Continuing our series on finding food for free, we talk to expert forager and preserver Sharon Greene of The Wild Irish Foragers and Preservers, based in Shinrone, Co. Offaly. Sharon and her husband Gordon forage over fifty acres of land on their farm, picking in season and creating a range of heritage syrups, sauces and shrubs from traditional and sometimes long forgotten recipes from times gone by. We asked Sharon what to look for as April kicks in.
April is wild garlic season, but we only have a small patch of wild garlic in the garden and we don’t pick it because we don’t use it in our preserves. There are a lot of wild garlic pestos out there, and it has become a bit of a fad. I have a bit of a thing about picking it because I’ve seen wild garlic patches wiped out with people over picking. Anyone who is picking should be extra careful to take only small amounts. It’s easy to get rid of a whole patch by picking too much.
Gordon is currently picking gorse. Gorse is known for having very calming soothing properties. We use the yellow blossom for a syrup and our Gorse Petal Shrub, where we infuse the petals into organic Irish Apple Cider Vinegar. Gordon gets covered in yellow gorse pollen when he’s removing the blossom from the thorny stalks. We use about 2kg of pure blossom to make 30 x 150mls bottles of our syrup. It’s brilliant on vanilla ice cream! You can also put it on porridge or a fresh fruit salad or mix it with still or sparkling water as a long refreshing drink. You can use the shrub in dressings and marinades or for flavouring mayonnaise or hummus, as well as in baking. We also make a ‘shrub shot’ where you dilute one-part shrub with one-part sparkling water and serve alongside a cheeseboard of good strong cheeses!
When Gordon has finished getting all the gorse flowers off the stalks, we save all the green, dry it out in the shed, then use it for lighting the stove. Gorse is the best firelighter ever, you will never have to buy another commercial firelighter when you have this stuff handy! In the old days it was also given as chaff for working horses. Our girls have horses so we tie bunches of gorse up with string and hang them in their stables. They eat every bit of it. They love it as a treat and the little thorns stimulate a healthy mouth in a horse.
Nettles are not quite ready yet. In our area anyway they need about another month. The important thing to remember about picking nettles is that you only ever take the top six inches of growth. You can only use new growth. I hear of people picking nettles in July and August when they have matured and they don’t realise that the older a nettle gets; it starts to develop an acid with really irritates the kidneys. If you use old nettles you would probably need to be fairly near a bathroom for quite a long time! The best advice is to take your first six inches of new spring growth, then cut the patch right down to the ground and let it regrow before you pick again.
I use nettles for a lovely Spring Nettle Syrup. Nettles are iron rich and can help with some allergies. You can take our syrup off the spoon or stir it into porridge or natural yogurt. When the nettles go to seed, we collect the seeds for our own use. We hang the nettles to dry in the conservatory then rub them in our hands through a sieve. They are brilliant as an energy boost. Our son plays a lot of rugby so he puts the seeds on his porridge every morning. You only need about one teaspoon a day and it works wonders. In the old days, nettle seeds were well known at dodgy horse-fairs, where they would be given to an old nag before he went up for sale, and he’d perk up so much he’d look like he could win at Cheltenham!
Goose grass and daisies
For our own use at home we pick goose grass. We used to call it ‘sticky backs’ as kids. We just pick a few leaves to throw into a salad. It has a lovely lemony taste.
Daisies are just starting to come now as well. You can eat these whole, flowers and blossoms. They look really pretty in leafy salads. Some people who are into natural skincare and healing make a daisy salve also. I don’t do it myself but it’s supposed to be wonderful!’
No to Roadside and Urban Foraging
It’s really not worth picking anything that has been grown in a busy urban area or beside a well-used road. You’ve no idea what has been sprayed on it, or how much pollution it may have soaked up from car exhaust fumes. I always advise people to stay away from roadside foraging unless you live in a rural area where there are wild country lanes, where you can be pretty much sure there hasn’t been any chemicals near the plants. Picking from land near farms is also not a good idea unless you know the practices of the farmer. Plants that grow on the edges of fields could have Round-Up or slurry on them. So wherever you are foraging, make sure it’s a space that is free from risk and possible contamination.
Some useful advice and great tips there from Sharon. We look forward to catching up with her again as summer moves on, when she will be picking hawthorn berries and other berries, clover and other summer plants to use in delicious recipe ideas!