Learning about wild food at Barnes Common, London

Our first Forage & Feast walk in London for www.totallywilduk.co.uk and it seemed to be a resounding success. We had cold, wet weather on Saturday, after the lovely weather on Friday and Sunday either side of it. Despite this we had a great day walking around the woodland and grassland in Barnes Common, London. We saw and talked about a wide range of edible wild food, medicinal and poisonous plants, trees and fungus. Some of the things we saw included: Stinging nettles and dead-nettles, silver birch, elder, Judas’ ear (aka jelly ear), chickweed, and plantains.

Barnes Common, courtesy of Wikipedia and Nigel Chadwick

Barnes Common, courtesy of Wikipedia and Nigel Chadwick

Wild Food Picnic

After our cold and wet walk, we needed to find some shelter, because nobody wants a soggy picnic. Fortunately, Barnes rail station was quiet and we found a nice dry spot. So we sat down to enjoy our pre-prepared foraged wild food. Including hazelnut scones with knotweed and ginger jam, sourdough bread, cheese and wild plum chutney, burdock crisps, nettle and wild greens pasta, wild berry eton mess, nettle and elderflower cordials, and wild pear wine.

wild food crab apples

Windfall crab apples

Yew berries for my yew liqueur in a hedge

Yew liqueur, you!

So, we all know (or should know) that every part of the Yew tree is highly toxic to humans. When I say highly toxic, what I mean is that a very small amount can kill you. All parts contain taxin, a complex of alkaloids which are rapidly absorbed.

If you are poisoned by it, sometimes there are no symptoms, followed by death within a few hours. Where there are symptoms, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.

So what’s the good news?

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, there is one part that is not toxic. See those pretty little red berries, the red flesh is not toxic, and is also quite nice and sweet tasting; However, the hard, dark-coloured seeds inside, have probably the highest concentration of toxins of the whole tree. It is said that if unbroken, the seeds will pass through you without being digested and without causing harm.

I’m not sure it’s worth the risk, personally. However, I have been known to pick a few and spit the seeds out. The flesh is really quite nice (although I have heard some people compare the texture to snot – but I couldn’t possibly comment).

I’m assuming that it’s for for safety’s sake that there are no recipes for yew berry flesh, or even many instructions to tell you the safe way of eating them. After all, I could easily imagine someone seeing other people eating them and assuming that they’re completely safe, followed shortly afterwards by a trip to the hospital, or the morgue!

Time to make some yew liqueurs

That said, I decided that I would have a play with the flavours and some spirits to see if anything gave good results. Maybe some kind of yew liqueur?

The first step is to separate the flesh from the poisonous seeds. I tried to freeze them first to make it easier, but they didn’t freeze very well, so it was a quite disgusting manual job. The squeezed flesh went quite sticky.

So finally, I split the berry flesh into three portions and put them into some clean, sterilized Kilner-type jars. Over each, I then poured filtered white rum, filtered gin, and filtered vodka. Then I left them to sit and infuse (hopefully), giving them a helpful little shake each time I passed by.

The results…

So, after infusing for 2 weeks now, so it was time for a little try. At this point, the spirits had started to sweeten slightly, but not much change to colour or flavour.

After 4 weeks, things had moved on somewhat, so I strained and bottled the infusions.

White rum, vodka and gin yew infusions

White rum, vodka and gin yew infusions

Now you can see that not only have they taken on slightly different colours across the different spirits, but also I’ve ended up with slightly different amounts of end product, despite the fact that they started with the same volume of berries and spirits.

The judgement

First of all, they are all quite nice. The berries have imparted a slight sweetness, some of their stickiness has come through and made the spirits thicker and smoother, and there’s a very subtle citrus berry flavour.

However, one stands out above the rest. The Gin infusion seems to have worked very well. It’s nice to drink on its own, and if we hadn’t drunk it all it would probably go quite well in a cocktail. Maybe I’ll make it again this year, but try to save some for cocktail experiments, or make some more!

Wild Carrot Leaves

Wild Carrots

I was out for a wander in deepest Essex recently and I came across a patch of land where Wild Carrots (Daucus carota) seem to thrive. You can barely take a few steps without tripping over some.

Wild Carrot Leaves

Wild Carrot Leaves

Anyway, I wasn’t entirely prepared, but I did a quick video on my phone so I could show them…

Hairy Bittercress

I ended up gathering quite a few, along with some hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). The bittercress tastes exactly the same as cress that you might buy from a supermarket (although all the sweeter for being free!).

Hairy Bittercress

Hairy Bittercress

Wild Carrots

What to do with these diminutive, white carrots?

Wild Carrot preparation

Wild Carrot preparation

Firstly, the smaller, younger ones can be eaten raw (and I did), and they make a really nice, sweet snack.

Next, I quickly boiled a couple of the larger, tougher ones. Unsurprisingly, they tasted just like supermarket carrots, but somehow better.

Boiled wild carrots

Boiled wild carrots

Then I chopped a few of the roots and some of the leaves into a salad, which was served with a spaghetti Bolognese (which also had a few wild carrots in it).

Finally, I now have a handful of roots macerating in Vodka. I’m hoping that the sweet carrot smell and taste are going to come through.

Wild carrot vodka

Wild carrot vodka

One for the future, some kind of foraged carrot-cake?