My memories of Summer are, inevitably, interlaced with foraging. Plants and food, namely wild food, has long been an integral part of my life. One that I choose not to live without. Earlier on in Summer I wrote about keeping things simple and shared easy…
Five years ago I wrote a blog about my Nettle and Honey Cake – it went down a treat. Named as; ‘probably the best cake I’ve ever had’ by one enthusiastic forager, I was super pleased the result.
Every so often I like to repeat recipes so I can enjoy the flavours again and see if they need tweaking. Over the last few years I’ve also found that nettles combines well with ginger and with lemon and, although this cake contains neither, its texture is reminiscent of a lovely moist ginger cake.
Last week, however, I made a new discovery; nettle cake (urtica dioica) and gorse (ulex gallii, ulex europaeus) flower syrup! It’s a wild and divine combination which I just had to share with you.
A Spring Dessert: Nettle and Honey Cake with Gorse Flower Syrup
An almost toffee flavoured, moist, not too sweet cake, with a sweet hit of moorland gorse flavours drizzled over it. Somehow, this whole combination reminds me of green tea, perhaps it is the lovingly received health benefits of these local, wild ingredients, or just the natural flavours of green nettles and infused gorse.
- 50-75 g nettle tops
- 250 g clear honey
- 100 g dark muscovado sugar
- 225 g butter
- 3 large eggs beaten
- 300 g white flour
- 4 tsp baking powder
For the syrup
- 50 g fresh gorse flowers
- 225 g unrefined sugar
- 300 ml water
Place the gorse flowers in a medium saucepan with the water and sugar and bring to the boil. Immediately take off the heat, cover with a lid and leave overnight (or for as many hours as you can). The next day bring the liquid to the boil again and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve or muslin cloth and store in sterilised bottles in the fridge or freeze in ice cube containers and defrost as needed. Will last a month or so if not frozen.
Line a 20 cm square or round cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 150°C. Steam the nettles for 5 minutes and put aside to cool. Place the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan over a low heat and stir until melted and combined. Once the nettles are cooled, blend with the eggs to make a smooth, green pulp. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a large bowl and gradually beat in the melted sugar and butter mix. It will resemble a lovely toffee colour.
Pour in the pureed nettles and blended eggs and beat together.
It makes a wonderful green, raw cake mixture colour! Pour into the cake tin and bake for an hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, or the cake springs back when touched. Allow to cool for a few minutes before removing from the tin onto a cooling rack, and cool completely before slicing. Serve with gorse flower syrup.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) are one of my favourite spring greens, and this was a recipe I shared with Graham Pullen of St Ives Screen Printing at Tom’s Yard. Graham is keen on making art affordable and accessible, and has incorporated the recipe into one…
Gorse Flower Fudge
Oh my god, I had such hopes with this recipe, I really thought I’d clinched it first time (which happens occasionally, though is definitely not a given). Heating it slowly, the smell of the gorse flowers was divine and the flavour of properly made fudge, just blissful.
I went out early in the morning to pick those coconut smelling gorse flowers and couldn’t stop thinking of the smell of condensed milk and how the flavours would match. When I searched for condensed milk though, I couldn’t find one that wasn’t Nestle brand (I’m still not happy about their ethics around supplying milk formula in developing countries, as well as other things), so I decided to settle for a more traditional recipe instead. Double cream, butter and sugar it was.
Of course, I’m still learning, and I forgot that as the temperature of the sugar rose higher, the sugar flavours got stronger, and the scented gorse flowers sunk below the brown sugar, cream and butter, never to be smelt again. I even tried a second time using half unrefined caster sugar instead (you may know that I don’t use refined sugars, at all, in cooking), though still the gorse was lost.
However, if you like fudge (and I discovered that many of my friends do), this is an awesome sweet treat. So I decided to share it anyway, plus some tips of how not to cook with gorse (all discovered through experience and in hindsight).
Tips for Making Homemade Fudge
Fudge is both easy and measured in terms of time, temperature and effort – go easy on yourself, especially if it doesn’t work first time. Mine didn’t work first time, it’s usually to do with temperature or not stirring it long enough, though sometimes it just isn’t clear why. Mine didn’t set properly so instead I put the batch in the fridge, and when it was cold, cut it into squares and re-rolled them in my fingers into oblong(ish) shapes. They were a kind of delicious toffee fudge.
The second batch didn’t set either, so I flattened the cooled mixture and sealed it in a bag and froze (there’s only so much fudge you can eat at once!) The mixture can be semi-defrosted and cut into squares.
Tips for Cooking with Gorse
- Don’t use any strong flavours that might mask the subtle gorse scent (or just go with this ever so subtle flavouring)
- It’s all about infusing and leaving for as long as you can for the flavour to come out
- Infuse into milk, cream or water by bringing to an almost boil, turning off the heat and covering overnight
- Lemon and orange go nicely with gorse, as does coconut (though not all together), it depends what flavour you want
Gorse Flower Fudge
More accurately, a wonderful creamy, buttery tasty fudge recipe which you don’t need to add gorse flowers to (keep them for another recipe), though you can if you want!
350ml double cream
30g gorse petals (outer sepals and stems removed already)
600g light brown sugar
150g golden syrup
pinch of sea salt
Line a 20cm x 20cm tin with greaseproof paper. Place the cream and gorse flowers in a medium to large heavy bottomed saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer, add the butter and stir. The mixture should be turning a lovely pale yellow colour. Once the butter has melted, stir in the sugar, syrup and pinch of salt. Place a sugar thermometer in the pan and leave to reach 116°C, watching carefully though do not touch. Take off the heat, leave to cool to 100°C before stirring energetically for 10 minutes or until the glossy mixture dulls and stiffens. Pour the mixture into the lined tin and leave to cool for a couple of hours. Cut into squares, keep in an air-tight container, or in the fridge.
I’m sitting listening to Radio 4 (again) and the episode of the Digital Human called ‘Tribe’. This particular episode includes a focus on the role of hunting and gathering as a way of working together and supporting each other. Indeed, our ancestors worked together closely to ensure that food, shelter and sustenance was provided for their community.
Alas, our reliance on each other has lessened a lot since then, yet somehow there has been a continuing interest in foraging over the last few decades. I’ve often pondered about our modern day fascination with foraging, despite no actual need for us to go into the forest or onto the shoreline to find food. It’s all just passively sitting on the supermarket shelves waiting for us.
Over the years I’ve developed various theories on the role and importance of foraging for us digital humans, and I could sum it up in one sentence;
We need to feel connected
The dictionary definition of connected is; to join, link, be united, fasten together, to bind. Our increasing independence and distance from the root of our food, face to face meetings and the natural world has not, I feel, taken away our desire or need to connect, it has just side-tracked it. There’s actually no way to get away from it, we are earth-born and even though we can do a fair amount to separate from this (stay indoors and not engage with others or any form of nature), the desire to belong and be part of something doesn’t go away. In fact, there is some evidence which says that a sense of community and belonging is more important for our well-being than exercise or diet alone. Foraging doesn’t appeal to everyone, though it is a simple and practical way to connect to both nature and food, to the source of our food and the source of our existence.
Connecting to people and nature
For me, being human means acknowledging my utter reliance on planet earth and I believe that the more I feel connected to the place I’m from, the more human and alive I can feel. There are many ways to do this; through interacting with humans that we share this planet with, with animals, with food and where it comes from, or more elementally with water, fire, earth and air. Have you ever thought about how trees and algae soak up our C02 and produce oxygen so we can breathe? Like I said, we are totally dependant on planet earth.
Being human isn’t just about survival though, here in the West we left that lifestyle a while ago, even if some days can feel like a battle to get through. I like to think that feeling fully human also encompasses a sense of adventure, purpose, creativity and the spirit of joy.
We know that food brings people together, but foraging also includes a deeper, more instinctual sense of connection. A connection to the land, the seasons, to an adventure and sense of real achievement that perhaps is lacking in our digital reality.
I found, picked and ate my own food in the wild!
Simple and Good
Foraging is such a simple thing to do, yet, I believe, it sets off a series of feel-good hormones and brain connections that we share with our vital, hand-to-mouth, alive and kicking ancestors.
It helps us feel alive
When I forage, I am connecting to the sun, to the rain, wind, soil and to the turning of the earth. I am connecting to living plants fed by all these elements. A plant that has grown up in relationship to other plants, trees, insects and wildlife. That I’ve hand-picked, which connects me to my whole experience and kinesthetic memory of being out. As well as to the energy and vitality that my wild food is about to provide me as food.
Foraging helps foster a nurturing bond between people and plants, between people and people, between people and the natural world. A bond that has too often, and painfully been replaced by technology. I say painfully, for when we turn away from our home, our roots and a natural sense of belonging (to each other and to the planet that we live on), it is a loss. A loss that I believe, either consciously or unconsciously, we crave.
That is why I think we jump at the chance to forage, get excited about the ridiculous and un-necessary act of foraging; finding, collecting and eating our own food. Foraging fills a gap, a real gap in our experience that digital technology (for all its gifts) cannot replace. Foraging can connect us to what it means to feel and be alive, what it means to be truly human, and this is humbly worth celebrating.
I run foraging courses throughout the year to bring together people, plants and nature. I also offer bespoke experiences, where you can choose the people, place and time that we come together to forage.
This blog is based on the personal and subjective views of me, Rachel Lambert. I am not claiming that my views or beliefs are facts, or gospel or scientifically backed up (except in the places where I have said so). My opinions are based on personal experience, musings and hypothesis about foraging in the 21st century.