Spring foraging

About this time last year I wrote a post about wild garlic pesto, a wonderful and cheap way to liven up pasta. I’ve just made three jars for this year from a patch of ramsons I came across whilst on holiday in Anglesey – it made for a nice finale to the trip to go for a short stroll on the final morning to pick the leaves and to make up the pesto when I got home. Now to let the flavours mature a bit before sampling the result!

Meanwhile, the general busyness of life has got in the way of my writing a post about another foraged delicacy which I made for Easter Sunday — nettle soup. I used the River Cottage’s recipe as the basis for my soup, adding a bit of celery to make up for not having a great vegetable stock and just the tiniest amount of chilli powder and nutmeg for seasoning.

Before I made the soup my mum chided that it was going to be like Stone Soup. This was a reference to a story we had as children in I think a ladybird book. In any case, as my memory goes, it’s about a vagrant who meets an old lady in the countryside and offers her to cook her his magic ‘stone soup’ if she gives him a place to sleep for the night. All he needs, he says, is a pan of water and his stone. She agrees, and they go back to her house. He begins to prepare the soup with the stone and the water, then says ‘of course, it would be better if we had a little onion’ and the woman brings him some onion. Then he says ‘it’s even better with some bacon’, and so on. In this way, he tricks the woman into producing all manner of ingredients for his ‘stone soup’. So, Mum was suggesting that the soup would only taste of the other ingredients; she agreed upon tasting it that this was unfair on the nettles. Not only do they produce the most marvellous green colour (see picture), they do have a subtle and quite distinctive flavour.

The River Cottage recipe tells you to top the soup with creme fraiche, olive oil and Tabasco. ‘So that people think they’re being stung!’ said Dad. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doesn’t say as much but it is indeed like getting a little sting when you hit a drop of Tabasco in a spoonful of soup, making the hot pepper sauce a fun as well tasty and pretty addition.

It’s a pretty labour-intensive soup to make — you have to go out armed with rubber gloves, reach beyond the dog pee risk zone in the nettle patch and then wash the nettle tops carefully — but it’s certainly worth making once in a while.



Wild Garlic Pesto

I have returned to the city of “doubt and despair” but have brought some goodies from the Lakes back with me, including a bagful of wild garlic (ramsons) from the bottom of Loughrigg Fell, down the lane from where we were staying, which I have turned into pesto.


The plant is commonly found, especially in wooded areas, and is best harvested in spring. You can be sure of picking the right leaves (and not those of a similar-looking poisonous plant) from the garlicky smell.


We first came across the idea for turning the leaves into pesto in a newspaper a few years ago and it is a really tasty alternative to the usual basil version. I haven’t yet worked out if this can be allocated to a particular feast day, although making it today, on Palm Sunday – a (perhaps the only) feast where leaves play a central role – seems quite appropriate.


I work on a very simple and vague “recipe” which can be adjusted to your own taste and/or depending on what you have to hand (for instance, today I threw in the oil from the bottom of a pot of olives with bits of herbs in it).




For 1 handful of ramsons (which will make 1 jar)


In a food processor, grind up 50g nuts (pine nuts are traditional but expensive; any, or a mixture of, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts will do)


Add the leaves, torn up roughly.


Blend to a pesto consistency, adding olive oil and lemon juice.


Season to your own taste (I put salt, pepper, chilli, dried oregano in mine).


Spoon the pesto into a jar and keep it in the fridge. The flavour will improve if you wait for a couple of weeks before eating it. It should keep well (we had some of last year’s at Christmas time).


You can also add Parmesan or another hard cheese if you wish (add this after the nuts), but you can always add it when you actually come to use the pesto (which makes it easier to keep it vegetarian-friendly, unless you can find a suitable vegetarian cheese).

Welshcakes for St David

When I was an undergraduate, I spent three years living in a College that did not like its students to cook and as a result provided rudimentary kitchen facilities, which generally consisted of a plug-in electric hob and a microwave. This set-up not being conducive to baking in the strict sense of the term, Welshcakes (which can be griddled or shallow-fried) became my signature offering for puddings, tea parties, bicycle rides and any occasion (or none) when cake was required.

Welshcakes, then, are for me one of those foods that unlock many fond memories. They’re also a bit of a family tradition – the recipe I use came to me from my Grandmama, who is half Welsh (as was my Grandfather, which I only found out this week, thus making me two eighths Welsh).

These are simple cakes, but deliciously moreish. I also enjoy the process of making them – rubbing the fat into the flour, patting out the dough, cutting the circles, frying, flipping and letting them cool at least long enough not to burn any tongues! It forces me to slow down and simply immerse myself in the ritual of it all.

An annual excuse to make Welshcakes is St. David’s Day (1st March) – the feast day of the patron saint of Wales. This year, it is providing me with an excuse to make Welshcakes to take on a walk in the hills to escape the city and to fuel a planning meeting for a conference I’m organising in April.

A quick note on ingredients: traditionally, Welshcakes are cooked in lard, which gives a distinctive flavour and texture, but in order to be able to feed vegetarians (as St. David himself was), I usually end up cooking them in butter, which is delicious in a different way. A variation which works well is ‘Christmas Welshcakes’ with dried cranberries and perhaps some finely grated orange zest.



8oz / 100g self raising flour

tsp ground mixed spice (you can buy a jar of mixed of sweet spices or use any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, according to your taste)

pinch salt

3oz / 75g demerara sugar

4oz / 100g cold butter, cut into 1cm cubes

3oz / 75g sultanas or currants

1 large egg, beaten

a little milk if needed

Lard or butter for cooking

Sift flour, spice and salt into a bowl, stir in sugar, then rub in the butter until crumbly.

Add the fruit, and then the egg to form a firm dough (adding milk if needed).

Roll or press out on a floured surface to 5mm / 1/4″ thick. Cut into rounds.

Heat a heavy frying or griddle pan and rub with lard or butter. Cook the cakes over a low heat for about a minute on each side – until lightly brown.

Leave to cool.

NOTE: the pan should be heated first, then the heat reduced to cook the cakes.

Puttanesca for Mary Magdalene


If I hadn’t gone into researching pictures, I would have loved to be a food historian. Maybe I can find a way into it in years to come. In the meantime, together with my Dad, one of my irregular diversions from PhD-land is collecting or inventing recipes to mark feast days.

Today, 22nd July is the feast of Mary Magdalene. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s been looming large in my research recently (although I’ve just finished working on that chapter for the time being) and I’m an alumna of her College, so it’s a good feast to mark.

I’m not aware of any tradition of a particular foodstuff for her feast day, but I have invented my own:  spaghetti alla puttanesca is such a remarkably appropriate dish that one almost wonders if it was created for this very occasion. The name literally means “whore’s pasta.” It is said to have been created in the red light district of Naples, though its red colour and spicy chilli make the name appropriate whatever its precise place of invention. Likewise, the colour matches the red garb and hair of images of Mary Magdalene.

Biblically speaking of course, Mary is not identified as a prostitute, but thanks to Gregory the Great and centuries of religious writers and artists, she is conflated with various other women in the Gospels so that we think of her as a penitent prostitute.  Aside from the name, many of the ingredients of puttanesca can also be linked to Mary Magdalene.

Recipe for two portions

Start by heating the olive oil from a small can of anchovies; you may find that you do not need all of the oil. The oil recalls Mary’s association with the anointing of Jesus, though your fellow-diners probably will not welcome you using any remaining anchovy-infused oil for that purpose!

When the oil is hot, reduce the heat and slowly sauté finely sliced garlic. When softened, add the anchovies, chopped, a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes if they are plentiful), capers (the observant may notice I didn’t manage to get hold of any today), olives (I believe they ought to be black, but I only had green in stock) and chilli to taste. Capers are tear-shaped, so they evoke Mary’s identification with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and her lamentation at the death of Christ.

Leave the sauce to simmer while you cook your spaghetti (NB. you may need to allow longer for the sauce to cook if you are using fresh tomatoes, so make sure you don’t start cooking your spaghetti too early, or you will end up with soggy pasta).

The spaghetti recalls the hair of the women anointing Jesus’ feet. There are thinner varieties of spaghetti called capellini “thin hair” and capelli d’angelo “angel’s hair,” but you need the more robust spaghetti to hold the sauce.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, check the sauce for seasoning and combine. Serve sprinkled with parsley. This garden herb serves as a reminder that it was in the garden that Mary encountered the risen Christ on Easter morning, mistaking him for a gardener. Parsley is one of the easiest herbs to grow at home, even if, like me, you only have a windowsill and some potted herbs from the local supermarket.

More feasts to follow at irregular intervals.