Last week, Ashley and I took some time out from our usual schedule to spend an afternoon in the garden, tending to the small patch of land we are fortunate enough to call our own. We don’t have an especially large back garden, but we have enough space for a few small herb and vegetable patches, sections that we have dedicated to rewilding, and a humble little fire pit where we often sit around having drinks, engaging in meaningful discussions, celebrating the seasonal festivals, and simply enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside surrounding our cottage. But the one thing that we have always particularly enjoyed about our garden is the amazing – and often surprising – foraging finds we can gather simply by venturing just a few steps outside our door and utilising our knowledge of plants.
(Our firepit, which also serves as the back-up plan for our tours if the weather is too harsh!)
We are blessed with an ever-giving hedgerow which separates our property from the farm field beside us, and this is where we always start our tour when the hedge is ripe with the fruits and berries of the season in Autumn. Depending on the time of year, we only have to slip on our dedicated “outdoor slippers” to be able to harvest all manner of rich hedgerow delights; from delicious blackberries to bullace berries, wild plums, hawberries and rosehips, and all the medicinal and edible foliage the hedgerow offers - not to mention being able to enjoy the wide variety of plants, animals and insects which take shelter in its shade and enjoy the abundance of the season right along with us. At this time of year, of course, the hedgerow is taking time to rest and prepare itself for the warmer weather, when the hedges will once again begin to produce flowers and fruits in the procession of the seasonal cycle. During the winter our attention turns to other areas of the garden which also hold some really fantastic, unassuming foraging opportunities which can all too often be passed by.
As mentioned earlier, Ashley and I do try our hand at growing our own herbs and vegetables (though we are often resigned to admit that we do not have the greenest of thumbs!) We spent an afternoon recently cleaning up our garden beds in preparation for Spring, and removed some major weeds which would surely have taken over the area and suffocated our herbs if not dealt with soon. One of the most prevalent plants that had started to take root in our herb beds were Dandelions, which I'm sure many gardeners are familiar with due to their persistent nature.
During our tours, we often like to stop and discuss the humble Dandelion and we would both agree that it's one of our favourite plants to forage. Most of our guests recall that as children they were told that if you were to pick Dandelions, you would end up wetting the bed. This is a superstition which is actually reflected in folk tradition, as can be observed in one of its more vulgar folk names; it was once referred to (and may still be in some areas) simply as 'piss-a-bed', and likewise in herbalism, Dandelions are actually known for their effective diuretic properties. Dandelions have a number of foraging uses; from making a Dandelion honey, to battering and frying the flowers to make fritters, to simply enjoying the leaves in a salad. But the application we enjoy most of all so far is harvesting the root to make what is known as Dandelion root “coffee”. We had never tried making it ourselves before, so this is exactly what we decided to do with the plants we removed from our garden last week.
(Click the arrow on the right of the photo to see the stages of making Dandelion root coffee)
To make the coffee, it is really quite simple. After carefully uprooting the plant (these plants were particularly young and the soil was soft, so all it took was using a large spoon!) simply wash the dirt off using a scrubbing brush or something just as effective. Then chop up the roots, lay them out on a baking sheet and roast them for around 20 minutes until they are dark brown. Ours took only about 15 minutes on 150°C, but the quantity of root we were experimenting with was only small and as such, times may vary, so I always find it is best to be vigilant and go by eye. That's all there is to it! Simply steep around 2-3 heaped teaspoons (depending on how strong you like your brew to be!) of the roasted Dandelion root to make a small pot of this wonderful, sustainable coffee alternative. You will be pleasantly surprised by the aromatic and nutty coffee flavour that it produces! It does require a bit of labour and a fair amount of Dandelion plants to achieve success, but it is well worth it once you get a taste. We recommend enjoying it with some organic milk and maple syrup or honey.
The beauty of Dandelion root coffee is that it contains absolutely no caffeine, so you will avoid ending up with the classic energetic highs and lows which accompany regular coffee consumption; as such, this would be an ideal (and genuinely tasty) alternative if like us, you are absolutely hooked on the stuff. Moreover, from a sustainability standpoint it’s always beneficial to be able to procure your own resources from the hidden bounties of your local natural environment. Since growing our own coffee beans and processing them ourselves would be quite impractical to say the least, the often disregarded and disdained Dandelions offer a wonderful alternative if you're willing to put in the work to reap the reward. If this is something you think might be worth trying, but like many people in the modern age, lack the necessary time or the means to do so yourself, we would highly recommend purchasing a tin of sublime Dandelion root coffee from our friends, Bello Wild Food at Home - a resource for wild-foraged goods already picked, packaged and processed for your enjoyment. I will post a link to their shop at the bottom of this article, so be sure to check them out!
But enough about Dandelions for now! Looking elsewhere in our garden, we can find all sorts of other fantastic foraging opportunities, but what we are focused on most of all recently is our lovely patch of Cow Parsley (also known as Chervil) which is in season at the moment. We maintain many parts of our garden through the simple but brilliant practice of rewilding, and our Cow Parsley patch is one of such areas that we like to leave to grow wild; both for the benefit of our local ecosystem, and for the purpose of cultivating it. We use Cow Parsley regularly in our cooking, but most often in pasta dishes, as a garnish for curries and stews, or fresh in salads. It has a deliciously fresh yet subtle fennel flavour very close to the parsley you are likely used to, but fainter in flavour.
There is almost never an evening spent cooking in our kitchen when Ashley doesn’t ask me, “Should I go out and grab some the chervil for this?”. But be warned: Cow Parsley is not something for a beginner forager to seek out, nor is it something to be trifled with lightly even for more intermediate foragers, since this herb is extremely easy to mistake with Poison Hemlock as well as a number of other poisonous plants such as the dubiously named 'Fool's Parsley'. Both the leaves and the flowers look almost identical to the deadly Hemlock, which is why this is the first plant we start with on each and every tour as a demonstration of the importance of correctly identifying your wild foods.
After having identified our patch of Cow Parsley correctly many times over, and since our dedicated patch tends to grow particularly wild and somewhat unruly (often completely overrunning our garden in the spring and growing to unexpected heights in the summer months when left untamed!) we recently decided to gather a good few bundles to hang up and dry, then later grind down for use in a wild herbal food seasoning. We usually dry out a portion of the plants and flowers that we forage in order to preserve them; enabling us to make teas, tinctures, herbal infusions, incense blends, bath soaks, and other such creations which can be enjoyed all year round. Nothing beats the fresh taste of Spring in the midst of a gloomy Winter season with a comforting pot of floral wild-foraged chamomile tea!
(Some wild chamomile tea, which we harvest during the Summer months from the borders of the farm fields surrounding our local area where chamomile grows in great abundance)
Speaking of Spring, another foraging find we are always blessed with around our garden during this season is the pleasing Primrose. Primroses are a lovely edible wild flower, and we often pick them during the warmer months to garnish our dishes, but in all honesty we tend to leave them simply to enjoy the beauty and colour they add to our otherwise quite plain green garden - this is something the bees appreciate too! Whilst undertaking our de-weeding work, we decided to pot the Primroses that were starting to grow in our herb and vegetable patches that had to be removed, lest they disturb our cherished Lavender and Rosemary plants. The name Primrose, or prima rosa in Latin, roughly translates to "the first flower" of the year. Quite the fitting name, as the appearance of this particular flower is very closely associated with the start of the glorious Spring season. So, not only will these now-potted plants be a renewable food resource for us, but also brings a little bit of Spring beauty and delight into our home, which is especially uplifting during what has proven to be quite a challenging and less-than-festive Winter for all of us here in the United Kingdom.
(Our newly potted Primrose plant alongside some Primroses in bloom from last Spring, which we enjoyed as a topping for some delicious oat flour pancakes last Spring Equinox)
The treasures which can be discovered just outside your door never cease to amaze us. The simple joy in harvesting, drying, cooking, and crafting with the plants we find is something we can't underestimate, no matter the season. Ashley and I often sit out in the garden to have our morning coffee and appreciate the small patch of nature we are fortunate enough to call our own. However, as much as we are always in awe of the multiple practical uses even the most common plants have to offer us - with their various uses in both food and medicine - we often like to reflect on what our forbearers might have thought about us being so bewildered, delighted (and sometimes even perplexed!) by things which were once part of a very common yet intimate country knowledge of the plant life around us.
At any stage of the year, there always seems to be so much to learn, create and connect to no matter the level of expertise you have procured - with what often feels like so little time, due to the fleeting nature of nature itself. One thing we have noted most prominently throughout our foraging journey is all the smaller and subtler seasons within the larger seasons that you can notice when you really observe, actively partake in and engage with the cycle. This is a wisdom which can be found through nothing more complicated than enjoying the bounties readily available outside your doorstep; whether to simply admire and appreciate, or to gather, prepare and harvest. See how many of these smaller seasons you can notice this coming Springtide: Snowdrop season, Daffodil season, Violet season, and countless more.
(Bundling and drying our Cow Parsley after harvesting to preserve for later on in the year)
Frankly, our forbearers might have thought us somewhat silly with our ignorance of such things. This is something which always very much humbles Ashley and I, and is a big reason why we were inspired to start conducting our tours in the first place. We feel that this sort of forgotten knowledge is important; not only in reconnecting with the land around us, but also with both our recent and distant ancestors; our grandparents and our great grandparents and the folks of days gone by who helped to shape our lives into what they are today. These were folks who were once deeply connected to nature, not only on a recreational basis, but rather as a matter of pure necessity. This lost knowledge would have been essential to them, as can be found in the endless folktales, tips and precautions we share with people today, often in humour - but this sentiment is something we always keep in mind. Gathering food, medicine, supplies and other natural resources from the surrounding landscape near and far was simply a way of life not all that long ago.
We are fortunate today to be able to connect to nature in a much more leisurely way, but this is also our misfortune in many ways and is something we believe is vital to recognise as we attempt to move through life more consciously as a generation. Along with the remaining yet increasingly meagre patches of green spaces we still have available to us, the patches of traditional folk knowledge remain and live on through us when we make it our prerogative to make it so; just as we should try to make it our sole initiative as a species and in our own lives to actively engage with, protect, appreciate, and hopefully grow and expand rather than continue to restrain the essential patches of nature that live on beside us - and in spite of us. Folk knowledge, tradition and environmental protection go comfortably hand-in-hand and compliment one another perfectly, as remnants of a forgotten way of life. This is why we are so passionate about sharing this connection with others. By actively engaging with your natural surroundings, using your resources to their full potential in a reverent and reciprocal relationship (rather than throwing everything away), we may carry the spirit of the land and the spirit of those who came before us, coming away with a deeper understanding of how lucky we are to still be able to appreciate the green just outside our windows.
Bello Wild Food at Home: https://wildfooddelivery.co.uk/