Emma Gunn reveals the treasures nature offers us this month.
Is there anything to forage for in the depths of winter? Surprisingly, yes! So you may not have the plump juicy berries of summer, nor the plethora of wild mushrooms of autumn; but you do have shellfish, seaweeds, winter mushrooms and many coastal plants that remain evergreen throughout the year.
Winter is the best time of the year for collecting most shellfish, as they tend to breed in the summer months (hence the saying ‘only collect shellfish when there is an ‘r’ in the month’).
To forage safely, avoid collecting after rain, as you can get run off from the land; always collect from a clean source; don’t over-harvest; and only pick what you can eat in a day. Delicious shellfish available at this time of the year include mussels (Mytilus edulis), cockles (Cerastoderma edule) and even periwinkles and dog whelks.
When I pick mussels, I collect the largest, I pick sporadically and I try and find those with the fewest barnacles, therefore minimising a gritty meal. I like to cook the tried and tested Moules Mariniere, with plenty of crusty bread to soak up the juices; or put them straight onto a grill on the beach for a delicious smoky al fresco experience. Cockles are great steamed with spaghetti, chorizo and fennel, although simply pan-fried, they are deliciously sweet and gives scallops a run for their money.
These are categorised into brown, green and red. Think sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), oarweed (Laminaria digitata), sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca), gut weed (Ulva intestinalis), carragheen (Chondrus crispus), laver (Porphyra umbilicalis) and dulse (Palmaria palmata). When harvesting, leave the roots intact so the seaweed will regrow – use a pair of scissors. Only collect from a clean source. Seaweeds can be washed and dried on a low heat for storing. This is also the best way to make things such as sea lettuce popcorn, or to have a go at making sushi nori from laver (both are Porphyra sp.). Carragheen is a natural gelling agent, so it’s ideal for vegetarians to use instead of gelatine for set puddings and savoury dishes.
Some of these require frost such as oyster mushrooms and wood blewits, and so thrive in winter. Identifying fungi can be extremely difficult, and if you are in any doubt as to whether you have identified it properly, leave it – it’s not worth the risk. Go on a fungus foray, get books with plenty of images and descriptions, and slowly acclimatise yourself with the world of fungi. In the winter, there tend to be fewer fruiting bodies (the parts visible above the ground) to get confused with, but don’t get blasé! Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) have firm flesh which works well in stir fries and tarts.
On the beach
I love going to the beach in winter, wrapped up warmly, wind howling, stormy seas. There’s still plenty to harvest. Rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) has a pungent carrot flavour which mellows when pickled; steamed alexander stems (Smyrnium olusatrum) work well with crumbled blue cheese on toasted walnut bread; and the coastal alliums such as wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum) and crow garlic (Allium vineale) make excellent additions to dishes such as homemade pizzas and garlicky bread sauce.
Emma Gunn is the author of Never Mind The Burdocks – Foraging Throughout The Year. Spring edition now available, winter edition out soon. Visit www.nevermindtheburdocks.co.uk