It is July and the woods, hedgerows and sea shores are full of interesting flavours and nourishing delicacies to try.

There are dangers too lurking among the bushes and the serious forager is advised to spend a little time learning the handful of plants that are potentially dangerous (start with hemlock, water-dropwort, wild arum and deadly nightshade).

Until you are confident with identification it is best to avoid mushrooms as this is where most poisoning occurs. With this important warning the following plants are relatively easy to identify and definitely worthwhile getting to know. If you are lucky enough to find a good sized patch please curb your appetite and don’t take the lot home. It is essential to leave some for the wildlife and to ensure they are as plentiful next year.

This is my top list for July. They are all common in the south of Scotland and will add a wild touch to your home cooking.

Elderflower

Elder flowers. Picture: Wikimedia

Elder flowers. Picture: Wikimedia

 

This is probably the only native wildflower that you can buy in your local supermarket! Elderflower drinks, both cordials, wines and presse, are so popular some producers have had to resort to planting orchards of elder trees to ensure a regular supply. This process of domestication took place centuries ago for most of our common fruit trees and thousands of years ago for cereals but is only happening now in the 21st century for the humble elder tree.

Also remember as you are stripping the tree of its flowers you cannot go back again in the season and harvest berries. If you want some elderberries in the autumn and you don’t want the birds to go hungry in winter limit how much you take from each tree. Elder is one of our most abundant species so you won’t have to go far to find enough flowers even in urban areas.

There is much you can do with elderflowers including making your own cordial but my favourite recipe is for an elderflower tempura made with a light batter that seals in the distinctive flavour. Pick young but fully-open flowers on a sunny day to get the maximum sweet-flavoured nectar.

Elderflower Fritters with tempura batter

Method:

Mix 100g white flower, 2 tablespoons of oil and 175ml of carbonated water into a paste. Leave for half an hour. Add 1 tablespoon of sugar and the beaten white from one egg.
To cook
Heat 2cm of oil in a pan until smoking hot. Dip the flower heads in the batter and then drop them into the hot oil for a minute until golden brown. Drain and dust with castor sugar.

Summer Tea

In Baltic countries if you call in on someone in summer for a cup of tea you will probably get a jug of freshly picked herbs steeped in hot water. On a hot day this is a most refreshing drink especially if you add a spoonful of local honey. It is great to go for a walk, picking as you go, and then make up a fresh jug at your destination with all the flavours you found on the way. Stinging nettles, sweet cicely, mints and raspberry leaves can all go into the jug, along with a few flowers (rose petals or borage for a lovely blue). Just avoid picking from ground used by dogs as a toilet. My particular favourite for a summer tea is the young shoots of spruce trees. As spruce is now probably our most abundant tree this is a good use for a common, sometimes too common, introduced tree species.

Pignuts

Pignut plant.

Pignut plant.

Some people may be horrified by my inclusion of pignut, actually a tuber of a member of the carrot family, as harvesting the nut involves digging down and destroying the plant. But children love digging for pignut and really they are only simulating what wild boars did in the past. A bit of disturbance can create valuable gaps in the sward for regeneration to take place but to avoid the guilt replant a bit of the tuber in the hole you have created.

Pignut.

Pignut.

To hunt for pignuts you first need to find the distinctive leaf on the forest floor and then follow the delicate root down, up to 30cm, until you find the knobbly tuber buried below. This is much more difficult than it sounds because just before it reaches the tuber the root narrows and does a 90 degree turn which means even a gentle tug causes it to snap and you have lost your tuber unless you are prepared to sift through all of the soil. With very careful and patient digging I have success rate of about 50%.
Pignuts are eaten raw. You can skin them very easily when they are fresh and thin slithers (like truffles) can make one pignut go a bit further as a dessert topping.

Seaweed

Some seaweeds have a better taste or texture than others but none of them are poisonous so you can afford to experiment. People of other northern countries with extensive coastlines – Ireland, Wales, France and especially Japan – eat seaweed in quantity, the Scots do not. However, seaweed is abundant, nutritious and can be delicious so it is worth giving it a try.
By experimenting you will find the most succulent and delicious species but dulse and laver have delicate fronds that can be eaten raw in salads or quick fried. Laver and sea lettuce (that is exactly what it looks like a soggy lettuce) can also be used for wrapping fish before baking. Seaweed connoisseurs will seek out pepper dulse as a peppery addition to soups or casseroles.

Pepper Dulse. Picture: Wikimedia

Pepper Dulse. Picture: Wikimedia

• You can find out more about the innovative use of wild Scottish plants and the development of a new Scottish cuisine based on local, seasonal and wild foods with Dr Ian Edwards of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh at Wild, Scottish and Free part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas at the Edinburgh Fringe at 3pm on 20 August in St Andrews Square.

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Dr Ian Edwards is Head of Public Engagement at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

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