There is something enormously satisfying about foraging for food, something that makes you feel that even in the city, you can skip the supermarket and go out and search for your own food in the parks around your suburb. More than just being frugal (although that in itself has its own merits), Nigel Slater put it perfectly when he said, “the pleasure is more the idea of exploiting something that is otherwise considered of little use.”
For a novice forager (like myself), edible weeds are one of the easiest things to search out, from the cracks in the pavement to the corners of your garden and probably all around your local park. Now that spring has finally sprung in Melbourne, it’s the perfect time for wild weeds, especially the flowering ones, which happen to be the easiest ones to spot. Once you know what you’re looking for though, you’ll find edible weeds literally everywhere.
Being a relative new Melburnian, I called upon a professional to help show me what to look for and where. Matt (known as @MushroomsAnon on twitter) has a business foraging for wild mushrooms for local chefs and restaurants and more recently has taken up edible weeds too. He generously took out a Sunday morning to show me the ropes. I was really after some stinging nettle, which is a commonly foraged weed in Italy and makes wonderful pesto or filling for tortellini and ravioli. Although we didn’t have any luck with the nettle on this particular outing, we did find plenty of other gorgeous weeds: mallow, chickweed, wild radish, wild garlic, dandelion and wood sorrel. We even found a rogue patch of broad beans in the middle of the park.
My favourite discoveries were the wild garlic and the wood sorrel, two very tasty, versatile and user-friendly weeds. The wild garlic, also known as ‘Three-cornered Leek’ for the triangular shape of its stalks, has a pretty, white, bell-shaped flower that makes it look like it belongs in a flower garden rather than on your plate. Native to the Mediterranean, the stalk, bulbs and flowers are all edible and are absolutely delicious raw or cooked, like a wonderfully delicate version of conventional garlic. You can use it much like you would spring onions, or wherever garlic is delicious. A sprinkle of the flowers through a salad is both visually appealing and adds interesting flavour. Jamie Oliver uses the chopped leaves to give an aromatic, garlicky note to soda bread. Nigel Slater suggests mashing them into butter for basting lamb fillets. In fact, Slater loves it so much that he tried to grow the weed but said, “Some things seem to resent being told where to grow, and I find wild garlic one of them.”
In Italy, this particular species of wild garlic is known as aglio trigono, which refers again to its triangular stalk. It’s a traditional ingredient in some of the peasant dishes of Tuscany’s island of Capraia, where in dialect it’s known as la sammola. The stalks are chopped and made into a flat bread baked in the oven or (using the exact same recipe) deep-fried fritters, a delicious antipasto. It’s also added to a tomato sauce for poaching eggs in (much like this recipe here), but is known as a ‘wild garlic soup’ on the island.
Wood sorrel is a beautiful clover-like plant with little heart-shaped leaves (below and below right) and a distinctively sour, lemony flavour that lends itself well anywhere where lemon would, from desserts to sauces. The bright yellow flowers are just as lemony as the leaves and stalks. Known as acetosella in Italian, wood sorrel is often paired with fish in salads, baked dishes or antipasti. It can also add zingy flavour to a traditional, earthy chickpea soup or be made into a limonata or a syrup. Rob Kabboord from Merricote restaurant makes it into granita for topping oysters and also has a beautiful pale green wood sorrel ice cream on the menu at the moment. It also makes a perfectly simple buttery, lemony sauce – infuse the wood sorrel in some melted butter and drizzle over some perfectly poached eggs.
Some of Matt’s tips for a successful forage:
- Bring scissors, a basket and plenty of rubber bands – use them to tie the different weeds into little bundles so you don’t end up with a big mess of weeds all mixed together.
- If you come across stinging nettle, you will need a heavy pair of gloves (rubber kitchen gloves, for example) and preferably long trousers or sleeves too. They do sting!
- Some weeds, such as the mallow, wilt very quickly, so get them into your fridge as soon you can.
- If you come across something that looks like it might be edible but you’re not sure, have a smell or a small taste. If it’s not for eating, the plant will let you know right away!
- Finally, when it’s time to use your weeds, don’t forget to wash them thoroughly in plenty of fresh water.
With our spoils, we’ve made a few different things, from simply scattering the wild garlic flowers through a salad to a lovely tart butter sauce with the wood sorrel leaves. I’m infusing the rest of the leaves for a tangy fior di latte all’acetosella gelato (thanks to Rob Kabboord who generously shared his recipe!).
But the recipe I wanted to post is the one for Capraia’s traditional frittelle di sammole, or wild garlic fritters – so simple and so delicious. I love that it’s also a very essential and frugal recipe – some foraged weeds, flour, water and salt. These hot, crispy fritters sprinkled with plenty of sea salt would be the perfect thing to eat with a view of the coast and the Tuscan sea breeze tousling your hair, but failing that, as part of an antipasto with a nice aperitivo these fritters would make anyone happy.
In my efforts to manage my gestational diabetes, I’ve made these with finely ground spelt flour, but feel free to use plain white flour. If you’re unable to find wild garlic, you could substitute spring onions but that would take all the fun out of foraging for the wild stuff. Traditionally, just the stalks and leaves are used in the batter, but the flowers, dipped in the batter together, are wonderful too.
Fritelle di Sammole
Wild garlic fritters
- 300 gr fine spelt flour
- About 1 cup of water (see instructions below)
- 1 big bunch of wild garlic
- Olive oil for frying
- Salt and pepper to taste
This is one of those recipes that calls for a bit of improvisation. Depending on the flour that you’re using, the amount of water will differ. Combine the flour and water to obtain a thick batter, like a thick pancake batter. Maybe even a bit thicker than normal. Season with salt and pepper.
Thoroughly wash your wild garlic, pat dry. Remove the bulbs (use them like you would garlic for something else), chop the leaves and stems into 1 cm pieces. If you’re using the flowers, you can leave them attached to the stem as it’s quite nice and easy to dip into batter that way or pick them off individually and add them to the batter with the rest of the wild garlic.
Heat the oil in a deep pan to about 170ºC and gently fry spoonfuls of the batter in small batches, transferring to a plate lined with paper towel for draining when done. Season with salt while still hot and serve immediately, perhaps with some soft stracchino cheese (if you’re in Melbourne, the squaquerone by Giorgio from La Latteria is a great substitute and the closest I’ve found so far) or some fresh goat’s curd.