dandelion buds and chocolate cobnuts

FORRAGING_034When I visited Liz Knight at her cottage in the hills near Abergavenny, I was immediately tempted by the smell of chocolate and chestnut cake baking. Then I noticed the preserving pan of haw berry ketchup on the hob and couldn’t help being drawn to the russet jars of amber coloured medlar and heather jelly and the bottles of rose syrup. It was a grey, bitterly cold morning and on my drive up the hill it seemed as if Spring had yet to arrive. Yet as Liz poured us coffee she talked about the abundance of salad ingredients outside her door; mustard flavoured chickweed, wood sorrel or pennywort to add crunch and texture. Pennywort grows in cracks in walls and is excellent in a green sauce too.

I’d left my own garden looking pretty bare and with the typical Spring ‘hungry gap’ dearth of tasty edibles, but talking to Liz gave me the impression that there were rich pickings all around us. She recalled helping friends clear an allotment ready for Spring/summer planting : “Everyone was busy weeding up things that they could eat.”

Liz says that she “grew up interested in picking things and in plants, I was always blackberrying on local commons,” and set up her business Forage Fine Foods following her redundancy from a successful career in IT sales. When she described how “every time I put a suit on, I knew it wasn’t me” I felt I’d me a kindred spirit! Very similar to my days in financial recruitment when, after a week of commuting I couldn’t wait to get on my bike at the weekends or make a batch of chutney.

Liz now forages for wild foods in the wonderful Herefordshire countryside and creates amazing concoctions in her remote cottage kitchen. She sells her syrups, preserves and spice mixes at farmers markets and to local food shops. Clearly very capable, Liz is often foraging, cooking and delivering her produce with a child at her hip. A mum of three children under the age of five, she has some enthusiastic tasters.

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Both unusual but traditional, Forage goodies include violet syrup and a wild herb rub which is inspired by the amazing pasture outside Liz’s kitchen window. Pontack is a spiced elderberry and cider vinegar sauce based on an ancient recipe, but adapted to suit contemporary tastes. I can’t wait to try it with venison.

By the fire, while we scattered Liz’s home-made sweet rose Dukkah (made with rose petals dried by Liz) over our chocolate cake and drizzled some of her rose syrup over it, Liz talked to me about the salads and sauces that could be made with the dandelion roots and buds and wild greens in plentiful supply.

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 I love foraging but was in awe of the abundance of unusual ideas that Liz has for using wild ingredients. While I make elderflower cordial each year and had felt adventurous making pickles and tipples with elderberries last year, Liz goes one step further. She mentions lots of lovely ideas for using elderflower buds before the flowers make an appearance; apparently they have a smoked thyme flavour and are wonderful with trout.
In between talking knowledgeably about wonderful recipes using honeysuckle shoots, Liz manages to casually cook a stew for her girls with some mountain lamb which has grazed the wild pasture below her cottage. She often serves a wild herb rub or whimberry and heather conserve with lamb; both are inspired by the same wild pasture.
Liz is getting so many members of her rural community involved in wild harvests too, young and old – she uses proper old-fashioned piece work to produce the concoctions which she sells to delis and at farmers markets. Other Mums visit (often with their children), pick up a basket of wild herbs or a box of local cob nuts to crack and take them home to jar up, or join Liz in a group making session in her kitchen.
Local schoolchildren have been shown by Liz how to tap sap from Birch trees, collect rosehips from the hedgerows and make dandelion bud sweets and chocolate cobnuts.

I was totally inspired to be more adventurous in my wild harvests.

Some of my favourite Liz Knight tips for foraging:

– Try making pesto with wild garlic and English cobnuts

–  When weeding, keep the roots of dandelions and the buds (just before flowers appear) then pick dandelion petals and use in a cake. Blanch the roots for 30 seconds, slice and fry in oil with garlic, add a handful of buds. Make a sweet balsamic dressing and dress young dandelion leaves, toss with cooked roots and buds and sprinkle over crisp bacon or cobnuts for a lovely salad with nutty, sweet and slightly bitter flavours.

–  Honeysuckle flower tips are great to make into summery syrups and heavenly with tarragon. Pick just the flower tips, removing the green part, which is bitter. See this great recipe on Liz’s website for Honeysuckle and Tarragon sorbet.

– Try picking dandelion leaves, that pesky perennial weed ground elder, sorrel and wild garlic for a Wild Spring Salsa Verde.

– Elderflowers are great for cordials, but before the flowers come out, the buds have a wonderful smoked thyme flavour and are great sprinkled on salads or with freshwater fish. Later, try using the flowers in savoury dishes, maybe adding sparingly to stuff a trout before cooking.

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6 thoughts on “dandelion buds and chocolate cobnuts

  1. I’ve been looking forward to reading about Liz after hearing you talk about your visit. Love the idea of Rose Dukkah! I remember my grandparents knowledge of plants, how they made their own dried herbal tea blends and their ‘dandelion honey’, a kind of dandelion syrup.

  2. What a life! I like the idea of ‘unusual foraging’ but I am quite conservative when I collect herbs and flowers and I often do not know what to do with it…. I feel that I would like to have your and Liz’s type of life but I cannot live without the city (I was born and grew up close to the city center of Rome). It’s nice to read your posts and dream about it.

  3. I’m very much an enthusiastic amateur, definitely learning when it comes to using foraged goodies. I love some of the Italian recipes for using wild greens though – I bet there are certain wild ingredients you’d cook delicious dishes with. Can understand the draw of city life too though!

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