Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was one of the first wild herbs I got to know. I used to love lying on my belly and introducing it to people in their garden lawns, where it often grows side-by-side with grass. I've even written a song about yarrow that I share on The Singing Forager Experience as a way for you to learn about and remember yarrow's qualities.
If you're lucky enough to see yarrow in wilder areas you'll get to know its lightly furred, dry stems and tight, umbel flower heads that smell of honey in the hot summer sun. Ooh, that scent. The flowers tend to be white with a pale yellow centre, though can be tinged pink. There are many colourful garden varieties too.
Yarrow is strong in many ways; with firm, upright stems it thrives in harsh environments from sand dunes to mountain sides. It bounces back, even after been regularly mowed, and has powerful medicinal qualities from stopping blood flow to treating colds. Yarrow has quickly become incorporated into my tea cupboard, my first aid kit, my salads and my creative memory bank of flavourings. Actually, I admire its qualities so much, I have a dried sprig of it sitting opposite me in my office window sill.
I've used it for years as a Winter tea when I get colds (it helps reduce fevers), I've used it directly on a small open wounds to stop bleeding (also known as woundwort it has anti-inflammatory qualities too) and I've used it in cold and hot infusions for drinks, ice cream and creme brulee.
Using Yarrow in Creme Brulee
Yarrow has a variety of culinary uses and scents, depending how and when you use it (too much to go into here), though chewing on a little of the summer leaves have always reminded me of lavender (don't eat too much). I remember making a lavender-scented creme brulee the day my sister went into labour with her second child. Something relaxing while we're waiting, I thought. Then her waters broke. We never got to enjoy the creme brulee properly, though the seed had been sown for a wilder version of this classic dessert.
On another note, since popping out to buy the double cream, I bumped into two neighbours who both said they don't usually go for dessert, unless it's creme brulee. Something about the dairy, the small portion and the not too sweet, it seems. I digress.
Yarrow Creme Brulee Recipe
This recipe captures the mild herb flavour of yarrow, building on the 'not too sweet' dessert theme. It uses dried yarrow, so can be made in Summer or Winter, for medicinal or pleasure reasons, or both.
- 350 ml double cream
- 3 heaped tbsp dried and chopped yarrow leaves and flowers
- 3 large organic egg yolks
- 2 tsp soft brown sugar
- 1 heaped dessertspoon dried and chopped yarrow leaves
- 75 g water
- 100 g unrefined caster sugar
Pour the cream into a small saucepan and pop in the yarrow. Leave to 20 minutes before heating over a very low heat. Stir every so often, bashing the leaves and flower heads to help release the flavours. Do not bring to boil, only heat until a skin forms or until the surface starts to quiver. Combine the yolks and sugar in a heat proof bowl and when the cream is ready, pour it through a jelly bag or fine sieve, into the egg mixture. Stir continuously, rinse out the pan if necessary and re-pour the whole mixture into the pan over a low heat. Give the jelly bag a good squeeze so you extract all the aroma you can, then stir the pan while the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Pour into 4 ramekin bowls and leave to set in the fridge overnight. Before you go to sleep, boil the kettle and pour 75 ml of hot water (5 tablespoons) over the herbs for the topping. Cover and leave to infuse. The following day, strain the water, discarding the herbs and boil with the sugar until it turns a dark brown colour (about 280°C if using a sugar thermometer). Pour a thin layer over the each custard ramekin and leave to cool. Serve the same day, or the caramel will start to dissolve again. To eat, crack open the top and enjoy.
Like to learn more?
I run foraging courses throughout the year where you can learn about common wild plants such as yarrow. I cover up to 10 plants per course, as thoroughly as possible. You can ask questions, we can discuss, share, smell, touch, taste and ruminate about all the possible recipes and uses of each plant (and I'll share facts and my experiments too!). Oh, and the Singing Forager Experience is my new venture - it's a foraging walk with songs and a fire, where I share knowledge about plants in all the ways mentioned above, with the addition of songs (join in or just listen). Would love you to join me on either of these.
A long held discussion or even conflict within the world of wild foods is that of comfrey & whether its healthy or potentially harmful to humans. I'm sure this discussion will continue for, well, a while, meanwhile I thought I'd add my contribution. I've also included my latest recipe, alongside some reasons (including scientific ones) of why I like this plant.
Comfrey leaves - Symphytum officinale - has been used for thousands of years as a food & medicine, some of its common names include 'knitbone' because of its internal & external application for broken bones. Indeed, it has been held in high-esteem by herbalists for its healing properties, in particular reducing inflammations by aiding cell regrowth & repair (1).
Just on a side line, if you research into comfrey as a plant food (a liquid green fertilizer) you will find lots of positive reports of its nutritious benefits of 'greatly enhancing the fertility of your soil'. I am aware that people are not plants - although an interesting topic based on our intake of so many nutrients from the plant world that are then laid down as vitamin & minerals in our bodies which create our bones, repair our cells - I digress!
Meanwhile, more recently, comfrey has been approached with more caution & in some incidences considered a potential poison that should not be used as a food, or indeed a medicine at all. Only last month, when speaking to a reputatable & quite open-minded scientist about wild food, he quoted to me the risk of eating comfrey in the context of the dangers of wild food foraging. Now, while I want to promote safe foraging ( some plants are most definitely poisons, for example, while others need to be processed), I also want to promote a balanced approach to plants as foods & accurately represent the benefits.
As a non-scientist, I've chosen to refer to research done & leave you to come to your own conclusions... In particular, everybody's body is different & reactions, can & indeed have, occurred. In particular, the main research that is often cited is from 1978 when rats were fed comfrey leaves (8-33% of their diet) for a durational period, which resulted in liver tumours developing in all cases (96% turned out to be benign by the way) (2). However, as pointed out by Health Practitioner, Dorena Rode (through her extensive & thorough research on comfrey - well worth a read), further scientific research has been carried out where no such results were found (3). I also usually add the obvious; that we are not rats & I challenge anyone (not literally) to even try & eat comfrey as a third of your diet for half a year!
So, am I promoting comfrey as a food, or am I not?
Well, over the past 5 years I have certainly used comfrey as an ingredient in wild food events & dinners (with no known negative side-effects). Excellent in curries, we were particularly pleased with our Sea Beet, Comfrey & Black Mustard Thoran - a South Indian style dish using coconut that Sara created on one of our inspired walks through the Cornish countryside.
Personally, I also remember over 15 years ago sitting in a wood with my boyfriend, it was morning time & he was cooking up comfrey fritters (quite a traditional & classic recipe quoted for this food) & frying wild mushrooms for people to taste - delicious! However, I have also remained cautious around using this plant too often.
Now, coming back to the present day. This morning I've been looking at those comfrey leaves I picked yesterday morning; a glorious summer wander with comfrey looking too good to be passed by. The combination of sunshine, the outdoors & wild food just gets my creativity going sometimes & I want to play! The heat also doesn't inspire a laboured curry for me & one of things I enjoy about comfrey is the cucumber-like flavour & freshness.
Armed with a little research, a healthy appetite & travelling past my local shop for a few ingredients - I set to. Before I tell you my recipe, I want to share with you a few tips that I decided to take on board regarding eating comfrey;
Here are 4 reasons why I continue to eat comfrey - occasionally:
1. Apparently the older leaves are meant to be less potent in the Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (4) that are thought to be harmful in comfrey - so I focused on picking these older leaves
2. I like life & have no desire to push the boundaries of nature, so am adhering to not eating comfrey too regularly or in large amounts (for my own comfort & peace of mind)
3. That comfrey is also RICH in many beneficial nutrients for us humans (great!) including; Calcium , Magnesium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, Beta Carotene, Phosphorus, Potassium, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Iron, Sulfur , Copper & Zinc (4)
4. I've never felt any ill-effects from eating comfrey & I enjoy eating wild foods.
Back to my recipe. Based on my love of that cucumber-like flavour of comfrey, plus reading that protein deficiency & lack of sulphure containing amino acids may contribute to the ill-effects of comfrey (3), I created this;
Comfrey & Yoghurt Dip
1 handful of comfrey leaves (older ones)
200g of natural yoghurt (the proper full fat stuff)
1 heaped tablespoon of good honey
1 squeeze of lemon juice
1 shake of liquid amino acids (google it!)
Put all the above in a food blender & whizz together. The result is a sweet, cucumber-like dip (think tzatziki) that I thought was delicious! Perfect for a summer spread of salads, dips & fruits. Let me know what you think..
(1) Comfrey 2011 University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC)
(2) Hirono, I., H. Mori, and M. Haga, Carcinogenic activity of Symphytum officinale. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1978. 61(3): p. 865-9.
(3) Comfrey Central - A Clearinghouse for Symphytum Information www.comfrey-central.com
(4) Comfrey is Poisonous? Dherbs Article