BLOG: Forage & Feast June

29 May 2020

This month's blog in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild looks at fantastic fungi chicken of the woods, lime and elderflower.

June is an interesting month for foraging and depending on the weather the spring plants could be well finished and the true summer plants are not quite out yet, so you get a gap where it seems quiet. However, there is always something to tantalise and excite us from our gardens, parks and countryside. Below are three species to keep an eye out for this month.

Chicken of the Woods (main picture)

This is a species I have included because it is a striking and much sought after species, but also because there is some information on social media at this time of year which is slightly misleading for newcomers so here is what you need to know. If you are looking for a meat substitute then this is fab and you can replace chicken for this fungus in many recipes.

This fungus typically is most often encountered in June, but I have seen it from April - October, so it is not exclusively found in June (but the data suggests it).

It grows on trees, usually oak but often willow, cherry and even yew (which in itself is a poisonous tree, whilst that doesn't mean the fungus would be poisonous, it is suggested leave it alone if you find it growing on yew). When it starts growing it has the texture of raw chicken breast, but it gets more woody as it matures.

When it starts to grow it is sulphurous yellow and looks like a blob on the side of the tree, as it matures it begins to bracket it out like a shelf and starts to become more orange.

Now this is the critical bit, if it starts to get tough or woody, it is more likely to give you an upset stomach, it needs to be soft and squishy and feel like raw chicken. It can be used just like chicken too, we use it in meals as a chicken replacement and it is the most realistic meat substitute I think there is.

In the same way you would not eat raw chicken, this fungus also needs to be cooked thoroughly. Whilst I have never had any problems eating it (or any of my friends), there are increasing reports of people have reactions to it.

To prevent having any reaction these three things should help; 1) only pick fresh, soft and squishy specimens, 2) cook it thoroughly, do not eat it raw and 3) try a small piece and see how you get on before eating lots of it. Often on social media people ask what it is and someone will just say its edible, without these warnings.

 

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

There is no finer sign of summer starting than when the hedgerows are filled with Elder in flower with their scent almost hypnotic on warm sunny days. Elder is a small tree or large shrub, which has very ‘corky’ looking bark which feels light. Common throughout the UK, it often has parts of the same tree which are living and dead.

The leaves, which when crushed have a ‘bad’ smell (I associate it to cat urine), are pinnate (like a ladder) in sets of 5-7 elliptical leaflets with slightly toothed edges.

The flowers (which have a wonderful floral scent) are large and white, flowering from late May to July, often tinged creamy-yellow with the pollen. These flowers if left to develop will turn into clusters of dark purple, almost black looking, berries in the autumn.

Elder gives us a supply of lovely flowers in summer which can be infused to make teas, vinegars, and jellies, but traditionally it is used to create the wonderful Elderflower cordial. If the flowers are allowed to become berries later in the year then these can be infused for making a rich, gamey jelly or a wonderful syrup. The berries are toxic straight off the bush and need to be cooked or infused in vinegar to make them fine to use. Eating them straight off the bush will give you an upset stomach.

It is important to smell every flower before you pick it, some have no scent so are no use for making cordials and other things with. Also pick the flowers on a warm dry day as this increases the scent; do not pick them when they are damp or wet.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) looks quite similar, but the smaller leaves of Rowan do not smell and the flowers do have the sweet Elderflower scent, the berries later in the year are also red/orange.

Common Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) has much more rounded leaves which do not look like Elder, again these are unscented and the flowers do not smell of Elderflower, the berries are also red in the autumn.

Wayfaring Tree (Viburnum lantana), the flowers of which do not smell like elderflower and the single leaves are rounded.

 

Lime

For years I have often tried to find a good hedgerow tea that is packed full of flavour and whilst I have found a few it is the flowers of the lime tree that please me the most, and its old name ‘Linden’ was a popular herbal tea. 

In June there is hum around these trees when they flower as the bees go mad for them. The flowers are not showy, but stand close to the tree and look around the leaves and you will see them.

A single flower has a slight scent, but when you have a handful, dried, then the aroma is a wonderful flora honey scent. This can then be used to infuse to make a simple tea, steeped for 5 minutes in hot water or can even be used for cordials, jellies and even used for flavouring beer.

Lime trees have heart shaped leaves and are common, especially in urban areas and parks, so you will not have any problem finding them. The trees can be so big that even by just taking flowers off the lowest branches, you will be leaving plenty further up the tree for other insects to enjoy. This is what foraging should be about, we can get something and there still be plenty for nature.

As usual have fun whilst foraging, whether that is in your garden or your local green space, but only ever pick something YOU know 100% what it is, use multiple reliable sources to confirm your identifications and if in doubt, leave it out.

 

Elderflower Cordial recipe

Elderflower cordial is a recipe that every forager makes and it is one that I can’t wait for the lovely flower blooms to appear in the summer ready to infuse them into a delicious drink.

  • 1 litre boiling water
  • 1 kg of white sugar
  • 20-30 Elderflowers (the best smelling you can find)
  • Lemon Juice or Citric Acid (available at Home Brew shops)

The beauty of this recipe is its simplicity, let the wonderful scent do the work for you. The hardest part is finding the most sweet, floral blooms out there. Do not pick elderflowers just after it has rained, they will not smell pleasant and this will effect your cordial, smell each one and ensure it is worthy to be used as not all flowers smell so good.

  1. In a pan place your elderflowers and cover with the litre of boiling water.
  2. Add either the juice of one lemon or a heaped teaspoon of citric acid (if you want a lemony taste use lemons, if not use the citric acid). Cover the pan with a lid and allow to infuse for 24 hours.
  3. Strain the infused liquid through a fine sieve or muslin in to a pan. For every 100ml of liquid add 100g of sugar, heat gently for 5-10 minutes until all the sugar is dissolved.
  4. Allow to cool and pour the resulting liquid into clean sterilised bottles. Keep in the fridge and use with in 3 weeks.