OPINION Jane MacNamee

NWR Issue r29

Wild Greens

20th March. I have just returned from a couple of days walking the coast path in north Pembrokeshire along a stretch of dark towering cliffs webbed in white lichen, which on closer inspection turned out to be the effusive signature droppings of nesting sea birds, tucked into narrow fissures in the rock, precariously close to the edge. Unable to resist, I leant over for a closer look, taking hold of a corner of my companion’s sleeve as if that flimsy triangle of polyester might suffice to parachute me to safety.

On the way home today, we stopped for an inland walk on more stable ground with a lighter breeze in a wood near a river I’d spotted on the OS map, wild garlic in mind. A mass of wild garlic in full bloom, their white flower heads dancing like hand sparklers, intensifying and releasing their pungent ramsons scent, is one of the treasures of a Welsh woodland in spring. Although the flowers weren’t quite out, the broad green leaves were ready for picking and the plate. I use them as an aromatic herb for salads and to add depth of flavour to soups and stews. For a treat, which is what I had planned on this occasion, I mix them with nuts, cheese and olive oil to make pesto served with pasta.

Shortly after entering the wood, we were wading through a rich carpet of their soft, vibrant foliage and picked a bagful along the way. Content with our foraging, and looking forward to making tonight’s meal out of it, our attempts to leave were thwarted at every turn. I had misread the map and managed, somehow, to lead us from the untamed joy of the anemone and snowdrop-studded woodland into the outdoor confines of a private caravan site close to the river, fenced in by metal on all sides with no obvious way out. There was signage everywhere, warning of danger and potential death – death by drowning, death by catching one’s fishing rod in a live overhead power cable, death (or at least severe injury) by falling off anything exciting in the designated children’s ‘playground area’ – death, in short, by all things feral lurking with ferocious talons behind every unclimbed tree.

Death, in short, by all things feral lurking with ferocious talons behind every unclimbed tree.

I felt panic rising and a rant coming on. This, I chuntered to myself, is what we call ‘getting back to nature’ – camping in an enclosed park with padlocks and warning signs, fenced in by fear. ‘When we were young,’ I heard myself say, quite loudly this time, ‘we used to go playing by ourselves outside after school. Children climbed trees then, fell out of them, lit fires outdoors and got burned, ate soil, swam in rivers and lakes, got bitten, stung and blistered and came home, eyes sparkling, covered in grazes and dirt.’ As I spoke, I could hear the ghosts of my parents, ‘Ah, when we were children…’ and then fainter still, my grandparents, followed by a united wailing chorus, ‘It’s not like that these days!’. I try to rein myself in and accept that my prescribed lenses are rose-tinted and that the world is changing constantly, but acceptance is a long way from endorsement, isn’t it? I still need to question and ask why, don’t I? It saddens me to think that for so many of us today, our connection with the natural world comes filtered through a controlled health and safety-obsessed environment, through interactive interpretation panels more often than direct, sensory experience. It is, of course, all a question of balance. Whilst caution is sensible, I don’t think anyone should live their lives controlled by fear. We got out of there, that afternoon, eventually.

Arriving home, the car, its contents, our clothes and no doubt, our skin, were suffused in the delightfully tangy aroma of wild garlic. I trailed it up the communal flight of stairs, the odd leaf spilling out of the bag, and went into my flat’s kitchen to make dinner. The pesto has become a bit of an annual event, after I was given a copy of Wild Garlic, Gooseberries… and Me by a dear friend one Christmas. It’s a book of sensory delights by chef and restauranteur Denis Cotter, sharing personal stories and recipes from his celebrated vegetarian Café Paradiso in Cork, working closely with vegetable grower, Ultan Walsh. ‘Food is life’ and, he believes, a healthy culture relies on a healthy food culture, which in turn depends on nurturing a genuine connection between us and the food on our plate. As passionate about provenance as he is about nurturing our natural curiosity, he is keen to experiment with unusual flavours and culinary influences, trying out vegetables which might be considered more challenging to grow in his native soil.

Just as his cooking encourages innovation, the book transcends linear conventions of seasonality, or placing vegetables and their virtues in neat alphabetical order. Rather, it is structured according to the subjects and produce closest to his heart: ‘It’s a green thing’, ‘A passionate pursuit’ and the chapter which captured my attention immediately, ‘Wild pickings’. Reminding us of childhood adventures outdoors, picking blackberries, ‘pissabed’ dandelions, crab apples, elderflowers, nettles or, just being out there for the sheer pleasure of it, it is a joyful prompt to escape back out and taste the freedom of it again, however briefly.

As a self-confessed ‘townie’, with the countryside of south-west Ireland in his blood and within sight, the landscape always drew a mixed emotional response from Denis Cotter and his peers whilst growing up: ‘Its sheer proximity was a constant reminder of how close we were to what we snobbishly saw as the poverty, savagery and endless toil that our ancestors had only recently escaped.’ And yet, however ‘determinedly urban’ they had become, they were and still are deeply rooted in the countryside through shared and personal memory, expressed in his own life as a chef: ‘The strongest, most fundamental connection between us and the earth, the countryside, is food.’

There is something about wild foraging in particular that forges an even stronger bond between us and the source: it requires close attention to the seasons, a sound knowledge of the plants (with words of warning here on the fungi) and the patience to know what to look for, and tantalises with elements of unpredictability, experimentation and disappointment.

That is a world away, of course, from the regulated all-season availability of produce on supermarket shelves. The latter can render food as mere fodder, and shopping, a soulless, alienating weekly business, creating what the author describes as an ‘emotional black hole’ in us. He attributes some of the renewed interest in wild food and increased popularity in farmers’ markets and local produce to our attempts, sub-conscious or otherwise, to reconnect.

Going out in search of wild food, as though we were searching for treasure, shows us, Cotter goes on to say, that the ‘primal thrill is intact’, and that by going back to explore the fields and lanes of our past, we are connecting with that past, with our childhood and the lives of our ancestors. In doing so, ‘we are acting out the rituals that nourish our souls as well as our bodies.’ Of all the ‘wild greens’ once critical in serving to fill the ‘hungry gap’ of early spring, it is wild garlic which excited the author first, and his recipe for pesto excited me, not just because of the ingredients, but the desire to go out and explore my local patch. I knew there was an abundance nearby, along the coast, but I had not yet ventured out in earnest search of ramsons. Since then, I have collected them every year from different places, my bundle from north Pembrokeshire having taken the longest journey back to Aberystwyth.

Cotter’s recipe combines the leaves with shelled walnuts, olive oil and a hard cheese, in a delicate balance of flavour and a burst of brilliant lime green. The right amount of foliage keeps it sharp, light and fresh but too much plunges it into something bulbous and overwhelmingly astringent. I played around with the quantities that night, reciting the different names for the plant I had discovered in that wonderful tome, Flora Britannica,

Stinking nanny, Stink bombs, Londoner’s Lilies….

and read alongside how many British places have taken their root from it – Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast, Ramsbottom in Lancashire, Ramsholt in Suffolk and Ramshope, Northumberland. The entry goes on to remark just how luxuriant it can be on the banks of woodland streams in Wales, hence ‘Crafnant’ in Snowdonia, meaning ‘the valley of the ramsons’. On the subject of their habitats, the description continues, ‘Although they form dense and sometimes very large colonies, they rarely share the space with other species….’ Whilst there is, no doubt, a botanical explanation for this, the garlic breath of those who have ingested it gives me sufficient indication as to why no one wants want to be in close proximity the following day. It’s worth it. This year’s effort was, well, reasonable. I wouldn’t say I’d perfected the balance yet, but that isn’t really the point.

There is a youthful excitement in the fresh spring air, opening up the possibility to try something new, a host of other wild picking recipes to test or tempt me: dandelion wilted with ginger and sweet pepper, a combination of samphire, hazelnut and pear, elderflower fritters (why not?), a chanterelle tart, or a damson fool. As for grasping the nettle, I’m happy with it in tea and soup and willing to try the risotto recipe but as an accompaniment to potato gnocchi, for some reason, that’s just one step too far for me.

Jane MacNamee lives on the coast in Aberystwyth and writes on nature, food and travel.

Books Cited:

Denis Cotter, Wild Garlic,Gooseberries… and Me: A Chef’s Stories and Recipes from the Land, (Collins, 2007).

Richard Mabey, Flora Brittanica, (Chatto & Windus, 1996).

Image, ID 184759040 / Shutterstock


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