As August has been unfolding I have been sneaking up to the moors and delighting in the tinges of purple, pinks and yellow as the heath-land takes on its late-summer coat. Bell heather (Erica cinerea) is the first to appear with her larger purple bell-shaped flowers. Followed by heather, also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris) with its smaller, pinkish flowers. Bright yellow Gorse flowers (Ulex europaeus and Ulex gallii), one of my favourite moorland plants, are scattered throughout.
When the air is warm and the wind is blowing the right way, I love breathing in these subtle scents, of which heather also have a reputation for inducing sleep. Being softer than the prickly gorse bushes, I can say from experience that heather makes a great springy bed to take a nap on, and so hardy that it just bounces back afterwards. I wonder how many weary travellers have used heather in this way, as a single plant can be up to 50 years old.
I, almost, find it enough to gaze at this undulating landscape of colour, smell it and doze on it. However my foraging memories usually drive me to gather a few sprigs for my kitchen creations too. Previously I've worked with a cook at a National Trust property who made heather syrup to drizzle over mini steamed puddings - delicious. Though I also simply like tea.
Apparently 'moorland tea' was one of the poet Robert Burns' favoured tea. His version was heather tops (ling) combined with the dried leaves of bilberry, blackberry, thyme and wild strawberry. It sounds like a perfect heath-land combination and I'm sure Robert Burns knew a fair few things about tea. Yet, how one likes a brew is such a personal thing. For me, my go-to combination is bell heather and gorse. Perhaps because I know these two so well, or perhaps because I haven't tasted Robert's 5-herb cuppa. I've made a mental note to try and recreate his moorland tea blend, though meanwhile bell heather and gorse are so easy to spot that I find myself returning to my own mix.
When and where and how to pick
Heather and gorse can be found in heath-lands, moors, bogs and mountain slopes across Europe and North America. The presence of heather usually indicates poor soil, as it prefers mildly acidic soils and thrives best when it has good exposure to sunlight. Over the last 200 years the amount of moorland in the UK has reduced by over 80%, hence more recent efforts to preserve and protect these areas and the plants and wildlife that rely on it.
I love sitting by heather and watching the bees feed and taking my time to pick a few flower heads from each bush, ensuring my foraging efforts are practically invisible. Gorse is always in flower somewhere (as in the UK we have 2 varieties that also hybridise) and heather flowers from July through September.
My moorland tea mix and how to make it
A blend of fresh gorse flowers and bell heather flowers can be used to make a herbal tea, though I prefer to dry them. That way, I can make tea when I want it and use it through autumn and winter. Today's a perfect herbal tea day - rainy and cool outside and ideal for hot, soothing drinks.
I dry the flowers on tea towels in a warm place. It should take two days maximum. Then I place in clean, sterilised jars and use a teaspoon or two of each herb for a cup of tea. It is good with a spoon of honey in too. As I sip my homemade moorland tea, I'm temporarily transported to the moors where I see, smell and nap on these late summer bushes and am flooded with good memories again.
Song, verse, sound and rhyme have been used by humans for thousands of years to communicate, respond and express. Sound is an integral part of our daily landscape. It has been used functionally (to explain things) as well as for fun and as an essential part of celebrations across the world. Rachel Lambert is a foraging teacher who has sung all her life. She sings on her own on the moor, with friends, with family, to mourn and to celebrate life. Since childhood she has learnt songs and made up songs, feeling happy to hit the right or wrong note and just enjoy singing!
Why wild singing
There is much scientific evidence to suggest that singing is good for the brain, heart, gets creative juices running, sends feel good endorphins round the body and can help counter anxiety and loneliness. Coupled with the great outdoors, which can legitimately claim similar health and well-being benefits, wild singing is a pretty good boost for the body and soul.
The benefits of using song to learn about plants
Singing about plants and nature is also part of our historical tapestry. When Rachel Lambert (Wild Walks South West) has researched past uses of plants she’s often come across poems and songs. Songs tell of plant uses, claims of curing ills, bringing love and of old traditions. Rachel has taken this idea and created new songs to tell of plant qualities she often shares with participants on her foraging courses. Songs can be a great way to remember things, as well as just enjoying the moment.
If you'd like to see snippets of other songs, or read more about this experience, you may want to view my other Wild Singing blogs. I run The Singing Forager Experience for anyone who'd like to listen to, hum along or join in. Dates for these are here; The Singing Forager Experience and details of how to book is here.
Follow the #singingforager to find out or hear more.
It's raining and cold and I've just put the heating back on. Time for comfort food, something that will warm me from the inside out. Rice pudding has childhood memories for me, to be honest not brilliant ones. A blob of jam on top of sweet ambrosia rice wasn't hugely exciting to me.
But wild rice pudding, I've had a lot of fun making wild rice puddings over the years. This gorse flower rice pudding is easy to make, and utilises both fresh flowers (in the baked pudding) and dried or semi-dried flowers for the syrup. You can read the full recipe in my Wild Food Foraging book. It doesn't use much sugar either. Hurray!
I teach gorse flowers on many of my spring, summer and winter foraging courses here in Cornwall. Why not sign up to the newsletter to get regular updates on courses and pop-up events and wild food recipes, or check out the membership options for exclusive, monthly and seasonal recipes.
It always feels odd arranging to meet a stranger in a car park. Though that is where I met photographer Rick Davy at the start of my working day. I was on a mission to collect a specific green, and I said to Rick that if he wanted to join me, that's where I would be. Rick, thankfully, was more generous with his words and company than I was. He happily tagged along as I picked my greens and returned to my kitchen to process them.
Rick had got in touch about a personal photography project called A Day in the Life of A and I had agreed to be one of his subjects. Rick also photographed Fiona Were, a fantastic chef that I sometime collaborate with for gourmet foraging events.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is the green I had sought permission to harvest from local National Trust land (about five large stems). I had a lot of washing, chopping and cooking to get on with. First I separated the leaves and stems, then I began to crystallise the young stems to incorporate into sweet filo tarts. I can't remember if I offered one to Rick to taste, I have a feeling he left before they were baked.
(Image: Making sweet filo tarts with crystallised Alexander pieces)
I have to admit of feeling envious of good photographers - they make it look so easy. I love drooling over a good photograph; the visual pleasures of colour, composition and story. Rick Davy's photographs do that for me, and I am thankful for his sharp eye and generosity with this project.
(Image: Crystallised Alexander pieces)
Rick also joined me on another early morning foray - this time to pick Gorse flowers. Last winter I went crazy about these flowers. I even made a little video about Foraging Gorse in Winter - such was my love affair with them. In my first foraging book I share a Gorse Flower Rice Pudding recipe, and I've made so much more with them since then. That day I was trying to perfect Gorse flower truffles, and also wanted to dry some flowers for future syrups and cocktails. La, la, laaaa, the joys of foraging for gorgeous drinks and food.
Those days that I shared partly with Rick are the good days - the outdoor days. As a forager I manage to get outdoors everyday, into nature. The rest of my time is spent cooking, preparing, writing, doing administration and contemplating new ideas and adventures. If you want to see Rick's photos, read the story and see more of his work, visit www.adayinthelifeofa.co.uk
Part of the fun of foraging for me is coming home with a wonderful choice of unusual ingredients to cook and create with, or drying them to use another day. In my kitchen pretty much anything goes, of course there have been disasters along the way, though I've also had some pretty successful surprises.
Foraging also gives me the benefits of broadening my nutrition through a wide range of foods. It's impossible for me to know everything that my body needs (or would take a lot of expensive analysis), though I do know that by including different seasonal plants and seaweeds I'm more likely to be feeding myself micro-nutrients that would be easy to miss.
For example, we all know that life provides a myriad of stresses and that good nutrition helps to counter the effects of and helps to reduce stress. Though did you know that in particular, seaweed provides up to 56 different essential minerals and trace elements for the human body. Wow.
I first came across sargassum seaweed (also known as wireweed and used to be known as japweed) in Sonia Surey-Gent and Gordon Morris' book: Seaweed A User's Guide; an unassuming and valuable book. Here, sargassum muticum is given high acclaim;
'Sargassum... eaten as a powder with a drink of water, provides all the nutrients needed by the body, with hardly any calories.'
Hmm, all the nutrients needed by the body... sometimes I need a strong reminder to use seaweed. Feeling in the mood to make bread I decided to grab some dried gorse flowers, and the dried and ground sargassum that had been hanging around the kitchen waiting (too long) to be used.
This is what I came up with, complete with a sprinkling of nutrients, made with love and enjoyed with organic chicken soup after a cold and beautiful evening round the fire with friends.
Gorse Flower and Sargassum Seaweed Focaccia
A slightly sweet and nutty bread, with all the lovely texture that focaccia normally has, perfect with cheese and salad, with soup, or drizzle with gorse flower syrup if you fancy something even sweeter.
300ml warm water
100ml gorse flower syrup
1 dessert spoon dried yeast
500g organic strong white bread flour
handful of dried gorse flowers (2x handful of fresh is fine)
1 tsp dried and ground sargassum seaweed
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)
1 heaped tsp sea salt
Pour the water and syrup into a jug and stir in the dried yeast. In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, flowers, seaweed, oil and salt, mix in half the water and with clean hands, combine and knead for 5 minutes, gradually adding the rest of the water. Now for the fun part - stretch and pull the dough for at least another 5 minutes before placing on an oiled surface and kneading for a further 5 minutes. Your dough is now ready to rest (and maybe you too), so pop it back in the mixing bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour or until it has doubled in size. Preheat the oven the 220°C and flatten the dough into a large, oiled tin and leave to rise for another 1/2 an hour, and prod your fingers into the dough at evenly spaced intervals to give the traditional focaccia topping effect.
Scatter the top with extra gorse flowers (if you have), a little olive oil and bake for 20 minutes or until golden onto and hollow sounding when tapped. Remove from the oven and leave to stand for 10 minutes before using a fish slice, or similar to remove from the tin and leave to cool on a cooling rack. Slice into squares and eat fresh. Lasts well for 2 or 3 days.
Rachel's Seaweed book talks you through identification, sustainable processing and drying of sargassum muticum seaweed.
Inspired by a winter sun rise and these wonderful bright yellow flowers, here's a little video about foraging gorse flowers (ulex gallii and ulex europaeus) and making the most of the winter light.
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.
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.
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.
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.