The Thrifty Forager

Living off your local landscape

Author: Alys Fowler

What we think:

Urban forager Alys Fowler proves you don’t have to stop washing or live in the sweet-smelling countryside to harvest fruit and veg for free. Former head gardener for BBC Gardener’s World, with her own series The Edible Garden, Alys really knows her stuff, packing the pages with information – what you’re allowed to gather, where, and how to avoid both prosecution and belly aches.

We love:

The 100-page directory of edible plants. Broadly, you’ll be dining off salad, things Alys tells her husband are spinach, the odd flower and plenty of fruity stuff – pies, jams and sweet tipples //insert web site www.fruitcity.co.uk for a map of fruit trees across London//. All you need to get started is a faithful hound, like hers, to show you where other dogs have been watering the crops.

Five free spring suppers

Stinging nettle: Urtica dioica

Where to find it: Hedge banks, woodlands, waysides and grassy places, near people.

How to eat: Bursting with vitamins A, C and D, as well as iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and protein. The tender tips are most delicious. Roll young leaves determinedly between your fingers to destroy the stings, then eat raw or in Alys’s nettle potato cake or risotto.

Nettle Potato Cake

Ingredients

  • 450g (1lb) nettles
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 450g (1lb) waxy potatoes
  • 1tbsp olive oil
  • 140g sliced semi-soft cheese (Taleggio, Fontina, Raclette or pungent Stinking Bishop)

Wash the nettles in plenty of water, soaking any bitter leaves for half an hour. Throw away the water. Discard any tough stems or damaged bits, then boil the rest in salted water until tender. Cool, coarsely chop, season and mix with the garlic.

Peel and shred the potatoes (Alys uses a cheese grater). Wash them several times to remove the starch – until the water runs clear.

Heat the oil in a large lidded frying pan. Spread half the potatoes, then half the greens on top, leaving a margin of about an inch. Add the sliced cheese, more greens and the rest of the potatoes. Press down to make a flat cake. Cover the pan and cook for five minutes over a medium heat, shaking frequently to stop the cake sticking. Soak up excess condensed steam collecting on the underside of the lid with a tea towel.

To turn the cake over, flip the cake onto the lid and slip it back into the pan. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes over a low heat with the lid on until golden brown and the edges are nicely crispy. Serve in wedges.

Nettle Risotto

Add nettles at the end of cooking a basic white risotto. They need to be cooked very briefly to ensure that the brilliant green colour is kept, along with the vitamins. Wash the leaves thoroughly in several changes of water, then add to boiling, salted water (you can use a little stock to add flavour) and cook for no more than five minutes. Drain, wring dry and finely chop. If you don’t want flecks, you can purée the nettles with a little cooking water and swirl this into the risotto at the last minute. Or, alternatively, wash and steam them directly on top of the risotto. Season to taste and serve with Parmesan.

Blackberry: Rubus Fructicosus

Where to find it: Near the nettles.

How to eat: Eaten raw, the glossy new leaves taste of blackberries. To make vitamin C-rich tea, wilt leaves in the sun, soften with a rolling pin, and hang up in a damp cloth for up to three days, then store.

Sweet cicely: Myrrhis odorata

Where to find it: Hedge banks, woodlands, waysides and grassy places – and in the garden (buy a young plant; the seed is tricky to germinate).

Health warning Don’t confuse this with its taller, poisonous, almost-twin hemlock, which smells of pee when crushed.

How to eat: The aniseedy leaves are delicious in salads and a guilt-free sweetener in cooking. Boiled, the roots are a little like parsnips.

Sowthistle: Sonchus species

Where to find it: In cracks in concrete, including round the bottom of street trees.

How to eat: A favourite with the Romans and the Maoris. Pick young leaves from the ground-level rosette, slice off any prickles, then steam lightly with the stems and add to pasta with feta.

Red clover: Trifolium pratense 

Where to find it: In grass, mown and unmown.

How to eat: Pull the flowers apart to garnish salads, throwing away the middle. Or dry for tea; with honey, supposedly good for coughs.