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Selsdon food forage gives people a taste of the outdoors


RARELY has the difference between serious pain and a tasty garnish been so hard to spot as when peering at an umbellifer next to a main road.

The chaotic plant family includes the deadly hemlock and poisonous fool's parsley alongside Sunday lunch favourites parsley and carrots.

This one's hairy, celery-like stalk has ruled out hemlock, but it is not clear where on the spectrum it lies.

"Give it a good old mush up of the plants in your fingers and have a smell," says the foraging guide, Marlow Renton.

"This does not actually smell as strong of parsley as I would like, so without my book here I would leave this behind."

Wild Food UK owners Marlow and Eric Biggane find nourishment within our surroundings; something they hail as a cheap and healthy way of sourcing food.

The pair showed budding foragers how to find nuts, garnishes, fruit and veg in the woods, fields and verges during the session last week.

They also showed how to avoid police as much as poisons: you are not supposed to dig on common land, for example – although a commonsense interpretation would be applied today to unearth the tasty pig nuts.

"They are important," said Marlow.

"Because it is hard to find carbohydrate and starch if you were living in the wild: these have got both."

He has a more practical reason, though, for his earth-sodden fingers than dreaming of adventures stuck in the wild – good, old-fashioned thrift.

"I am a bit of a skinflint," he said.

"Some of the things would be really expensive. Those mushrooms, for example, could be seven or eight pounds. I don't have the budget for that."

He and Eric are clearly foodies, with plenty of recipes for their finds.

Many involve garlic, butter and a frying pan. They made soup with chunks of hogweed for the tour; everyone asked for seconds.

The plants' medicinal properties also grab their interest. The prolific ribwort plantain, for example, may taste like sour apple and look like rabbit ears, but is even better when used against cuts and grazes.

"It is an antiseptic and also an antihistamine," says Marlow, sharing out torn-up leaves.

"Pharmaceutical companies would not want you to know how effective it is."

Barbecue companies might also want to keep a lid on King Alfred's cakes, named after the burnt baked goods of legend they closely resemble.

You are not meant to eat the hard black fungus lumps, typically clinging to dying trees.

But light them up and they burn like coal.

"The group before were using them as hand warmers," says Eric, sparking one up and holding it in his palm.

One of the last finds is wood sorrel, a hit garnish in the upmarket restaurant scene (as, apparently, are some types of bark).

"That piece," said Marlow, looking at a patch less than one square foot. "That would be somewhere in the range of eight to ten pounds for use as a garnish. When you taste it you will see why."

Forager Ange Barlow decided to join the group hearing about the tour at the Croydon pub where she works.

"I am interested in the medicinal side of things as well," she said. "I suppose it is information that has probably been passed on for generations and is now all getting lost."

Stuffed Garlic Herb Mushrooms
Ingredients: 1 medium onion, chopped 6 tbsp butter Some large capped mushrooms (Boletus, field mushrooms, blewits or parasols) 15g / 1/2oz of mixed mushrooms 2 cloves garlic 1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs 1 egg 5 tbsp chopped parsley 1 tbsp chopped thyme Salt and pepper
Method: Preheat the oven to 190C / 375F / Gas Mark 5. Fry the onion in half the butter gently until soft but not browned. Remove the stems of the large capped mushrooms, mix with the other mushrooms and chop finely. Add these to the onion with the garlic and cook for three or so minutes. Put the mixture in a bowl and add the breadcrumbs, egg, herbs and seasoning. Melt the remaining butter, brush on the mushroom caps and then spoon in the filling. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes until browned.
Chickweed Soup
Ingredients: 1 1/2 litres / 2 1/2 pints of vegetable stock A handful of shallots 1 large potato, peeled and sliced 2 large bunches of chickweed 1/2 a pint of cream Salt and pepper
Method: Bring the stock to the boil then lower the heat. Add the onions, potato and chickweed and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Liquidise and season. to taste. Add the cream and re-heat without allowing the soup to boil. Serve and Garnish with some sprigs of chickweed.
Wild Garlic and Hogweed Soup (Serves roughly six large helpings)
Ingredients: 2 Medium sized Onions, 3 Medium sized Potatoes, 3 Celery sticks 1 Large Carrot 200g (a large bunch) of Fresh Ramsons (Wild Garlic) leaves and buds if possible 300g Fresh Hogweed Shoots (stems and leaves) 1 Good Vegetable Stock Cube, or 2 pints of veg stock
Method: Finely chop the onions and sweat off in your soup pan with some olive oil. Be careful not to let them stick. Peel the potatoes and carrot and roughly chop them. Finely slice the celery. Cut all the ramsons horizontally into rough strips. Roughly chop all your hogweed, not leaving any long stems. Then add all these ingredients with enough water and the stock to just cover everything. Add a good grind of black pepper. and a good few pinches of white pepper if you have any. Salt to taste. (depending on your stock). Simmer and reduce the ingredients on a low heat until the carrots are soft enough to mash. Roughly 45 mins. Then mash with a potato masher for a rustic effect, or blend for a creamy vegetable soup. This soup is then best left overnight for all the flavours to mature, but can be eaten straight away.
Fairy Ring and Hogweed Gnocchi
Ingredients 500g /18oz fresh gnocchi 200g / 7oz fairy ring mushrooms 100g / 3 1/2oz hogweed shoots picked before the leaves have fully opened 30g / 1oz herby butter 30g / 1oz unsalted butter Salt and pepper A hand ull of edible leaves – pennywort, hairy bitter cress, rocket, wood sorrel etc or any edible leaf you can find
Method: In one pan fry the gnocchi gently in herby butter until lightly browned. In another pan fry the fairy ring mushrooms in butter, season and fry until softened. In yet another pan boil the hogweed shoots until tender. Combine the contents of the three pans and garnish with a few edible leaves. A heart -topping but wonderfully rich meal.

Selsdon food forage gives people a taste of the outdoors

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