Alternative Wild and Superior ‘Asparagus’
Researching regional names of plants is a fascinating and usually an amusing pastime. Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is one of those plants, and as it’s now in season (april to june) I thought I’d dedicate a whole blog article to it.
Inspired also by local names such as Pig Flop (an image of a pig collapsing after pleasantly over-indulging on this plants passes through my mind!), Cow Weed (what’s its known as on the Scilly Isles), Cow Parsnip, Cow Belly and even Humperscrump, according to Forager and Author John Lewis-Stempel. It's also known as a type of poorman's asparagus, although I think it's superior.
To me, this plant has always been known simply and humbly as hogweed, and I’m going to share with you some facts about identification, names, tastes and recipe ideas.
Starting with identification, common hogweed can be found across the UK, it really is common and usually considered a pain. Its habitat can be varied and includes fields, open woodland, hedgerows and roadsides. Often people are sceptical when I introduce it as a potential food and for two understandable reasons.
For some it has the association of being poisonous, mainly because if the sap gets on your skin and is combined with sunlight, for example when strimming the plant on a hot summer’s day in t-shirt and shorts, one can come up in horrible blisters that can scar. Not an experience I’ve shared, though I’ve heard enough stories to know it to be an unpleasant encounter.
There is the issue of correct identification. Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is in the Apiaceae (Carrot) family and shares a similar flower structure with edibles such as carrot (funnily enough), parsley, fennel, chervil as well as the deadly poisonous plants; hemlock and hemlock water dropwort. Needless to say, mistakes can be lethal and enough to put many people off. However, there are distinguishing characteristics that can be learnt. Reading a few words and seeing a few images is not generally suffice for this, though it is a good start, so here it goes!
Flower head of Common Hogweed
Hogweed generally grows up to 2 metres tall (related & non-edible Giant hogweed grows up to 5 metres). Hogweed has hollow, ridged stems that are hairy, almost furry, that can give a white-ish tinge to the stems. The leaves are soft/furry with undulating lobes (see images) and stems can sometimes be purple, though normally green (NOT purple spots like hemlock). Like anything, take your time to get to know the plant (it will always return the following year if you’re still unsure) check with experts & you will be duly rewarded.
Leaves of Common Hogweed (slightly undulating and definitely furry)
So with so many obstacles to over-come before even picking it, why bother at all? Well, of course its the taste. Like many wild edibles, it has, at times, been called poor man’s asparagus - as its the young shoots you’re looking for in spring. I like to think that this is sly way to protect a valuable plant which has an unusual taste that could easily be at home on many gourmet’s plates. The history of so-called poor man’s food includes beliefs such as inferiority of taste, too common (abundant) or inadequate in flavour (unlikely these days in comparison with bland, long shelf-life shop bought veg). As a modern day forager its a great plant - abundance is perfect (making it very hard to over-pick) and the unusual flavour is one of the exciting aspects of wild food. It is also rich in vitamin C and carbohydrate.
How to enjoy it at its best? Well John Wright (from River Cottage) covers the young shoots in beer batter. For me, I simply steam those young shoots, drizzle in butter or hollandaise sauce and serve as an accompaniment to fish or meat dishes. I’ve also chopped them up and added them as a flavouring for dhal (combines well with wild carrot seed ).
Finally, you’ll all be asking what the flavour is. Well, the true answer is inside of you - we all experience tastes differently - though I describe it as perfumed, aromatic, sometimes a hint of bitterness & rich.
Hogweed Shoots with Hollandaise Sauce Recipe
To serve 2 persons
- 6 young hogweed shoots (Poor man's asparagus)
- 175ml white wine vinegar
- 2 free range egg yolks
- 70ml unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon peppercorns
- Squeeze lemon juice
Boil the vinegar with peppercorns & reduce by half. Strain and put aside. Boil a large pan of water, then reduce to a simmer. Using a large balloon whisk, beat together the yolks and 2 tsp of the reduced wine vinegar in a heatproof bowl that fits snugly over the pan. Beat vigorously until the mixture forms a foam, but make sure that it doesn’t get too hot. To prevent the sauce from overheating, take it on & off the heat while you whisk, scraping around the sides with a plastic spatula until you achieve a golden, airy foam.
Meanwhile put the poor man’s asaragus shoots on to steam (4-5 minutes). Whisk in a tablespoon of the warmed butter, a little at a time, then return the bowl over a gentle heat to cook a little more. Remove from the heat again and whisk in another tablespoon of butter. Repeat until all the butter is incorporated and you have a texture as thick as mayonnaise. Finally, whisk in lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste plus a little warm water from the pan if the mixture is too thick. Drizzle over the hogweed shoots & serve as a starter or alongside meat or fish.