How to eat weeds - according to Norfolk experts
- Credit: Julie Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal
It couldn’t have been published at a better time: just as the cost of living soars, authors Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal have written a book about gathering, and cooking, free foods readily available in the wild.
Eat Your Weeds! is a love letter to the plants that many gardeners spend hours trying to destroy, a guide to 24 of Britain’s best-known weeds and how to use them to create tasty savoury and sweet meals, snacks and drinks.
From alexanders to yarrow, ground elder to Jack-by-the-Hedge, nettle to daisies, these are the plants we have grown up with, the ones that surround us, every day.
“Weeds are the wild plants that live alongside us and we have tried to destroy them for as long as we have grown crops,” said Matthew, who along with Julie is a member of the Association of Foragers and is an editor and writer by profession.
“But these are plants that can be so useful to us: they are local, sustainable and they are often delicious. They are amongst our oldest companions and they persist: we wanted to celebrate them.”
The book contains 90 plant-based recipes, biographies of weed use, and a host of other information and ideas about how to use the backyard bounty offered to us by Mother Nature for free.
“We think of weeds as a useful free food, a garden micro-crop that can be a great addition to our everyday cooking that can offer us exciting new flavours,” said Matthew.
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“They are there as survival food if we need it. In times when money is tight and supplies may be hard to come by, weeds can offer us what we need at no cost.”
Julie, a herbalist, iridologist, cranio-sacral therapist and Fellow of the Association of Master Herbalists, explained that the idea for Eat Your Weeds! had come to her in a dream (but that other ‘dream premonitions’, such as lottery numbers, had to date eluded her, sadly): “I woke up in October 2019 with the title and the whole book completed in my head,” she laughs, “the front of the book was a little different, but the idea was there!”
She and Matthew, who live near Wymondham, have co-authored a range of books which encourage readers to use nature’s bounty: there’s Hedgerow Medicine, Kitchen Medicine, Wayside Medicine, The Herbalist’s Bible…a veritable library of plant know-how.
But Eat Your Weeds! offers even the novice botanist the chance to involve the harvest on our doorstep in their dinner plans: while foraging may seem difficult or even dangerous (and the couple cannot stress strongly enough how important plant identification is) there are few of us that don’t recognise daisies and dandelions, nettles and blackberries.
“It’s a great access route into foraging,” said Matthew. “Blackberry picking, for example, is one of the few communal foraging experiences we’ve probably all had. And we’ve all picked daisies or blown away dandelion seeds as children.
“We just take things to the next level: using the weeds that you find in your back garden or on your walk into ingredients for delicious food.
“Weeds are actually more nutritious than most of the vegetables we grow or buy – they have deep roots that loosen the soil and bring minerals up from far below.
“They are anything but ‘weedy’ – we prefer to use the word ‘weedness’ to describe the brilliance and strength of weeds. We do tend to suffer with ‘plant blindness’ today and we would like to encourage people to look around them and see what weeds have to offer.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to eat something that you’ve gathered yourself.”
Much like being a hunter-gatherer minus the bloodshed, I say to Matthew: “Absolutely,” he answers, “and it’s considerably easier, too. Sometimes you just need to go into the back garden.”
In Eat Your Weeds! Matthew and Julie say this is a matter of re-education about the weeds our ancestors have used for centuries or, as they put it, ‘weed-ucation’ (I wish I’d come up with that one).
It is no surprise that Matthew and Julie have practiced what they preach for many years, eating a largely plant-based diet and regularly foraging for their meals: often on the menu Chez Bruton-Seal are ground elder roots that taste "like bamboo", chickweed pesto, nettle puree and elderflower fruit salad in summer ("so pretty").
Weeds, they explain, are not competition for the plants we want to grow, they are part of a complex micro-system that nourishes the earth and in turn, us.
With gardeners in mind, they write: “We hope you can find a space to recognise your weeds and have an ongoing relationship that includes eating them and ingesting their powerful zest for life. Indeed, all green plants are embodied light.”
· Eat Your Weeds! by Julie Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal is available at booksellers, or on publisher Merlin Unwin Book’s website, cover price £25.
Elderflower and Rose Cordial
Elderflower cordial is delicious, but tastes even better with the addition of rose petals.
Pick 30 heads of elderflower on a dry sunny day, choosing those that smell lemony and fresh. Pick a double handful of rose petals, preferably from red or pink roses for the colour.
Boil 1kg (2lb) sugar in 2 litres (4 pints) of water for about five minutes in a large saucepan. Pour into a large ceramic bowl and add 50g (2oz) citric acid, a chopped lemon and a chopped orange.
Add the elderflower heads and rose petals. Stir well. Cover with a clean cloth and leave for three or four days, stirring every day. Strain through a jelly bag and bottle. For long-term storage, the cordial can be frozen.
To drink, dilute to taste with cool sparkling water. It can also be made with hot water to encourage sweating in colds and fevers.
Alternatives: The cordial can be frozen to make a sorbet or poured into popsicle moulds to make ice lollies. Extra rose petals can be added to make the colour brighter.
Dandelion Flower Jam
This jam is based on a traditional French recipe. You can filter out the flower petals for a clear jam, which is called miel de pissenlit (dandelion honey), or leave them in as in this recipe, which is more like a marmalade.
Makes about 800ml (11⁄2 pints).
Remove the petals from a colander full of dandelion flowers. You can either pull them off the base of the flower, or use a knife to cut them. Put the petals in a saucepan with 500ml (17fl oz) water and simmer for 10 minutes, then add the juice of 2 medium lemons and 600g (21oz) jam sugar (or mix ordinary sugar with 2 teaspoons pectin powder).
Bring rapidly to a rolling boil, and continue until the setting point is reached (105C/220F). If you don’t have a cooking thermometer, test a drop of the jam on a cold saucer after about five minutes of rapid boiling. If it gels, the jam is ready. If it doesn’t, continue boiling and test again every few minutes until the jam sets on the cold saucer.
When it is ready, add the finely grated zest of the two lemons. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before pouring into heated jam jars, filling each to the top. This is to allow it to thicken slightly so the petals don’t all float to the top. Once set, put the lids on and add a label. Will keep for six months to a year, but refrigerate once opened.
Daisy tea is calming like chamomile tea, a relative. The taste is mild and pleasant.
Pick a handful of daisy flowers and put them in a teapot. Pour boiling water over them, put the lid on the teapot, and leave to brew for five to 10 minutes.
Strain and enjoy.
Alternatives: Dried daisy flowers can also be used. Also nice with fennel seed or mint.
How to Eat Your Weeds
· Only eat what you are SURE of: use a guide or contact a forager to help you learn what can – and can’t be – eaten
· If digging up a plant, including a weed, if it is not on your land, you need permission
· Be mindful of plants that might have been treated with pesticides or chemicals or that grow close to the road
· Weeds often have stronger flavours than cultivated plants – it may take your palate time to catch up with your foraging!