When I started researching for my book Wild Food I went through all the ancient herbals and the earliest cookery books I could find, as far back as the Romans, and perhaps, more importantly, followed this up by asking everyone I knew if any of their grandmothers or other ancient relatives had written down recipes. This led to a rich vein of ancient country recipes, especially for plants gleaned locally. One of my earliest memories of becoming conscious of cooking and brewing things from the wild was on a visit to Heysham Head near Morecombe. As you walked up the road to get to the entrance you were tantalised by local villagers selling their home-made nettle beer – amazing, and, for me, inspirational.
Now, starting out on my new book, I am exploring how native people from all over the world developed their diets by learning how to cook and prepare their local plants. Three years ago Nicky and I visited Idaho in search of the history and culture of the Nez Perce Native American tribe and while there we were given roasted camass bulbs to eat, which taste like sweet potatoes with a texture slightly reminiscent of cucumber. I followed this up with a study of their hunter-gatherer foods. It was an eye opener to me to discover all the things that nature can provide which we, in our supermarket-dominated lives have forgotten about or just dismissed. Farmers markets (my preferred type of ‘supermarket’) are seeing the introduction of new and exciting varieties of all kinds of vegetables. Just think of the numerous types of wonderful tomatoes that are now almost commonplace.
This book is a statement of some of the things I have learned in, what amounts to, a voyage of cookery inspiration. I hope it will give the reader a starting point for their own exploration and ideas. If your local market does not have all the ingredients, do not worry, for they are all available on the internet. The best and most straightforward way of getting special ingredients is to grow them yourself. Many can be grown even in a window box.
Summer Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius)
This mushroom is rightly the toast of foragers all over the northern hemisphere. However, take care when collecting. The most important and key, distinctive feature of these mushrooms is the way the rather primitive gills run right down the stem (decurrent). Horrible mistakes have been made in the past by ignoring this distinguishing characteristic. Failure to do so, and eating mushrooms with normal gills, can fatally block the kidneys.
Winter Chanterelles Yellow Legs (Cantharellus tubeformis)
These smaller, but very distinctive mushrooms, have only partially decurrent gills, but very remarkable long yellow stems. They can often be found as late as December, in wet places.
Chanterelles and bacon
This is the perfect combination, for breakfast for four.
16 large chanterelles cut in four, or triple that number of winter chanterelles
8 bacon rashers cut in strips of a similar size to the mushrooms
2 small onions finely chopped
Fry the onions in a little oil until they start to go transparent, then add the bacon, and cook for a further 2 or 3 minutes. Then add in the mushrooms, flavour with pepper and salt and sprinkle in some fresh thyme if you have it.
Serve on sourdough bread toast, and be generous with the juices, as they will soak into the bread.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)
The origin of hollyhocks is a mystery. Many botanists claim that they originated in China, but no one really seems to know. Many slightly different forms can be found in the wild in southern Europe and Turkey. They belong to the Malvaceae group which includes: Lavatera, Althea, Abutilon and Hibiscus. Many hollyhocks are edible and well known, especially for use in making drinks. They can easily be grown from seed and very often will naturalise on their own without help. They are biannual, normally flowering over a very long season in their second year.
The flower petals have a delicate flavour and are varied in hue, which allows you to add touches of colour to salads. As they flower from late spring to winter you can make use of them for a great part of the year, using the colour you choose to supplement and make your salads more appetising.
A sharp tasty salad topped with gorgeous hollyhock petals from your garden.
Seeds of a large pomegranate (I squeeze the half portion and the seeds pop out freely)
12 physalis (I call them Chinese Gooseberries, which dates me!) cut in half or quarters, with the remains of the stem removed
1 kohlrabi grated
Mix the ingredients together well to evenly distribute the pomegranate seeds and then decorate lavishly with hollyhock petals. Drizzle with your favourite dressing. I go for olive oil and the juice of a red grapefruit.
The Tuberous Climbing Nasturtium
This grows well throughout the year until hit by about 3 degrees of frost, when it is time to harvest the tubers. This plant is late in flowering, not normally blooming until late September. It can be grown in a large window box, but it is better in the garden where there will be enough space for the tubers to develop. There are quite a few varieties; the one I have grown is the species, which has flowers that are smaller and narrower than the common nasturtium. There is another variety called Ken Aslet, which has more orange tubers.
The common name in South America is mashua and it was introduced into Europe in 1827. In Columbia and other South American countries, it was roasted in clay ovens in the fields at harvest time, and considered a delicacy. High in vitamin C, it is thought to protect against some cancers.
It is very easy to grow, and is not choosy about soil types. From each tuber planted you get a good crop of about ten new tubers. I keep the little ones back to plant another crop and roast the others.
I baked them at 200 ̊for about 25 minutes and served them as a starter, with various tasty additions: garlic butter, truffle oil, stilton and harissa. We were all mad about them. Nicky's mother Yvonne suggested making a soup with them, as you might with Jerusalem artichokes.
Suze, the only thing I drink in France
When I was 17, my best friend Max and I had an exciting trip to Paris. We stayed in the little hotel, Des Pyrenees, in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, in the Latin Quarter. When we booked in, Madame told us that we must always creep up the stairs and never make any noise, as it would disturb her husband who slept near the reception desk in the corridor and was at death's door. We never discovered whether this was true or not but fear of transgressing this injunction kept us very quiet, even when staggering back after a late night in the little local bars and Jazz clubs. Sadly, this little private hotel has long since been bought up by an American chain, but we still stay there when we go to Paris to remind me of the old days. This visit with Max was shortly after the end of the Second World War and the average Brit had not yet taken to travelling outside England. One of the things that impressed me about the city was the graphics of French poster art. The strange word SUZE was emblazoned on every building and, when we learned this was a kind of alcohol made with gentian root, Max and I couldn't resist trying it out. I have been obsessed with it ever since. Nowadays, I like to serve it with one part Suze, two parts fizzy water, ice and a slice of red grapefruit.
Whilst poking about in my favourite market, Borough, I saw orange-shaped lemons called lemon bergamot. It seemed a crazy name to me, bergamot being the original wild plant from which the eastern North American Indians made a tea. I took a couple of these lemons home and investigated them, only to discover that they were the magic ingredient of Earl Grey tea. I experimented with steeping good quality loose tea in boiling water and then adding zest from the lemon bergamot; it was a wonderful combination. To get the best flavour you need to twist and press the zest so that it give off the oils and scents that enhance and the ordinary tea flavours. I went on experimenting with other citrus fruit, such as clementines, grapefruit, limes and even kumquat. Everyone can find a combination that they will love.
The Good Life Experience Festival, in North Wales every September, is an homage to fire.
To me, this festival creates the perfect balance between enjoying the outdoor life, letting children run free to learn about crafts and fire and enjoy unfettered friendships and hay fights, and listening to music from some of the greatest original bands that Cerys Matthews can find.
I usually go searching for mushrooms in the woods nearby, with 50 or 60 of the forage lovers at the festival. Some years we strike lucky and find good things to cook, other years we find strange fungi that we can all examine together and discuss.
Then it is back to the fire pit, a gigantic bowl of fire that Caroline has devised, which is large enough to chuck fresh logs on one side and as they turn to hot embers push them over to the cooking side. If we have found anything edible we try to devise a couple of succulent recipes on the spot and the group watching the cooking eats them up. The scene is almost biblical as Nicky and I try to divide a pot, of perhaps four or five lumps of cooked beefsteak fungi into about 100 portions so that there is a chance of the entire group getting a taste.
Cooking out of doors over an open wood fire is one of my greatest pleasures and I seem to have passed this on to my children.
It all started a long time ago. My son Sam was five years old and he lived with his mother in London, rarely getting out to the countryside.
For me, the most formative years of my life were spent on my grandparents’ farm in Flaunden, Hertfordshire. It was in the early days of the Second World War and my brother Bobby and I had been sent to Grandma Sally and Granddad Eddie's to get away from the bombing. I spent my days wandering the fields (often picking mushrooms), getting in the cows and cutting up kale for fodder for the cows and pigs, mucking out and generally helping my grandfather. The work had to be done whatever the weather, so much of my youth was spent wading about in deep mud and getting filthy.
When I realised that Sam was not having any of these experiences, I decided it was time he got covered in mud and learnt about the countryside. So Nicky, my partner, and I introduced the idea of spending every Sunday in the country in the woods by the Grand Union Canal, cooking our lunch on an open fire. After the first few weeks Sam invited a friend to join us and from then on the whole thing snowballed; often five or six other children would join us and bring their parents along too. We ventured out whatever the weather – rain, sleet or snow.
It was my duty to build the cooking fire and get it going, which I saw as a challenge. I endeavoured to light the fire, even in the pouring rain, with only one match, and by starting with tiny twigs and dried grasses I almost always succeeded. The cooking arrangement was primitive, just a bit of old wire grid perched over some stones or logs, but the whole thing became the centre of our Sunday outings. I suppose it built up a unity and comradeship that was a bit of a throwback to the way society worked for the early hunter-gatherers. This devotion to open wood fires has never left me and wherever possible my preferred method of cooking is outdoors, on an open fire, including on the balcony of our flat in London.