Springtime Foraging in the Woods

We’re very lucky in these parts as there’s access to plenty of beautiful woodland and open moorland. That means that as well as the ubiquitous blackberries, we can go picking whinberries (wild bilberries) on the hills in late summer – always something to look forward to and well worth the painstaking job of plucking the tiny, blue-black fruits once you’ve collected enough for a pie or crumble.

But right now it’s the perfect time to go looking for another seasonal favourite: spring greens, in the form of wild garlic and nettle tops.

I live near a town called Ramsbottom. It’s named after the ramson, or wild garlic, which grows prolifically in the area and Ramsbottom translates as ‘Valley of Wild Garlic’ (incidentally, it’s also becoming known as a bit of a foodie destination but that’s another story).

We go picking wild garlic every spring. Last year I made a batch of wild garlic butter, delicious despite its rather unconventional colour. The taste of ramsons is much milder than the usual bulbs we cook with, and it lends itself well to soups, fish and chicken dishes. You can serve it as you would spinach, simply wilted down, or mix the chopped fresh leaves with mayonnaise or soft cheese.

You’ll often smell the plant it before you see it - lush emerald green leaves giving off that distinctively pungent scent. Wild garlic grows in the woods in large clumps, and as the season progresses it produces starry white flowers. These are also edible, but once the flowers are plentiful the leaves will be getting past their best so it’s always wisest to pick early. Here in the North, that’s usually from around early April onwards.

It’s become a yearly tradition to take my little one out foraging over the Easter holidays. We always take a pair of rubber gloves so that in addition to the garlic, we can pick nettle tops. I make sure we take them from above ‘dog level’ for obvious reasons, so fortunately there’s a patch of nettles growing along the top of a dry stone wall where we can pick to our heart’s content.

I’m a great advocate of herbalism and natural remedies. If you read up on the health-giving properties of the stinging nettle, you’ll be very impressed. It’s high in iron, B complex vitamins as well as vitamins C, A, and D, and contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and beta-carotene. It’s also known as a diuretic, contains anti-histamine and has many astringent and anti-inflammatory uses. 

Again, it’s a good idea to collect nettles early in the growing season. It isn’t generally recommended to pick and use them once they’re at the flowering stage (and not to take them as a supplement during the early stages of pregnancy, or if you have low blood pressure or low blood sugar).

The leaves can be made into a tea either by steeping them in hot water (try with a little lemon and honey if the flavour’s not to your taste) or by drying the nettles and saving them in an airtight jar for future use.

Of course, you could be more adventurous and use them as an ingredient (always cook them first!) Nettle soup is a pretty well-known option, but as with wild garlic leaves they’re similar to spinach so can be added to risotto or even used as a pizza topping.

Once we’ve gathered our greens we always head home and make a huge pan of soup with chicken stock, the (well-washed) nettles and garlic, lots of chopped vegetables and plenty of seasoning. My little boy gets incredibly excited about the whole process and I’m always amazed when, despite his severe dislike of all things salad, he’ll happily wolf down a bowl of cooked leaves just picked from the woods.

Naturally, it’s all about his involvement in the process: carrying the basket, spotting the plants, scrambling up the banks to gather them. That’s the whole point of foraging. Although much-derided as a middle-class fad, it actually brings you closer to nature and seasonality. Searching for food, finding it, making use of what’s growing. Zero food miles or packaging, pesticides or cost. It’s what’s been done for generations. And if it encourages a four-year-old to eat his greens… well, I’m happy with that.

SpringSarah Hardman