Rachel Lambert: forager, author, guide
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I love muffins. Easy to cook and more substantial than bread. They're also versatile - you can add almost anything (sweet or savoury), and so tasty you can just eat them on their own. I like them as an afternoon snack while working at the computer, or a pocket-sized snack to take out on walks with me.

I first made these for a winter/early spring foray I led. It was a cloudy, non-discript kind of day, and these provided a hearty snack and comforting moment for us all, amidst the bleak Cornish landscape. It's true - the right snack can uplift any walk, whatever the weather.

The young shoots and leaves of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) start popping up through Winter and early Spring and are perfect for many snacks, including savoury muffins. Once identified correctly*, Alexanders are easy pickings in a Cornish winter – abundant, a good size and many a land owner are happy for you to pick this plant as it is often considered an invasive weed.



Alexander Muffins

These more-ish muffins have a hint of wild, nutritional  Alexanders  in them, which is complimented nicely by the olive oil and dab of mustard. They could easily be made vegan too.

 Ingredients (Makes 12-15)

100 g wholemeal flour

175 g organic plain flour

1 tbs baking powder

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

½ tsp Cornish sea salt

100g fresh Alexanders (leaves and young leaf stems)

350 ml milk (dairy or soya)

1 tbs lemon juice

2 eggs, whisked

1/2 tsp strong mustard

2 tbs good olive oil

4 tbs vegetable oil

100g finely grated parmesan (optional)

Pre-heat the oven at 200°C and oil muffin tins or small cake cases. In a large bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt). Roughly chop the alexanders and stir in.

       

Measure out the milk and add the lemon juice, leaving it for a few minutes for it to sour a nd thicken slightly. Break open and whisk in the eggs, mustard and the oil and pour into the dry mixture, stir in thoroughly before distributing between the muffin h tins or cake cases.

       

Each tin should be generously filled and sprinkled with parmesan on top, if using. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove onto a cooling rack and enjoy on their own as a hearty snack.

*Alexanders are a member of the umbellifrae or carrot family, in which there are poisonous cousins. Only pick and use this plant if you are 100%, and I mean 100% certain you have found the correct plant.

It's deep December and I'm standing outside. Actually, there's 8 of us standing outside and waiting for the one that's gone astray. Once we're all congregated, we begin. There's something innately quiet about walking in Winter, as if all around us is sleeping, and in some ways it is. We walk together through this slumbering landscape, initially unaware of the life around us.

What can you forage in winter?

From as early as November, my forager eyes start to spot edible greens that are normally associated with spring. Alexanders, Nettle Tops, Three-Cornered Leek (locally known as Wild Garlic), Wild Cress and Mustard, Pennywort, Wild chervil, Gorse flowers and even Daisy leaves and flowers for salads and cooked dishes.

Garlic Mustard
Garlic Mustard, Hedge Mustard

Although the nutrition of plants can be significantly increased in Spring, goodness can still be enjoyed from these plants through the winter months. In Cornwall, where we may lack in terms of nuts and berries (there are only a few forests & woodlands here) it is more than made up with coastal plants and, due to the mild climate, a great choice of edible greens right through winter. While other areas of the UK are below frost or snow, there are milder areas of Cornwall that offer valuable forage-ables.

Urtica dioica
Bellis perennis

The benefits of foraging in winter

What's more, foraging feeds the soul not just in winter, though every time of year. According to the  National Wildlife Federation's article; It's all in the dirt, the reason for this includes good bacteria in the soil that releases seretonin - the feel good hormone. This makes me feel even better about my muddy boots and dirty fingernails too!

In some ways, there's more to see in winter, without the distraction of hoards of people, beautiful, bright flowers, and sunsets to melt into. Instead, the offerings maybe more subtle - beige stems, low growing greens, and flowerless stems, though don't be tempted to dismiss these edible due to their humble winter personas.

Common Hogweed seed (Heracleum Spondylium), for example (below), may look like a dead seed-head, though within it lies delicious aromatic flavours for curries and many sweet dishes.

Heracleum sphondylium
Hogweed Seed and Almond Thins

If you need it, use foraging as an excuse to get you outside, for that dose of daylight, fresh air and nature fix. Watching wintering birds, or rolling white horses of the waves, and returning with a handful of winter greens, it's hard for the soul not to be lifted, even if just a little. And if you're still not convinced and only yearning for the bright yellow sun of summer, then perhaps gorse is the only cure for you. Up on the moorlands of Cornwall, somewhere, you will always find the bright yellow flowers of gorse; an uplifting flower. According to Bach Flower Remedies gorse can offer you hope, when all hope is lost. I promise, summer will return.

Gorse flowers

Blackberries - everyone knows them, everyone forages them. Blackberries make everyone a forager, and what a perfect fruit to be picked. Growing in abundance, and packed with vitamin C and fibre, this humble fruit unites cities, waysides, hedgerows, countryside and wasteland through their presence, it even connects us all back to the Stone Age, as there's evidence that we've been eating this fruit since then.

Back to the current day, a couple of weeks ago I was foraging with a group of keen staff and chefs from Bordeaux Quay deli, restaurant & cookery school. Based on the harbourside of Bristol, just off the city centre, for our foray we congregated on the Bristol Downs (one of my favourite green spaces within this city) to foray together. And guess what, amongst many other goodies, we picked blackberries.

Now, I could list the things we found, and various stages that different ingredients are in as they get experimented with, stored and process at BQ. However, that list of plant names might leave you scratching your head and non-the-wiser. Though if I talk about BLACKBERRIES - ah, blackberries, we know we're speaking the same language!

Blackberries on the Isles of Scilly, where they can taste slightly salty! 

So what have you done with your foraged fruits? Blackberry and apple crumble or pie, syrup, ice cream, sorbet, blackberry vinegar or wine maybe?

Well, here's a new one for you, from the Kelly Sealey, the Head Chef at BQ. And by the way, incase you like the sound of it, Foraging Experiences followed by cooking tuition can now be booked for private groups in Bristol, at an award winning venue which specialises in local produce, click here to find out more!

Meanwhile, here's the recipe;

A simple dish we can all create

Mackerel salad with a blackberry dressing

By Kelly Sealey

For the fish
200g oats
2 eggs, beaten
4 mackerel fillets
70g unsalted butter
1 lemon, juice only

Place the oats onto a plate and season with salt and black pepper. Pour the beaten eggs into a bowl. Dip each mackerel fillet into the beaten egg, roll it in the seasoned oats.
Heat the butter in a pan over a medium heat. When the butter is foaming, add the coated mackerel fillets and fry for 1 ½-2 minutes on each side.
Turn the fillets carefully and fry for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the fillets are crisp and golden-brown on both sides and completely cooked through. Remove the pan from the heat and squeeze over the lemon juice

For the salad
Handful of blackberries
Parsley
Rocket
Celery leaf
Radish, thinly sliced
A dash of red wine vinegar
Pinch of dried chilli
25ml olive oil
Place the vinegar, oil, chilli and 2 crushed berries in a bowl, whisk and add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the salad and toss lightly. To serve place the salad on the plate, fish neatly in the middle and drizzle extra dressing.

  From a Simple Guided Walk, to Rustic Cooking or Gourmet Dining

 

Foraging for Business is something we all have to do from time to time, you’ve guessed it - the diverse skills learnt in a day’s foraging are transferable & more importantly, can be learnt in an informal, non-pressured way.

Recently, when leading a private forage, cook & dine event for a group of international professionals (it was their holiday gift to themselves), at some point the conversation steered towards team building. Now personally, I feel that a good event can naturally create a good team building environment ~ no ‘bonding’, ‘intellectual problem solving’ or ‘physical team building’ in sight. Yet, with foraging, all those boxes seemed to ticked too.

Results: Can better business be cultivated from foraging together?

Good business results usually consists of a few key ingredients. Excellent productivity is a by-product of a healthy team working together; keeping each other motivated & effective communication ( organisations that communicate effectively are 4.5x more likely to retain the best people too - Watson Wyatt (worldwide consulting firm)) . Furthermore, according to Harvard Business Review (June, 2008), the success of Toyota Business Corporation for example is due to a mix of offering new challenges & understanding different points of view & how to bring together seeming contradictions. Toyota, by the way, invest heavily in people, regardless of their position in the company.

In foraging terms, this can mean being introduced to a new skill & taste. It can also mean understanding that everyone has a valid & different response to a taste of a plant; to some its lemony heaven, to others its sour & too strong, while for another it conjures up memories of picking a plant while walking to school with friends.

Give your staff a good experience they'll remember...

Giving your staff a good time can help build the rapport needed to get a job done well, while improving morale & positive memories bring people together. A recent foray with staff on the Island of Tresco (Isles of Scilly) included front of house staff, managers & chefs. They now all have a hot topic to share, were all enthused about exciting new ingredients & seeing their local environment in a whole new way. Interesting cocktails & pizza toppings to follow!

Back to the practicalities, imagine this;

A day out, a couple of hours ambling through the countryside, time to catch up, chat, while learning a new skill together. Breaks are marked with delicious biscuits or chocolates while menus are handed out & drooled over. Perhaps a bit of chopping ingredients or stirring pots even, before tantalising aromas appearing too. Focus, enthusiasm, something new, motivation via good food are all ignited. Sounds good?

Just a small slice of good health

Despite many people that like to feel healthy, I also know many who steer away from 'health' activities as there are seen as boring & a way to inhibit fun. However, everyone likes to feels good & happy, & good food usually helps! Foraging has the benefits of being a very leisurely physical activity, accessible to anyone who can walk a couple of miles (routes can be accessed for ALL abilities & those with disabilities too). A bit of fresh air (not too much) can work wonders on bringing out those rosy cheeks!

Really, something for everyone

Foraging is an ACCESSIBLE activity- emphasising different strengths rather than who is good & who is not at a certain activity. If you can walk slowly for 1 mile, stopping occasionally, you can forage. Appealing to a wide range of interests; nature, countryside, food, walking, talking, history, in-vogue recipes, chatting, doing, resting. Time tends to fly by, & everyone always finds at least one taste they like & a plant they are therefore keen to find again. Within the group, a multitude of skills will be learnt, through all different learning styles (sensory, physical, factual, emotional, oral, taking photos or notes) - what a team, all of these skills put together makes one good forager!!

Interested, so what now?

Do get in touch to discuss what you're looking for and let me put a package together for you.

Researching regional names of plants is a fascinating and usually an amusing pastime. Common Hogweed  (Heracleum sphondylium) is one of those plants, and as it’s now in season (april to june) I thought I’d dedicate a whole blog article to it.

Inspired also by local names such as Pig Flop (an image of a pig collapsing after pleasantly over-indulging on this plants passes through my mind!), Cow Weed (what’s its known as on the Scilly Isles), Cow ParsnipCow Belly and even Humperscrump, according to Forager and Author John Lewis-Stempel. It's also known as a type of poorman's asparagus, although I think it's superior.

To me, this plant has always been known simply and humbly as hogweed, and I’m going to share with you some facts about identification, names, tastes and recipe ideas.

Starting with identification, common hogweed can be found across the UK, it really is common and usually considered a pain. Its habitat can be varied and includes fields, open woodland, hedgerows and roadsides. Often people are sceptical when I introduce it as a potential food and for two understandable reasons.

Firstly,

For some it has the association of being poisonous, mainly because if the sap gets on your skin and is combined with sunlight, for example when strimming the plant on a hot summer’s day in t-shirt and shorts, one can come up in horrible blisters that can scar. Not an experience I’ve shared, though I’ve heard enough stories to know it to be an unpleasant encounter.

Secondly,

There is the issue of correct identification. Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is in the Apiaceae (Carrot) family and shares a similar flower structure with edibles such as carrot (funnily enough), parsley, fennel, chervil as well as the deadly poisonous plants; hemlock and hemlock water dropwort. Needless to say, mistakes can be lethal and enough to put many people off. However, there are distinguishing characteristics that can be learnt. Reading a few words and seeing a few images is not generally suffice for this, though it is a good start, so here it goes!

Flower head of Common Hogweed

Hogweed generally grows up to 2 metres tall (related & non-edible Giant hogweed grows up to 5 metres). Hogweed has hollow, ridged stems that are hairy, almost furry, that can give a white-ish tinge to the stems. The leaves are soft/furry with undulating lobes (see images) and stems can sometimes be purple, though normally green (NOT purple spots like hemlock). Like anything, take your time to get to know the plant (it will always return the following year if you’re still unsure) check with experts & you will be duly rewarded.

Leaves of Common Hogweed (slightly undulating and definitely furry)

So with so many obstacles to over-come before even picking it, why bother at all? Well, of course its the taste. Like many wild edibles, it has, at times, been called poor man’s asparagus - as its the young shoots you’re looking for in spring. I like to think that this is sly way to protect a valuable plant which has an unusual taste that could easily be at home on many gourmet’s plates. The history of so-called poor man’s food includes beliefs such as inferiority of taste, too common (abundant) or inadequate in flavour (unlikely these days in comparison with bland, long shelf-life shop bought veg). As a modern day forager its a great plant - abundance is perfect (making it very hard to over-pick) and the unusual flavour is one of the exciting aspects of wild food. It is also rich in vitamin C and carbohydrate.

How to enjoy it at its best? Well John Wright (from River Cottage) covers the young shoots in beer batter. For me, I simply steam those young shoots, drizzle in butter or hollandaise sauce and serve as an accompaniment to fish or meat dishes. I’ve also chopped them up and added them as a flavouring for dhal (combines well with wild carrot seed ).

Finally, you’ll all be asking what the flavour is. Well, the true answer is inside of you - we all experience tastes differently - though I describe it as perfumed, aromatic, sometimes a hint of bitterness & rich.

Hogweed Shoots with Hollandaise Sauce Recipe

To serve 2 persons

  • 6 young hogweed shoots (Poor man's asparagus)
  • 175ml white wine vinegar
  • 2 free range egg yolks
  • 70ml unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • Squeeze lemon juice

Boil the vinegar with peppercorns & reduce by half. Strain and put aside. Boil a large pan of water, then reduce to a simmer. Using a large balloon whisk, beat together the yolks and 2 tsp of the reduced wine vinegar in a heatproof bowl that fits snugly over the pan. Beat vigorously until the mixture forms a foam, but make sure that it doesn’t get too hot. To prevent the sauce from overheating, take it on & off the heat while you whisk, scraping around the sides with a plastic spatula until you achieve a golden, airy foam.
Meanwhile put the poor man’s asaragus shoots on to steam (4-5 minutes). Whisk in a tablespoon of the warmed butter, a little at a time, then return the bowl over a gentle heat to cook a little more. Remove from the heat again and whisk in another tablespoon of butter. Repeat until all the butter is incorporated and you have a texture as thick as mayonnaise. Finally, whisk in lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste plus a little warm water from the pan if the mixture is too thick. Drizzle over the hogweed shoots & serve as a starter or alongside meat or fish.

(Hollandaise Sauce image, thanks to - ourkitchen.fisherpaykel.com)

Last month a few hardy foragers (actually it was a lovely bright, wintery day) joined me at Cape Cornwall for a wild food walk with tasters. At a welcomed break we sat down with a large flask of 'Wild Spiced Cleaver Coffee'.

The drink went down well - sweet, hot and naturally containing some caffeine, everyone was pleasantly surprised! There are many variations in making this coffee substitute, this is one alfresco style on the beach!

An indoor version would be drying roasting the oven for 40 minutes at 140C.

Autumn is full of potential pleasures, warming foods, sweet dishes and a bounty of autumnal fruits to enjoy. Personally, I take particular interest in creating desserts with wild ingredients, so when Sara from Cotna Barton suggested we made a wild apple meringue pie on our Forage, Cook and Dine event last month, I jumped at the chance to include another wild ingredient in there.

If you've been on a wild food walk with me or another forager, you may well of tasted this amazingly strong flavoured seed; Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Common as muck (as the expression goes!), it is often mistaken for being poisonous because if the sap gets on your skin and reacts with sunlight you can come up in horrible blisters that can scar. However, several parts of the plant can be used as a food, & these seeds are excellent as a flavouring. Correct identification is essential of this plant though, especially as it is related to several poisonous species such as Hemlock.

  

So what's the taste? Well, taste is a very personal experience, though some of the descriptions I've heard is; orange peel, aromatic, soapy, turkish delight, spicey...

Some people like it, some people don't. Unfortunately, Sara, our cook for this event is not a fan of the flavour, so including it in this recipe took a little persuading. Luckily, I was convinced it would work, so into the ingredients list it went. One of the secrets with this seed is to grind it - it really helps to release the flavour and breakdown the papery texture of the seed pod.

Well, before I go onto sharing the recipe, let me tell you that the dessert was a success, 9 hungry foragers, cooks and diners polished the whole dish off, and Sara's plate was clean too - she liked it! It just goes to show that some wild ingredients are really worth persevering with, until you find the right combination of how to use them.

Wild Apple Curd and Hogweed Seed Meringue Pie

Ingredients

For the Curd

  • 500 g cooking apples
  • finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 100 ml lemon juice
  • 500 g unrefined caster sugar
  • 4-5 large eggs
  • 150 g shortcrust pastry baked in a flan case (prepared before hand)

For the Meringue

  • 4 egg whites
  • 200 g unrefined caster sugar
  • handful of hogweed seeds

Chop the apples into a pan with 100 ml water and the lemon zest. Cook gently until soft and fluffy, then rub through a sieve. Put the butter, sugar and apple puree into a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. As soon as the butter is melted and the mixture is hot and glossy, pour in the eggs and whisk with a balloon whisk.

If the mixture splits, take the pan off the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth, before returning to the heat. Stir the mixture over a gentle heat until thick and creamy, scraping down the sides of the bowl every few minutes. This should take about 10 mins. Pour immediately into the pastry base.

For the meringue, use a food blender to blend the sugar and seeds until the majority of the seeds break down and an aromatic smell is released. Discard the seeds which stay whole. Put aside. Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until they form soft peaks, then add the sugar a spoonful at a time. Pile onto the tart and bake at gas mark 4 for approximately 20 mins, until the meringue is crisp and slightly coloured.

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