Hardly have the new shoots of spring sprung, let along the first cuckoo cuckooed, than the forager is emerging from his lair. Bearlike, having spent the winter living off flounders and the fat laid down in autumn, he has little time or energy for marauding over bleak downs in search of succulent tips when the first port of call for free food is his own back garden.
Plants that many consider weeds are ideal fodder in the early spring. None other than the esteemed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll suggested early in the 1900s that gardeners should seek revenge on Bittercress by adding it to sandwiches. She was absolutely right too, as used sparingly the peppery taste adds an extra dimension to an otherwise dull platter, or can be used copiously in place of soft spring herbs once cooked to diminish the cress’ inherent astringency.
Elsewhere in the garden, look for lush mounds of Chickweed; the very tip sprigs of this plant are an excellent salad leaf at a time when most salads are air freighted from the Middle East. Weeds collected at this time have a tendency to be quite gritty from rain splash, so collect during a spell of fine weather. If washing really is necessary, ensure that Chickweed is dripped dry before eating; otherwise, at best it is like eating mush and at worst, it will give colic that would make a horse blush.
Hedgerow foraging from one’s own garden will have the added bonus of being free from weed killer.
When we venture further afield, we once again start taking risks with our selection of wild forage. Coastal hedgerows will have plenty of Alexanders to be picked. This herb has a choice celery taste to it; the young plant is also less stringy now than later in the year, when it may be confused with less palatable and inedible members of the parsnip family. Alexanders is one of the legion of plants believed to be medicinal, whereas its true beneficence is that it belongs to a smaller group of plants that are simply, truly benign.
One of spring’s finest fungal offerings is the Saint George’s Mushroom. As the name suggests, this large mushroom is found in grass or pasture and best for foraging in April, and later into the spring/summer, but never past midsummer’s day. For this reason, it is less likely to be confused with any of the lethal autumnal mushrooms, but nonetheless take advice from an experienced forager who collects it from an established site. It is quite delicious fried in butter and oil.
Other plants perfect for foraging in April and into May are the flower heads of Gorse, which are traditionally picked en masse for the purpose of winemaking. The smell of a basket of gorse flowers is like strong coconut. Sadly, this is lost during processing, but the colour remains like liquid sunshine.
The Dandelion too is used in this way and as salad leaves, but they are distinctly bitter. The worst of this can be alleviated by producing blanched leaves using a technique not too different to forcing chicory. Find a large dandelion, remove all its leaves and place a dark, opaque jar or pot over the crown. The subsequent leaves will be very pale or even white, and far less bitter.
Forager tip: Well worth the trouble is a little known and rarely mentioned forage, the Bramble tip. You should already know some good brambling sites well away from roadsides for picking berries in autumn. These need to be revisited now; on a dry warm day look for the strong new shoots called stolons that will be beginning to arch outwards from the bottom of the bramble.
These are the shoots from which next year’s fruit will be borne. Feel the end of the shoot; the thorns are not yet sharp, no leaves are fully formed, and its colour is a peachy green. This shoot will snap naturally and cleanly into your hand and be about 10-12cm long. Place the shoots into paper, half a dozen or so per person. The scent is like blackberry and apple pie. Quickly return home and steam the shoots, serve with a light loop or two of honey, or subtly add as a side vegetable to defy the most epicurean dinner guest.
Wild Garlic, grows in deciduous woodlands with moist soils, preferring slightly acidic conditions and it flowers before deciduous trees leaf in the spring, filling the air with a characteristic garlic-like scent. In the British Isles, colonies are frequently associated with bluebells, especially in ancient woodland and it is considered to be an Ancient Woodland Indicator (AWI) species. The leaves are edible; they can be used as salad, spice, boiled as a vegetable, in soup, or as an ingredient for pesto in lieu of basil. Be aware that leaves are similar to those of lily of the valley, and a couple of other plants (Colchicum autumnale and Arum maculatum), which contain deadly poisons so make sure that you are picking the correct plant – picking when they are in flower makes this much easier. Also crushing the leaves in between your fingers to discover the characteristic garlic smell is a good indicator.