The verdant wild foods of spring give way to those of red and brown in the autumn. Eventually. In late June, July and early August, the hungry months, we wait. This is accepted wisdom and there is truth in it, but even the most pessimistic forager knows that summer too provides.
Wild food is not just for us country mice. Perhaps a third of all edible wild plants are generally considered to be weeds. The summer vegetable garden, annoyingly for gardeners, provides one of the best sources. Here you will find Fat Hen and Spear-leaved Orache, both first-class substitutes for spinach, and also Chickweed, a straggling plant which can carpet a prepared vegetable plot in a month if allowed to do so. Chickweed tastes faintly like grass, or maybe peas, and is good in a salad, if a bit stringy. The best way to prepare it is in a pakora, with lots of crispy bits sticking out all over the place. All three plants are unrelentingly dig-out-and-come-again plants, so you will enjoy repeated opportunities to pick young, fresh greens – all while you are ‘weeding’.
There are two denizens of summer which I look forward to with some impatience every year. The first is Elderflower. The tree is of both town and country and something of a weed in both locations. Although the dry spring brought it into flower ridiculously early this year, it usually appears from late May and hangs around for six weeks or so. I suggest picking as much as you can as soon as you see a tree in full bloom. Pick on a sunny day and use quickly. The two classic uses are a cordial and the much-loved (and occasionally explosive) Elderflower sparkly. However, most of my crop goes to make Elderflower and Lemon Turkish delight. This is my own, proud invention and I have made 10 kilos of the stuff this June already. It won’t be enough.
The second is also a flower – that of the supremely fragrant Japanese Rose, Rosa rugosa. A popular and vigorous hedging rose, it has escaped its urban confines into the wild, notably hedgerows and sand-dunes, where it makes a thorough nuisance of itself. Its boorish behaviour aside, it is a delight to the forager. I have a general principle that if you like something, you either deep-fry it in batter or make a vodka infusion. Rose petal vodka is a wonderful cocktail ingredient, especially when matched with raspberries. I make about a gallon a year using petals ‘gathered’ from municipal flower beds and neighbours’ gardens. This is never enough either.
For those not confined to the city there is more. Streams will frequently sport watercress in high summer, frequently in vast quantities. Its drawback (if not cooked) is the liver fluke it sometimes carries, though there are ways of avoiding it or treating the leaves. Watermint is often found with it, and also in wet areas generally. A common plant, it is shamefully neglected in the kitchen; the flavour that of peppermint without the ‘pepper’. Watermint and lemon sorbet is a glory.
While it is a common plant, Wild Marjoram is fussy where it grows, insisting on an alkaline soil. I live amongst the chalk hills of West Dorset so it can be found in large, dense patches on the chalk-banked roadsides, more visibly so in high summer when it sports its pretty purple flowers. However, I did once see some growing on a pile of lime-rich rubble in Basingstoke, so you can be lucky almost anywhere.
There is a brief period in the summer when Elderflower is contemporaneous with its unparalleled culinary companion, the Gooseberry. Sadly, Gooseberries are hard to find even in the shops, and you will need to make preparations long before the summer to find their bushes in the wild. Being unhelpfully green, gooseberries are almost impossible to spot in the hedgerow and the bushes and leaves are superficially similar to the ubiquitous hawthorn. The trick is to look out for gooseberry bushes in April when they betray their presence by conspicuously leafing-up a few weeks before everything else!
You can join John Wright on one of his River Cottage foraging courses from only £195. Choose from a day exploring our hedgerows, a seashore foraging adventure along the Jurassic coast or funghi foraging in autumn fields and woods. You’ll be treated to a host of River Cottage treats along the way and your day will finish with a Forager’s Feast back at Park Farm. For more information visit www.rivercottage.net.