Frost clings to the mornings, glittering in the rising sun. Yet even now spring waits in the wings, ready with a prompt. Deep in the woods, wild garlic begins to poke slim green fingers at the sky, beckoning in warmer days. In the damp sheltered corners of fields and under hedgerows, diverse edible greens cluster, hardy and brave.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) is one of those happy wild foods; its flavour and versatility is matched by its abundance. All parts are edible. The early shoots, just peeking above the soil towards the end of winter, have the strongest flavour; similar to garlic mixed with spring onion. It is possible to confuse very young shoots with those of snowdrops or daffodils, so beware – make sure they smell of garlic and you shouldn’t go far wrong. As the leaves get bigger and broader, they become tougher and more fibrous, though are still worth using. The flowers, when unopened, are an excellent snack to be munched as you walk. When they open they make a beautiful garnish for salads. The seeds are crunchy and pungent; another wayside nibble. The bulbs are not really worth it, being small and a bit slimy, and rather mild in flavour. It is also against the law to uproot any plant.
Common wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) is the most readily found of the several species of wintercress. It is a brassica, and the flavour gives this away – mustardy, cabbagey, and really rather bitter. Its green glossy leaves are hairless, deeply lobed, and grow in the rosette shape so typical of the brassica family. Its flowers are four-petalled and yellow. It can be found in gardens, on verges and field edges, and is at its most palatable in winter. A few leaves are all that is needed, as the flavour is so punchy.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is neither particularly bitter nor particularly hairy. The taste is somewhat peppery, a little like a mild rocket. It is another member of the brassicaceae and so grows in a rosette, with pairs of leaflets running down the stalks and a larger end leaf. It is very common, and can be found growing on verges, cracks in walls, waste ground, pretty much anywhere. Hairy bittercress produces tiny, white, four-petalled flowers. When in seed it grows long thin seed pods, which when ripe will explode at the merest touch, which is great fun.
Jack-in-the-hedge, or garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), is mainly to be found from March through until early summer, but does produce new leaves towards the end of autumn that can last into winter. Another member of the brassica family, its flavour betrays its family ties – mustard, cabbage, with more than a hint of garlic. It grows up to a metre tall, and has a single stem with serrated, heart-shaped, pointed leaves and four-petalled white flowers. The leaves give an unmistakable aroma when crushed, which aids identification. It is to be found along hedgerows and woodland edges, even in ditches. Later in the summer it becomes rather bitter, and it is always best to pick to tops as the flavour is finer.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is that perennial flower, so loved by bees and so hated by keepers of immaculate lawns. I’m with the bees (my lawn is far from immaculate). It has sharply serrated hairless leaves, growing in a rosette shape. The flowers are bright yellow, turning to fluffy white seed heads famed for accurate time-keeping abilities. The root, dried and roasted, makes a passable coffee substitute. The flowers make an excellent country wine, and can be infused into spirits for a wild liqueur, or used in marmalade. The leaves can be found all through the year, although can be rather bitter. Pick younger, lighter coloured leaves, and again just a few will suffice.
Scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) is a spectacular fungus that can be found growing on dead wood and mossy twigs – often oak – from early winter to early spring. They are not hugely abundant, so I don’t recommend picking any unless you find a good amount, and even then just take a handful. They are, as their evocative name suggests, bright red and cup shaped, and it takes little imagination to see them being used at a tea party for the woodland folk. There isn’t much they can be confused with, but as always make sure you know what it is before feeding the family or yourself. They have a mild, slightly earthy, mushroomy flavour with a little acidity, a firm texture, and a splendid appearance, all of which are retained with gentle cooking. They have been used medicinally when dried and powdered to help heal cuts and wounds.
Wild miso soup
This soup is a warming, nourishing bowlful, speaking of winter but spreading rumours of the spring to come. Use whatever wild greens you can find (be 100% sure of identity) in the proportions that please your palate – balancing bitterness, brightness, heat.
Ingredients Serves 4
1 ½ pints water
2 tbsp white miso paste
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 ½ tbsp mirin
300g silken bean curd
1 pak choi
1 big handful of mixed wild greens
4 spring onions
20 or so scarlet elf cups
In a saucepan, bring the water to the boil. Put the miso paste in a bowl, and add a splash of the hot water. Mix well until it forms a smooth paste, then add back to the pan of water, whisking all the while. Stir in the soy sauce and the mirin. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Wash and finely shred the wild greens and pak choi, and finely slice the spring onion. Set aside.
Thoroughly clean the scarlet elf cups of any dirt and moss using a stiff brush. Add a good glug of olive oil to a frying pan and cook them on a medium heat, with a pinch of salt, until just starting to soften. Remove from the pan and place on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil.
Gently cube the silken bean curd (this can be fiddly and frustrating as it is so soft) and add, along with the elf cups, to the miso in the pan. The liquid may have separated as it cools, don’t worry, a quick stir will bring it back together. Warm gently, but don’t boil. Taste and correct the seasoning if needed.
Portion the shredded pak choi, wild greens, and spring onion into bowls, and ladle over the hot miso. Serve immediately.