Wild Foods Walk with Caroline Davey and Ruth Williams

Sunday, 16th May 2010

Despite the unpromising weather – overcast and drizzly, 35 enthusiastic members and friends, including 5 children, gathered in Helford Car Park to meet Caroline Davey, the ‘Fat Hen’ food forager from St Buryan, and Ruth Williams from CWT, to learn about what natural foods can be gleaned from the vicinity of the Helford.

Our first pause was down by the ford in Helford village. Caroline showed us the rather luxuriant green leaves of Sea Beet, also known as Sea Spinach. This is a common seashore plant, growing in coastal walls, salt marshes and the backs of some beaches. Basically, leaves can be cropped and used just like spinach. A tip from Caroline which was to be repeated during the walk is not to give up if your first taste is bitter – individual plants will vary in their taste and palatability from place to place and at different times of year – so, persevere!

Ruth had earlier collected a range of edible sea creatures. These included cockle, mussel, oyster, periwinkle and even limpet. Again a tip: much of the attractiveness of wild foods depends on the recipe. I fear this is where I need to learn a lot…….identifying and collecting I would do with relish, but the other type I would struggle with right now….. As well as edible crab, Ruth also informed us that shore crab is edible. In France many are eaten, but it is important to remove the black ‘dead man’s fingers’ from inside first. Certainly shore crabs are abundant on the Helford shore, supporting many other species if not humans just yet.

We then took the path inland towards Manaccan, passing into some woodland. It seemed that many plants here could contribute to a ‘hedgerow salad’, including sorrel, wood sorrel, wild garlic, primroses (whose flowers can also be painted with icing sugar, crystallised and used to decorate cakes etc), navelwort, the tips of goosegrass and three-cornered leek. This latter plant is also good in pesto. Caroline emphasised that all these are tastier in early spring, before the plants flower. Three-cornered leek bulbs can also be dug up easily in winter and pickled. This is an ideal way to help control this invasive species, so eat it with a clear conscience!

However, an essential note of caution was expressed here by Caroline. Certain plants – some of which might look quite succulent and palatable – are actually deadly poisonous. These include hemlock, water-dropwort and cuckoo pint (Lord’s and Ladies). The group seemed to go a little quiet at this point and pressed Caroline on the key identification points. This underlines the need to be absolutely confident in your identification skills before heading for the kitchen.

Caroline lightened the mood by demonstrating how to dig out the small tuber of a pignut plant and eating it. It was described as having a nutty flavour, and they can be roasted like chestnuts as well as eaten raw. We were also shown wood avens, or herb Bennett, whose root can be used as a clove substitute. Our walk then took us out into the fields above Manaccan, but we paused on the way to look at some hard, black fungus on an ash tree. This is known as ‘King Alfred’s cakes’ and can be used to hold an ember, enabling a fire to be coaxed into life quite readily.

Our next stop was beside a hedgerow by the Manaccan road. Here, another member of the Umbellifers was introduced to the group: Alexanders. Known to the Romans as ‘The Parsley of Alexandria’, they kindly introduced it to Britain, where it was used for many years as a form of celery. The stem can be chopped and steamed or boiled, leaves can be dried and used as seasoning and seeds can also be eaten – a useful plant. This is a very familiar plant in our coastal areas, coming to the fore in late February/March, when it is much more palatable. The plants we saw were certainly now very mature and woody. The plant fell out of fashion in the 17th Century, with the introduction of celery.

We were also shown hedge bedstraw, whose fresh tips can be eaten. The famously-edible nettle was also discussed and an eating demonstration carried out by a few hardy souls. This plant is a useful spinach substitute and can also help to build up some resistance to hayfever. A little further on, Caroline pointed out hogweed – another Umbellifer – whose fresh tips can be eaten like asparagus. I must admit, that was probably my biggest surprise of the walk.

Via the road to Helford, we eventually found ourselves back at the car park, very much better informed as to the wealth of foods growing around us. I must admit that as a keen vegetable grower and an at-times obsessive blackberry picker, I did wonder why I don’t make more use of the free larder we live in. It’s partly down to my culinary skills, but the walk certainly gave me the impetus to expand my knowledge. We are all very grateful to Caroline and Ruth for sharing their knowledge with us.

Caroline runs more detailed courses for anyone wanting to learn more. Have a look at her website: www.fathen.org. In the meantime, the following list describes most of the foods discussed on the walk.

List of species discussed on the walk

Shellfish (Ruth Williams)

Collected in a short stroll along sea shore:

Native oyster, cockles, mussels, edible periwinkle (black), limpet (boil for 30 secs, body separates from foot, chop foot into fine pieces), shore crab.

The Helford has good quality water and shellfish are safe to eat. However it is best to avoid the summer breeding season, when the animals have lower resistance to infection and which is sometimes the occasion of algal blooms.

Plants (Caroline Davey)

  • Sea Beet (Wild Spinach): various habitats in walls, shingle and seashore grassland. Salad Hemlock: umbellifer, common in stream banks, similar to flat-leaved parsley but stinks when bruised.Poisonous.
  • Lords-and-Ladies (Cuckoo Pint): arum, shady banks, poisonous, root can be used as arrowroot substitute if boiled many times.
  • Common Sorrel: leaves similar to Lords-and-Ladies, with lower lobes pointing backwards, but flowers red on branched spikes. Salad.
  • Primrose: flowers can be eaten and crystallised (dip in egg white then sugar solution, store).
  • Beech: young leaves can be eaten (not much taste) or steeped in gin.
  • Navelwort (Wall Pennywort): round leaves with central dimple and fleshy stem.
  • Lesser Celandine: hedgerows, woods, solitary glossy yellow flowers, long-stalked heart- shaped dark green leaves. Flowers and leaves edible, astringent taste. Greater Celandine has some similarities but is different genus and poisonous.
  • Dandelion: leaves and flowers edible, leaves are best before plant has flowered.
  • Ramsons (Wild) Garlic: damp woods and banks, cluster of white star-shaped flowers, broad lanceolate leaves, edible, pungent smell.
  • Three-cornered Garlic: white, bluebell-shaped flowers but garlic smell, triangular stem, edible, invasive.
  • Meadowsweet: damp woods, paired pinnate toothed leaves, natural aspirin. Clusters of creamy flowers can be used in sugary sweets and added to vin ordinaire.
  • Pignut: woodland, flowers white umbels, thin feathery leaves, rounded brown edible tuber 1-3cm, taste between hazelnut and chestnut. Herb Bennet (Wood Aven): root can be used as a clove substitute.
  • Wood Sage: wrinkled oval leaves.
  • Wood Sorrel: mossy banks, leaves clover-like heart-shaped trefoil. Good taste.
  • Alexanders: hedgerows within 5 miles of coast, tall (to 1.5m), introduced by Romans, yellow umbels, stout stem can be skinned, boiled, used like celery. Dark green trefoil leaves edible, best before plant flowers. Black seeds used for seasoning.
  • Cleavers (Goosegrass): hedgerows, numerous small prickles on stems, leaves and fruits stick to fur and clothing. Leaf tips in salad. Hedge Bedstraw: similar to Goosegrass but smooth, without prickles, squatter leaves. Cow Parsley: hedgerows, commonest umbellifer, 60-100cm, white flowers, hollow green to purple slightly downy stems, green pinnate leaves. Fools Parsley: generally shorter (30cm) than Cow Parsley, hairless ribbed stem, long bracts beneath umbel,poisonous.
  • Hogweed: collect young shoots at base of plant, steam or boil, serve like asparagus.
  • (Giant Hogweed, to 3-5m, causes harsh skin reaction, only found in Tamar Valley in Cornwall). Stinging Nettle: woods, verges, stinging hairs on upper surface of leaf (fold in to eat). Best eaten in spring and autumn, not when flowering.
  • Gorse: flowers edible.
  • Jack-by-the-Hedge: leaves in salads.
  • Dock: leaves edible but bitter.
  • Yarrow: dark green narrow feathery leaves, medicinal herb, can be used to make tea.
  • Black Bryony: dark green shiny heart-shaped leaves, poisonous red berries.
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