In the UK, Richard Mabey’s the original, and still the best known proponent of foraging for good things to eat in the countryside. Here in our patch of France, it’s Stéphane Martineau, and we spent yesterday afternoon with him, strolling down the lanes near Roquefort les Cascades, nibbling at petals, leaves and roots.
It was a free afternoon organised by Alptis, who provide us with the health insurance we need to complement the state-provided health service, and we enrolled as soon as the invitation came through the post.
Stéphane encouraged us to look carefully at each plant, at how it’s structured, what it feels like, what the crushed leaves smell like. That afternoon, we found leaves that reminded us of mushroom, garlic, mint, cloves….
We began to understand how welcome the new spring growth must have been to villagers over the centuries. After months and months of bland beans and turnips, the tasty bitterness of black bindweed, eaten raw or lightly cooked like asparagus must have been a real treat. Its other name is l’asperge aux femmes battues – battered wives’ asparagus, because it’s also good at relieving bruising and swelling.
At this time of year, before many of the plants have flowered, and growth is young and fresh, there are so many tasty additions to the salad bowl. Garlic mustard has both leaves and flowers to offer. Hedge woundwort has nettle like leaves and a slight mushroomy odour. Primula gives a pleasantly bitter taste so use it sparingly, and creeping Charlie makes a lively addition to a salad, or an unusual addition to soup or lasagne.
Nettles are of course the kings of country flowers, packed with vitamins, minerals and even proteins. They can be eaten raw (with a thick and tasty dressing) lightly cooked, or included in sauces and stews and baking. Fermented, they make an all-round fertiliser, and gardeners dig them into the ground too, to enrich the soil.
We found plants to cure warts, substitutes for aspirin and for the cloves that we’re supposed to tuck next to a throbbing tooth. We even learnt that horsetail, just as it first thrusts above the ground, makes a good mineral-tasting asparagus substitute. Failing that, once it’s matured, a big bunch tied together is a good pan scourer.
Just one plant was completely new to me: purple toothwort. It’s a mauve parasitic plant, looking rather like a small clutch of rhodedendrons in bud, and modestly hidden under grasses at the foot of trees.