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Come over to Wild Plant Forager for new recipes, inspiration, stories and more. There’s a free gift for you as well!
This must be the most truthful publicity slogan ever: “Elderberry is underestimated”
“Getting to know all these different plant species, where do I start?” It’s a question I am asked quite often. Mostly my answer is “Well, just start with one. Choose a common plant that grows near you. A plant with lots of useful possibilities. And spend a year in its company.”
One of the plants that is such an ideal ally, is the Elder. Grows nearly everywhere, houses a whole world of folklore and legends (complete books are written about the tales of the Elder), it is as suitable as food as it is as fabric colour. On top of that, it provides ideal material to make toys with, and good medicine to boost your health. This is a plant that invites us to smell, taste, touch… and a living example of how different plant parts may contain completely different substances, each to be harvested at their own time of the year.
Every now and then, it’s good to take your own advice. So I decided at the end of last winter, when the first green Elder leaves were showing “Oh yes, the Elder, I would love to spend a whole year in her company again”. Because it’s never right to think that you know a plant entirely, even though you can’t count the bottles of elderberry syrup you’ve made anymore, or the amount of elderflower pancakes.
And yes, last year was another epiphany for me.
A couple of weeks ago, when it was snowing (quite early here for the time of the year), I had to smile… apparently someone was shaking the feather blanket of the Elder Lady! I couldn’t resist telling the whole tale once again. A quick glance to the shelves in the kitchen told me it had been a fruitful elder year. A whole range of elder preparations smiled at me. Tinctured flowers, dried flowers for tea, syrups of berries and blossom, berry marmelade, elder leaf oil and salve, klakkebuizen (no idea what the English word for that is; but the hollow twigs can be used to shoot chewed paper at a target – mostly the victim is a teacher , pieces of elder-coloured fabric, elder flutes (in Flemish there is the wonderful word ‘Flierefluiter’, meaning someone who plays an elder flute, or someone who doesn’t worry about a thing in the world…)
Small wind flute made from elder wood
And the dreaming had started… About the elder blossoms, picked in a lovely permaculture garden in Friesland. About the harvest of the berries, with the company of a special friend, and how the songs to celebrate the berries just flew out of our mouth and heart… The flutes we tried to make, near the water, one trial after another and another trial, until we got a bit of unexpected professional help, which resulted in a flute that imitates bird sounds so well, that even the cats were confused.
But most of all: how I got pregnant, and very aware of it right away, at the time the elder berries were ripening, and how our twins will be born once the elder blossom spreads her magical scent in the air… Yes, this year with Lady Elder was certainly a fruitful one…
Winter has arrived again, and usually we tend to ‘blindfold’ our feet a bit more at this time of the year than in summertime. But even during the summer I simply don’t manage to keep the sandals on my feet. Especially not when I’m in nature – how could you feel free in a natural environment when your feet are held prison?
I’ve noticed that I rarely forage for wild plants anymore without being barefoot. Honestly: it make things so much easier, it’s so simple to find out where the soil becomes more humid, or warm, or sandy. With your bare feet, it’s a piece of cake to find out where the sun exactly was half an hour ago, as you feel right away where the earth is still glowing. It might be the no.1 simplest way to look for plants, especially those that only grow in very specific circumstances. A quest for plants that becomes a total sensuous experience.
In the late summer, I was able to live wildly from whatever the land had to offer: wild greens, berries of all kinds, wild apples, and the most delicious mushrooms. The mushrooms, that was something new for me. Guided by a good friend we went mushroom ‘hunting’. Yes, hunting that is. Everyone who ever picked mushrooms in the wild, will agree: it is something quite different. They seem to hide sometimes, or it happens that you look at a spot where you where fruitlessly passing only five minutes ago, and it turns out that all of a sudden it’s loaded with mushrooms. “Actually, the best way to look for mushrooms, is having a beer first” I heard, “as it slows you down, and fogs your mind just the tiny bit you need in order to be able to find them”. Haven’t tried the beer yet, but barefooted, I found one mushroom after another, and another, and…
Photo: Ground elder, stinging nettle and dandelion – Edible Amsterdam Dasarts 2008
Harvesting herbs and flowers, making ointments, enjoying the outdoors, and so much other fun things to do at this time of the year. More fun than sustaining a intimate relationship with the computer, so yes, it has been a bit quiet here. Also, I have been travelling around in Belgium and Holland like a nomad, to teach herbal classes. And all of this topless (laptopless that is, for anyone imagining other things ).
But last Saturday, as I was exchanging some experiences about ground elder with other herbalists, one
of them exclaimed ‘But why don’t you write about that in your blog?!’ So here it goes…
Ground Elder was once intoduced here by the Romans, to supply their soldiers with fresh vegetables along the roadside. Of course they used a plant that knows how to survive in all circumstances, one that cannot be conquered. A vegetable that invented the slogan ‘all you can eat’.
The Romans continued their travels, but ground elder stayed. To invade all possible places in the countryside, forest and city: in lawns, under trees, in hedges.
This made the herb famous and well known by different names: rampant champion, gardener’s sadness. Bishop’s Weed (as this plant was used by monks to treat gout). Jack-jump-about. Or the poetic the expanding green hell. In other words: hard to exterminate. Even pesticide manufacturers risk a nervous breakdown, dealing with ground elder.
I know I’m risking my credibility here, but: I seem to have eaten so much of it in the parental garden over the past few years, that it disappeared.
Feel free to reread that sentence.
Yes, indeed, ground elder. Gone. Only by preparing and eating it, in vegetable pies, soups, salades, mashed potatoes, pancakes, bread, pesto,… Not one milligram of poison was needed, on the contrary: I was nourished by all the good things that it has to offer: vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, carotene (especially when eaten young).
It’s very versatile, the young tender leaves are delicious eaten raw, the older leaves can be cooked and have a parsley-like taste.
I know other gardeners would start an extatic dance of joy, but I am not so sure if there’s a reason to be so happy about this. Even more: I miss my trusted ground elder. I hope I can re-introduce it. What could be easier than a vegetable of which you can continually harvest without having to worry about diseases or special plant needs? Those Romans weren’t so stupid after all…
And as it turns out, I am not the only one: Goethe was also an enthousiastic ground elder collector. His collection of weeds can still be admired in the Goethe museum in Weimar.
~ A veritable army of weed killers and tools has been employed to get rid of this lawn ‘spoiler’, but have you ever seen a field made a glorious sheet of gold by millions of dandelions? ~
Adrienne Crowhurst (1972)
It all started one afternoon in the library, many years ago. I was browsing through some books about foresting, and opened a photo book on the subject. Somewhere in the middle there was a picture of a man standing on the top of a hill. Curious as I was, my eyes followed his stretched arm and index finger, pointing at the green hill right next to it, offering ground to hundreds or maybe even thousands of trees. The comment underneath the picture read ‘This man shows us the trees he has been planting during his life’. Not only was I heavily impressed, I was flabbergasted, I was melting.
Later I was standing in the kitchen with my mother-in-law, and she told me the story of The man who planted trees, ‘truly something for you’. She was right, I was hanging at her lips.
But fairy tale-like stories were not satisfactory for me; soon I turned these things into practice myself, albeit on a very small scale. The railway verges where I passed by daily, got loaded with seeds of St.-John’s Wort, malva , evening primrose and their colleagues, and yes: it worked! I saw the landscape gaining colour, and becoming an attraction for butterflies, bees, and other crawling, flying and buzzing little creatures.
Next, during one of the editions of our Edible Brussels project, I heard a man tell about his favorite occupation: the reintroduction of the wild leek… in Brussels.
“Just a matter of leaving some tiny bulbs here and there”, he claimed.
At least as inspiring as that, is to me the story of a girl that went along on a wood walk:
“My father got nearly arrested by the police once on the road. He was in the car, window open, with a huge bucket of acorns by his side. You see, he collects those in Autumn. And when the bucket is full, it goes into the car.
-Ehm…Hmm… Excuse me, but what kind of filth is it that you have been throwing out of the window all the time, into the central reservation?
- Eh… filth? I am planting oak trees, sir.”
Some readers will laugh at the previous, and perhaps even say out loud that there are some surprisingly naive creatures on this planet.
Fact is: all this green is very much needed. More so: the green can make it perfectly without us, but it just won’t work the other way. Some people seem to be more aware of that than others.
Even The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation gives sustainability a new dimension through planting fruit trees: oxygen, shade, decreasing erosion of the soil, and delicious, nutritious fruits.
But the seeds that have touched me most, must have been the tomato seeds that a friend took out of his pockets after the funeral of a very good friend. “Well, look what I find here in my pockets”, he said, “tomato seeds”. That’s about all I needed to realise deep inside that life went on, and that it was good.
And I still sow and plant… amidst the busy traffic, or when people look the other way for just a moment…
… who’s joining me?
I know some people can hardly wait to start sowing their herbs indoors.
Perhaps you like to use empty yoghurt pots for this purpose, or empty egg boxes or egg shells. Some prefer empty cans or coffee bags with some holes pinched at the bottom.
All these are suitable, but just in case there would be nothing else available than some old newspaper, be inspired by this origami link.
It shows how to create beautiful pots from a simple piece of paper, without having glue or scissors at hand.
What could be more fun than preparing a workshop on aphrodisiacs?
My two loyal guides, Isabel Allende’s “Aphrodite” and Laura Esquivel’s “Como Agua Para Chocolate” not only fed my love for Latin american writers. These two ladies master the art of combining the love and food. Truly poetical, and witty. But never vulgar.
As a teaser: Allende’s carrot soup of 1001 night, advised to Arabs to be enabled to make love from dusk till dawn…
2 large winter carrots
2 cups vegetable stock or 1 ½ cup stock and ½ cup orange juice
1 stick of cinnamin
a small piece of ginger
1 sniff of cardemom
1 sniff of nutmeg
1 teaspoon honey
4 tablespoons cream
Chop the carrots and boil them in the stock with the spices added.
(I find it easy to chop the spices a bit and then put them in a tea ball and add that to the stock. This makes it easier to remove them afterwards).
Let simmer until the carrots are tender.
Turn off the fire.
Remove the spices, add honey and cream, and blend it all with a mixer.
Enjoy this soup in good company
Got this from Johan, and as I was answering these questions, a very nice memory came back, one about food (yeah)…
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When the traditional friendship booklets passed around in the classroom, I generally filled in “farmer”. But as soon as I noticed my classmates made a lot of fun of that, I spied on the previous pages and answered -as all girls did- “singer”.
What did you become?
Herbalist, nature guide. The green kept calling me. Concerning the farmer-part: to live off the land is still fascinating to me, though the “wild” side more than the “cultivated” part.
As a child, how did you want to look later?
I was a fatty, so my greatest wish was: being less fat.
How do you look now?
Little did I know that later in life I would get nicknames like “skinny butt”….
What did the man of your dreams look like?
Dark, and tall.
And what did it turn out to be?
Something beyond my most beautiful dreams (yeah, pretty dull, and still…)
And yes: dark and tall.
How many children did you want, and at what age?
As a child -more than likely inspired by the Sound of Music- there was a short moment that I wanted a lot of kids. But quite soon that changed into: no kids.
Eventually, how many do you have or intend to have?
Turning 30 this year, but no feelings in that direction yet…
What was, as a child, your favourite food? What did you not like at all?
My absolute number one favourite was “green potatoes”. A real family recipe of my father’s family, from the polders in the West of Flanders, where the sorrel grows abundantly. (Later on I discovered there’s even an expression “sorrel frump” in that region).
Green potatoes could also be called “mashed potatoes with sorrel”, but that first name just spoke more to us as a child.
It was a dish that was only served in the weekend, not on ordinary week days, and my sister and I were exceptionally allowed to spoon out the leftovers in the cooking pot. Each her turn. And that was the cause of quite a few arguments. So my mother had invented this system where the one who got the last leftovers, had to write her name on an especially for this purpose installed board in the kitchen. After which there was obviously a lot of fooling around with the board.
So the conclusion here is probably that the preference for wild foods was an early one…
There were not many things I absolutely detested, though I remember wondering about eating animals at a very young age. Especially the inconsistency about doing anything for the pets, and just eating other animals, I just didn’t get it. Telling fairy tales of the three little pigs and then eat porc with taste.
In a desperate attempt to understand, I even assisted my godmother removing the lungs, kidneys and livers from the freshly slaughtered chickens. So no, I am not a softie. But still: I never got it. And today, I am already longer a vegetarian than I ever was an omnivore.
Do you still (not) like it, or are there other favourites now?
Looking back, it all seems hysterical, but a plate of green potatoes is still comfort food to me. Especially when they are combined with fresh wild wood mushrooms, shortly fried in olive oil, with some garlic.
I still don’t eat meat.
When I left home, I started cooking with a lot of -for me- new ingredients. So yes, a lot of new favourites, but the number one thing for me is: food prepared with love. Enjoyed in good company.
Invented just a moment ago, and approved by my guests: Glühria!
It’s a kind of mixture between traditional Glühwein and fruity sangria.
- So yes, you can also call it Sangriwein, if you prefer -
A warming drink in the heart of winter with a hint of summer dreams.
What do we need?
½ l water (that’s about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons cranberries
1 (cooking) pear or (cooking) apple, diced
2 organic oranges, diced (with peel)
1 stick of cinnamon
1 liter red wine (that’s about 4 cups)
150 g cane sugar (that’s about 2/3 of a cup – or more or less, depending on how sweet you want it)
Bring the water with the fruit and spices to a boil, and let infuse for 45 minutes.
Add the sugar and wine and let stand on the fire for a while (not boiling).
Pour through a strainer and serve in small glasses with a slice of orange. Use a stick of cinnamon to stirr.
An alcohol free variation can be made by replacing the wine by red grape juice or blueberry juice (or a mixture of both). Generally these call for less sugar.
Very tasty with a splash of left over elderberry syrup too…