How to forage and cook Alexanders
April and May is the perfect time to forage for Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a wild food which grows on cliff tops and in seaside hedgerows.
The beautiful, lime green plant was introduced to the UK by the Romans, who called it the ‘pot herb of Alexandria’, because every part of it is edible. People say it tastes similar to angelica and parsley, but there are many different ways of bringing out its flavour.
Recipes for Alexanders
Here are just a few ways to prepare this wild food.
Fresh stems, flowers and leaves
To enjoy these as a fresh vegetable – similar to asparagus – try peeling the stems and boiling them for five to ten minutes, or until tender. Do the same with unripe flower heads, or eat them raw.
Larger leaves can be blanched briefly, while younger ones can be eaten raw.
You can also candy stems like angelica, to use for decorating cakes or to eat as a sweet snack. First, boil the peeled stems in a pan of water and sugar (one cup of each) for 10 minutes. Then drain and lay them on a non-stick parchment that has been covered with caster sugar, and sprinkle some more on top. When they’re dry, shake off the excess sugar and store in a sealed, dry container.
Tempura flower heads
Both the ripe and unripe flower heads can be dipped in tempura batter and deep fried until golden, Japanese style.
The hard black seeds appear later in the year and can be used as a spice, much like black pepper.
Scrub, peel and slice the roots – much like you would with parsnips – toss them in sunflower oil, season, then roast at 180 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes or so, until tender. Remember, you mustn’t dig up plants without the landowner’s permission.
How to forage for Alexanders
Alexanders, also known as Alisanders or horse parsley, grows on cliff tops and in seaside hedgerows. In the spring it produces yellow-green flowers and, in the autumn, black seeds. It grows to a height of 50 to 120cms with a hollow and grooved stem. Always take a good field guide with you – and read Emma’s golden rules of foraging – before you go.
Emma’s golden rules of foraging
- Choose easily recognisable plants. If you’re new to foraging, don’t choose plants that are easily confused with others. Some plants can be poisonous, especially mushrooms, so don’t risk it. As foraging guru Richard Mabey wrote in his brilliant Food for Free book, ‘Indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!’
- Invest in a good field guide. Take along a guide that includes illustrations or photos, as well as Latin names. These botanical names can give great clues about the plant, such as its habitat. For example, the suffix montana means it grows in the mountains, maritimus denotes that it is found on the coast, halimus in the dunes, while officinalis shows that it is a medicinal plant.
- Keep hygiene in mind. Avoid picking plants which may be dirty or polluted. For example, pick from areas away from the road. Also, don’t gather from low down along a path, where dogs or livestock may have brushed past. Don’t forage straight after a heavy rainfall, when plants in the ground – and shellfish – may be contaminated with run-off from the fields, which can contain chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Always give your leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts and roots a good wash before use.
- Don’t be greedy. Remember, you’re sharing nature’s harvest with wildlife too, so don’t take all of it. Also, be careful not to damage plants. If you only need the leaves, don’t pull them up by the roots; use a pair of secateurs. That way there’ll be lots more to harvest next year too.
- Remember where you found it. Make a note of the lane, patch of land, or beach where you found the plant, so that you can come back to that hotspot next year as well.
Image credit: Dan Mullen