly in water for 5-7 minutes to soften and cook the slightly rough texture out of the leaves, before spreading them out flat and allowing them to cool enough to handle. They were to be stuffed with a delicious looking whole oat groat stuffing that had been prepared the night before. We added some fresh wild or three cornered leek for an allium edge at the last minute and then got stuffing!
Nettle leaves are quite small and heart shaped so need rolled nice and tightly to hold their shape. It was tempting to over stuff because we had all sampled the oat stuffing at this point and it was delicious, but in order to get neatly shaped parcels, it required restraint. The idea is not to produce something as epic as a stuffed vine leaf, but more like a little morsel of loveliness that is just a delicious mouthful.
The nettle leaves were surprisingly quick and easy to make and as soon as they were finished, it was time to turn attention to the potatoes. Ceri’s little wood burning stove packs quite a punch. Both pans of potatoes were perfectly cooked in around 20 minutes, with a comforting hint of woodsmoke to boot. The horseradish leaves and stems were finely chopped with a mezzeluna and once the spuds had been ably mashed by my good self, the chopped horseradish was added and mixed through well. A splash of warmed milk and some seasoning completed this simple dish.
Both dishes made a delicious accompaniment to a table groaning with food the others had brought to share. The nettle leaves were earthy, like a really fresh spinach. The slightly rough hairy texture of the leaf as you bite in contrasts perfectly with the slick yielding oaty stuffing with its oniony edge. They were enhanced by a wonderful home made onion jam on the buffet table. I adored these and could have eaten the whole plateful. Others seemed slightly less convinced by the tickly texture and left a few extra for me to steal!
The horseradish mash was a revelation. I don’t like the seemingly ferocious heat of horseradish and dread it arriving with roast beef or as eye poppingly hot wasabi on the side of sushi or sashimi. I had not enjoyed the bite of fresh horseradish stem earlier in the park and I was hoping that having mashed the potato, I could avoid eating it. No such luck. My plate found a good big spoonful on it and I was delighted to find that the creaminess of the mash tempered the heat of the horseradish, leaving a delicious light peppery aftertaste instead of a shocking heat. It was sensational and I happily cleared my plate!
I thoroughly recommend trying either dish if you fancy a spot of foraging near you. Both are simple yet delicious, low in food miles and bursting with freshness. Both dishes would be enhanced by a bit of wild garlic which is right in season at the moment.
Foraging is a wonderful way to open your eyes to your surroundings and add some new distinctive tastes to your diet. I will be keeping a pair of gardening gloves in my bag from now on so I can pick nettles any time for this lovely sounding nettle rabbit by Nigel Slater in yesterday’s Observer Magazine. They also make a flavoursome hangover-busting soup with a hint of ginger that will be perfect if you over do the Pimms this summer!
Knowing what to look for a walk around the park (foraging is always best away from busy roads or areas with a lot of dogs) makes you more aware of the seasons and your surroundings. It also makes gardening much more fun when you realise that pesky chickweed or goosegrass in your flower beds that you thought was a weed actually makes a delicious stir fry or salad. Do try and find a foraging walk in your area or perhaps invest in a book on edible plants and herbs and discover how much fun eating your greens can be!