Fiona Bird, food blogger and author of the Forager's Kitchen, provides her guide to foraging for wild autumnal crops such as watercress and rose hips

In autumn many wild leaves begin to look weary but the good news about watercress is that it grabs a second, late summer growth.

Watercress

Its heart shaped leaves vary in colour from vivid green to almost black, but both taste good. Indeed, the older stems are the tastier. Wild watercress Rorippa nasturtium -aquaticum is obviously fresher than the watercress that you buy in a salad bag, greengrocer or market stall – from river to well-washed /cooked on a plate, in no time at all.

Watercress picking. Picture: KH

Watercress picking. Picture: KH

A.A. Milne’s Eeyore was quite right: Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. You can pick weeds from fresh and seawater too. Once widely used as a potherb, watercress was a stalwart ingredient in a multitude of medicinal herbal remedies.

Some ate it to prevent baldness, others to increase their fertility and those who had over indulged hoped that watercress might cure a hang-over.

Watercress is nutrient-packed and has been strongly linked with maintaining good health – one of the so called new super foods. This may be, but its peppery flavour is great in a sandwich, soup bowl or at supper time. I add a handful of freshly chopped watercress when I am mashing potatoes instead of grinding a pepper mill. One of colloquial names of watercress is poor man’s pepper.

This is pertinent because in days of yore, its pungent taste avoided the use of cooking with costly imported spices. Beware of picking and eating watercress from streams where cattle and sheep loiter because it can make you sick. This is due to a flat worm called liver fluke which attacks the liver of cattle and sheep and can harm humans too. This sounds nasty but if you cook the watercress you will kill the liver fluke.

That said, it’s safer to pick wild watercress, in fast flowing streams, far away from grazing animals, stagnant water or where sewage drains. Take scissors and a waterproof bag, don’t be greedy and try not to disturb the watercress roots. Added to this, sorrel is still in season and its sour lemon flavour works well with watercress.

Rose hips

Those of a certain age may remember Delrosa syrup and some may even recall gathering rose hips during and after the Second World War. This was a time when the import of citrus fruits was difficult and the Government was anxious about the population’s Vitamin C levels.

Children who gathered the berries, (which are rich in Vitamin A and B as well as C) were paid three old pence per pound of hips. Beware of the fine hairs inside the hips – these are used in itching powder. In Scotland the hips are aptly named Itchy Coos.

Whilst foraging hips, if you spy any straggling Rosa rugosa petals, pop them in a bag and into the freezer. (When you open the bag you will be taken aback by the summery scent; the pink dye from the petals fares better after a freeze too.) Cover washed rose hips with water and simmer until soft.

Drain the soft hips through a jelly bag for clearest jelly results or a sieve, if you are in a hurry. Use the juice to make jellies, preserves (it works well with apples) or add twice as much sugar to juice and make rosehip syrup. You can steep bruised or cut hips with sugar in vodka or gin, if you like the idea of orange booze.

2014-10-27-RosehipGin

Rose hip gin. Picture: KH

I can’t vouch for its Vitamin C content but when strained, its taste is delicious. If you make itching powder from rose hips, retain the tiny seeds and dry roast them on the hob in a frying pan. The seeds can then be used as a sprinkle or in baking or granola.
If you are a novice forager, check that you know your hips from your haws. Hips are orange and haws, smaller and redder

Watercress Sauce (taken from The Forager’s Kitchen)

Serves 4

Ingredients:

• 50g wild watercress (stalks removed)
• 50g blanched almonds
• 3 tbsps. olive oil
• 4 tbsps. Greek yoghurt
• Tbsp. finely shredded sorrel
• Freshly ground black pepper

Method: 

Wash and dry the watercress and put it with the almonds in a food processor. Blend briefly. Add the olive oil and yoghurt and blend to mix.
Pour the watercress sauce into a stainless saucepan. Add the finely shredded sorrel and heat over a low heat to warm through. Season as required. Don’t allow the sauce to boil or the sauce may split and the sorrel will discolour.

• Fiona’s books The Forager’s Kitchen (Cico Books 2013) and Seaweed in the Kitchen (Prospect Books 2015) are available now from all good book stores and online merchants

About The Author

Fiona Bird

Fiona is a graduate of The University of St Andrews, mother of six and a former BBC Masterchef finalist. She divides her time between Angus and the Outer Hebridean Isle of South Uist, where her husband is the local doctor. Fiona is often seen on her bicycle with a basket full of seaweed or wild edibles and is unusually late for church. Fiona is the author of Kids’ Kitchen (Barefoot Books 2009), The Forager’s Kitchen (Cico Books 2013) and Seaweed in the Kitchen (Prospect Books 2015). She blogs on wild food for The Huffington Post UK and is set to release her next book: Let Your Kids Go Wild Outside

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