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Cleavers-GoosegrassCleavers, also known in the childhood with imaginative names as “sticky willy” or “stick-a-back”, have been always picked to throw them on friends’ jumpers. The plant would get stuck in the jumpers working as a primitive Velcro.

It has also been a long standing enemy of the gardener, as cleavers are easily propagated through their sticky seeds and grow at an impressive rate. However, they can be used as wild edibles. Geese know that very well, hence their alternative name goosegrass.

Description and species

Cleavers (Galium aparine) are annual plants in the Rubiaceae family that includes coffee among other plants. They are also known as goosegrass, sticky Willy, stick-a-back, grip grass, scratch tongue or Lady’s bedstraw.

They have creeping scrambling stems that grow along the ground and over other plants, attaching to them thanks to the small hooked hairy leaves and stems. The leaves have a very singular shape and appear in groups. They have white-greenish flowers clustered in groups of two to three, followed by greenish-purplish globular seeds covered with hooked prickles.

Notes on edibility

Lots of plants have been acclaimed by many herbalists for its health-giving properties and cleavers is no exception. I did not find any recorded use for this plant in the kitchen, but that does not mean is not edible.

The leaves taste “green” when raw, but the tiny small hairs make them a bit inedible. However, it can be cooked as a leaf vegetable when gathered before flowers and seeds appear. Cleavers are not exceptionally great but are very abundant and convenient to bulk up when cooking green soups, stews and pies.

The seeds make cleavers more interesting, because being part of the coffee family, can make a surprising substitute for coffee with no caffeine.

Cleavers-Goosegrass

Foraging in season

Cleavers are a common plant across Britain and are found in hedgerows, roadsides, woodland and gardens, featuring “transition zones” or margin areas where one type of landscape changes into another, as the seeds are involuntarily distributed when attached to animal fur or clothing.

They grow all year round but are at their best in early spring, when new leaves appear. Make sure they are young and tender and pick shoots up to 10cm long. Don’t bother with stems, as they are too tough, even when cooked.

They are easy to spot because they creep along other plants. They have a distinctive structure featuring whirls of six to eight leaves through the bare green stem that makes them difficult to confuse with any other plant. In case of doubt, throw them to your mate! If that gets stuck in his jumper, they are the right plant.

Storage and processing

Due to the plant nature of having tiny hairs, lots of grit gets stuck in the plant, making necessary a good clean under a cold tap water, discarding any old leaves. They are immediately available to use and don’t require more processing.

However, if you want to use the seeds as a coffee substitute, they need to be dried first in a dehydrator or on top of a radiator. Rub off the seed coats and roast them in the oven. Finally, run them through a coffee grinder and brew them up.

Cleavers-Goosegrass

Culinary uses and recipes

Cleavers have a mild flavour and are used as a versatile vegetable to replace spinach. Steam the shoots or wilt them in butter. They pair with nettles and other green leaves and work well in soups and omelettes.

Raw leaves can be scattered in salads, but are best added into smoothies or juices with apple. Dried leaves are brewed into herbal tea. As said above, ground dried seeds can be used to make a coffee substitute.

 

Ground ivy

Ground ivy

It is a nasty enemy to the lawn mower, as it can become a very invasive weed in gardens. However, the plant offers a wide range of useful benefits that we should embrace.

Ground ivy is a singular member of the mint family with a sophisticated aroma and a complex taste that has been used for multitude of health benefits (yet to prove) and in the kitchen as a an aromatic herb and a salad green. It is no longer cultivated and the best way to get the plant is going foraging.

Description and species

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is a perennial evergreen creeper of the mint family Lamiaceae. Creeping Charlie, catsfoot, field balm and alehoof are just a few of the many names this plant has been known for. It features small kidney shaped and lightly haired leaves attached to square stems with lavender coloured flowers appearing on spring.

The whole plant possesses a unique heady and balsamic fragrance with mixed registers of mint and other aromatic herbs. However, the flavour, is a bit like mint and sage with a bitter aftertaste and a lightly hairy texture: the younger the leaves, the better.

Notes on edibility

Ground Ivy has been used for thousands of years and has been praised as a nutritious herb and salad green loaded with vitamin C and a plethora of medicinal uses to cure all kinds of pains and diseases.

This plant was conveniently used by the Saxons to clarify, preserve and flavour beer before the introduction of hops for these purposes and has been used in the cheese-making process as a vegan substitute of animal rennet. Gill tea made of this plant was very popular in the English countryside and the herb was easily available on London shops.

However, safety has not been established scientifically and there is some evidence to be cautious in the use of ground ivy due to its volatile oils. It is for instance toxic to cattle and horses. Nevertheless, you would need to consume high quantities of the plant to have any notorious risk.
Ground ivy

Foraging in season

Ground ivy is one of the most common plants you can forage in Great Britain and it’s native to Europe and south western Asia. It has also been introduced to North America, where it’s considered invasive species.

They are found in grasslands, wooded areas and wasteland. It thrives in moist shaded areas and flourishes in sunny hedgerows. It quickly spreads by stolon and seeds and will form dense carpets taking over areas of lawn, becoming an invasive species on gardens.

Not any better solution to remove them but eating them. It is best collected between April and June when it is easily recognizable by the flower.

Storage and processing

You can dry the leaves in high quantities to convenience. It can be used as a regular dried herb and it can make a great tasting tea with no additional ingredients.
Ground ivy

Culinary uses and recipes

The young leaves can be eaten raw and have an aromatic mint-sage flavour with a mild bitter aftertaste. They can be tossed in salads to add an aromatic note, but I would not use too much due to strong flavour and particular hairy texture.

Ground ivy can also be cooked like any other greens and it works as a pot herb on soups, stews and fritattas. Alternatively, it looks really nice prepared as tempura, a recipe that Robert Harford from Eat the Weeds propose.

In medieval times, the plant was used to stuff and flavour meat as an alternative to regular cultivated herbs. Today, that still sounds great and it is really handy as a dried rub or to make a fantastic salsa verde to complement meats. It suits lamb particularly well.

Mark Williams from Galloway Foods suggest a wonderful recipe of ground ivy shrub: sweet and tart drinking vinegar to be mixed in sophisticated wild cocktails. However, you could use it in beer crafting as a substitute of hops, as it was done by the Saxons.

Tea is made from the fresh or dried leaves and it is often used with verbena and lovage leaves. Gil tea was a cooling beverage made of ground ivy infused in boiling water and sweetened with honey and used to be a remedy for the poor for coughs. It is really refreshing and aromatic and tastes great.

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Spring elf canapes

Spring elf canapes
The saying goes ‘you eat with your eyes’ and this is very true of the bright Scarlet Elf Cup. This stunning little fungus is the perfect ingredient to surprise your guests and create simple, yet mouth-watering hors d’oeuvres full of colour contrast.

They can make the perfect gourmet woodland snack because the ‘basket shape’ allows to fill them with other hedgerow edibles in season. Think of wood sorrel, wild garlic, velvet shank, pink purslane, three cornered leek or hairy bitter cress for instance.

It’s not usually recommended to eat raw fungi, but these ones seem to be ok, as I have seen some top chefs serving similar dishes in high-end restaurants. However, as with any wild fungi, take a nibble first to make sure it agrees your body.

Directions

You just need to combine carefully all your ingredients; that could include leaves, nuts, berries or fungi. I have used the ingredients available to me at this moment of the year, including part of the hazelnuts I harvested in autumn. It is always better to keep it simple.

-Left: Wild garlic buds and wood sorrel leaves

-Top right: Chickweed and hazelnut

-Bottom right: Wood sorrel and hazelnut

Everything is served in a lemony wood sorrel bed. This is the true taste of early spring woodland!

 

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Scarlet elf cup

Scarlet elf cup

These little beauties are one of the most eye catching winter fungi on the woodland floor, displaying a stunning vibrant red colour and lighting up amongst the green mosses. In Scarborough, the fruit bodies used to be arranged with moss and leaves and sold as a table decoration. They are so magical that it is said elves use them as a drinking receptacle.

Description and species

Scarlet elf cup (Sacoscypha coccinea) is a species of fungus in the family Sarcoscyphaceae of the order Pezizales. There is a very similar species, almost undistinguishable, known by the same name in English (Sacoscypha austriaca). They are both edible and can be found in Britain.

Furthermore, there are more species native to North America and other parts in the Northern Hemisphere, with very subtle differences: (Sacoscypha occidentalis) and (Sacoscypha dudleyi).

Scarlet elf cups are also related to the equally beautiful orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia), a very similar but larger, orange fungus that grows in soil instead.

These fungi have deep and irregular shaped cups with a vivid red inner surface and an ochre felted outer surface, up to 6cm diameter and 2cm tall when mature. They have a tiny stem attached to dead wood, often buried in moss or leaves. They are covered in minuscule felt-like white hairs and are not visible at first sight.

Notes on edibility

The edibility of scarlet elf cups is not clearly established, as some authors list the fungi as inedible, meanwhile some top chefs are serving them as gorgeous wild treats. I have tried these ruby gems several times and I have never encountered any problem.

Perhaps, they are not commonly regarded as edibles due to their slightly woody texture or small fruiting bodies. However, the main culinary value resides in the splash of colour they offer to the dish and the versatility to prepare stunning dishes.

Scarlet elf cup

Foraging in season

Elf cups are fairly abundant and widespread across Britain and can be found in many parts of mainland Europe and North America as well.

These indulgent fruiting bodies are usually produced during the coolest months of winter and early spring, when not too many things are growing in the wild. They are one of the few mushrooms that grow in below-freezing conditions and may last for several weeks if the weather is cool enough.

Scarlett elf cups can be found in large quantities surrounding woodland streams and are happy to grow in damp and shady places, appearing on dead twigs very often buried in moss. That said, it often means you will have to venture into the mud to get your lunch.

Storage and processing

When picking scarlet elf cups, you need to wash them thoroughly, as they can get really muddy, because they are very often buried in leaves and moss. They are not easy to clean and maybe a brush can help with the task. Elf cups dry really quick, but it is best to eat them fresh.

Scarlet elf cup

Culinary uses and recipes

Scarlet elfcups have a subtle earthy and mushroomy flavour with a slightly woody texture. However, the most important feature is the colour. When eating wild mushrooms, always take a nibble first to make sure they don’t have any adverse reaction on you.

The fruiting bodies seem to be designed to use them like little baskets. Fill them with other seasonal ingredients to make raw wild canapés: think of wild garlic, three cornered leek, sorrel, baby velvet shank, garlic shoots, garlic mustard or purslane. Play with colour contrast taking advantage of their mild flavour. See my Elf spring canapes.

They also look stunning sprinkled in a seasonal wild salad with other wild edibles or tossed into a boozy fruit salad adding Kirsch liquor to the elf cups for a sweet flavour.

Elfcups can also be cooked, but they tend to lose their flavour when overcooked, so add them just before serving if used in stews. A simple stir fry with garlic and parsley on toast is awesome, but you can be more adventurous and try scarlet elf cup ketchup, that surprisingly will retain most of its colour.

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Jelly ear fungus

Jelly ears

It was originally known as Judas’ ear as a Christian reference to Judas Iscariot, who hanged himself from an elder tree, but the name eventually became Jew’s ear to then mutating into jelly ear in the name of political correctness.

It’s one of the most intriguing mushrooms used in the kitchen and one of my favourites. However, I am aware not everyone would agree because of their crunchy and gelatinous texture.

Description and species

Jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) is a species of Auriculariales fungus, also known as Jew’s ear, wood ear, kikurage or hei mu-er (in Chinese) among other names.

The fruiting body is distinguished by its wavy and irregular ear-like shape and gelatinous and rubbery texture when fresh. The outer surface is reddish-brown and reminds some kind of algae, with very tiny and downy hairs of whitish colour in the inside. The colour becomes darker with age and after drying.

Edibility

They have not been regarded as edibles in the West due to their soft jelly-like texture with a bit of crunch. However, that’s a much appreciated virtue in eastern countries and especially in China, where it is extremely popular and it is additionally used by its medicinal properties.

There is evidence of Jelly ear being cultivated in China as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907) and it is also currently exported from Australia to cater for demand. It is also popular in Vietnam and some African countries like Nigeria and Ghana.

Jelly ears

Foraging in season

Jelly ear fungus is incredibly common in Britain (and worldwide) and is one of the most reliable of all the fungi. They almost always grow upon both dead and living elder branches in large numbers, generally in damp shady locations. Occasionally, you may also find them growing on sycamore, beech, ash or spindle. Additionally, in Australia is commonly found on Eucalyptus trees.

The fungus is found all year round, most commonly in autumn, but conveniently available to the forager when nothing else is growing in winter, as it is able to withstand freezing conditions. In summer, they can completely dry to easily reconstitute when soaked in water.

Storage and processing

Gently pick the young and nice Jelly ears off the branches and wash the mushrooms thoroughly under the cold tap, removing any bark, grit, slug trails and moss remaining.

You can now use them fresh or dry for storage in an airtight container, where they should keep for up to a year. Just string them together and hang them in a warm surface as a radiator or stick them in a low oven overnight.

When dried, they will reduce up to 90%, to surprisingly reconstitute with full body and texture when soaked in water for 10 minutes. They are immediately available to cook as you would do with fresh fungi.

Another course of preparation is taking your dried jelly ears to ground up into a fine powder in a blender. You can use this to thicken soups and stews, absorbing several times their own weight in water. Possibly you can use it to create gelatinous puddings as you would with some algae species.

Jelly ears

Culinary uses and recipes

Jelly ear fungus has no flavour on its own and absorbs pretty well any kind of flavours of the ingredients it is cooked with, making them a perfect vehicle for all your favourite infused tastes, like you would use tofu. Szechwan and Hunan cuisines exploit this quality very well soaking up their spicier flavours.

They provide the additional bonus of a crunchy bite, with a gelatinous seaweed-like texture, not appreciated for all the people, but popular in eastern cuisine. It is a great addition to many soups and stews, either powdered or cut into strips and added fresh with pork and assorted vegetables. It is often recommended in a hot & sour soup.

They can also be added to stir fries with meat and veg as a substitute of crunchy bamboo shoots. However, be cautious, as they may well blow up in your face! Think of a nice pork belly with bell peppers and jelly ear mushrooms.

Taking advantage of its soaking power, my favourite recipe consists in jelly ears marinated in soya sauce, vinegar, chili and garlic. Delicious! However, I have heard of some people eating them dried as a snack!

People with sweet tooth: I guess you can use the powder to form a gelatinous pudding with the addition of fruits. Nevertheless, I know for certain, that rehydrating your homemade sloe gin or any other sweet liquor provides a moreish vegan friendly jelly sweet. Not to mention the addition of chocolate to them! Surprisingly good stuff.

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