Mission 3: Foraging
Today’s mission is eating from the wild (or home-grown from a garden). It is one of nature’s real tasty treats. One of my favourite forages is for Pignuts. Although these tasty tubers are traditionally beloved of pigs (hence the name) they are a most unusual and rewarding woodland snack and there was a time when they were a popular nibble for country children on their way to and from school.
Although there aren’t really any poisonous plants that look like Pignuts, I do need to put in an identification warning here about wild plants and specifically umbellifers. There are several that cause you harm or even kill. These include Hemlock and Hemlock Water Dropwort. Giant Hogweed can give you nasty burns if you get the juice on your skin and expose it to the sun. So please get yourself a good identification source or take someone with you who knows their onions. There are also many foraging courses available across the country and if this style of contact with nature attracts you I suggest you go on one. Correct identification is essential for foraging.
Pignuts don’t really seem to do very much medicinally but I have put an article on them here for a very special reason. Your relationship with nature – and this is at the heart of everyone’s health in this day and age. Pignuts to me, are a pure nature food. Like a magic spell – the taste and texture of these crunchy little earthnuts draws me into the wild. Eating one or two before entering the woods pulls me into the scene.
People living in nature, without access to our modern devices of distraction, have a very intimate relationship with the plants around them – partly because their lives depend on those plants and their relationships with them. Just because we in the supposedly ‘civilised’ Western world have chosen to live lives separated from nature doesn’t mean we are any less reliant on it.
An even older name for Earthnuts is ‘Earth Chestnuts’ and this gives you a clue to their taste – a chestnut texture but with a more earthy taste. There’s nothing like re-affirming an intimate contact with nature by carefully digging one of these up during a quiet walk in the woods.
Do it with your fingernails. As the earthy taste hits the senses you are drawn more completely into contact with the woodland around you. Somehow the sense of millennia of time infuses you and your memory is drawn back to primordial man. Digging up roots with your fingers certainly puts us humans in touch with our own roots.
The fern like leaves appear along with the Lesser Celandine in the spring and early summer. During May and July they develop umbellifer heads with white flowers like Cow Parsley. According to Gerard and others the Dutch once ate them ‘boiled and buttered, as we do parseneps and carrots’. It would take quite some effort to dig up enough for a meal though.
Unearthing a pignut is a delicate operation, which is why a stick or penknife can be a bit clumsy. The root disconnects from the tuber very easily and this can be several inches from where the stem appears above ground. Make it a mission to go and find one!
Follow the stem of the plant under the earth using very careful scraping. Eventually you will reach the pignut, which is covered with a chestnut coloured skin. If you can wash the nut in a puddle at this stage it avoids getting muddy fingernails while peeling.
Scrape off the papery outer coating to reveal the Earthnut. Pop it into your mouth and concentrate on savouring the earthy taste of nature – some real, raw wild food.
Gerard’s Herbal mentions that ‘There is a Plaister made of the seeds hereof, whereof to write in this place were impertinent to our historie’. This means that there were probably witches doing something unacceptable with pignuts that we can only guess at!
Earthnuts get a mention in Shakespeare’s Tempest, from Caliban – a real ‘nature boy’ – as he promises:
I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries; I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough. A plague upon the tyrant that I serve! I’ll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee, Thou wondrous man.
A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!
I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts; Show thee a jay’s nest and instruct thee how to snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll bring thee to clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?
The Tempest: Act 2, Scene 2
Caliban is talking about where crab apples grow, the wild – nature itself and a wild diet of apples, pignuts, jay’s eggs, small monkeys, hazelnuts and baby seagulls. Perhaps we should accept his invitation as far as the Pignuts at least – and of course the ‘clustering filberts’ (cobnuts) later in the year are quite delicious.
Your mission this week is to go out into the wild and find and prepare something you can eat, and I don’t mean a trip to the Chinese Takeaway. There are hundreds of edibles that grow wild so either go on a course or get a good guide book if you don’t know where to start.
Evidence is showing that many wild ‘weeds’ are now more nutritious than the food you can purchase in a supermarket. Foraging is not just a way to find fresh and free food, there is also a whole medicine chest of nutritional alteratives just made for your health.
Take a look at my book on this, called ‘Simon’s Simples’ [coming soon] fabulous and tasty recipes from the wild which draw on nature’s incredible pharmacopoeia. Join simonthescribe in a wild adventure in the countryside and kitchen, making a bit of just what you need.