It’s the season for ramsons, better known as wild garlic because of the pungent smell that fills old woodlands at this time of year. Early in the season, through March and into April, is the best time to pick a few of the young leaves where and when you come across a large carpet of them under the trees. Most people use wild garlic leaves to make pesto, but it can and should be so much more than that. Now that we’re a few weeks in to their season, if you’ve had your fill of wild garlic pesto and want to try something else then here’s a great recipe that combines them with wonderful Cornish sole.
About Cornish Sole
Cornish sole is the new name being used for megrim sole, a flat fish that is remarkably good value and incredibly popular on the continent – so much so that until Brexit regulations put a stop to most exports, 95% of the megrim sole landed in Cornwall was shipped to mainland Europe. It’s now being renamed Cornish sole in the hope that a new name will tempt more domestic consumers to try it. Cornish sole caught by demersal trawl is deemed more sustainable by the Cornish Good Seafood Guide so try to get that if you can, then pick a handful of wild garlic leaves on your next walk and give this recipe a go!
Cornish Sole and Wild Garlic Saag Aloo
Cornish sole (the fish formerly known as megrim sole) fillets (2 per person)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tbsp chopped ginger
500g potato, cut into 2cm (¾in) chunks
1 large red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely sliced
½ tsp each black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric
Large handful wild garlic leaves
Heat 2 tbsp sunflower oil in a large pan, add 1 finely chopped onion, 2 sliced garlic cloves and 1 tbsp chopped ginger, and fry for about 3 mins
Stir in 500g potatoes, cut into 2cm chunks, 1 halved, deseeded and finely sliced red chilli, ½ tsp black mustard seeds, ½ tsp cumin seeds, ½ tsp turmeric and ½ tsp salt and continue cooking and stirring for 5 mins more.
Add a splash of water, cover, and cook for 8-10 mins
Check the potatoes are ready by spearing with the point of a knife, and if they are, add wild garlic leaves and let it wilt into the pan.
Finally lay the fish over the top of the potatoes (adjust liquid if necessary) season and put the lid on the pan. Steam for 2-4 mins as the fish turns white you’ll know it’s cooked!
Emma, how did you find your way into becoming a full time forager and an author and authority on wild edibles?
I got into foraging at a really young age. We used to move quite a bit when I was growing up and when I was about 11 we moved from Singapore to Chester. With all the moves I would quite often start school a term late and I remember just reading a lot at the time. I found a book called A Book of Potpourri by Gail Duff and it described how plants could be used for so many different things. It was more medicinal, but that just really fascinated me. When I was about 14 I came across Roger Phillips book Wild Food and that was it; that was where it began. I would take myself out with my rucksack, my imitation Swiss Army penknife and the Wild Food book and I would have a look and see what I could spot. My dad would take me out picking elderflowers and blackberries and so on, and it was nice family time. I genuinely couldn’t believe how much plant life there was around me, and how much edible stuff too. How I got to where I am now was probably down to my “seize the moment” mentality – I think life is short and you’ve got to make the most of it, and I decided that something that I wanted to do was write a book. I thought, “Well, the one thing that I do know about is wild food” so that is where I started. I planned out an edible for every single day of the year, and because there is so much information it then got split into the four seasons. During the whole process I was learning at the same time. I loved the process. Also, because I have worked at Eden and Heligan for over twenty years now I got quite well known that way and managed to build a name for myself.
Why do you think that reconnecting with the food that grows all around us is such an important skill for people to relearn?
I think reconnecting with the food that grows all around us is such an important skill. It connects us to the land and it makes us aware of what is around us, and therefore it makes us care for what’s around us and the environment. I couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else now. I travelled about a lot growing up and loved it, loved all the plant life that I saw, loved the different cultures, but now because I moved so much I actually feel like the plant life is like family that I feel a connection to and I don’t think I could move away from it to somewhere with different plant life and plant niches, which sounds kind of funny. I never really had an anchor and Cornwall has become that anchor, especially when you build a connection with plants. When I do foraging walks I quite often get young couples, old couples and individuals, families and so on, and this really brings people together. I’ve had parents message me afterwards and say “you won’t believe it, my children never touch anything green and would never eat salad, but since they’ve been on a walk with you they’re actually eating healthily and are pointing at things in the hedgerows and have remembered so much of what you said” and I love that so much. Hopefully it’s broadening people’s food palates, it’s helping people to reconnect to the environment around them and therefore becoming stewards almost, to protect the land.
What’s the thing, fact or plant that most surprises people when you take them foraging?
It’s actually one of the most easily identifiable plants that I expect every forager shows their group, and that’s sorrel. Some people have had it before, but watching people’s faces who’ve never tried it, from a fairly small leaf, the intensity of this sour green apple flavour really blows people’s minds. I think that a second one would be pineapple weed, because a lot of people have said “oh my God, we used to play in fields and we could smell this pineapple smell and it reminds me of my childhood but I never knew what it was” and when they get to try the plants and taste that the flavour is as strong as the fragrance, that’s a fantastic thing. I love watching people’s faces light up at these incredible flavours. Maybe a third one would be pepper dulse, a seaweed which is one of the tiniest seaweeds but the flavour is crazy, it’s like a buttery garlic fish pepper punch. It’s incredible. It gets called the truffle of the sea and you don’t need much when you’re cooking with it.
You’re a cook and chef as well as a forager. What’re your favourite wild ingredients, and how do you like to use them?
My favourite wild ingredients… this is a really hard one because I’ve got way too many! But, I’ve tried to narrow it down to sea buckthorn, ramsons, elderflower, ramanas rose and black mustard. Sea buckthorn is out at this time of year (August time). It’s intense, really sour orange berries that grow in estuarine or coastal conditions. It’s like those intense sour sweets you might have eaten when you were younger. The vitamin C content is so high. Because it is such a sharp flavour it actually goes well with buttery things, so something like a sea buckthorn curd or as a cheesecake is definitely one of my favourites.
Ramsons, otherwise known as wild garlic… I can never wait for the ramsons to start popping up in the springtime. Ramson pesto is definitely a favourite and so, so simple too. Toasted seeds, maybe toasted flaked almonds works really well, olive oil, seasoning and then some washed ramson leaves blitzed up together makes such an amazing pesto which goes well with loads of things. Ramson garlic bread as well…. Anything garlicky, stick ramsons in!
Elderflower, there’s all the obvious ones but I think my favourite probably is elderflower cordial and something that I like to do with it is freeze it and then bring it out around Christmas time so you can do elderflower champagne. I love that. With cordials you can make elderflower delight, elderflower tarts… you can use it with so many things.
Ramanas rose is the coastal intense pink rose that’s flowering and fruiting now, so it’s got massive rosehips. They’re so juicy. A lot of rosehips are quite hard and have a lot of seeds in, and yes these have seeds in too and as with all roses you need to take the seeds out because they have tiny hairs that can irritate. But again, right now at this time of year the rose petals can be used to make preserves, jams, jellies and so on and it keeps that incredible rose flavour, and the rosehips are a great source of vitamin C, simply done as a syrup and served with Greek yoghurt and pistachios.
The last one is black mustard. I love black mustard so much. It’s kind of like a sweet wasabi, and the intensity of flavour is exactly the same, so it reaches a peak and then it stops. It’s incredible. If you’re making sushi then add on a piece of black mustard leaf or flowers right at the end, and it keeps the intense heat. Or you can wilt it and use it like a spring greens – it tastes a little bit like purple sprouting once you’ve steamed it, or even black mustard crisps work well. In an oven (keep an eye on them) and just a little rub of sunflower oil and sea salt and you can make amazing crisps.
You’ve written books covering foraging throughout the seasons. What’s your favourite season for foraging, and why?
That’s a really difficult question! I do love autumn, especially now from August into September because you get so many fruits, nuts and berries. You have coastal stuff all the time, so I love wintertime because of going down estuaries and you have all the evergreens but also shellfish and seaweeds through the winter – it’s one of the best times really to collect seaweeds. But then I also love springtime because you have ramsons and incredible spring flowers including things like magnolias, flowering current and lilac. All of them, the flavours are just incredible. Magnolia tastes quite ginger-y and works really well as a spice. Flowering currant has quite a blackcurrant leaf flavour and is quite perfumed as well. Lilac is quite indescribable – very floral and works nicely in cakes. It’s like asking to choose a favourite child or pet! I like all of them.
And with such a range of environments here in Cornwall, and particularly around us here at Philleigh Way, what’s your favourite environment to search for food in?
My favourite environment has to be estuaries. There’s always a plethora of edibles such as plums, sea purslane, cockles, oysters, sea beet, sea arrowgrass and marsh samphire. Where two different niches come together you quite often get a lot of edibles in one space. When people say “could you do a woodland forage”, yes I could but it can’t be dense woodland because you don’t actually get that much stuff in a woodland. If it’s a mixed woodland, so you have deciduous and evergreens, and there’s a lot of dappled shade and there’s paths, hedgerows and so on, then you get a lot more stuff, so an estuary where the land and the river or sea meet together you get an intense pop of edibles. I love estuaries so much and I find they’re quite often fairly quiet places, so getting away from beaches, cities obviously at this time of year, walking down beside a calm body of water and picking and eating as you go, you can’t really get better than that.
What will you be looking for whilst leading the foraging course here on August 22nd, and what will you be teaching attendees to make?
On the course I will be looking for some of the usual suspects like blackberries and hazelnuts, but also hoping to find wood avens for the clove-like flavoured roots, honeysuckle should still be flowering, elderberries, maybe some mustards, pineapple weed. Where we’re heading, we’ll be going down a lovely country lane so great hedgerows there, across a field so there may be some nice wild edibles in that, through or near a woodland and then down towards the estuary where I’m really hoping to find some estuarine edibles. I’ll do a forage before the event and Rupert and I will pre-prepare the food; we’re thinking along the lines of things like hazelnut praline at the moment!
For anybody who can’t join this course to learn the secrets of foraging with you, what would be your one top tip, plant or recipe to help them get out there and discover the world of wild edibles?
For anyone who can’t join me then if you’re going out foraging by yourself my top tip would be to start slowly, go with the most easily recognisable plants – things like blackberries and nettles. It doesn’t matter if you know about blackberries and nettles already, it’s a really good place to start experimenting with flavours.
The more confident you become with things you know are edible, the more you can go on to branch out and try new flavours and new edibles. Go through the seasons, and start slowly. When you’re picking plants check the quality of the plant and make sure it’s not yellow or wilting, and doesn’t look diseased because think of it as any other food. If you see anything like this the plant could potentially have been sprayed and you don’t want to eat that, so think about quality. Use really good ID books on foraging with really good pictures and read the descriptions of the plants and also read about the look-a-likes too because it’s really important to know what to avoid as well as what to look for. Something to try if you haven’t done it recently, or with foraging in mind, is to walk down a country lane near where you live, or even if you live in a town walk through the town because there’s some great edibles about. Go in mind of what is out there, and what is available at this time of year. Keep doing it and you’ll recognise more and your confidence will grow. Probably the simplest or loveliest recipes definitely, one of my all time favourites, has to be nettle soup and a really good tip with this is to season it well, use crème fraiche if you can (or some sort of creamy product), and also blitz it too because you don’t want a stringy soup. And you can’t beat blackberry jam or a blackberry and apple crumble! There’s something crazy like 300 different sub-species of blackberries here in the UK, so you will get a whole assortment from big fat juicy ones to sour ones, slightly salty ones, tiny ones, just use them all and a good squeeze of lemon juice always brings the flavour out.
Because it is the most highly nutritious food on the planet! It is packed with more vitamins and minerals than any other food group – it’s classified as a superfood and is packed full of iron, magnesium, zinc and the 56 trace elements that our bodies need for successful physiological function, holding them in condensed form. And, it’s a local sustainable resource. It’s incredibly good for the environment to eat seaweed compared to land-grown plants. It uses no extra space, it’s already available in the wild, and if it is farmed then it uses a space out at sea so it’s not taking space away from any other activities on land. It doesn’t require any water input, fertiliser, pesticides or any electrical or mechanical input, and it’s a carbon sink so it’s basically just fantastic for the planet. We should all be eating more seaweed! Our product is British so it doesn’t need to be imported – we have an amazing resource on the coast of the UK, we just don’t have a longstanding history in England of eating it like they do in lots of other countries.
What’s the history of seaweed as an ingredient and how is it most commonly used?
It’s been used for thousands and thousands of years all over the world as a medicinal tonic as well as for food. It was written about a really long time ago for skincare; there are writings about Cleopatra using it to maintain youthfulness. In England there isn’t a huge history of eating it, partly because there have historically been issues with ownership of the intertidal zone and the different areas of the beach that have stopped people from collecting it. But most countries that have experienced hardship have developed a relationship with seaweed – Ireland and Scotland’s coastal communities have a strong history of utilising seaweed, Wales does a little bit too. France does, particularly in Brittany. It’s well used, and in South East Asia too, just not so much in England.
What’s the easiest way to incorporate seaweed into cooking?
Treat is as a vegetable! You can steam it, fry it or boil it. Different seaweeds have different properties but some (kelp) can be used instead of lasagna sheets for gluten free pasta for example, sea spaghetti can be used instead of noodles or spaghetti, but otherwise it can be used as a vegetable or a seasoning.
How do you harvest and process seaweed?
We free-dive off a small boat that we keep in Coverack, and we have a license from the Crown Estate to harvest all around there. We free-dive as well as just walking down and collecting it off the coastline. We test all of our seaweed and then bring it back to our units to be processed and dried, then flaked or packed whole. It then gets packed into bags and goes out.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Definitely free-diving and being out of the office! Diving on a sunny day in crystal clear waters, and swimming up to a couple of metres down under the water is amazing. Sometimes we see really big, humongous barrel jellyfish (they’re harmless) as well as seals – we had two amazing days this year when we were playing with seals for about an hour and a half whilst we were harvesting – they were playing with us and nibbling our fins and that was pretty amazing.
What will you be teaching on the day?
A variety of different things; we’ll be tasting different dried and fresh seaweeds, and explaining how they can be used and incorporated into lots of different dishes. We’ll also share a number of recipes that give a broad view of how to use seaweed, so using a lot of different species. We do a panna cotta using carrageen which, when you simmer it becomes gelatinous – it’s an amazing seaweed to use to set or thicken any dessert or soup. We’ll use sea spaghetti as a pasta substitute; we’ll make a pesto, a soup… a whole range of things.
How can course attendees get hold of and go on to use seaweed after the course?
You can buy it off our website! We do a range of seaweed shakers as well as larger seaweed pouches. The seaweed shakers are like spice shakers that sit in your spice rack. We’ve got a seaweed cookbook that we’ve won some great awards for with 50 different recipes and a foraging guide as well as any information that you might need relating to seaweed. You also buy them in loads of health food stores and delis around the country!
The Cornish Seaweed Company will be sharing their love of this amazing local ingredient at Philleigh Way on 18th April. This full-day course (including lunch) will include five demonstrations and four practical sessions so you’ll leave with the knowledge and skills to start foraging for this amazing ingredient (or you could buy some pre-prepared from The Cornish Seaweed Company…) and incorporating it into your everyday cooking.