On Sunday, we went on a Wild Food Foray just north of Bolton Abbey, North Yorks, organised by Slow Food West Yorkshire and led by medical herbalist & wild food expert Jesper Launder.

It was a glorious day – beautiful countryside and super sunny but with a lovely cooling breeze and a river for Lily to cool off in – and under Jesper’s tutelage, we got to try over a dozen different plants. We also did a spot of crayfishing in the river (catching nasty, invasive Signal crayfish), which was a lot of fun.

There was really too much information to take in during the day and I’ll probably only be confident identifying a few of the things we tried – but it still was an excellent day and a great introduction to the potential finds out there. I’d highly recommend going on such a walk and we’ll certainly go on more in different locations/seasons.

Some of the things we tried (in rough order of trying them):

  • Sweet Cicely – this was the first thing we tried, right next to where we met at Barden Bridge and it was one of our favourite things of the day. I’d been worried about trying it (or Cow Parsley or anything like that) before because it looks similar to the deadly poisonous hemlock but unlike Cow Parsley (which we tried next and found pretty bitter), Sweet Cicely is pretty easy to correct identify due to its very strong, unmistakable aniseed smell. All parts of the plant are edible and aniseedy – we tried the leaves while Jesper talked about it, then the inner bits of the stalk (which was a very interesting texture and pleasantly moist) then at the end of the walk, had the leaves battered & deep fried (yum!). Definitely something to look out for now we can identify it safely.
  • Jack by the Hedge (aka Hedge Garlic) (Alliaria petiolata) – something I’d been on the look out for but never successfully identified. The leaves looked like large sting-less nettles and at this time of year, it’s topped with small white flowers. A peppery, garlicky flavour – I imagine it would be very nice as a salad leaf.
  • Wild garlic flowers & stems – we’ve obviously eaten plenty of wild garlic in the past but only the leaves. For some reason, once the leaves got big and bitter, I discounted it as finished for the season but the flowers are as equally delicious and the stems are still yum – the texture of spring onions but with that familiar garlicky hit.
  • Large Bittercress – after Sweet Cicely, this was probably our favourite thing of the day. Very peppery and hot, like wasabi (in both taste and post-consumption nose tingling). We were left holding the stalk at the end of the pass around and nibbled on this a few times throughout the day. Definitely something to master identifying on our own.
  • Pig nuts – despite cutting my finger in the process, looking for pig nuts was a lot of fun – digging little holes in the turf to look for the tubers. The texture was like chestnuts and while flavour was nice but not overwhelmingly anything special. Will have to try them roasted.
  • Burdock root – another digging one and again the texture was interesting, the flavour subtle. Nothing like the sugar, flavourings & colourings-saturated fizzy drink ;)
  • Hairy Bittercress – this was a tasty little fellow. Not quite as peppery as its larger sibling, it was still pretty nice – probably better/less overwhelming in a salad.
  • Land cress – ick. My least favourite thing of the day. Very bitter and unpleasant. (Jesper admitted the specimen we were eating was a little more bitter than usual.)
  • Sorrel – flavourful and delicious. I actually half-identified it myself last month but the leaves I found were a little rounder than the pictures so it confused me. Have successfully found it (and nibbled on it) a couple of times since Sunday, yum.
  • Wild Basil – even I don’t think they’re closely related (?), it tastes very much like its tame counterpart to start with but that seemed to quickly dissipate. It wasn’t unpleasant after that, just the flavour seemed very front ended.
  • Yarrow – once the yarrow was pointed out to us, it was impossible to not keep seeing it everywhere in the grass. Almost lavender-y in flavour but the featheriness of the leaves gave it a strange mouthfeel. I could imagine using it with the leaves stripped from the stem but don’t think I’d like to eat it in a salad.
  • Dandelion flowers – another very familiar plant which I mentally cast off as soon as the leaves got big. The flower was nice to nibble but subtle.
  • Crayfish – free protein! Crayfishing was a lot of fun. John waded out into the river with Jesper – trainers and trousers by damned! – but I was more cautious and just padded around the edges. The one I caught moved slower than I thought it would; the ones John & Jesper were catching seemed fiestier! Between the group, we caught about 30 in total then boiled them up and ate them with superly deliciously wonderful bread from The Handmade Bakery. There wasn’t that much meat on the ones we caught but finding them was so much fun it didn’t seem to matter. Definitely something to try again.

(Photo by Gerry Danby of Slow Food West Yorks. More photos from the foray…)