Rose petal syrup recipe

By Sarah Watson, Forager, Wild Feast

All rose petals are edible, but when collecting rose petals for syrup, choose a fragrant rose variety that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. Japanese rose  (Rosa rugosa) is ideal as it’s naturalised in the wild but is a non-native, robust shrub that can be quite invasive.

Pick flowers that have recently opened and look fresh and clean. Take only the petals –
leaving the rest of the flower means rosehips may still be produced later in the year. Laying the petals
on a tray outdoors for around half an hour should allow any lingering insects to escape.

Makes a small bottle of syrup


  • A handful of rose petals
  • 500g sugar
  • 400ml water
  • Half a lemon, zested and juiced


Layer several handfuls of fresh rose petals with 500g of white, granulated sugar. Massage the rose
petals gently with the sugar until they start to soften and bruise. Cover and leave for two to four days.

Add the sugar and petals to a pan with 400ml water and the lemon zest. Gently heat the liquid, stirring gently until the sugar dissolves. Strain through a fine sieve (you could dry the leftover sugary petals to use later), bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes or so, until the syrup thickens a little. Then just before taking the pan off the heat, add the strained juice of half a lemon and stir.

Funnel into a sterilised bottle and seal. Once opened, store in the fridge and use within a couple of weeks.

Mouthwatering Wild Garlic Buds

By Sarah Watson, forager

Wild garlic flower buds

Take advantage of the punchy flavour and health benefits of wild garlic (Allium ursinum) flower buds before they flower, by pickling the buds to preserve them.

Around now in April, the long, pointed leaves become topped with a haze of starry, six-petalled white flowers. The blossoms emerge from their pale green, pointed bud parcels (as pictured above), arranged in clusters of 10 to 20 on a three-sided stem which is triangular in cross-section.

Wild garlic flowers

Wild garlic flowers are an early nectar source for butterflies and bees, so take only as much as you need, and take care not to take too many buds or flowers from one spot. Mind your step too as some plants, such as native bluebells, are sensitive to trampling.


Sweet Pickled Wild Garlic Buds recipe

Makes one jar

This works for both wild garlic buds, and the seed pods later in the year. Enjoy your pickles as a piquant, garlicky garnish, in salads, on canapes, pizzas, with cheese and crackers, etc.

  • A good handful of fresh wild garlic flower buds with stems, carefully washed – or seed pods which you can snip off the main stem and pickle as individual pods (like caviar!) or leave as a whole umbel (umbrella shape) with a short length of stalk attached.
  • 200ml (approx.) white wine vinegar (or you could use cider vinegar or pickling vinegar)
  • Up to 2 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
  • Half tsp salt
  • 1-2 tsp pickling spices (you could choose from: fennel, peppercorns, mustard seeds, allspice, chilli, ginger, coriander seeds, cloves, juniper, lemon zest or go wild with hogweed seeds or spruce, fir or larch tips).
  • A dried bay leaf or two, and/or other fresh or dried herbs
  1. First sterilise a jar and a vinegar-proof lid to fit your wild garlic buds.
  2. Pack the buds tightly into your jar, leaving about 10cm of stem attached and forming a circle with about 4 stems at a time – fill the jar almost to the top as the contents will shrink when the hot liquid is added.
  3. Heat the vinegar, sugar, salt, spices and bay gently in a pan (enamel is best, avoid aluminium with acidic liquids) until the sugar dissolves.
  4. Then bring to a gently bubbling simmer and remove from the heat.
  5. Pour the hot, spiced pickling vinegar over the buds to cover them.
  6. Leave for a minute or two to allow the vinegar to start to penetrate the buds and for the liquid level to settle, then slowly raise and lower a clean chopstick around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles. Tamp the middle down a bit, and then gently tap the jars against your worktop a few times to remove any remaining bubbles.
  7. Top up with vinegar to about a centimetre from the top of the jar, then seal the jar while still hot.
  8. Once cooled, keep in the fridge and leave to mature for 2 weeks to a month.
  9. As with all home-made preserves, check for spoilage before eating, e.g. any off-smells, colour changes or unusual softness or sliminess – if there’s any doubt, don’t eat it.

Make sure you carefully identify any foraged plants you’re planning to eat to 100% certainty with a good field guide, or three. If in doubt, leave it out. If you’re still not sure exactly what to look for, come on a foraging course with an expert.

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild edible plants on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course.  Get wild food and drink tips and updates on course dates on Facebook, or sign up for my e-newsletter (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Happy foraging!

© Recipe & blog words and images copyright Wild Feast, all rights reserved

Why you shouldn’t miss out on wild garlic season

By Sarah Watson, forager

 © Recipe & blog words and original images copyright Wild Feast, all rights reserved


If you’ve caught an oniony waft while passing through woodland, you’ll know wild garlic, otherwise known as ramsons, is in season. This flavoursome wild green that often grows in abundance is eagerly awaited by foragers – and there’s so much you can do with it!

I’ve listed some cooking ideas and recipes in this post, as well as identification and harvesting tips – so there’s no need to miss out on this wonderful wild harvest!


The young leaves of this onion-family UK native (Allium ursinum) are tender and silky with a delicious garlicky, peppery flavour that’s more delicate than cultivated, raw garlic. It grows over most of lowland UK, often in dense swathes, in deciduous woods, woodland edges, on stream banks and shaded hedgerows and verges, preferring rich, damp soils.

Bright green wild garlic shoots can appear as early as January or February, with the season starting in earnest in March and continuing until around May for the leaves, and June for the seedpods.

From April the long, pointed, spear-shaped leaves are topped with a haze of pretty, starry six-petalled white flowers arranged in ‘umbels’ with three-sided stems (triangular in cross-section).

wg-scallopsRye Bay scallops with wild garlic pesto and wild garlic flowers

There’s some evidence we may have been eating wild garlic since the Stone Age – little wonder as it’s so good for us! In today’s cuisine, raw leaves are used in salads, mayonnaise, dressings and herb butters – scroll down for my recipes for wild garlic dip and wild garlic and nettle pesto, including a vegan version.

The leaves can be preserved by lacto-fermentation (I use this simple method by forager Robin Harford) which alters their flavour profile somewhat, but the ferment still packs a punch. Fresh leaves can be infused to make flavoured vinegar, or shredded to use in all sorts of recipes, such as risottos, curries, pasta dishes, mash, omelettes, stir-fries, stews, sauces, soups, and to stuff meat or fish. Wild garlic is great in savoury bakes too: bread, scones, muffins, oatcakes…the possibilities are endless – I’ve even used it in savoury cocktails!

The pretty flowers are also edible, try them fried in a light tempura batter, or use them as a decorative, savoury garnish. The green flower buds and the hot, peppery, little seed pods (before they develop a hard seed) can be pickled to make wonderfully garlicky ‘capers’.


Wild garlic leaves keep well in a bag in the fridge for a few days. I find the flavour stronger before flowering, and cooking reduces the potency because the leaves’ volatile oils evaporate quickly, leaving them much milder and sweeter. So for maximum flavour, add them in the last minute or so of cooking.

As wild garlic often grows in damp places, the leaves can be gritty, so wash them well in several changes of water after a 10 minute soak.

Not only is this foragers’ favourite delicious, it’s also super-healthy! Wild garlic contains high levels of vitamins A and C, as well as minerals including calcium and potassium. Studies have shown that wild garlic contains more magnesium, manganese and iron and than cultivated garlic.


Wild garlic and smoked mackerel canape rolls with cuckoo flowers
(made & photographed by Bethan Davies)

The leaves especially are a source of potentially potent antioxidants which could help protect against cancer and support the immune system. Recent Romanian research concluded that the antioxidant level appears to be highest in the raw leaf within the first few hours of processing.

Wild garlic contains ‘uridine’ which may be mood-lifting and good for brain health, according to studies, especially when paired with fish oils – fortuitous then that wild garlic goes so well with mackerel! The fresh plant has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties, and it contains antiviral plant lectins. It’s also said to be a digestive tonic, perhaps that’s because it acts as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of good gut bacteria.

Wild garlic leaves are typically rich in sulphur compounds which protect the heart. In comparative trials, wild garlic  proved more effective than cultivated garlic in reducing blood pressure and LDL cholesterol in rats, while raising HDL cholesterol levels.

cuckoo p

Cuckoo pint growing amongst wild garlic

Wild garlic could be confused with a few poisonous plants. Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) is a common plant that often grows amongst wild garlic. It burns the mouth due to the oxalates it contains and could make the throat swell and obstruct breathing. So pick each wild garlic leaf individually care, checking as you go.

Cuckoo Pint has arrow-head shaped leaves, although be aware that the two pointed ‘tails’ on either side of the leaf stalk may not be developed when the leaves are young. The leaf veins of cuckoo pint are arranged in a ‘network’, whereas the veins of wild garlic are parallel – and wild garlic leaves have a distinctive garlic smell, of course.

The leaves of highly poisonous Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis) look similar to wild garlic, but there are two leaves per stalk growing from the rhizome, whereas wild garlic only has a single leaf on each stalk arising from the bulb. The less widespread but deadly Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) produces its leaves in spring too, but they’re thicker and glossier, more like a garden hyacinth.


When picking wild garlic, take only as much as you need and spread your harvest by taking a leaf or two from each plant, minding your step as some woodland plants, such as native bluebells, are sensitive to trampling. Wild garlic flowers are an early nectar source for butterflies and bees, so take care not to take too many from one spot.

The plant is an ‘ancient woodland’ indicator species, which means if it’s found along with enough other indicator plants, which include rowan, yellow archangel, wood sorrel, snowdrops and wood anemones, there’s a good chance the woodland is over 400 years old.

Although they’re edible, I don’t take wild garlic bulbs from the wild as it’s illegal to uproot plants without the landowner’s permission, it prevents the plant from regenerating and they’re small and fiddly to clean. In the right conditions, wild garlic can be persuaded to grow in some gardens, but beware as it can get quite invasive.


Wild garlic flower buds

Always use good identification books to identify your foraged finds to 100% certainty before eating them – if in doubt, leave it out! And if you’re still not sure exactly what to look for, come on a foraging course with an expert.

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild edible plants on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course.  Get wild food and drink tips and updates on course dates on Facebook, or sign up for my e-newsletter (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Wild Garlic & Nettle Pesto recipe

WG-nettle pesto1-adj700

Raw wild garlic can be pretty overpowering, but earthy nettle is the ideal partner to tone it down, making a perfectly punchy, super-healthy pesto! You can keep this in the fridge for a couple of weeks and it also freezes well. For me, pesto is a very personal thing, so do adjust my recipe proportions to your own taste.


Makes approx. one 200g small jar

  • 4-5 tbsps mild olive oil
  • 40g fresh, wild garlic leaves
  • 40g fresh nettle tips (top 2-6 leaves), picked before flowering
  • 40-60g nuts (e.g. pine nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, or a mix)
    or you could substitute sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • 30g parmesan, grana padano or similar strong, hard cheese, finely grated
    [vegan version: substitute 1 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes]
  • 2 tsps white wine vinegar
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • ground black pepper
  • salt

Pick over and wash the wild garlic leaves well and chop roughly. Wash the nettle leaves wearing gloves, and then steam them for a minute or two, or blanch them briefly in boiling water – cooking them denatures the sting. You can use them raw, but you need to blend them really well to make sure they don’t sting.

Once cooled, squeeze out excess water from the nettle leaves (the nettle water makes a great soup stock) and chop them roughly. Meanwhile dry fry the nuts or seeds in a pan, or toast in the oven, until pale golden brown.

Whizz all the leaves in a blender with half the lemon juice, the vinegar and enough of the olive oil to loosen the mix. Add 40g nuts (or for the vegan version, add an extra 20g to make it up to 60g and nutritional yeast)*, process until smooth enough for your liking and stir in the grated hard cheese. Then stir in the remaining olive oil as needed, the rest of the lemon juice to taste, and season with salt and ground pepper.

Serve with pasta, potatoes, soups, toast, crackers, breadsticks, fish, shellfish, meat, as garlic bread…or straight from the jar!

Be aware that there’s a risk of botulism with unpasteurised, fresh plant material stored in oil. It’s a slight risk, but a very serious one (although rare, botulism is potentially fatal). So to be on the safe side, I recommend storing home-made pesto in the fridge and using it within two weeks. Otherwise it’s best frozen.

*Note the vegan version of the pesto comes out paler green than the non-vegan pesto in the photo due to the extra nuts and the colour of the nutritional yeast.

Wild Garlic Dip


You don’t need much wild garlic to make this simple and deliciously moreish, garlicky dip, popular with both kids and adults, but not especially breath-friendly for entertaining! If you’ve made wild garlic pesto, you could stir that into cream cheese to make an even quicker, convenient version of this dip.


Makes a small ramekin-full

  • 120g cream cheese (a light version if you prefer)
  • fresh wild garlic leaves, a small handful
  • 2 tbsps crème fraiche or sour cream (optional)
  • 1 tbsp (approx) finely grated parmesan, grana padano or strong cheddar
  • 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt, wild herb salt or celery salt
  • ground black pepper

Pick over and wash the wild garlic leaves well and chop roughly. Whizz them in a blender with the cream cheese and the grated hard cheese until the mixture is smooth and pale green – add just a few to start with, blend and add more to taste if desired. Stir in the crème fraiche or sour cream, then the lemon juice, salt and ground pepper to taste.

Serve with breadsticks, crudités, or whatever takes your fancy.

Crazy about crab apples

By Sarah Watson

The original native crab apple tree (Malus sylvestris) is a valuable wildlife habitat and food plant that’s now uncommon in the wild. The abundant, fragrant blossoms attract bees, and birds and mammals eat the yellow-green fruit. The wild native species is a smallish thorny tree of woodland edges and hedgerows with a habit of becoming ‘crabbily’ gnarled and twisted. But there are also many cultivated, ornamental varieties and species of crab apple, and apple trees from discarded pips growing wild also tend to produce small ‘wildling’ apples. Whether cultivated, wildling or wild, crab apple fruit is usually somewhat sour, bitter and dry-tasting but this intense apple flavour works well in many recipes, including drinks, which makes it a wonderful ingredient in my eyes!

Crab apples are in the rose family – Rosaceae. The deciduous leaves are arranged alternately on the twigs and can vary in shape, but are roughly oval or round with a pointed end and finely serrated edges. As the tree grows older, the scaly, greyish bark becomes cracked. The five-petalled flowers are white or pink with numerous yellow stamens, and appear in April and May.


I love the variety of crab apple fruit, they can range in diameter from less than a centimetre to around five centimetres, and can be oval as well as round. The little apples may be green, yellow, red, or prettily flushed with pink or red. The fibrous stalk is long in relation to the size of the fruit when compared to a standard sized apple. Cutting the apples in half at right-angles to the stalk reveals the distinctive five-pointed star-shaped apple core where the seeds (pips) develop. The fruit is ripe when it begins to fall off the tree and the seeds turn brown.

Crab apples, like all apples, contain some vitamin C and may contain significant quantities of antioxidant compounds, such as anthocyanin (the dark red pigment in some  apples) and quercetin which may help prevent cancer, asthma and diabetes. Crab apples are also high in pectin, which has been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels and may reduce the risk of heart disease. There’s something in the old saying ‘an apple an day..’! Like all apples, the skin, and just under the skin, is where the nutrients are most concentrated, so to get the most of the beneficial compounds, process and eat the skin along with the flesh.


Crab apples have long been associated with love and marriage. Apples were thought to have magical powers and the Celts knew them as the tree of love. Folklore says that if you throw crab apple pips into the fire while saying the name of a lover, if the lover is faithful the pip will explode in the heat, but if they are not, the pip will burn silently!

Always use a good plant identification book when foraging, and remember to leave some fruit behind for the wildlife.


Crab apples make excellent jams, jellies, pickles, apple sauce, sorbet, syrup, cordial and cider. They were traditionally roasted and added to wassail, which contained ale or cider with sugar and spices…Here’s my round-up of recipes from the web – you could use cooking apples, like Bramleys, for any of these recipes if you can’t get crab apples:

Crab apple leather makes a super snack, here’s a recipe from The Hedgerow Cookbook. You need to spread out the puree to about 5 or 6 mm thick with a spatula or spoon before drying in a low oven (50°C is ideal – for that you may need to prop your oven door slightly open), or a food dehydrator. You can add other fruit, flavourings  or  spices to the mix such as cinnamon, fennel seeds or hogweed seed. I’d advise removing cores and stones at the start if you can, that way you can blend up the fruit skins and get the benefit of all the nutrients concentrated there.

Try crab apple, orange and cider jelly in gravies and sauces, as an accompaniment to roast pork or cheese, or it’s delicious enough just to spread as it is on buttery toast. This fab recipe’s from voluntary community group West Ealing Abundance which uses London fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

What about a spiced crab apple (or quince) butter from Gail Duff’s Country-side Cook Book for spreading over cakes or on warm scones.

Or try Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s blackberry and crab apple cordial.

And last, but certainly not least, here’s Abel & Cole’s recipe for crab apple whisky, make in autumn/fall in time for Christmas!

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course.  Get wild food and drink tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food & drink recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Heady honeysuckle

By Sarah Watson


With its intoxicating scent, curvy Art Nouveau-style blooms and understated pastel yellow and blush-pink hues, common honeysuckle is surely the most elegant wild flower. Even its name, Lonicera, sounds like a siren of the silver screen.

There are over 180 species of honeysuckle, some of which may be toxic to varying degrees. The flowers of a few species are considered edible, including UK native common honeysuckle, or woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum). In summer, wild honeysuckle can be found flowering in woodland, scrubland, hedgerows and along roadsides. There are showy, garden varieties of it too – as pictured above. It’s a twining shrub with opposite pairs of untoothed, pointed leaves and stalkless, trumpet-shaped flowers arranged in whorls which are followed by clusters of red berries.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) introduced from eastern Asia and naturalised in parts of Southern Britain, also has edible flowers. Its trumpets, in shades of creamy-white and yellow, are borne in pairs (pictured below) and followed by small, spherical black berries. It’s quite invasive in the wild in the UK and can be harmful to native plants, so you don’t need to worry about taking too much.

It takes just a small quantity of the deliciously-fragranced blossoms to capture their honeyed, floral flavour. Honeysuckle-infused water can be used to make refreshing sorbets, cordials or conserves. A jelly goes nicely with some thick slices of ham, or in a summer cream tea with some fresh raspberries or strawberries.

Use my honeysuckle syrup recipe below to make a vinaigrette, jelly, or for a refreshing drink, add chilled fizzy water and a splash of citrus juice, or even yuzu. Honeysuckle syrup goes well with tequila or brandy in cocktails. Or try ‘Suck my Honey’ – my gin and honeysuckle cocktail recipe with lime and orange blossom water – find it on the Difford’s Guide website in my article on using honeysuckle in drinks.

The berries of most honeysuckle species are said to be mildly poisonous, as are the leaves. Pictured below are the berries of common honeysuckle.


Photo by: Brian Robert Marshall, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Harvest native honeysuckle lightly from several places, taking a little from each patch and leaving some flowers for the bees and moths which feed on its nectar. Take individual, freshly-opened trumpets, leaving unopened flowers to bloom, and leaving the stalk and flower base behind for berries to form, as birds and other wildlife feed on them.

Honeysuckle syrup recipe

Makes one bottle – about 700ml


  • Large handful of fresh honeysuckle trumpets – all green bits removed
  • 500ml hot water – recently boiled
  • 500g sugar
  • Juice of half a lemon


Soak your honeysuckle flowers in enough water to cover them. Leave overnight at room temperature to cool, then pop in the fridge to infuse for another day or so.

Strain through a sieve lined with muslin (or kitchen paper) into a measuring jug.

Add equal quantities of sugar (in grams) to liquid (in millilitres), along with the juice of half a lemon for each 500ml.

Put into a saucepan and bring to the boil slowly, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer gently for 4 minutes.

Funnel into a sterilised glass bottle and seal. Keep in the fridge once open,and use within a month. Or let the syrup cool and transfer to a sterilised plastic bottle for freezing – leave some headspace to allow for expansion.

Always use good plant identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them.

Discover  more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Ground ivy – a treasure, not a weed!

By Sarah Watson

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is a truly underrated little flavouring herb in the mint family! As such, it’s not a close relation of the 3-lobed, evergreen, climbing ivy (Hedera helix) that most people are likely to be more familiar with, the leaves and berries of which are poisonous.

Ground ivy is in fact a common creeping herb that grows in 
grasslands, lawns, wooded areas, woodland edges, hedgerow bases, disturbed ground and around buildings. It provides good ground cover and is sometimes seen as a lawn pest, but learn to love it if you can for its aromatic flavour, herbal qualities, and pretty little lavender-blue flowers which attract bees and butterflies.

Like all members of the mint family, ground ivy has a square stem in cross section, and the softly hairy leaves, which are sometimes bronze in colour, are kidney-shaped with rounded teeth. Ground ivy was used for flavouring and clarifying ale from Saxon times until the hops were widely grown in  England, hence it’s old name of ‘ale-hoof’.

The plant is high in vitamin C, iron and flavonoid antioxidants. It has traditional herbal uses, and research indicates it has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. It does also contain aromatic terpenes, found in mint plants too, which could be irritant, or even damaging, to the digestive system and kidneys in large quantities. So to be on the safe side, use it in moderation as a flavouring herb, rather than in excessive amounts, and be aware that it may be best avoided if pregnant or breastfeeding (‍there are also cautions about how much mint to consume while pregnant).

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Ground ivy leaves can be used to flavour soups or casseroles. It has a gentle earthy, herbal flavour, with a fragrance somewhere between sage, mint and thyme, although less strongly aromatic, so you may want to use a bit more than you would if you were using those herbs. I chop it finely and mix with shredded ox-eye daisy leaves to make a herby coating for soft goat’s cheese, or a seasoning for fresh tomato bruschetta.

At my cookery demo at the Midsummer Fish Fair in Hastings, I used ground ivy to season local dogfish wrapped in pancetta ham, saltimbocca style, adapted from Pomegranate’s head chef Jamie Stephens’ Huss Saltimbocca recipe where he uses sage.

Ground ivy is also delicious mixed in with minced meat to make burgers, or blended with mayo and horseradish as a dip for potato wedges (pictured below and inspired by Robin Harford of Infused in vinegar it can be used to make a herby vinaigrette.

Always use good plant identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them, and wash leaves thoroughly several times. Be careful plants have not been contaminated with chemicals.

Discover  more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Elderflower – the essence of early summer

By Sarah Watson

The flowers of the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) are one of my favourite edible blossoms. The creamy-white, saucer-shaped blooms have a unique, sweetly fragrant scent with notes of citrus and honey, and a superb, rich, floral flavour. But the elderflower season doesn’t last for long – just a few weeks in late spring to early summer. So make the most of it while you can, taking care not to collect too many flowers from one spot so the tree can fruit later, providing food for wildlife as well as other foragers.

The flower heads are arranged in flat clusters (or umbels) of 10 to 30cm across, each one is made up of tiny florets (small individual flowers) with five petals and five pale-yellow anthers. The leaves of this small tree are formed of two or three pairs of opposite leaflets with serrated edges, ending in a single leaflet. If you crush the leaves, they can smell quite acrid and unpleasant. The young twigs are green, becoming grey as they age – splitting them reveals a soft, white pith. The  grey bark of the trunk is vertically grooved and corky-looking and can often be covered in green algae.

Take care not to confuse elderflower with the similar-looking flowers of the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia), the wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana), cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Or worse, the deadly hemlock (Conium maculatum) or hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Remember you’re looking for a tree, not a non-woody plant – and check the leaves, bark and flowers features carefully.

The best time to pick elderflowers is on a warm, dry day when the blooms are freshly open – as they get older the smell becomes less pleasant, even cat-wee like! Pick the nicest smelling ones, and shake them gently to dislodge any insects.

Elderflowers, and the fruit that follows in late summer to early autumn, small globular glossy purple-black elderberries, have been used in cooking for centuries. However, the stalks and leaves contain toxic cyano-compounds which are denatured by cooking, but they’re not tasty either. So flowers and ripe berries should be stripped away from as much of the green stalk as possible – this can be done with a fork or using your fingers.

Elderberries  shouldn’t be eaten raw either – they also contain the cyanogenic glycosides which can release cyanide, as well as a toxic alkaloid, and a lectin which is a potential hayfever allergen. Ripe berries are safe to eat when cooked as the toxins are made safe by cooking, although that is not necessarily the case for green, unripe elderberries, as stated in this 2014 European Medicines Agency report.

It’s simple to make your own elderflower cordial, I add lime for extra zing – here’s my elderflower cordial recipe, and here are some ideas for using elderflower cordial or liqueur in gorgeous cocktails.

My elderflower fritters, made with a light tempura batter, served with elderflower panna cotta

Elderflower fritters are a lacy, crispy treat: dip elderflowers in a light batter (I use an eggless one), briefly deep-fry, then sprinkle with icing sugar or elderflower cordial and perhaps some citrus juice, or serve with summer fruits or gooseberry compote. Note: it’s easier to leave some of the main flower stalk on for this dish, but as it’s not especially edible, and as the raw stem contains cyanogenic glycosides which break down into cyanide on chewing/digesting, it’s best not to eat it.

Elderflower ‘champagne’ is worth a try too, but watch out for exploding bottles – rather than using glass ones, I prefer reused plastic fizzy drink/sparkling water bottles (sterilised with sterilising tablets and water), or you can buy empty ones online or from wine-making shops. Keep the filled bottles in a cool, dark place keeping them away from anything you don’t want to be potentially sprayed, just in case!

Use elderflower to flavour sorbet, ice lollies, ice cream, custard, panna cotta, cakes, preserves, liqueurs and salad dressings. Nick Hales of St Clements restaurant in St. Leonards-on-Sea suggests pickling Hastings herring fillets in elderflower vinegar – I was sceptical, but I tried it and it works wonderfully!

Always use good identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them.

Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast forage, cook and eat course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Golden gorse to lift the spirits

By Sarah Watson

gorsePhoto: Gorse in East Sussex by Ian Cunliffe, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gorse has been bringing striking golden-yellow brightness to the landscape since early January. Native common gorse (Ulex europaeus) is widespread on Sussex heaths, roadsides, railways and fields, flowering mainly from January to June. It’s a large, evergreen shrub covered in sharp, needle-like leaves with yellow coconut-perfumed flowers, the scent being more noticeable on sunny days.

Gorse_flower._(8476622380)Photo: Gorse flower by Ian Kirk, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence,
via Wikimedia Commons.

The flowers of this pea family shrub are edible and impart a distinctive coconutty, floral-vanilla flavour to infusions. The petals can be used as a decorative salad garnish, scattered over cakes, or infused in boiling water to make a tea. Or try crystallising petals with beaten egg white and fine sugar and spreading them out to dry in a warm place (this intensifies the coconut flavour), then sprinkling over ice cream. Ideally a gorse ice cream, made by heating the cream or milk of your recipe with a handful of gorse flowers, then cooling and leaving it overnight in the fridge before straining and using it to make the ice cream.

Coconut_lime_cake-gorse2-adj-resizeAbove: my coconut and lime cake with gorse flower rum frosting, topped with fresh gorse petals.

Gorse flowers are also used in the new breed of artisan British gins such as The Botanist, in winemaking, and to flavour whisky and beer. Try John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook recipe for gorse flower white rum, or infuse a handful in vodka for just a couple of days, before straining and adding sugar to taste. I also make a sunny yellow syrup with lime and orange, which is just gently floral flavoured with a slight hint of coconut and can be used in cocktails or as a drizzle.

The flowers provide pollen for insects, especially on warmer winter days. Luckily picking too many is difficult as the bush is well-protected by sharp spines, so gathering them needs to be a slow, careful process – gloves are recommended, although I find it easier to get a feel for picking the blossoms without them, but caution is needed! Take care not to confuse gorse with the poisonous laburnum tree, which is also in the pea family and has bright yellow flowers, however unlike gorse, the flowers hang down in clusters and the leaves are not sharp and needle-like.

Discover  more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast forage, cook and eat course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

A wee wild dram: whisky for wild infusions

By Sarah Watson

Whisky in a glass

The Guinea Pig and I went on a whisky-tasting pub visit around Christmas time for the sole purpose of reviewing some budget-end whiskies to see which we thought would be best for making wild infusions with…Some were just about OK, and there was at least one real stinker in the pub house selection, but anything too harsh or peaty would be too overbearing to suit complex wild fruit flavours, or fruit wood infusions (something I’ve yet to try). We came to the conclusion, after trying several brands, that Famous Grouse would be passable for making blackberry whisky, or smooth, sweet blend Whyte and Mackay Special seemed a even better bet.

However, a few weeks later on Burn’s Night, we were invited by GP’s dad, former Merchant Navy captain Bob, for haggis, home-made sausages, neeps and tatties. Smoked fish is also traditional for a Burn’s supper, and so to contribute to the spread, I took along a wild appetiser of hand-caught home-smoked mackerel crostini with horseradish cream and snipped three-cornered leek.

To accompany our Burn’s supper, the venerable seaman offered us Aldi’s own brand, award-winning Highland Earl Scotch whisky. The verdict was that it’s a very quaffable blended whisky at a budget price. It’s certainly not harsh, but soft and quite sweet with a gentle aftertaste. Some might say it’s not particularly flavoursome, but it’s just what I’m looking for for making blackberry whisky…

Blackberry on bush

The whisky’s sweetness and hints of oak, butterscotch and vanilla will complement wild fruit flavours, and its gentleness means it won’t be overpowering…best of all it won’t break the bank, so you don’t have to hold back on your wild booze infusions. You heard it here first!

Discover  more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course> book here.  Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

Warm up with Wild Healthy Comfort Food

By Sarah Watson

Sea beet (Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima) is the wild parent of cultivated chard and beetroot, it grows close to the sea and is common around the Sussex coast. It’s hardy and nutritious, being rich in vitamins A and C, antioxidants and minerals. The green, pointed leaves are similar to  spinach, but glossy, fleshier, and variable in shape.

Sussex sea beet gratin

Sea beet has a rich, earthy flavour with a hint of the sea, although the raw leaves taste quite soapy. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s delicious creamed sea beet gratin adds white sauce and a cheesy breadcrumb topping to the blanched succulent leaves – perfect with a pork or wild boar dish and some buttery mashed potato.

The herring season in Sussex begins around late October, by this time my elderberry-infused vinegar is ready for pickling herring (or mackerel). With the high omega-3 fatty acid content of the fish, and the flu-fighting properties and vitamin C content of elderberries, it’s a super-healthy dish!

Herring Pickled in Elderberry Vinegar
Herring pickled in elderberry vinegar

Take Nordic inspiration and pile pickled fish on top of toasted rye bread with finely sliced red onion, and for the comfort factor, add good dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche. To get my unique ‘Herring pickled in elderberry vinegar’ recipe, email me on and I’ll also send you my monthly e-newsletter.

As always, use good plant identification books to identify your finds to 100% certainty before eating them, and leave behind a good proportion of each plant to regenerate and provide food for wildlife. Discover more about identifying and cooking with wild herbs and flowers on a Wild Feast foraging & cookery course> book here.

Get more wild food tips and updates on courses on Facebook and sign up for my e-newsletter for wild food recipes direct to your inbox (option to unsubscribe at any time).

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