Friday 6 February 2009

Wild Food Guide 'O'

Wild Foods Guide 'O'

This is the fiftenth of my series of 26 postings on wild foods. Each post will deal with a separate letter of the alphabet ('O' today) and will describe a wild food beginning with that letter as well as presenting a classic recipe incorporating that wild food.

Today I'm dealing with the letter 'O', the fiftenth letter of the English alphabet, which includes foods such as Oak, Oyster Plant, Old Man's Pepper, Orache and many others. Today, however I am going to devote this page to Oak Leaves and Orache.

The Oak Quercus spp refers to of any of several hundred species of trees and shrubs in the genus Quercus (from Latin 'oak tree') Oaks have spirally arranged leaves, with a lobed margin in many species; some have serrated leaves or entire leaves with a smooth margin. The flowers are catkins, produced in spring. The fruit is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like structure known as a cupule; each acorn contains one seed (rarely two or three) and takes 6-18 months to mature, depending on species.

In Britain the commonest oak is the sessile oak, Quercus robur and certain parts can be used as a foodstuff. The leaves, when fully fallen from the tree and dry and brown can be used as a bittering agent in mead. It is also possible to make a mead out of young oak leaves. The acorns when roasted and leached of their tannins in running water can be made into a substitute for coffee. But they should be soaked in boiling water before roasting or the resultant drink will be unpleasantly bitter. The same is true for making flour from acorns.

Acorns are the nutty fruit of the various species of the genus Quercus (oak). The acorn itself is a nut, containing a single seed, enclosed in a tough, leathery shell, and borne in a cup-shaped cupule. There are almost 130 species of oaks, all of which generate acorns of one description or other.

Only mature oaks produce acorns and mature oak trees and mature oaks are extremely tough. As a result oak trees will bear their fruit even during the worst droughts. This is why acorns, turned into acorn flour were a survival food during times of drought in all periods up to and including the Middle Ages and why they were very important to the diet of many native Americans.

It should also be remembered that the Europe of the past was a continent of broad-leaved oak-based forests. Oak trees were the natural biological climax and oak trees covered the entire continent. As a result oaks would have been in abundance and acorns along with acorn flour would have been a staple of the diet. Despite this, European (and especially the Englis oak, Quercus robur contain lots more tannin than their North American equivaent, Quercus alba. Tannins are toxic and though roasting removes some tannins the only effective way to leach tannins from acorns is to soak them repeatedly in water. Our ancestors probably suspended baked and shelled acorns in streams for several days before rendering the acorns into flour.

Though acorns, are by far the commonest wild food derived from oak trees, it should be noted that oak laves are also useful as a wild food and here I present a classic traditional recipe for a meat bittered with oak leaves :

Oak Leaf Mead

4.5l young oak leaves
5l of unchlorinated water
1kg clover honey
2 tsp yeast nutrient
Yeast (Epernay II is good but champagne yeast would also work)

As with most of the other mead recipes presented on this site, this recipe has been gauged to make 5l of mead. Only a basic listing of ingredients is given, and for a brewing method please see this page for a step-by-step guide. Also see this page for a list of the equipment you'll need.

I used fresh-pulped apples to make the juice, predominantly using sour cooking apples, but the recipe works equally-well with store-bought apple juice. Add the apple juice and 2l water to the boil and add the honey a little at a time as well. When the mixture has boiled, remove the skim from the surface then take off the heat, add the remaining water and the yeast nutrient and allow to cool. When it reaches about 37°C add the yeast and allow to ferment for about four days. At the end of this time strain and add a fresh yeast culture to resume fermentation. You can now return to following the instructions given in the basic mead brewing page to make your mead. Again, this is not a 'short' mead, and you can follow the recipe given for my 'standard' basic mead exactly. As a wine-like mead, once bottled, this preparation needs to be left to mature in the bottle for at least a three months. At this point you can return to following the instructions given in the basic extract brewing page to make your mead. Again, this is not a 'short' mead, and you can follow the recipe given for my 'standard' basic mead exactly. As a wine-like mead, once bottled, this preparation needs to be left to mature in the bottle for at least a three months.

This results in a fairly dry wine (for a mead) and the flavour is interesting.

This recipe is reproduced, with permission, from the Oak Leaf Mead Recipe from the Brewing Recipes collection of the Celtnet Recipes Collection.

If you are interested in recipes for oak leaves then you can find a range of oak leaf recipes.

Orache Atriplex patula, also known as Wild Orache is an annual flowering plant and a member of the Chenopodiaceae (goosefoot) family. Most of which are edible to some degree. Common Orache typically grows to 75cm tall and is in flower from July to September with its seeds ripening from August to October. The flowers themselves are monoecious (ie either male or female) though both flower types are found ona single plant. The plant tends to grow in disturbed ground and requires moist un-shades soil.

Of the entire Goosefoot family, Common Orache is both the commonest of the group and is the one with most flavour. The young leaves can be used raw in salads or can be cooked as a spinach substitute. The seeds can also be ground and mixed into cornmeal, or used as a thickener to soups (thogh they are more than a little difficult to harvest, to say the least).

The recipe presented below is for a classic Greek recipe for a classic dish of leg of lamb stuffed with greens that include orache.

Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Greens and Feta Cheese

80ml olive oil, plus more for brushing
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (fronds and tender stalks reserved), halved and thinly sliced
250g thinly sliced spring onions
1 tbsp coarsely-chopped garlic
2 garlic cloves, quartered
240g coarsely chopped mixed greens (egs baby spinach, tender Swiss chard leaves, lamb's lettuce, pea shoots, orache, green amaranth, outer leaves of romaine lettuce, and/or beet greens)
1 tsp fennel seeds, freshly ground
freshly-ground black pepper
35g chopped fresh mint
1.8kg half leg of lamb (shank half), with some fat left on and the shank bone left in (remove the hip end of bone if still attached)
100g crumbled Feta cheese
salt, to taste
1 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
120ml dry white wine, (plus more if needed)
75g chopped fennel fronds plus tender stalks, (or fresh dill)

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the fennel bulb over medium heat until just tender (about 3 minutes). Add the scallions and chopped garlic and fry for 2 minutes. Add the greens and fry until just wilted. Remove from the heat and stir-in the fennel seeds, adding black pepper to taste. Allow to cool before adding the mint.

With a sharp knife make eight small slits in the lamb and insert the garlic quarters in these.

Meanwhile transfer half the greens to a bowl and set aside. Add the Feta cheese to the remaining greens in the pan and use this to stuff the lamb (where the bone was). Use cocktail sticks to close the opening. Rub the remaining greens over the lamb, cover and refrigerate over night.

The following day scrape the greens from the surface of the lamb (reserve these) and liberally brush the meat with oil before sprinkling with the oregano and seasoning. Place the meat in a roasting dish and roast in an oven pre-heated to 210°C for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile add the wine to a pan and bring to a boil. Add the reserved greens and simmer for 1 minute before pouring this mixture over the meat. Return the lamb to the oven and roast for 5 minutes more. Then reduce the oven temperature to 170°C and roast the lamb, basting frequently with the pan juices, for about 30 minutes more. Add a little water if the pan juices become too dry.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle the chopped fennel or dill then cover with aluminium foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Pour the pan juices into a sauce boat then carve the lamb and serve. The perfect accompaniment are potatoes roasted with garlic, lemon and oregano.

This recipe is reproduced, with permission, from the Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Greens and Feta Cheese Recipe from the Celtnet Greek Recipes Collection, part of the Celtnet Northern European Recipes Collection

If you are interested in recipes for Common Orache then you can find a range of common Orache recipes.

This guide is brought to you in conjunction with the Celtnet Wild Food Recipes collection.

You can find more wild foods beginning with the letter 'O' on the Wild Food Guide for the letter 'O', part of the Celtnet Wild Food Guide.

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