Winter Warmer

Winter snaps her fingers, and all the world turns white. We seem to have skipped autumn this year, going from hot to cold like the turn of a tap. The leaves on the oak and beech trees still dance green on the branches, only the birch has bronzed. Fog clings to the mornings, and the birds queue keenly for their daily fat balls. In the kitchen, my efforts turn toward stews, soups; hearty fare to keep out the chill. As ever, there are wild and free ingredients to prepare, for food or for hot drinks to full my morning mug.

This recipe is, by my own admission, a bit of a faff. But it is very tasty, and I found the process so enjoyable I couldn’t resist sharing it here.

Cloveroot (Geum urbanum) is also known as wood avens, colewort, and herb bennet, amongst other names. It is a member of that splendid family of plants the Rosaceae (which gives us apples, rose hips, hawthorn, and many more edibles). It is common in woodland, usually along edges of clearings and pathways, along hedgerows, sometimes even gardens, and may be found throughout much of the year.

The leaves grow in groups of three at the tip of the stem, with smaller opposing leaves growing in pairs lower down. The leaves are rounded when young, growing longer and sharper as the plant matures.  The underside of the leaves is hairy, with prominent veins. It flowers between May and August. The blossoms are bright yellow and have five petals. Later they form red, spiky seed heads, which attach to animals and clothing as a way of distributing the seeds.

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The leaves can be used, when young, as a pot herb, but are quite bland and bit bristly. The roots are a different matter. As the name suggests, they have a strong scent and flavour of cloves, with a little hint of cinnamon thrown in; a truly native wild spice. Indeed they contain the same oil that gives cloves their aroma and flavour, though not in as high a concentration.

They are shallowly rooted, so need little encouragement to give up their treasure, which is a mass of fine roots. You will find a small solid root at the centre, which is of no interest, so discard it. Trim the stems away, bruise the roots, and give them a good long sniff. The scent is spicy and warming, and so surprising that it is worth doing this every time you pick some.

(Note – it is illegal to uproot any plant without the landowner’s permission.)

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These roots have been used as medicinal infusions for centuries, with it being said that it can be used to treat problems of the mouth, throat, stomach, and blood. It was even used as a remedy for ‘poison’, and to treat the plague. It is also said to ward off evil spirits, snakes, and rabid dogs. Phew.

Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is a member of the carrot family, the Umbelliferae, which should be approached with extra caution. This family contains some of the most toxic species to be found growing on the British Isles, including hemlock water-dropwort, one of the deadliest plants in the world. All members of the carrot family are superficially similar – sometimes more than superficially – so it really is of utmost importance to read some guide books, get advice from an expert, and go on a few organised forays before devouring any of this group of plants. It is also closely related to the dreaded giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), that perennial enemy of tabloids, which will give extremely nasty chemical burns that can take years to heal, and should not be handled at all.

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If you are still reading and have not run, screaming, for the relative safety of shopping for dinner, then let me calm things down a little. Common hogweed is one of the more readily identified of the carrot family. It is a perennial, growing to 1.5m – 2m, with bristled deep-green and deeply divided leaves. The stalks are also bristled, and green or red.  When flowering it has large ‘umbrellas’ of dull white blossoms. It can be found from June right through until the end of autumn, growing on the sides of country lanes and on the edge of pastures.

The young shoots (caution! – it is easier to confuse young plants with each other as some differences are yet to appear) are delicious, the flavour something like celery-asparagus-parsley whilst being entirely all of its own. Steamed and then fried in butter, they are one of the best wild vegetables to be had. It is worth noting that the sap of the common hogweed can also cause burns (I have personal experience of this), especially later in the season, so gloves are advisable, and it is probably best to keep children away.

Having said all this, we will only be using the seeds for this recipe. To harvest the seed, identify the plant earlier in the year, whilst it is flowering, to (again!) avoid potentially harmful confusion.  The little oval seeds grow in small groups, replacing the umbrella sprays of blossom, can be used green and fresh (as here), or picked once they have dried on the plant (and are a little less zingy); just snip then off with some scissors. They are a truly wonderful ingredient, with a burnt citrus flavour, and hints of ginger and cardamom.

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If you are unsure of the identity of anything, don’t use it. It is possible to approximate this recipe with shop-bought spices and milk, though it will not be as good. I do gently encourage you to learn safe and responsible foraging from a teacher, so your knowledge and confidence (and larder) will grow. For a list of foraging teachers throughout the UK and further afield, visit the Association of Foragers website here.

Our final foraged ingredient for this recipe is hazelnuts, of which more has been said in a previous article, here.

Wild Winter Warmer.

This is a recipe for a spiced warm drink, using hazelnut milk, cloveroot, and hogweed seeds.  The hazelnut milk brings a nutty depth (and is, of course, vegan). A ‘mulled’ flavour, along with a hint of citrus and ginger, comes from the wild spices. As winter approaches, the use of warming spices reminds us of sunnier, lighter days. This drink is best enjoyed with friends, by a bonfire; hands gloved, head hatted, breath clouded in chill air.

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Ingredients (makes around 500ml, enough to serve 2)

250g x hazelnuts, shelled

5g x green hogweed seeds

50g x cloveroot roots

2 x bay leaf

water

salt

Demerara sugar

Method

To make the hazelnut milk, cover the nuts with water. Add a pinch of salt, cover, and leave overnight. Once soaked, pour away the soaking liquid, and rinse the nuts thoroughly.  Place in a food processor along with 500ml water, and blitz until all the nuts are blended. Pass through a fine sieve a couple of times, pressing the pulp with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. The leftover hazelnut pulp can be dried and used in cakes, bread, anywhere you might use nuts. The resulting milk will keep, covered, in the fridge for 4 or 5 days.

Remove the roots from the cloveroot plant, discarding the woody central root mass. Give them a good shake, and then wash in several changes of fresh water to remove any remaining mud. Set aside on a kitchen towel to dry a little.

Roughly chop the hogweed seeds and cloveroot.

Place the cloveroot, hogweed seeds, bay leaf, and hazelnut milk in a saucepan, and warm gently. Do not boil, as it will split. Once beginning to steam, remove from the heat, cover, and cool.  Once cooled, place in the fridge and allow to infuse for at least 12 hours, more if you can – I would make this a couple of days in advance.

When needed, strain the liquid to remove the roots and seeds, and put the sieved infusion back into a pan.  Warm gently, and add Demerara sugar and a pinch of salt, to taste. Serve straight away.

This article first appeared in a different form on Locavore Magazine’s website.