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Fruits of the forage: three-cornered leek, sorrel, nettles

Categories: Expert guidance

Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and author. In a three-part series, he shares his tips on foraging for wild greens along with recipe ideas to make the most of them. This month: three-cornered leek, sorrel, and nettles

When Disney created the sound track to the film Bambi, they sold the idea that an April shower was a thing of jovial beauty—a conduit for spring cleanliness. Drip, drip, drop. There has been no sign as yet of any April showers; there has, however, been April downpours, endless April drizzle and April freezing easterly winds. I would not want to be a faun born into this particular April.

The hedgerows and meadows are at least enjoying the lengthening daylight, even if it is far too wet still to turn out the cattle or think about mowing the meadow. The downpours will not stop me helping myself to the odd wild offering popping up in the hedges and fields, though. But in doing so, I and keen foragers have to be careful—pick plants on land for which you do not have permission and you risk animosity, not to mention possible prosecution. ‘Make not a bothersome oaf of yourself and damage not the natural world more than is necessary’ is the kind of thing you need to bear in mind.

These three little forager’s treats are unlikely to tax the amateur botanist much, the trickiest of the three to identify being the three-cornered leek.

Three-cornered leeks

Three-cornered leeks
This is not a native plant and like so many misunderstood ‘weeds’, it is loathed by gardeners as it has a habit of self-seeding and running rampant across the imposed order of beds and gardens, with scant regard for the gardener’s efforts to remove it. Originally from the Mediterranean and north Africa, it was first introduced to this country in the 1700s, apparently, and was so invasive that in Cornwall it was against the law to grow it.

Though terribly easy to identify due to its oniony aroma, habit of growing in massive swathes, and having three corners to the leaves, it may not be as straightforward to find at first as you may think. I have lost count of the times I have started across the hedgerow, only to discover my initial identification was wrong and was in fact yet another random daffodil-type plant. You will know them when you have them, though, and once you have found them you can relax—they will be there, year after year, waiting for you.

I can’t encourage you enough to make the effort to get hold of some (I’m certain they will be on the Market at Fitz Fine Foods over the coming weeks); it’s pungent yet delicate and works very well in pesto, pasties and pies, not to mention as a fabulous addition to roasted veg salads, adding a sprinkling of spring to the last of the winter jewels. Try a soup made with them and a little potato and wild garlic. A quiche of the same works well, too.

My favourite way to use them is just flash fried in a very hot pan with a little butter and tipped on top of some fresh, roasted fish. It’s also well worth tipping a few chopped bits into the mussel or whelk pan, the next time the urge takes you. Failing all of these, you can of course use them on top of pizza, and in the base of soups, sauces and curries. They also lend themselves fantastically well to a spicy Asian broth.

Sheep's sorrel

Sheep’s sorrel (aka ‘common sorrel’ or ‘sorrel’)
Ah, this plant. It’s so easy to find and yet this reliability is misleading, for it is seldom worth foraging outside of spring. The leaves are by far and away at their best when they are small and newly grown, their green apply sourness combined with an underlying sweetness and a great big thump of fresh green.

Look out for the two small points at the rear of the leaf lobes and note that there is always a slight pinkish hue to the base of the stems. It always grows in a sort of cluster from a central root. A quick nibble will accurately identify the plant for you. I have heard of it being confused with lords and ladies, the very common poisonous plant, but frankly you would have to try quite hard to get it wrong.

I use these small spring leaves to pepper little bombs of flavour in salads, and sprinkled on top of things that like a lemony hit. As the season progresses you can use the larger leaves in your cookery, wilted or dropped into light, fishy sauces. They will do a grand job. Be warned, though—whenever they meet heat they go an unappealing olive grey, but forget how it looks and enjoy the flavour. I very much like to serve young wild sorrel leaves on top of mushrooms sautéed with wild garlic in butter. The oxalic acid within the leaves gives the dish just the right punch.

Stinging nettles

Stinging nettles
Possibly the first plant any of us learned to identify as children, you are not likely to need much in the way of instruction to find and positively identify your nettles. The best tips I can give you are to only ever use the tips of the plant and never from older specimens. Young. Green. Fresh.

Pick them with a rubber glove on—yes, you will look like a wally but better that then days of numb finger tips. The sting is caused by a small hair of natural glass made of calcium silicate that punctures the skin and deposits a little concoction of formic acid and histamine (among other things) from within its hollow structure. Once cooked, the nettles lose their sting.

I used to hate stingers in cookery. I thought it smacked of pointless feigned wholesomeness. I did not rate it as an ingredient until I was forced to give it another go—and I have to say, I was wrong. They do not taste brilliant, but there is a certain fresh cleanliness about them that works. The best thing to make is indeed a soup, though combined with wild garlic they make excellent pesto (blanch both first in boiling salted water, before refreshing in iced water) and nettle sauce is a winner. When steaming open some mussels, drain them and use the liquid to wilt the nettles. Blend this in a jug blender until bright green and pour back over the mussels.

Enjoy—and don’t get stung.