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Foraging in Frome [WFJ #8]
Meet Frome's wild food enthusiasts, and/or learn how to become one yourself
As Frome’s food report (which came out earlier this month) touches on, this here town is abundant with wild ingredients usually free for the taking. At their respective times of the year, and only a short walk from the town centre, can be found blackberries, scarlet elf cup mushrooms, elderflower, and wood sorrel.
Above all else though? Wild garlic – onion and garlic’s profuse, punchy, pungent cousin. Perhaps there is none more obsessive than Frome resident Eleanor Hayes, who’s written a book devoted to the leafy allium. “I first came across it ten years ago,” she tells me. “And absolutely loved the flavour, the versatility of it. I used to live in Reading and it was very difficult to find there in Berkshire.”
Especially right now, Frome’s certainly in no shortage of wild garlic. So much so it’s often misconstrued as a weed. A native plant, wild garlic’s typically found in damper woodland – those in Great Elm and along the Mells river are particularly well-carpeted with their green leaves. Even the woody area in town, next to the pump track at Welsh Mill, has a seemingly infinite stock begging to be picked and tossed into a salad, stirred into soups, or used as a garnish in place of chives and spring onions.
But there will always be that go-to method of using up a haul, big or small. “Wild garlic pesto is just a classic because it's so easy to make,” says Eleanor. “It means that you can store it – it keeps in the fridge well but also it freezes well. And you can use the pesto in a lot of recipes.” Eleanor’s current book contains 30 ways to use wild garlic, but she’s currently working on another, which she hopes will include 100 recipes.
When scouring the local woods for wild garlic, foragers have a few impostors to avoid. Namely, the toxic lily-of-the-valley. But even novices should have little problem identifying wild garlic from its odour, unmistakably true to the name. It’s a good starting point for anyone new to foraging ingredients, before adventuring onto more of what’s hidden under their nose.
“We are lucky in Frome to have such a wide mix of habitats to choose from,” says Dave Hamilton, a local horticulturist and forager. “In the park you'll find magnolia blossoms which have a gingery flavour, there are pine needles which can be steeped in vinegar to make a delicious balsamic alternative, and in town you'll find Mahonia bushes – the berries of which make a vibrant purple jam.”
With the season ushering in new shoots and leaves, and with or without Dave as your guide, spring is a particularly good time to head out. Round about now, Dave says foragers should look out for Hawthorn leaves, which make an alternative to lettuce, but only before they mature and become bitter. “Then of course you'll find weeds such as bittercress with its watercress-like flavour, dandelions with their bitter bite and the carrot or parsley-flavoured ground elder.”
Dave adds that Frome is in a part of the country somewhat unique for its bountiful wild herbs. “On the chalky hills of the Mendips, and over in Salisbury Plain, you'll find plants which thrive in an alkali soil such as salad burnet, wild thyme, and wild basil. Then in the damper parts of Somerset, look for the cucumber-flavoured wall pennywort growing on damp walls and shaded tree trunks.”
Like Dave, Frome local Pavla Kislerova also leads foraging walks from town. Having grown up in post-war Czechoslovakia, hunting down wild ingredients was not quite the same for her as doing it for a career or hobby. “There was so much hunger in those days, I would say most people knew nettle soup,” she says. “It wasn’t fashionable – it was a necessity.”
With her spring walks and wild garlic-harvesting for her Hejgro pesto and garlic salt (which can be found at the indie market, or local retailers like Frome Food Hub and The Shop Next Door), this is the busiest time of the year for Pavla. By no coincidence, it’s also the time of year she looks forward to the most. “Wild garlic’s obviously amazing, but I do love nettles and cleavers in the spring.1 They're my favourite plants because they're an amazing medicine, full of nutrition.”
Strange to think, perhaps, that we’re surrounded by easily-attainable wild foods packed with minerals and vitamins that can treat pain, tiredness, digestive troubles and poor cognition, and help relax the mind. “When we grew [domesticated] vegetables, we took the wild plants and cross-pollinated them to a point where they look big and nice, but the nutrition in them was lost,” Pavla says. “So wild foods are much more dense with nutrition. People fly superfoods in from South America when actually, it’s all on our doorstep.”
Sustainability is one of the key aspects to foraging, as plants have a host of uses not limited to food. Pavla tells me how common ivy, for example, can substitute laundry detergent when washing clothes, while rosemary and lavender can repel mosquitoes. The key point with foraging sustainably though is moderation, no matter what you’re harvesting. “When the plants first come up after the winter, you have to let them get enough energy,” says Pavla. “So I don't take any leaves until they’re fully grown. And I always leave some berries for the birds. I teach people to never pick everything.”
Other tenets or rules of thumb include not collecting rare plants, and doing what you can to avoid the spread of invasive species. Frome resident Claire Jefferies discovered a few more tips from one of Pavla’s spring walks. “I learned to pick plants away from the pathway or road, where dogs do their business or cars park and their fumes settle. It's also best to head out into the woods rather than pick plants in towns where pollution is higher.”
Though not obvious at first, Frome is rampant with wild food. The trick, Dave says, is “to head out with open eyes”.2 You may be surprised to see what’s out there. “I was astonished at the number of plants, flowers and mushrooms we found in such a small piece of local woodland,” says Claire after her guided spring walk. “We must have been shown nearly two dozen and couldn't have walked more than a few hundred metres.”
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How to harvest and store wild garlic
This is how I do it, anyway: Go to your favourite woody, shaded area local to Frome *wink*. Those next to rivers, such as Egford Brook, are particularly good for wild garlic. Find a nice clump and pick the leaves from the bottom of the stem – making sure they are what you think they are by giving them a sniff.
If the plant has buds, you can pickle these, or, if it has flowered, these are also edible, and can pretty-up almost any salad, quiche, or risotto.
When home, separate the leaves from any other vegetation you may have unintentionally pulled up, and wash the leaves in cold water to rid them of dirt and unwanted creatures. Leave to dry, ideally on a rack or dishcloth.
The leaves may start to wilt, but this isn’t a problem if you’re going to blitz them up anyway. Just remember that if you choose to store them in the fridge – which I don’t think is massively necessary – make sure they’re covered up. Otherwise, that nice cheesecake you made could take on a certain garlicy subtlety…
Wild garlic pesto
You will need:
A fistful of wild garlic leaves
A squeeze of lemon
A handful of nuts (pine nuts are the most common in pesto, but I reckon more native varieties like hazelnut or walnut are just as good, if not better)
A grating of a hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino
A pinch of salt
Oil, preferably olive and preferably cold-pressed
Bung all ingredients into a food processor, stick blender, or, gradually, a pestle and mortar. Blitz or grind until you’ve got a smooth paste. Taste and adjust accordingly with salt and lemon and, depending on how fond you are of the raw garlic flavour, pile on more garlic.
Stir your pesto into pasta and soups, spread in sandwiches, have as a dip, or whatever. Jar up the rest and keep in the fridge or, if you’d like it all year-round, the freezer.
By Eleanor Hayes
Available through Amazon, or better still, by emailing Eleanor direct: email@example.com
By Dave Hamilton
Available at Hunting Raven on Cheap Street, the Frome Independent market, and online
Want to share any foraging tips, recipes, or favourite locations around Frome? Fling ‘em in the comments.
Believe it or not, the seeds of cleavers can be used to make coffee https://www.wildwalks-southwest.co.uk/how-to-make-wild-cleaver-coffee/
An identification chart or app for guidance, or Dave’s book, wouldn’t hurt either