Foraging continues to be publicised as a new craze something practiced by media provoked chefs and middle classed yuppies looking to be in with othe cool kids , this I find personally quite disrespectful , in my experience the process can mean a lots of different things to the person foraging and fill a vast array of purposes and recently I see it more and more being used as a real way for people to simply live as practiced in history and with the cost of living being so high and the sad realisation that many affordable foods are rammed with chemicals and modern day nasty’s foraging offers a accessible way to present your family with a tasty and nutritious range of edibles .
I recently had a fantastic email from a family who forage for exactly that reason stating my twitter feed and blog had enabled them as a family to enjoy some free food , Fantastic ‘ I thought I hadn’t really considered that my ramblings would enable others to forage in honesty it gave me a bit of a buzz .
The email had one question which apparently originated from the man of the house and it was a great question
Ok we have had some great salads and soups , lots of fruit and fungi but what we really are lacking are some tatties ( potatoes to you and me ) .
It went on to express that they wanted to learn if their are any roots that are realistically available for them to forage in quantities that they could be utilising and how they fare legally surrounding the collection
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which covers Britain, it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier.
That kinda puts the dampeners on it and could possibly be the reason it’s a less common act but in honesty providing we approach this in the same respectful way that we do all other acts of foraging roots can be added to our foraging larder .
I voice passionately when gaining permission to forage it’s probably the best thing to come from the media pushing foraging people now see it as acceptable and with beaming enthusiasm waste grounds , small holdings and farmlands are within reach if curtesy is used and permission is sought .
As with any foraging impact is top of your checklist either limiting negatives or projecting positives , fortunately some of the best edible roots are not only abundant but extremely common I hope that my methods will enable you to harvest responsibly ,
There are a few points I recommend practicing
• Never dig a single plant only harvest in areas of prolific growth .
• Learn your intended plant from the ground up winter growths can vary from spring/summer plants .
• Some roots have harvestable windows of time when they are prime as some times of the growing season they are unpalatable often woody to the point of unusable .
• Any foliage removed should be left tidy and without obscuring other flora .
• Any holes made whilst harvesting should be filled to a level equal to surrounding ground ( leaving hazardous holes for livestock or indeed people is a sure way to lose permissions ) .
• it is good practice to cut and replant the lower 3rd of the root plants such as horseradish and burdock happily regrow .
• As with any wild food positive identification is essential even more so with roots when possible leave all ground up foliage attached until the root is excavated to remove risk of finding something nasty and unexpected .
Although digging a root may seem awfully invasive it is proven fact that disturbing ground often offers habitat enrichment enabling less prolific plants to take foothold .
One root that stands out is burdock ( Arctium ) we have two varieties in the uk greater burdock and lesser both for all purposes are near identical and offer a mass of edible uses in regards to the root it is important to understand the plants growth pattern .
Burdock is a large and grand plant in the first year of growth producing huge leaves in the second year sending up a grand flower stem covered in purple flowers later turning to the sticky balls I’m sure we have all found clinging to our clothes , the very best eating root is produced by the first year plant and is dug with the onset of winter as the leaves die back and the root stores energy in the form of sugars to survive the winter giving a large plump root tasting somewhere between a parsnip and a sweet potato and artichoke , digging at any time between summer and autumn is pointless as the root is hard and inedible .
Spring offers a short window of opportunity as the leaves begin to crown the roots outer wall is soft and edible just be aware the centre will be hard and best discarded .
(spring crowning of a young burdock ) digging can be difficult as the root is large and can be as long as 18 inches but it’s size is unrivalled by other edible wild roots and worth the effort and with good levels of potassium and non starchy polysaccharides offers a feasible addition to your diet , in eastern cooking burdocks are sliced into matchstick sized pieces and fried and in the uk traditionally it is paired with dandelion and made into a cordial , burdock to me has a pleasant and deep flavour when roasted it has a smooth texture that when puréed gives a Flavour not available from modern day vegetables paired with fish is my preference .
I’ve previously written about wild parsnip ( Pastinaca sativa ) here wild parsnip my thoughts and findings are found here
Sticking with common and easily foraged roots the next has to be the dandelion , Taraxacum officinale often overlooked and dismissed due to it’s reputation as a invasive weed the humble dandelion hosts many medicinal and edible virtues all parts if the plant are edible including the root with it’s most common use being dandelion and burdock cordial .
The root it’s self has varying levels of bitterness that is not reduced by cooking , as a food my recommendation would be to split them lengthways roast them and glaze with a mint sauce the flavours work very well together .
as a roasted root it’s partnership with mint offers it to gamey meats or lamb , The root is high in Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin A and the B complex vitamins and has been historically used to aid digestion again partnering well with fatty meats .
I’ve had different degrees of success with wild carrots some times yielding small and unusable roots and other times I’ve had great success and enjoyed the results I have come to the conclusion that perseverance is important with wild carrots and not to be to disappointed with a low yield and simply to try and try again , you need to be fully aware that in reality you are not ever going to harvest enough root to eat as a carrot but added to other foraged roots it becomes viable , Daucus carota
Is quite common in the southwest and once your familiar with the plant it is seen all over being a umbellifer it does have potential poisonous look a likes but non of them create the birds nest like seed/flower head or has such a hairy stem it’s common name being queens Annes lace I easily remember Queen Anne has hairy legs ,
in honesty what you end up with is a carrot that looks like a small parsnip and tastes like a bitter turnip it’s never going to win any taste awards but day to day is not an unpleasant tasting root just not remotely a modern day carrot I personally only use these roots in stews or casseroles as I find the smell of them acrid and off putting .
That being the day to day roots that are on offer that are relatively neutral in taste there are also some roots available that offer a mass of flavours that can be powerful and intense
Firstly looking at plants that offer heat to our cooking leads us to a
massively common plant that is within the group of foragables I call the marmite group
for many people horseradish has an offensive taste that in no form at all can be made into a pleasant tasting edible my thoughts on harvesting are found Here my favourite meal incorporating horseradish to date was a sweet parsnip soup with some fresh grated root as a seasoning
the next plant that offers heat is relatively new to me with regards to using it’s root as an edible Alliaria petiolata , hedge garlic or jack by the hedge is a plant that I have been using as a foragable green since I started foraging yet it wasn’t until recently I have begun to tap the mass of potential uses the root holds .
I’ve seen reference to the root being compared to with horseradish personally I do not pair these plants at all the heat of the root comes from the fact it’s a mustard and the heat holds a strong garlic tone it does not have horseradish’s offensive strength in fact in my opinion this plant is superior to horseradish in many ways the flavour is far deeper and more complex , I have recently used it to make a sauce following the recipe for horseradish but utilising hedge garlics root and it is very good in honesty the root is in my opinion the prized part of the plant , I have little experience in harvesting the root as I said it is a new one for me but to date I have dug good usable tender root throughout winter I will make a prediction that it is similar to horseradish in growing habits and will become woody upon flowering ,
Drying the root has not had good results as the taste degrades massively .
there are many types of heat that different plants offer mustards and horseradish tend to be what I call imposing heat not an unpleasant ingredient but a signature flavour that is continuous , the other heat is a comforting heat and one of the best roots to give this feeling of warmth is a very common and easily identified , Capsella bursa-pastoris
shepherds purse is an extremely common wild flower as a green it is a fairly unassuming flavour yet the root offers something quite different a warmth similar to that offered by ginger .
Harvesting the root is easy simply pinch the plants stem at ground level and pull they release quite easily only harvest for fresh use as they lose all positive attributes if dried and powdered so fresh is needed , they don’t have a strong flavour yet still impart warmth into cooking to use take just two or three roots and crush them add them as you would a herb bouquet and discard before serving .
we do have wild ginger , Asarum it is much stronger in taste than shepherds purse it has the warmth and signature taste of ginger but is very peppery used as a fresh root but unlike the Shepherds purse it is improved by drying as the ginger flavour becomes more pronounced
if you look at the above picture you can see the roots in no way resemble root ginger they are a main root with numerous secondary roots , the secondary roots are far superior in flavour and usability although small they dry and powder extremely well .
I quite like the peppery / ginger warmth combination and if using the root as an ingredient mashing it into a pulp and adding it to dishes is advisable as chunks of the root chewed on in a dish is not overly pleasant my favourite wild jam uses it in exactly this was Burdock and ginger jam .
Not Adding pepper to a dish is a bit like not adding water to a fish tank we have lots of greens with hints of pepper but one root stands out to me as a real pepper substitute
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is more commonly known for it’s oil and medicinal uses but it also has a quite impressive tap root that has a great peppery taste and is by no means a insignificant taste , the plant is biannual and flowers in it’s second year of growth roots need to be harvested in it’s first year when the plant produces a low growing rosette of red to purple leaves with a pale central vein that can appear almost white .
The roots themselves have a very pretty blush of red at the very top in majority they are tender and good eating but all of the roots have a fibrous core that needs removing before cooking it is quite easy slice down the length and remove it pulls out with ease , it is also worth mentioning that scraping the root with the back of a knife to prepare them is best the outer skin falls away with ease .
The crisp texture is pleasant either hot or left to cool and added to salads and I know it’s not exactly great practical information but they look pretty smart and they make me smile there is sound reasoning in only harvesting the root before flowering or after dieback as the flower spike does reduce the mineral and sugar reserves in the root and the size is noticeably smaller .
spring brings with it one of my most favourite of wild edibles the humble pignut ! Yes they are fiddly and awkward to harvest digging down in line with the stem which gets more slender and less obvious the closer you get to your nut that also sits at one side to the stem rather than directly under it at a right angle , they taste like a green hazelnut with tones of carrot
last spring I took to slicing these with a truffle grater and adding them to salads they also make a excellent addition to pestos as an alternative to pine nuts .
Up to now I’ve listed roots I personally have experience in eating and find palatable / good eating there are many roots I have not had experience and some like the docks I just find inedible there is one root I personally don’t enjoy but find others do and I forage for it and will continue to so have decided to add it to the list , Herb Bennett , Geum urbanum or more commonly known as clove root and is exactly what it’s says on the tin , the stringy mass of root has a intense clove flavour for me reminiscent of a childhood toothache remedy not something I find unpleasant it just triggers that days memory’s and in such I don’t enjoy it ,
traditionally the root is harvested in the first weeks of spring when they are at there most fragrant but in reality they are abundant throughout the winter and can be collected at any point , they dry very well and when powdered keep In a sealed container indefinitely and I’ve seen some fantastic looking dishes created using this spice ranging from sorbet to scones this truly is a versatile spice root .
My last root is something quite different Common Polypody, Polypodium vulgare is a fern that grows on older trees
it contains a chemical that is 500 times sweeter than sugar and it has been utilised in making sweets for generations , it requires a level of processing as it also contains natural tannins which are very bitter to taste fortunately the chemical is water soluble and the chemical that causes the sweet taste is not so simple boiling the root with several changes of water leaves a pleasant tasting root to be dried and powdered
( Hogweed seed infused pastry & Mahonia blossom custard sweetened and bittered with polypody root )