Dawn on a frosty winter morning at Marvel Cottage.
The Isle of Wight has a unique, temperate climate and frosty winter scenes like the one here are the exception rather than the rule. This year (until very recently) we have enjoyed an exceptionally mild winter and many wild and garden plants are way ahead of where they should be for this time of year. We had daffodils, snowdrops, primroses and camellias flowering in December, and roses in sheltered spots have continued to flower on last year’s growth. Remarkably I even picked a couple of artichokes from the veg garden in the middle of January but the first proper frost of the year has now caught them and thoughts have turned to wild food.
Isle of Wight winter foreshore foraging featured in an earlier post and delicious winter treats are there to be enjoyed at any time until months with an R in them arrive. With a picturesque but frigid scene before me here at Marvel Farm it is hard to believe that the countryside also yields edible treats at this time of year. However, the Island’s (yes, we spell it with a capital I because it is “the Island”!) beautiful unpolluted coast and countryside also abounds with delicious wild plants and fungi, even during the winter. So why not book a break away at one of our stunning B&B or self catering properties, come and enjoy the unique landscape, much of which comprises Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and some of which is owned by Isle of Wight Farm and Country Holiday Group members, and hunt for the treasures it holds?
A winter view from Marvel Cottage garden
The Romans were responsible for introducing a number of what we now considered to be ‘wild’ plants to the British countryside. Evidence of their presence on the Isle of Wight is not only provided by some remarkable archaeological remains such as the villas at Brading and Newport (the latter located about a mile due north of Marvel Cottage) but also by some of their edible plants.
A pernicious and invasive weed to many gardeners, ground elder, Aegopodium podagraria, provides a delicious treat for the forager.
The young leaves have a mild parsley-lemon flavour and a salad incorporating some of these makes a good accompaniment to my “Isle of Wight Foreshore a la Crème” and other fish dishes. Don’t pick this one later in the year when in flower or afterwards as the flavour is poor and some find it has Senna pod-like qualities. You have been warned.
Another gift from the Romans that is in my view even more delicious, again when harvested young, is Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum. This is very abundant along stretches of the Military Road on the south-west coast of the Island, particularly between Chale and Compton Bay, but it can also be found in many other places including Marvel Farm showing that the Romans were here too – not surprising considering the proximity of the villa. Here is a picture taken on January 19th 2016.
Alexanders can be used in many ways, you can even make a liqueur with it (get a copy of this very good book), but my favourite recipe is the simplest. Pick the youngest shoots you can find, strip the leaves and flower buds and discard, steam the shoots (without added salt) until tender – about 10 minutes – and serve with melted, salted butter and cracked black pepper. Alexanders at its best has a short season so book your trip to the Isle of Wight now and come and stay with one of us to avoid missing out.
Nettles, of the stinging type, Urtica dioica, were here long before the Romans and new shoots that appear on the Isle of Wight soon after Christmas, except in the worst of winters, make, on their own, a delicious vegetable and with other simple ingredients a wonderful soup. The important thing here to obtain the best flavour and texture is to pick the new shoots young and only to take the top four or five leaves. Also, avoid picking after a hard frost.
Young nettles take little cooking and I do this by putting the washed shoots, undried, into a pan with a knob of salted butter and a little finely ground black pepper and sweating them over a low heat until tender. So far as nettle soup is concerned, there are many recipes and I have a favourite which involves the next forager’s favourite but try recipes to be found on line to find yours.
Ransoms, aka Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum, is extremely abundant on the Isle of Wight. It is increasingly an ingredient in TV chef recipes and with good reason – it is delicious and tends not to taint the breath as its cousins can. As with the other plants listed above, the leaves are best eaten young and before the plant comes into flower and young shoots which are even more delicious than young leaves can be found on roadsides and in open woodland from the end of January.
The flowers and bulbs as well as the shoots and leaves can be eaten. The flowers are best eaten while still in bud and the bulbs when the new shoots first appear to reveal their location. A word of legal caution though. It is illegal to dig up wild plants without the landowner’s permission. There are many uses for Ransoms and the internet is a great resource for recipes but the bulbs in combination with nettles, a potato, some really good chicken stock and a couple of other simple ingredients makes a wonderful winter soup.
Hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsute, is ubiquitous on any recently disturbed ground and available all year, not just during the winter. Like rocket it has a slightly peppery taste and makes a tasty addition to salads. It can also be used to make a variety of pesto and is useful as a garnish.
Anyone staying at Marvel Cottage is welcome to visit my flower beds or veg garden and help themselves!
There are many other gourmet wild plants to be found on the Isle of Wight and those above are listed to provide just a taste (pardon the pun) of what is available. To finish I will add one to remind you of Christmas past; Herb-bennet or Wood Avens as it is also known, Geum urbanum. The mildly clove-like flavour of the dried roots makes them an interesting addition to mulled wine and other drinks. They can also be used in puddings and pies.
Lastly but by no means least there are the fungi. It goes without saying that extreme caution must be exercised when picking wild ‘mushrooms’ or indeed any wild plant intended for the table. However there are very few winter fungi and one is easily distinguished from poisonous forms that might appear with it in mild winters. This is the Velvet Shank which produces a distinctive white spore print unlike poisonous look-alikes.
Found growing on dead wood, particularly hardwoods, for me this is best enjoyed sautéed. Like this its malty and slightly sweet flavour and robust texture can be enjoyed to the full.