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Into the wild: meet the foraging experts who make delicious meals from nature

All sorts of wild plants are just coming into leaf and flower right now — and most people don’t realise just how many of them are edible. Linda Stewart talks to three avid foragers whose skills are coming into their own in lockdown

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Paul Cunningham, director and head chef at Burnels, Newcastle.

Paul Cunningham, director and head chef at Burnels, Newcastle.

Dermot Hughes

Dermot Hughes

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Paul Cunningham, director and head chef at Burnels, Newcastle.

Chef Paul Cunningham (33), from Dundrum, who runs Brunel’s in Newcastle, recently appeared on Great British Menu and uses foraged food in his cooking.

He is married to Jennifer and has two girls, Farrah (5) and Rosie (2). The restaurant has closed during lockdown, but videos of drinks and dishes that can be cooked at home are being posted on its Facebook page. Paul says:

I learned about foraging from my grandfather — he taught me loads, everything from how to grow to how to forage. He and his brother Ben had us out hunting for rabbits from no age.

We used to go on family trips going across Dundrum Bay, getting sand eels and cockles and mussels and whelks and flounder.

It was a good way to grow up, connected with nature. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with a lot of kids nowadays — they’re all sitting in front of Xboxes.

It’s therapeutic — you have a hard week at work and you just go foraging for a couple of hours and it clears your mind. Wild garlic is probably the first thing we found and then you’re making pestos, making oils, making purees, salts, everything. I’m constantly doing research just to keep myself up-to-date. I would follow a few websites like Galloway’s Fine Food.

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Paul Cunningham with wife Jennifer and daughter Farrah

Paul Cunningham with wife Jennifer and daughter Farrah

Paul Cunningham with wife Jennifer and daughter Farrah

I have them all on tabs on my laptop — it just keeps you refreshed.

Seasons change, things change, and the last thing you want is to hurt anyone, because it can be as dangerous as it is fun.

One of the dishes I do at this time of year is a lamb one that goes with grass sauce.

I have dandelion, wild garlic, hoary bittercress, ground elder as well, and we blitz it up with a bit of whey and that’s our grass sauce. It’s the most amazing flavour — it’s garlic and earthy and bitter and sweet, everything in one go.

Nettles are amazing — they’re very good for you and full of iron. In the middle of the summer, they go to seed and we dry them out and put them into breads or crackers, or just use them as a wee texture in a pasta dish.”

Paul’s nettle soup

Nettle soup

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 onion, diced

1 leek, diced

3 sticks celery, diced

1 tsp nutmeg

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs of thyme

1/4 tsp black pepper

1 ltr chicken stock

350g diced potatoes

4 tbsp cream

400g nettle tips, washed and picked

METHOD

Heat oil in a medium-sized pot.

Add the butter, salt, onion, leek, celery, nutmeg, bay leaf, thyme, black pepper.

Sweat down with the lid on, medium heat for 5-10 minutes until sweet and translucent.

Add the stock and potatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the nettles. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the cream. Remove from heat.

Blend, sieve and add seasoning if required.

‘Foraging is a great way to really understand what nature can provide for our wellbeing’

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Dermot Hughes forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Dermot Hughes forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Dermot Hughes forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Environmental consultant Dermot Hughes (65), originally from Dublin and now living in Belfast, set up Forage Ireland with his late wife Mary. He has four children and is in lockdown with his daughter Susan. He says:

My shtick is to get people to understand nature and appreciate nature and foraging. This is a great way to do that because it helps people really understand what nature provides and how important wildlife is for our wellbeing.

I lead foraging walks and do outreach, trying to encourage people to go out foraging and enjoy the seasons and enjoy nature.

There are a lot of people out there now who are into foraging but when I started out there was no one really doing it. I would do 15 to 20 walks of various sorts a year. People are very keen to try and, if you give them the basics, they’ll go ahead and do it.

At the moment there are no events going on. There’s no sign of them letting up the restrictions — foraging is fine on your own, but it would be difficult to socially distance with a group.

I’m finding some people have more time on their hands at the moment and they’re getting into cooking and maybe even foraging. At this time of year, the leafy plants are at their best, all fresh, and there are a lot of young shoots. There’s a huge range of salady stuff.

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Outdoor types: Dermot Hughes and Clare McQuillan
forage in Belvoir Park in Belfast

Outdoor types: Dermot Hughes and Clare McQuillan forage in Belvoir Park in Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Outdoor types: Dermot Hughes and Clare McQuillan forage in Belvoir Park in Belfast

You’ve got things like common sorrel and wood sorrel that you can eat raw. Cleavers, which are lovely at this time of year when they’re young and fresh — steam it a little and eat it like a vegetable. Fresh bramble leaves and hawthorn leaves are very tasty at the minute.

They’re less palatable after a short while but at the minute they are just bursting with flavour. In spring the sap is rising and that is bringing new nutrients up from the soil so the new leaves are very tasty — they’ve got sugars and all sorts of things in them.

I don’t tend to bother with recipes, just cook whatever’s available.

For instance, if you’re making a soup I would always throw in some cow parsley, nettle, wild garlic if I have them.

When I make nettle soup I make it like a leek soup with potatoes — it’s very similar stuff.

Dermot’s elderflower cordial

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

Elderflower heads

500g sugar

3l water

METHOD

Collect a shopping bag half-full of elderflower heads, trying to avoid the leaves. Snip the florets off the thicker stalks, and place in a plastic bucket.

Boil up a syrup of sugar and water - the proportions aren't vital, about 500g sugar in 3 ltr water would be fine. You could vary the proportions depending on how sweet you like it, but that will take a few goes to work out.

Pour the boiled syrup over the flowers, and mash them up a good bit. Leave to stand for 24 hours with a cloth over the top, and then strain the liquid, bring to boiling point and then leave to cool before bottling. Ready in 3 weeks, but best after 6 months, stored in a cool, dark place.

‘The idea of being able to get fairly unusual, exotic ingredients blew my mind’

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 Claire McQuillan forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Claire McQuillan forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Claire McQuillan forages in Belvior Park, south Belfast on March 16th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Freelance caterer and foraging guide Clare McQuillan (35) lives in Belfast and is married to Stephen. She says:

I’ve always had a real love for the outdoors. I currently live in east Belfast but I used to live in north Belfast and I would have spent a lot of time up Cave Hill. Cave Hill Conservation Society runs regular outdoors events and they put on forage walks with a guy called Phil Simpson who is really amazing.

I was really passionate about food so the idea of being able to get fairly unusual, exotic local ingredients really blew my mind. From there I’ve really focused my study and tried to learn as much as possible about them and I’m now in the position where I am trying to share my knowledge with others.

I teach by taking small groups of people on a walk where they learn about the plants and how to ID them.

I would also take groups of chefs out in different locations to teach them about different wild ingredients and I did a project with a group of bartenders last year on wild botanicals and garnishes for cocktails.

I did an event at Belfast Gin Festival looking at wild ingredients to make gin cocktails interesting.

We’re coming into the height of wild garlic season, and it’s up everywhere.

I’m excited about early flowers like primrose and cherry blossom and crocus — they’re all edible and taste great. People don’t know lots of our tree leaves are edible — the likes of young beech leaves and hawthorn make a great salad veg, but you can also dry them and use them as a green tea and they have a beautiful flavour as well.

The likes of early spring greens, like cow parsley, ground elders, sorrel and wood sorrel, are all coming through now.

At the moment, I’m not foraging very much at all. I’m helping to make soup for a soup kitchen that has been set up and that’s keeping me busy during the week when I’m not working at anything else.

Over the last five weeks I’ve been foraging in my garden quite a bit. A lot of what I already pick are common and garden weeds anyway, so I’m using things like sticky weed, bittercress ... I’m lucky I have a patch of wild garlic that I planted and I’m doing lots of things with dandelions, daisies and sorrel.

I’m doing a lot of garden prep, but I’ve been trying to protect this little patch of nettles that is growing in my garden — I love nettle soup.

I feel lucky that I have that space to go into and do things. Lots of people are getting in touch to show me their own weeds and asking what can I do with these.

Definitely I think people were really valuing their own garden space — if I’m limited in my trips to the shop, can I find something that is already there?”

Claire’s wild garlic and cheddar rolls

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Clare McQuillan's wild garlic and cheddar rolls

Clare McQuillan's wild garlic and cheddar rolls

Clare McQuillan's wild garlic and cheddar rolls

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

For the pastry:

220g plain flour

150g butter

Pinch of salt

5-6 tablespoons cold water

For the filling:

1 onion chopped

300g breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon olive oil

300g mature cheddar grated

2 big handfuls of wild garlic chopped

1 egg

Salt and pepper

1 egg for glazing

METHOD

Place the butter in the freezer for 30 minutes and while it’s firming up fry the onion in the olive oil until softened and allow to cool.

Mix the cooked onion, breadcrumbs, cheddar, wild garlic and egg together and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the flour and salt to a large bowl.

Using a large-holed grater, grate in the frozen butter and toss lightly in the flour.

Use a knife to evenly distribute the butter and add the cold water, a little at a time, using the knife, to make a shaggy dough, adding a little more water if it looks too dry.

Turn out onto a surface and bring together gently, being careful not to overwork. Shape the pastry into a square, cover and allow to relax in the fridge for 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 180°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Divide the pastry into two rectangles and flour the work surface. Roll each piece out until the width of a £1 coin keeping the rectangular shape with the longest edge closest to you.

Place rolls of the filling across the middle of each strip of pastry and brush the edge closest to you with beaten egg.

Lift the pastry over the filling, press tightly and cut off any excess.

Press a fork over the edge to seal. Slice and place on the baking sheet and brush with more egg. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden.

Belfast Telegraph