The inspiration for this drink...
I first went to India in my twenties and quickly got addicted to the wafting scent of freshly made chai served on street corners and eateries. I remember the coffee too – sweet and weak - it was a constant disappointment to my strong coffee loving boyfriend at the time! This is somewhere between the two; a sweetly spiced cleaver coffee drink, with a little caffeine and all the warming and uplifting benefits that spices bring.
As a forager I love to use locally growing weeds, find out all about this plant and where it grows in my blog about how to make cleaver coffee.
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Over the centuries many different grains and plants have been used as an alternative or substitute for coffee. In the 2nd World War acorns and chicory were used. Roasted rye, brown rice and malted barley have also been used across the world.
These are Cleaver seeds, Goosegrass (Galium aparine), sticky grass or sticky willy - as we called it as children. Cleavers makes the best alternative to coffee I know.
Related to coffee, when roasted their flavour resembles coffee’s taste and smell. Cleavers even contain some caffeine. Each plant can produce hundreds of seeds, anything from 300 to over a thousand. Giving you a bounty to forage if you have the patience. Oh, and a little perspective, by the time you’ve finished reading this page, you could have collected enough seeds to make a mug of cleaver coffee.
Where can you find cleavers?
Cleavers can be found in fields, crop fields and hedgerows. They prefer nutrient-rich soil, can survive dry conditions well and can grow from just above sea level up to 1,500 ft. A straggly, creeping plant that can grow more than 1 metre long. Each seed is covered in tiny hooks that attached themselves to, pretty much anything, except plastic.
When to harvest cleaver seeds?
The seeds start from summer; though these aren’t the ones you want to harvest. Instead, wait until they turn from green to brown in late summer or autumn. You can keep an eye out for them throughout winter too.
What are the benefits of cleaver seeds?
Cleaver seeds are a mild laxative, stimulate the lymphatic system and are good for treating urinary irritations. A word of warning though, don’t try and bite on dried cleaver seeds, they are very, very hard.
How to Make Cleaver Coffee
For committed coffee drinkers, this is the best wild substitute that you can find in the hedgerows. It may not impress expresso lovers though! However, it suits desserts faultlessly and can be used to make a coffee-flavoured drink with a mild caffeine hit.
Makes 90 g (9 tbsp)
100 g Cleaver seeds (picked off the stems)
Pick the dry, brown seeds and discard as much of the stems as possible. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C, place the seeds on a baking tray and dry roast for 45 minutes to an hour. The more seeds you have, the longer the roasting will take. An aroma reminiscent of weak coffee will be released when they are ready, and they’ll turn a little darker, though don’t let them burn.
Remove the seeds from the oven, allow to cool a little before grinding, or store and grind on demand. You’ll need a good, strong seed or coffee grinder to break those hard seeds into a ground powder. Stores well for up to a year.
Want to learn more and make some cleaver coffee?
Also, have you seen my dandelion coffee recipe? Dandelion roots and cleaver seeds are two wild edible plants I teach on my late summer, autumn and winter foraging courses. which you're welcome to join For my best recipes you may want to check out my foraging members options too.
Spring is exciting - a combination of warmth and light gets plants, animals and human-animals going. Sometimes, for me, too going. The term mad march hare feels too close to home for me, as I prance around the hedgerows picking wild greens as if there is no tomorrow, or as if spring won't last forever, which of course it won't. Lets face it, we've often being waiting a while for it to come too.
Many wild greens respond well to being plucked, for example when the tops of nettles are snipped off this stimulates more growth and leaf tops to grow. So below I've chosen 5 common wild foods that arrive every year, a plenty and are happy to be plucked, appreciated and eaten.
Here are my top 5 pick-ables (non-technical term :)) for this spring, I have loads of nuggets of information and recipes to share on each of them, though for now I'll keep it brief.
My Top Five Spring Wild Foods
1. Stinging Nettles Urtica dioica
Never under-estimate a common plant, believe me, nettles are a valuable food and we are lucky to have them. Their nutrition and versatility makes them easy to use (just avoid being stung) and they are (in my humble opinion and according to nutritional facts) better for you than spinach or cabbage.
2. Wild Garlic Allium family
The wild onion, garlic and leek family is vast and too large to go into here, though their commonalities include a wonderful garlic taste (and smell), anti bacterial properties and support for the heart. The whole of the plant can be used and it can be used raw or cooked - raw is stronger. It is one of the key edibles of spring.
3. Cleavers/Goosegrass Galium aparine
Cleavers spread. They grow up to 1 metre long and can be collected without a bag (let them stick to you). The leaves are a wonderful spring cleanser and support the urinary and lymphatic system, though best cooked to avoid the not so pleasant hairy texture when raw and use in small amounts. I like to just pluck the tops and sweat them with nettles in butter or oil.
4. Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum
Writing this from the south coast of Cornwall, Alexanders are definitely on my list. Abundant and often considered an invasive (land managers around Bristol have also practically pleaded with me to pick and eat them too). Nutritious and versatile, if you just know how to use them and pick them early on in spring.
5. Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa
Sorrel sap is tart and lemony and at its best in spring, and once you get your eye in, you'll start to see it everywhere. Delicious added to so many savoury and sweet dishes, though don't eat too much as it contains oxalic acid which isn't good to eat in large amounts. A little is fine though.
So there you have it, my five favourite wild greens, and yes greens are best in spring. Next spring, maybe I'll share a different five, as there's always more to share.
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!
Here's my indoor version of how to make cleaver coffee.
Having watched spring slowly arrive over winter, in the last few weeks it has speeded up & fully arrived in all its glory. I love spring, perhaps because it's the season I was born, or maybe because of those lovely bouncy baby lambs in the fields... Then there's the increase of day light & all the spring foraging to enjoy too. An abundance of smells, tastes, textures & goodness - all oozing with vitamins & minerals. Basically a multitude of reasons to have a spring in my step & that madness of energy that's associated with this time of year.
Teaching foraging is largely seasonal, mainly because people want to forage to certain times of year, rather than there being a lack of plants during the winter months. As my season starts of kick off, my days feel fuller - bookings, organising & planning. At the end of the day there's nothing fresher for me than to take a walk, get away from the computer & amble along, lazily picking as I go. It's relaxing, valuable time-out, all with a flavour of spring madness of the plants I have to choose from as I walk.
Ooooh, what catches my eye today? So much to choose from. Today I chose just a few spring greens for supper - nettles, cleavers, & tri-cornered leek for soup. Chickweed & yarrow for frittata. I could go on about the bounty to enjoy, though really I just want to sit & eat, then do it all again tomorrow! Wishing you wonderful spring foraging - this really is the time to go mad out there & forage to your hearts content.
Shopping down the supermarket aisle? Not for me, in spring all my greens come from the hedgerow.