Thursday, June 5, 2008

How to Eat Wild Food

It is every good-lifer's fantasy: pop down the garden, pick up a couple of freshly laid eggs, sling them in a pan with some home-grown herbs and voilà: a delicious, nutritious meal, fresh from nature and not a Tesco delivery van or carbon footprint in sight.

Prue Leith, the veteran cookery writer, has shared one such recipe with readers of Good Housekeeping magazine - but instead of drawing quiet nods of approval, she has elicited a furious response from bird-lovers. The problem is that Prue's eggs weren't from humble hens but were lifted from the nest of a Canadian mother goose. According to a very stern man from the RSPB, it is illegal to take wild birds' eggs just to make an omelette. Bad, bad Prue.

Why such a fuss over a bird that is neither endangered nor native to Britain? Indeed, in some parts it is even considered a pest for driving out local species. And since Ms Leith, as she patiently pointed out, didn't take all the eggs, how much harm could her meal from nature's pantry have done?

Therefore, in the spirit of support for Leith's fearless eco-cookery, here are ten ways in which you, too, can enjoy nature's free bounty. Bon appetit.

Squirrel fishing

Common in the US, this is the sporting practice of attempting to lift squirrels into the air using a peanut tied to a piece of string or fishing line, and (optional) some kind of fishing pole.

Squirrels often grapple playfully with the nuts while the fisher closes in skilfully. Squirrels are jittery creatures, and a delicate approach is required. The expert squirrel fisher must maintain a balance between himself and the little varmint if he or she is to be rewarded with a supper of grey squirrel.

Dandelion Coffee

Gather the roots of a dandelion plant: about 25 small roots should be enough for one cup. Wash, pat dry and roast in the oven at 200C for about 20 minutes. They should turn into brown, dry sticks. Grind these in a blender or coffee grinder, and add one or two tablespoons to boiling water. Allow to steep for a few minutes, then drink. Dandelion coffee is caffeine-free and has a pleasing, vaguely chocolatey taste.

Nettle tea

You can use all parts of the plant for this, including the root. Add boiling water to a pot of leaves and infuse for ten minutes or, if you are using the body and roots of the plant, simmer these gently in a pan of boiling water for a few minutes.


First collect your apples - any variety will do, but the sweeter and riper the better. Then pulp them. To begin with, keep quantities small and use an electric kitchen juicer or blender. The more traditional method is to stand above a strong bucket half-full of apples and hit the fruit repeatedly with a heavy object. The apples then need to be pressed in a kitchen press. The resulting juice should be poured into a cleaned and sterilised wooden keg (from home brewery shops). Fill the keg to the top (a half-full keg is a surefire recipe for vinegar). There is no need to add yeast, as fermentation will take place naturally - just leave the bung loose on the keg to allow in some air. After a couple of days you will begin to see white froth bubbling up through the bung-hole. Wait for several weeks until fermentation has stopped, then replace the bung. It will take about eight months for your cider to be drinkable.


There is nothing so delicious as a freshly picked mushroom fried in a little wild garlic and parsley. You can find some wild mushrooms at any time of year. The best, however, appear in autumn: penny buns, chanterelles, field mushrooms and dozens of other varieties.

Foraging is not straightforward: you must know your mushroom varieties, as many are poisonous and a few (often those easily mistaken for edible varieties) deadly. So be careful: go picking with an expert, or do your homework. The British Mycological Society and the Association of British Fungus Groups offer reliable guides.

Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

These grow particularly well in Scotland and in Scandinavia, where they are highly prized. The bright orange colour makes them easy to spot. Clean carefully with a soft brush and trim the bases. Sautée in butter with garlic and parsley and serve as a side dish, or add to omelettes or pasta dishes. Chanterelles don't dry well, so use them fresh.

Penny bun (Boletus edulis) and Bay boletes (Boletus badius)

Members of the boletus family can be recognised by the sponge-like underside of the cap and bulbous, fleshy base. Penny buns are highly prized, and both these and the bay boletes are delicious. Good young specimens can be served raw, with a drizzle of olive or truffle oil.

Inspect older mushrooms carefully (they are prone to maggots); you may need to discard the stems. Once cleaned, they are delicious sautéed in olive oil or used in pasta dishes, cooked with potatoes or in risottos. Keep dried ones on hand to make a vegetable stock.

Wild garlic

This plant (Allium ursinum) grows in woodland, in, near or among bluebells, and is identifiable by its green, garlic-like smell and long, lush leaves, similar in appearance to those of Lily of the Valley. It grows in late winter and throughout spring. Towards the end of the season it bursts into white flowers.

Foraging for wild garlic in woodland is fairly straightforward. You will find it in semi-shaded, moist conditions, and the smell is unmistakable.

Unlike domestic garlic, wild garlic is known for its leaves rather than its bulb. The bulbs, like the flowers, are edible but there are fewer of them. The taste is slightly milder than domestic garlic. The leaves are delicious raw or cooked, and work well in salads and soups (additional information on

Rose-petal perfume

To make a small bottle, assemble 1.5kg of petals (no stamens) and 1.5l of water. Combine in a pot, bring to the boil and simmer for two hours. Strain through a cheesecloth several times until all the pulp is gone. Let the perfume cool completely and pour into an airtight container. Add a few drops of odourless alcohol to help to preserve it. If possible, keep it in the fridge.

Blackberry cheek and lip tint

Blackberry juice on lips will stain them dark; finish with a slick of Vaseline for a glossy effect. A few drops of juice on the cheeks will bring a healthy, antioxidant flush to the sallowest of complexions.

Snails with wild garlic

They are available year-round but best found in late October and November, when they start hibernating in nooks and crannies.

If you are collecting snails before their hibernation, store and starve them for a few weeks to clear out any unhealthy residues of poisonous plants. Then boil them alive before removing them from their shells, gutting and washing. To cook, fry them with butter and wild garlic.


Our native freshwater crayfish are being pushed out by aggressive American competitors - so eating the invading red signal crayfish, which has taken over many rivers in the south of England, is a patriotic duty.

Catching them: Use modified lobster pots, a rod and line or even bare hands.

Distinguishing them: The US crayfish, unlike the British type, has a distinctive red underside to its claws.

Cooking them: Place live in a bucket of clean water for a few days to clean out their insides, then boil in salty water - perhaps with fennel - or just throw them on the barbecue.

Note: From a conservation viewpoint, trapping on an ad-hoc basis can be counterproductive as it removes only the larger crayfish, which eat the smaller ones. So to save the British crayfish, trap all year round (apply for permission from the Environment Agency).

[Via Times Online]

1 comment:

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