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).


I have temporarily escaped Manchester’s “tortures of doubt and despair” for a break in the Lake District.


I feel somewhat errant to be in the land famously associated with (among numerous other luminaries) that other Romantic poet called William, but that slightly guilty feeling is probably in itself a sign that a bit of a break from Mr Blake is needed. Indeed, I’ve been feeling a bit fed up with WB recently; I think it’s partly a symptom of focusing on the work of a single person (something to bear in mind for forming a post-doc project), but this is accentuated by the fact that Blake is so prevalent in popular culture so he appears where I’m not even looking for him.


We’re actually staying in a house that was formerly owned by the Wordsworths (bought by WW’s son, also called William, and in the family for about a century). So inevitably, I’ve been thinking a bit about the two Williams. The topic has been addressed, but I decided to leave such books safely in Manchester.


WB owned an annotated a copy of WW’s poems and wasn’t particularly complementary. The two Williams are often characterised as divided by their concepts of Nature, WW celebrating it and WB seeking to transcend it. Some of Blake’s annotations seem to support such a dichotomy; for instance:


WW writes: The powers requisite for the production of poetry are, first, those of observation and description. . . . whether the things depicted be actually present to the senses, or have a place only in the memory

WB replies: One Power alone makes a Poet -Imagination The Divine Vision


On WW’s Poems Referring to the Period of Childhood

WB writes: I see in Wordsworth the Natural Man rising up against the Spiritual Man Continually & then he is No Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity against all true Poetry or Inspiration


But although WB thinks WW does not embody the Divine Vision, he isn’t anti-Nature (see my post [Romantic] Landscapes at Turner Contemporary). Indeed, one of my favourite passages in Blake is:


This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike… to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers You certainly Mistake when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination & I feel Flatterd when I am told So.

(Letter to Revd. Dr. Trusler, 23 August 1799)

So it seems that WB thought that WW didn’t see Nature with eyes of Imagination. Whether he was right, I leave to others who are more qualified to comment.

As for my own view of N/nature here, I’ll offer three (unBlakeanly banal) thoughts: first, I’ll avoid getting caught up in how problematic a term that is; second, it’s as wet as its reputation (see photos below); third, I’m happy that there is wild garlic at the end of the lane, which livened up this evening’s roast chicken.

More (B)Lakean thoughts to follow perhaps.

A measure of the amount of rain since our arrival – here are the stepping stones opposite our cottage yesterday evening:


Here is the same stretch of the river this afternoon: