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Foods for Free

by Anita Priddy(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 150 - August 2008


The common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is an amazingly delicious and nutritious herb. Gather the heads, dipping them into a batter mixture and gently fry in olive oil until lightly brown. Then flip them over to brown the other side. This makes a very tasty crunchy mouthful. The dandelion flower petals on their own, dipped into a batter mixture, are then cooked as a pancake.

The roots make a healthy coffee substitute that contains no caffeine. Pull the dandelions with the roots from ground that is untreated with pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or other chemicals. Cut off the roots, rinse well, allow to dry in the sun, or in a slow oven, until brittle, and crush with a mortar and pestle.


Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) contains the highest plant source of iron. It is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and protein. I can remember during the war my mother wheeling me along in my pushchair whilst harvesting the tips of the nettles. Early spring is the best time to collect the leaves, when they are young and tender, and before the plant flowers. Count down two or three bracts, gently snap the stem, and add to your basket. You will find it necessary to use gloves for the collection, and again to transport to your pan.

The easiest way to use the leaves is to replace any recipe that calls for greens. Steamed and served as a side dish, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese is delicious.


Rosehips (Rosa canina) are harvested from the Dog Rose plant, in the middle of winter after the wild roses have lost their bloom. It contains more vitamin C than citrus fruit, and is rich in vitamins A, D and E. Some people, when using rosehip for cooking, prefer to cut them open and remove the seeds and fine hairs to use the pulp. Many herbalists caution against using aluminium vessels, which may destroy vitamin C. For the rosehip syrup, take four cups of rose hips, two cups of water, and one cup of granulated sugar. Wash the hips thoroughly, removing the stems and flower remnants. Boil the rosehips in water for 20 minutes in a covered saucepan. Strain through muslin or jelly bag, returning the liquid to the pan. Add the sugar, stirring well, boiling for a further five minutes. Refrigerate until used.

How about trying rosehip tea? Take one tea bag, one tablespoon (15ml) dried rosehips; three to four whole cloves; and one cup of boiling water. Steep the tea bag, rosehips and clove in the water for five minutes. Remove the rosehips and cloves. Reheat if desired, and sweeten with sugar or honey if required. This makes one serving.



Mushrooms – there are far too many to mention all, and one does have to be careful in selecting only those that are edible. However, I will mention the distinctive Chantrelle mushroom (Cantharellus cibarius). Only found in the wild, attempts to cultivate them have been unsuccessful. Standing up to three inches high, they are a pastel orange colour, and the aroma should be fruity, like fresh apricots. It is generally found in sandy soil, humus, or decaying wood, usually in late summer, early autumn, and is high in vitamins A and D. The easy way to eat Chantrelles is to melt some butter, toss in some diced onions, and finally minced garlic. Allow to cook gently for a few minutes. Cut the mushrooms into half-inch slices and sauté them in the butter with salt and pepper until tender. Then add a little sherry, allowing the liquid to reduce until the mixture appears glossy. Adored by chefs across the world, you could be so lucky to have them growing near you.


Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) is a perennial plant, usually found in damp soils, woodlands and under hedges. It has a very recognizable pungent odour, like the common cultivated bulb. It is the wild member of the allium family, which include chives, leeks, onions and the cultivated garlic. It can form a dense carpet, and is often found on chalky or limestone soils. The leafless flower stems carry a cluster of up to 20 white flowers during April and May. Harvested in spring and early summer, the whole of the plant is edible. Salads using the raw leaves and flowers give a mild to moderate garlic flavour, or as an alternative may be cooked and served similarly to spinach. When cooked, some of the garlic flavour can be lost. Wild Garlic Pesto is made from 200g (seven ounces) wild garlic leaves, 200g Parmesan cheese, 200g pine nuts, sufficient oil to make a pouring sauce, and salt and pepper. After cleaning the leaves, place in a food processor with the pine nuts until smooth. Add the cheese, blending well. Gently pour in the olive oil until it is a smooth sauce. Stored in airtight jars and kept in the dark, this pesto will last for several weeks. Freshly baked bread spread generously with pesto, or on toasted ciabatta bread and topped with cold chicken, make a healthy and tasty meal.


Acorns are not just for the squirrels. Use only those from the blunt leafed oak trees, not the red oak group with the pointy tipped leaves. The preparation to remove the bitter unhealthy tannin is to boil them in water for one to two minutes to loosen their shells, cutting them into quarters to make the shelling easier. Discarding any blackened or insect damaged kernels, put one and a half cups into a blender, fill almost to the top with water and blend until finely chopped the size of rice grains. Boil the bits five to ten minutes in water, and taste a larger piece. If there is any taste of bitterness, repeat until all the taste has gone. Drain and use within a couple of days (acorns are very perishable, raw or cooked) or freeze. Drying them in an oven at the lowest setting, with the door ajar, releases the water vapour, is another method of using acorns. When dried, grind into flour in a grinder or blender, then use in any recipe where flour is required.


Chestnuts (Castanea) are a very versatile ingredient, cooked in many different ways. Boiled, roasted, steamed, microwaved, pureed, and used in both savoury and sweet dishes. The roasted chestnut is delicious. Before cooking, the shell must be slit to avoid bursting (can be very messy). Then shell and remove the thin skin before eating or using in recipes. To peel them easily, slit the shell and boil in water for ten minutes; keep them in the hot water until ready to peel, as it is easier to remove the shell and skin when they are warm. Fresh chestnuts will keep in the fridge vegetable drawer for up to six months. They are free of gluten, oil, and cholesterol, low in protein and very low in fat, but have reasonable quantities of vitamin C and potassium.


Blackberries (Rubus Species) are one of the most popular free foods. Most of us can remember blackberry picking as children. They usually ripen in late summer, August and September being the prime times. The best berries are those located in full sun. When picking, remember that the dark purple juice will stain not only your hands but also your clothes. In olden days, blackberry juice was often used as a dye. The homemade wine produced is a rich coloured sweet wine. The favourite use for the berry is the blackberry jam, not forgetting blackberry and apple pie.


The Elderflower (Sambucus nigra) blooms in June and July depending on how far north it is grown. Pick early in the morning when fragrant and fresh. Dip in cool water to remove any insects, leaving to dry on kitchen paper. The elderflower cordial is well worth trying. Prepare with:
30 heads; six pints (approx. three litres) of boiling water; two pounds (900gm) caster sugar;
One packet of Citric Acid (available from chemists); two unwaxed oranges; three unwaxed lemons.
Rinse the elderflowers to remove any dirt or little creatures. Pour the boiling water over the sugar in a large mixing bowl, stir well and leave to cool. Add the citric acid, the sliced oranges and lemons, and finally the flowers. Leave in a cool place for 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain through some muslin and bottle. Delicious.


The Common Elderberry fruit is also edible, used for the making of jam, syrup, pies and the well-known wine. Only the blue or purple berry is used; the red berry of other species is toxic and should never be gathered. It is a generally known fact that the fruit contains more vitamin C than any other herb except for blackcurrants and rosehips. Beside the regular use of the flowers and berries for the making of wine, the Elderberry Jam is an interesting result of this recipe: Take one quart of crushed elderberries; 1/8 cup of vinegar; and three cups of sugar. Combine, and in a heavy pan bring to simmer slowly until the sugar has all melted. Then cook rapidly until the mixture thickens, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Finally, pour into sterilized jars, cool and store. This should make three half-pint jars.

Blackberry and Elderberry jam has been very popular in days gone by. Take equal amounts of blackberries and elderberries, (stripped off the stalks) place in a pan, bring to boil with water, then cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Add ¾lb sugar to each one pound of fruit, bring to boil again for a further 20 minutes, add more water if necessary, then strain and pot.


Sloes or Blackthorn (Prunus Spinosa). In April the white blossom of the sloe covers the bushes even before most other hedgerow plants have any leaves. In August, the fruits are well-formed but partially hidden by the dense leaves.

Avoid the temptation to pick in August, as the bitter little berries need time to fully mature. By the time they are ready to harvest, the branches will again be bare of leaves, and the clumps of sloes will stand out clearly. Picking them late in October or November means the sloes will have reached their maximum ripeness and flavour.

For Sloe Gin: pick enough sloes to half fill a clean Kilner jar, about 1lb. Prick all over and put in a jar with four ounces of granulated sugar. Seal jar and leave for three to four days, shaking the jar twice a day. Fill jar with gin, stir well, seal, and leave for six to eight weeks, gently shaking the jar from time to time. Strain through muslin into a bottle. It does improve with keeping, but is very good after just a few months for the week-willed.

Wild Food Hunts

David Thorp, Recreation and Public Affairs Officer for the Forestry Commission in England, has noticed an increase in wild food-related events over the last few years. “People have become more interested in foraging for food,” he says. “People enjoy foraging out of a sense of nostalgia for the past.”

Setting off for the woods with the right equipment is important; a bag or two (plastic is best) a stout walking stick, to be used for pulling down laden branches, fighting off brambles, and tough gloves for picking nettles or sloes.

Novices should invest in a plant guide, or even find a knowledgeable fellow enthusiast. Remember that not all parts of the same plant are safe to eat. It is also advisable to follow basic guidelines:
•    Never pick wild food from heavily polluted areas, or in old industrial sites;
•    Avoid hedgerows near heavy traffic or boundaries that may have been sprayed by drifting pesticides;
•    Wash thoroughly foraged foods, regardless of where it has grown;
•    It is sensible to ignore low-growing plants along paths popular with dog walkers for the obvious reasons;
•    Young nettle tops from along busy paths should be left alone, but high growing elderflowers and berries are perfectly safe;
•    Finally, if you are not sure that you have identified the plant you are picking as one that is safe to eat, DON’T PICK IT.


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About Anita Priddy

Anita Priddy’s interest in gathering wild food started during the Second World War, when accompanying her Mother picking rose hips to make the syrup, nettles in place of vegetables, mushrooms, chestnuts, dandelions and blackberries. Since then time she has continued to enjoy harvesting wild food, although this is her first attempt at writing about her hobby. Anita may be contacted via Tel: 07890106497;

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