Tom Parker Bowles
PUBLISHED: 11:31 05 April 2013 | UPDATED: 14:01 10 April 2013
Tom tells us why April is a forager's delight and shares a wild garlic and nettle soup recipe...
If you go down to the woods today, youre sure of a big surprise. No, not furry stuffed animals enjoying an al fresco feast. Rather lunch, for free, right beneath your feet. Because April, with all its sweet showers and thrusting green shoots, sees an explosion of edible leaves, as well as the arrival of two noble fungi. Armed with a basket, basic knowledge and a keen eye, April is a foragers delight.
Take sorrel. To most, its an unremarkable leaf, shaped like a shield, resembling the offspring of dock leaves and spinach. One bite, though, and the mouth puckers in surprised delight. The oxalic acid gives sorrel its sharp, citrus kick, and young leaves youll find at this time of year add instant tang to salads. As they age, theyre more suited to soups and pures, stripped of their stalks and turned soft in lots of hot butter. Sorrel also has a particular affinity with eggs, doing all sorts of exciting things to omelettes and sandwiches. This is one herb well worth hunting down.
Dandelions too, are much overlooked. Yes, they can be the scourges of a pristine lawn, more yellow-faced menace than delectable delight. But get those leaves young, before the flower appears, and they make for a splendidly bitter salad star. You can make them milder still by covering the early spring blooms with a flower pot (or blanching them), and harvesting at leisure. Every part is edible, from flowers to roots (which are ground to make a coffee substitute). As ever with foraging, avoid plants that have been sprayed in noxious weed killers and fertilisers.
Young nettles should be celebrated too, tender and pert at this time of the year. Using gloves, pick just the tips. The sting will disappear the moment the plant hits hot water or stock and their taste sits between the verdantly green and subtly earthy. Theres lots of Vitamin C and iron in there too. Once the flowers have bloomed towards the end of the month, theyre best left alone. That is, until the next young bunch spring up.
A wander through your local valleys will be scented with the divine whiff of wild garlic. Just follow your nose. They tend to favour damp, shady locations near lakes and ponds, and they wear their tiny, brilliant white flowers with pride. Wild garlic is probably my favourite of all the spring wild greens, fairly pungent raw. But when cooked, it has just a whisper of garlic, and is as elegant and refined a leaf as youll ever find. Throw it into frittatas and risottos. Or just let it wilt in butter and mix with fresh Jersey royal potatoes.
But its not just the greens that thrill the palate at this time of the year, but two species of wild mushroom too. The honeycombed morel is a rare beast indeed, and must always be cooked before eating. Make sure to shake out any scraps of soil and squatting bugs from its endless hollows. And the St Georges mushroom is another mycological gem, small but perfectly formed. Fried in butter and garlic, and heaped high onto toast, they taste all the better for being free. SO this April, when youre out, walking the dogs, or wandering across the fields, take a moment to look down. A fantastically free feast awaits.
Wild garlic and nettle soup recipe - from Mark Hix's British Seasonal Food
A couple of good knobs of butter
2 leeks, trimmed, chopped and washed
1 tablespoon plain flour
1.5 litres hot vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful of young nettle tops
Handful of wild garlic leaves, washed and chopped
3-4 tablespoons double cream
1. Melt butter in heavy base pan and gently cook leeks to soften. Stir in flour, then gradually stir in hot stock and season with salt and pepper.ring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for abut 20 minutes
2. Add two thirds of the nettles and wild garlic leaves and simmer for a few minutes. Whiz soup in blender until smooth then return to pan.
3. Stir in cream and rest of nettles and wild garlic. Simmer for a few more minutes, taste and adjust seasoning in necessary. Then serve, piping hot, with good bread.