Foraging in The Chilterns
Over the last few weeks I've been exploring the mesmerising Chiltern Hills. Tomorrow marks the start of the first ever Chiltern Food Festival and to celebrate I'll be sharing a series of posts showcasing its vibrant food scene. From charcuterie to gin, this bucolic paradise is home to some of the most inspiring producers in the country. I'm kicking off the festivities with a couple of recipes using wild garlic foraged from the Chiltern Woodlands.
The Foraging phenomenon is having something of a renaissance, as the idea of food with provenance becomes the mainstay of the conscientious cook. Throughout the year hedgerows and woodlands offer an abundance of edible plants ready to be transformed into soups, jams, cordials and liqueurs. From old favourites like elderflowers and sloes, to the more unusual sorrel and fat hen, nature’s larder offers up a feast of possibilities. The advent of intrepid cooks, like Gill Meller and Rosie Birkett, has led to an insatiable urban foraging trend. But while hipsters swarm the Hackney marshes, why not venture further afield and sample the bounty of the Chiltern Hills. Barely forty minutes from London, this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is rich in rivers and woodland. From Ashridge Estate to Wendover wood, enthusiastic foragers are spoilt for choice. Penn Wood, with its unique variety of fungus, has been ranked as one of the best foraging destinations in Britain. One is certain to emerge bright-eyed with a promising basket of woodland treasure.
While it’s often agreed that autumn, with its blackberries and mushrooms, is the favourite of many a seasoned forager; spring offers its own abundance. At this time of year the Chiltern woodlands come alive with dandelions, nettles and wild garlic. Those looking for a little guidance can accompany foraging aficionado, Fred Gillam (aka Fred the Forager), as he explores the rich pickings of spring. Fred has been foraging for over thirty years and knows exactly what can be safely picked and what to avoid. He also shares tips on how to forage sustainably, so that other creatures get their fair share of the pickings (Book here).
Foraging happily satisfies two of my abiding passions, seasonal eating and free food. Now that I’m officially a country bumpkin, the time is nigh to make my own foray in foraging. As something of a beginner, wild garlic is one of the best places to start. During the months of March to May, you’ll likely find it growing in any deciduous woodland. Armed with the warning that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish from the similar looking, but deadly poisonous, lily of the valley, I proceeded with just a little caution, but I needn’t have worried. When one is in the midst of wild garlic its unlikely you’ll question its authenticity. Its vibrant, almost obnoxious, garlic aroma is unmistakable. The smell is particularly pungent when the garlic flowers are over and the plant has run to seed.
Unlike many things that taste delicious, wild garlic has the benefit of being supremely good for you. Not just your average woodland ‘weed’, it’s particularly effective in reducing high blood pressure and blood cholesterol. From leaf to flower, every part of wild garlic is edible; but I would suggest avoiding the bulb, as on occasion it can lead to an unforgiving stomach upset. When focusing on the leaves, the possibilities are endless. It’s delicious tossed into salad or wilted in olive oil. Jamie Oliver suggests roasting it with jersey royals and the Chiltern Food Magazine shares a tasty recipe for Arancini. I decided to keep things simple with these two recipes that allow wild garlic to be the star of the show.
Wild Garlic Ravioli
For the pasta: 150g '00' pasta flour, plus extra for dusting 1 egg and 2 yolks 1 tsp olive oil
For the filling: 200g wild garlic leaves, wilted in olive oil 30g parmesan, grated, plus extra to serve 30g hazelnut 1tsp olive oil A pinch of salt
To serve: 40g butter 20g hazelnuts parmesan shavings A handful of rocket
Start by making the pasta. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the eggs and olive oil. Using the thing end of a wooden spoon, mix the eggs and flour together, eventually bringing it together with your hands. If it's a little dry, slowly add a little more egg.
Turn the dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead for a couple of minutes, until its nice and smooth. Don't worry if its a little tough, as it will soften. Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile make the filling. Place the wilted wild garlic, parmesan, hazelnuts and olive oil into a food processor, and blitz until it resembles a pesto. Add the ricotta and pulse the processor for a few seconds, until the ricotta is just combined with the pesto.
Remove the dough from the fridge, flatten it a little with your hands and feed it through the widest setting on the pasta machine. Then fold the dough in three and feed through the pasta machine again. Continue to pass the dough through the machine, progressively narrowing the rollers each time. Once you get to the narrowest setting, pass the dough through twice.
Put the sheet of pasta onto a lightly floured surface, and using a large cookie cutter or jar top, cut the pasta into round disks, and place on a floured surface. You should have enough dough to make roughly 24 disks. Dollop a spoonful of filling onto the centre of 12 disks. Use your finger to tap water around each blob of filling. Cover with the remaining disks, carefully squeezing around the filling, making sure there are no air pockets. Pinch around the edges of each ravioli, making sure they are well sealed.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. In a separate pan, melt the butter over a medium heat, simmering until brown and nutty (about 3 minutes). Remove from the heat and put to one side. Cook the ravioli in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes. When it's ready remove with a slotted spoon and add to the melted butter.
Scatter over the shaved parmesan pieces, hazelnuts and rocket and serve immediately.
Wild Garlic Soup
80g butter 1 white onion, chopped 1 large potato, approximately 400g 1 leak 600ml chicken stock 50 wild garlic leaves, washed salt and pepper
Heat 50g of the butter in a large Le Creuset style pot. Add the chopped onion and sweat for a few minutes until soft, but not brown. Add the leek and potato. Cook for a minute or so, then add the stock. Bring to a simmer, pop the lid on and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.
Meanwhile in a separate frying pan, heat the remaining butter and wilt the wild garlic until just softened. Place the wilted leaves in a food processor and pulse until it resembles a pesto.
Just as the potatoes are finished cooking, add the wild garlic to the stock mixture and remove from the heat. Let it cool slightly before pouring into a food processor and blending until smooth. Return the mixture to the pot, add the cream and heat through. If you feel the soup is a little thick, add more chicken stock until its the consistency you prefer. Season with salt and pepper
Serve hot with a drizzle of cream or a dollop of creme fraiche.