Monday, 28 March 2016

Rosebay Willow Herb Recipe Challenge!

Calling All Foragers !

Sometimes the more intense and complex flavours of wild food can provide us with a wonderful opportunity to get creative in the kitchen, a challenge to find way of tempering and taming them into something altogether more congenial. Often we come across something that is produced in such abundance that we wish, if only there were some way to make them more palatable.... what a feast we'd have!


One such plant that has been bugging me for years is Rosebay Willow Herb or Fireweed - with two latin names too - Epilobium
Angustifolium or Chamerion Angustifolium.

Down here in Devon it remains a fairly inconspicuous creature until June, when suddenly huge swathes of hedge row are set alight by dazzling pink beacons on six foot flower spikes, the shy plants now boldly revealing the whereabouts of their colonies.

 It's only then that I tend to ponder what a fantastic potential this plant has a vegetable - but it's already too late... The season for harvesting the young tender shoots in Late March - April has long gone and now all that's on offer is the rather unappetising tough bitter leaves, and the fiddly pith of the flower stalks that makes a sweet, but far from substantial nibble.

So that's why at this time of year we need to be at the ready! Scouring the way sides with eager eyes, waiting for those elusive first dark purple and green spears to emerge out of the darkness, full of the vitality and vigour that they'll hopefully impart on us if we're quick enough to catch them at their best.

Although these slender shoots are much less tough and bitter than the fully grown plant, they can still be very variable. The sweetest part of the stem is apparently the white part from just under the ground - which makes me think perhaps if we blanched whole shoots like chicory, they could turn much softer and sweeter...

Some plants seem to provide shoots which are sweet enough to eat raw, whilst others will need boiling in water to be acceptable. If you still find them too bitter like this, don't give up... here is a great trick for all bitter plants to temper the flavour - soak them in salt water for half an hour before draining and cooking - it can make a big difference!

There are also reports of recipes for preserving the shoots in pickles and brines, which may make them a whole lot tastier and would make a welcome source of greens the following winter. 

**Update! I tried this in 2016 and indeed my pickled Rosebay, Goji berry and Ox-Eye Daisy shoots made a very welcome nibble in November, when less and less wild greens are available outside. Give it a try!

But my challenge to you, my fellow foragers, is to invent the best recipe you can for this very underestimated plant! Be adventurous and if you can be bothered to write to me to share your successes or failures - I'd be most delighted!

My second idea, perhaps just for the real plant geeks out there is to try to breed a more appetising strain of Rosebay. If you have a colony (which will probably all be of one kind) that you think is particularly sweet and pleasant to eat, then please let me know - or even better, send me a piece of root to grow on myself! It may sound a bit mad, but remember we have our ancestors to thank for breeding carrots that are plumper than pencils and lettuces that don't poison us! There are many, many more vegetables that we could breed to make fit for the conventional kitchen garden.

I'd be delighted to hear any feedback at all from these ideas - please just email charlielechat@yahoo.co.uk

Oh - and trawling the internet, I just found that in Alaska, Fireweed is an extremely popular foraged food, where they often use the flowers to make ice cream and jelly! See this great website for more:

http://www.anchoragepress.com/food-drink/cooking-fireweed-blossoms

Happy Foraging All :) 

Charlie

2 comments:

  1. thank you for this article! I forage willowherb to feed to my tortoise, but I had no idea it was edible for humans. I'd gradually discovering that most tortoise safe weeds are people safe too. Will definitely be having a nibble now!

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  2. It's true. Fireweed, as it's called here in Alaska - though the UK name is so much prettier - is very popular. I grow it in my own garden where it reaches 7+ feet. The first time I saw it was on a visit to the Scottish Highlands & Islands; it was stunningly gorgeous. Then upon moving to Alaska I was incredibly excited when I realized the same plant grows here. People mainly make a fireweed 'honey', which is actually just the flowers and sugar. It resembles a rather bland, but delicately flavored golden syrup.

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