All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. Their most promising pieces were swelled and sweetened, made fleshy or fertile, or otherwise transformed to fit our tastes.
Yet tastes change with each generation; look how swiftly the perfectly white eggs of supermarkets were replaced by brown ones, with an identical taste but a trendy “natural” image. The centuries have done the same to our crops, leaving behind legions of purple carrots, blue potatoes and other victims of our whims.
In the last century, moreover, we have shipped more and more food across the planet, so that rows of Australian maize or Moroccan tomatoes can fill shelves in Iowa or Scotland. Our crops had to be bred to stand out as consumer products and yet survive the journey, leading to the massive sizes and cardboard flavours of supermarket produce. The “fresh vegetables” most of us grew up with were, typically, nothing of the kind.
Genuinely fresh and wild food still exists all around us, though, and this time of year the Irish hedgerows create a vertical salad bar of fruits, nuts, leaves and berries. Many wild plants are edible and few were bred into groceries, and even those that were domesticated can still be found in their original form – which often tastes better, as anyone knows who has tasted a wild strawberry.
This list of wild foods and ripe seasons is specific to Ireland, and more generally to northern temperate zones; see what’s ripe around you and investigate.
Blackberries and raspberries have emerged in force here, now that Ireland has finally had a proper summer for bees to pollinate them. Many people here take the traditional route of preserving them in jams for winter vitamins, but you can also make them into wine, fruit leathers, add them to salads or spread them with meat.
Dandelion leaves are best when young, and a few should still be available. The roots should now be at their fullest; try pulling them out and roasting them like coffee.
The hawthorn trees are sagging with the weight of thousands of hawsper tree, and while they make an important food for wildlife, we have enough left over to use for ourselves. They add colour to wine and jam, and while they don’t have a strong flavour, they can be mixed with other ingredients that do – try hawthorn-and-ginger jam, or hawthorn-and-crab-apple wine.
Juniper berries have traditionally been used to make gin, but have many other uses. Some people make the berries into a beer, others roasted and ground them into a kind of coffee, and still others used them to flavour meat.
Rosehips look similar to haws and are almost as numerous along the hedges. Packed with Vitamin C, their syrup has famously been used as a medicine, but they can also be made into jam or wine. Most of their bulk, though, consists of the sharp seeds, which can be a fiddly job to remove.
Elderberries darken with the days here, and are just at the right stage to be made into wine, jam, pies, syrup, meat sauce or cordial. To make the syrup, boil the elderberries and stir in sugar as you would jam, but without the pectin to make it firm.
Medlars are rarely seen – or when seen, recognised – on these islands, although they remain common on the European continent. In medieval times they were used more frequently, perhaps because they grew better during Europe’s unusually warm medieval climate and disappeared during the “Little Ice Age” of the Enlightenment; as our climate gets hotter, they might make a comeback. Or perhaps they faded from popularity because they must be slightly over-ripe to be edible, and did not fit well with our modern demand that fruit sit for days on store shelves. Nonetheless, they are very tasty and make a great a pie filling, so remember their appearance and keep an eye out.
If medlars have become rare, however, Fat Hen can be seen everywhere from spring to autumn. It was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today; it formed part of the meal given to Tollund man, one of the ancient “natural mummies” fished out of the bogs, and its Old English name “melde” apparently forms the root of a number of town names. It is basically a wild version of spinach, and its pale green leaves can be cooked the same way.
The garlic-flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but a new crop sometimes appears this month, so this is a good time to go looking for it. Its large, deeply green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers make a great ingredient in salads or sauteed.
The shamrock-like leaves of wild sorrel carpet forest floors beginning in spring, and can still be seen this time of year. Its lemony leaves make a perfect addition to salads. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly.
Finally, when most other fruits and plants are dying away, sloes emerge from the blackthorn trees, and we eagerly pick them to make sloe gin. To make the gin – with this or any berry – just fill a jar three-quarters full with berries, pour in a bit of sugar and then fill the jar with distilled alcohol. People here often used poitin (pa-CHEEN), the potato moonshine made at home or by a neighbour, but you can just use vodka.
Do remember not to remove plants from the roadside, where they could have been bathing in toxic fumes, or from anywhere you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. When you do find one of these plants, try not to strip them of all their edible parts – leave some leaves for them to continue to grow, seeds for them to continue, and so on. Do look up what these plants look like to make sure you pick them and not a poisonous equivalent, although there are few extremely poisonous plants in Ireland, and deaths from eating wild foods are extremely rare. The same can be said of mushrooms – but that will be a future article.