Enabling Environments: Wild Food - Little weeds!

Viv Hampshire
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Never mind if the plant is a weed, it's wild, free, cookable and edible, as children and their families found out with Viv Hampshire.

It's not often that children get the chance to cook and eat the weeds and wild plants that they find growing in their own gardens or local park. So when we heard that a Wild Food family learning project was starting up in our area, we couldn't resist inviting a group of children, parents and grandparents along to Barra Hall Children's Centre in Hayes, Middlesex one Saturday morning in March to find out what the project was all about.

Based at the Colne Valley Park Visitor Centre in nearby Denham, the Wild Food project is visiting local settings and teaching children and their families about some of the many edible plants they can find growing wild - plants, like nettles, that many of us would regard as weeds, but which have a higher mineral, iron and vitamin content than many shop-bought vegetables. And, of course, they have the added advantage of being free.

The project, founded by Groundwork and led by Vicky Tustian, was inspired by rising food prices, the need to reduce obesity levels through improved diets, and a growing public interest in foraging and some of the traditional kitchen skills, like preserving fruit and making jam.

FOOD PROCESS

Vicky arrived at the children's centre well prepared, with pots of plants, a big bag of pre-picked sorrel leaves (which look and taste quite similar to rhubarb), and a collection of rolling pins, colanders and cooking equipment. Her aim was to show the children and their families the whole food process, from planting and picking to preparing, cooking and eating, in just a couple of hours.

Gathered around a large raised flowerbed in our own garden, still empty after the winter, the children were soon happily digging over the earth with their trowels, finding worms, and making holes to plant the tiny sorrel plants that Vicky had brought along. These plants will now be left to settle in and spread over the coming months. Because they are used to growing wild, they will need virtually no care.

Next came identifying, and collecting, some edible plants. It wasn't the season for finding the wild raspberries or blackberries we usually associate with picking in the wild, so Vicky had decided to use dandelions. She showed everyone the shape of the leaves she wanted us to look for. The children wandered around in the grass outside, pulling up leaves and dropping them into Vicky's colander, ready to be washed and sorted. Not all turned out to be dandelions, but we were able to collect enough of the real thing to make use of it in the kitchen.

MORTAR AND PESTLE

Back indoors, when the children had all washed the dirt from their hands, it was time to find out what we were going to make. The children split into groups, one grinding the sorrel leaves with a mortar and pestle until they turned into a mushy pulp, from which the bright green juice was then squeezed by hand into a pan. A second group made and rolled out pastry and started lining some tart tins.

Everyone was amazed at the fresh grassy smell coming from the sorrel as the adults stirred it up with some broken digestive biscuits, sugar, butter, egg yolks and lemon juice on the hob. The thickened sorrel mixture was then spooned into pastry cases and cooked in the oven, just like jam tarts.

Next, we moved on to the dandelions we had just picked in our own garden. Lots of fun was had stirring and whisking eggs, milk and cheese to make a basic quiche mixture. But this was to be no ordinary quiche! Sauted with some lemon juice to reduce the bitterness, the dandelion leaves were then added to the eggy mix, which was poured into pastry cases, then popped into the oven to cook.

The end result, with the little green dandelion leaves nestling in the centre, looked hardly any different from a quiche containing parsley, chives or any of the other more well-known herbs, and tasted delicious.

It was wonderful to see families working together to find and prepare their food and, of course, the children will be able to watch their own sorrel plants start to grow outside as the weather gets warmer.

Perhaps most surprisingly, even the fussiest eaters among the children were keen to try something they had helped to make themselves, even though the look and taste of these most unusual wild food recipes were completely new to them.

SOME SIMPLE WILD FOOD RULES

  • 1. It is permissible to pick wild leaves and fruit for your own personal use.
  • 2. Never uproot whole plants unless they are on your own land.
  • 3. Choose only healthy-looking plants.
  • 4. Don't use plants that have been growing at the side of a busy road or near dirty stagnant water, or from any place where they might have been sprayed with weed killer
  • 5. Wash everything really well before you taste or cook with it.
  • 6. Never use any plants you can't identify.

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