The Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family, also known as the Carrot family is a large family of plants, all with the similarity of umbels - think structure of an umbrella with a handle, spokes and canopy. There are some fantastic edibles within this family and also some deadly poisonous plants. A little foraging knowledge can be dangerous and this family needs to understood well and the plants respected.
Here are 8 wild foods within the umbellifer category (there are 18 edibles in total in this family). It goes without saying that this information is not enough to identify and use these wild foods. Though it is an introduction to them, with links to more information about the main plants I teach.
Introducing 8 umbellifers in flower
Wild Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
An aniseedy scented plant and a wonderful flavouring (unless you don't like fennel). It's a coastal plant in my foraging book where I share a fennel sorbet and fennel flower fritter recipe.
Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum)
A coastal plant that in the past was highly rated as a vegetable and for it's nutritional qualities. I've written about rock samphire as my favourite summer plant, shared a delicious salsa verde recipe for it, and recipe for pickled rock samphire. It is also in my foraging book.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)
A coastal that has spread inland. You need permission to dig up the (small and fibrous) roots. The seeds are edible but shouldn't be digested if you're pregnant. This plant is in my Foraging book where I share a Carrot Seed and Honey Cookie recipe. Extra info: I have used the summer flowers in a similar way to elderflowers and infused them for syrup - they have an unusual, subtle and carroty flavour!
Hogweed/Cow-weed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Also known as Common Hogweed (in comparison to Giant hogweed) is a common sight across the UK and Europe. I've previously shared recipes for it; Hogweed shoots in a cake, plus a vegan version of Pear and Hogweed Shoot Cake. I sing the praises for it as an alternative and superior asparagus. and even used the seeds to flavour meringue in an Apple Curd and meringue Pie recipe.
Cow Parsley/Wild Chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Often the first spring flower to appear. A very common hedgerow plant, the leaves can be eaten but should be avoided once the plant is in flower. However, before the flowers appear the leaves and stems can be eaten. I like the leaves in salads and the stalks simmered and added to sauces.
Pignut (Conopodium majus)
A delicate flowering plant, renown for the nuts (roots) that are tricky and (a little) rewarding to dig up as food. Not a nut at all, but a nutty flavour and texture of a fresh hazelnut.
Wild Celery (Apium graveolens)
I've rarely seen this in Cornwall, I photographed this one in Norfolk where I was excited to find it! A stringy plant, personally I prefer to use Alexanders (its predecessor).
A couple of months ago I lost my sense of smell completely. My world changed and everything tasted of cardboard. Fortunately it was only a temporary loss due to a virus, though it was a fascinating and slightly scary experience. I've always known how important my senses are to me; foraging engages my vision, touch, smell, taste and intuition. To be without two of these (smell and taste are so dependant on each other) was odd and left me functioning in a very different way. I'm the kind of person who always stops to smell flowers - I find it a life affirming way to engage with the world.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of my summer scents; scattered along the coast path and beaches in selected places in Cornwall and commonly on the Isles of Scilly. When the sand is hot and the air is warm it is a lovely whiff of refreshing aniseed to breathe in. It's scent also makes it easy to identify.
Indigenous to the Mediterranean, it is well known and used to aid digestion and has naturalised in many places across the world. It's been used in fish and seafood dishes, and I like to use it in bread and desserts. I think it is perfect as a dessert - an after dinner digestive which is full of soothing flavour.
In my first book - Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly - I shared a recipe for fennel sorbet and fennel flower-head fritters, though you can use the same recipe for fennel ice lollies (images above). I also have a great Wild Fennel Bunyols recipe, which was inspired by my Catalonian friend, Marta and are perfect for Autumn or cooler days.
The sorbet and ice lollies are so full of flavour and they use the foliage of fennel - the leaves and young stems which are often over-looked. I highly recommend experimenting with these parts too.
The evenings are getting cooler and it is time for bigger, fatter, more filling food, I reckon. Being by the coast I'm lucky enough to find wild fennel, and from late summer on wards I can forage a few seeds for flavouring desserts, stews and breads.
I first tasted these sweet fried dough balls, when my Catalonian friend, Marta, made them. They are a speciality from her home town and she was staying with me at the time. Luckily for me, I walked in at the end of her cooking frenzy and got to sample these warm before they were whisked away to a dinner party. She was just debating whether to use some more fennel oil, as flavouring, when I suggested grinding some of the wild fennel seeds I'd collected, and using these, combined with icing sugar, instead.
Wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) adds a wonderful light, aniseed-like flavour, and picking your own seeds ensures you capture that wonderful fresh taste, cultivated in fresh coastal air and sunlight.
Back to the recipe... they worked a treat, and I've been badgering her ever since for the recipe. Here it is, with a few wild twists added.
Wild Fennel Seed Bunyols
Deep fried, airy buns with a sweet fennel dusting, for me, this is a mid-Winter treat, or on cooler evenings when I feel the need for extra calories. A dear Catalonian friend gave this recipe to me; I’ve adapted it a little bit.
Ingredients (Makes approx 35)
250 ml boiling water
125 g butter
180 g plain flour (could have 20% wholemeal)
4-5 eggs, beaten
500 ml sunflower oil
1 heaped tbsp unrefined sugar
1 heaped tsp fennel seeds
In a medium saucepan, add the water and simmer over a medium heat. Cut the butter into chunks and gently add into the water, leaving to melt before whisking for 2 minutes. Lower the heat a little and quickly sieve in the flour and mix well. Keep mixing for a few minutes over the heat until the mixture goes a little golden. Turn off the heat and little by little add the egg mixture, about 1 egg at a time. Using a wooden spoon, beat each egg in, until well absorbed. The mixture is ready when it becomes less slippery and more elastic when the spoon is dragged from the mixture upwards. This may not use all the egg.
Prepare a large tray with absorbable kitchen paper/towel, or use a large cooling rack. In another medium sized saucepan, heat the oil over a medium to high heat. You can check the oil is hot enough by dropping a little of the batter in the oil, if it floats to the top, it is ready. When the oil is ready, using 2 teaspoons, drop a large teaspoon size ball of the bunyol mixture into the oil and allow to fry. You can probably cook about 4 balls of mixture at a time. When the bunyols are golden brown on one side, turn over and brown all over, remove with a slotted spoon onto the kitchen paper or cooling rack. Repeat with all the mixture and leave the bunyols to cool. To make the sweet fennel dusting, grind the sugar and fennel seeds together and when the bunyols are cool, sprinkle with the sugar powder and have a little on the side for extra dipping.