Even if you don’t have a garden, you can enjoy our local seasonal produce. Farmers markets are beginning to fill with interesting produce, and local food festivals and events are starting this weekend.
The Foragers at The Verulam Arms, St Albans is more in touch with the seasons than any other local restaurant, as they forage, fish and hunt for their ingredients. I went to their first Foraging talk and dinner recently, and we ate a delicious meal using local ingredients that had been picked or hunted just hours earlier. I was so impressed by the nettle soup we had as a starter that I asked to publish it here for our readers. Nettles are just starting to sprout up everywhere, and it really is a sustainable crop that anyone can pick and use. I have never cooked with nettles before, and always thought of them as a nuisance – lovely for butterflies, but to be avoided with small children. But this soup was delicious, and very easy to make. The flavour of nettles is similar to spinach, and they are packed with nutrients including iron and vitamin A. Apparently, English people always used to eat nettles, and they were considered a welcome burst of vitamins after a long cold winter. They can also help to relieve hayfever and help the body to expel toxins.
Nettles are best in the next few weeks when the plants are only 40 cm (18 in) tall, and you use the top, fresh leaves before the plant begins to flower (the “nettle tops”). You can buy fresh nettles at farmers markets or grow your own patch in an area of your garden. If you pick your own from a local field or pathway, make sure the plants are growing away from roads where they may pick up pollutants, and of course, avoid popular dog walking areas! Armed with good gloves, this could be a great project for children: take them out nettle picking and make some soup. You may start a life-long fascination with foraged food.
At The Foragers dinner, we also had the most unusual dessert: tempura of dandelions and daisies, with a chocolate dipping sauce. The dandelion flowers in particular were lovely. Do go there and try them. If you are interested in what grows locally, and what is safe to eat, I do recommend a Foragers talk: it was fascinating to see examples of the plants that we can eat, and to see how similar they can be to plants that are potentially toxic. Our local countryside grows lots of plants that we can eat: hairy bittercress, for example, tastes like rocket, so don’t be put off by its name.
This recipe is from The Foragers pub, St Albans. It serves eight so perfect for sharing with friends, and should make a good conversation opener.
1 large onion, diced
1 medium leek, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 large Maris Piper potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped into even-sized pieces
1kg nettle tops, washed
Bouquet garni: thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns
1 litre water
50 ml cream
few fried nettle leaves and olive oil infused with garlic, to serve
1. Sweat the onion, leek and garlic in a pan with the butter on a low heat until soft but with no colour.
2. Add the potatoes, nettles, bouquet garni and cook for a further five minutes. Add the water and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Remove the bouquet garni.
3. Blitz the soup and pass through a medium sieve. Stir in the cream, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Fry a few nettle leaves in a little olive oil until lightly crispy, and scatter over bowls of soup. Drizzle over garlic oil to serve. Eat with crusty bread or toasted sourdough.
Last year we wrote about Transition St Albans, and their excellent Open Food Gardens series. You can visit local gardens and see what fruit, vegetables and herbs you can grow, whatever the size or location of your outdoor space, and get lots of friendly, free advice. This years’ series starts at The Courtyard Cafe, Hatfield Road on Saturday 28th April. Regulars to this cafe will already know that there is a herb and vegetable garden at the front, and that Michael the chef uses the produce in the cafe. Pop along between 11-4 and the St Albans Transition team will be there to answer any questions you have. They will also have details of the rest of the Open Gardens that you can visit over the next couple of months.
Knebworth East of England Food Fair
We are lucky to have one of the largest food festivals in the country on our doorstep. Knebworth House East of England Food Fair is in its third year, and is on this weekend (Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd April, 10-5). It attracted over 7500 visitors last year. There will be lots of stalls to try and buy from, showcasing food from the local area, as well as Fairtrade foods. The demonstration kitchen will run talks throughout both days, hosted by Hector Bunting, chef, forager and food lover. You need to pay the usual entry fee of £8 per person (family ticket is £28) which includes entry to the park and gardens.
Hatfield House Stable Yard
A short cycle ride from St Albans, Hatfield House is always worth a visit, and if you head over on the third Sunday of each month you will be there for the farmers market too. You will be able to pick up lots of local produce, including honey from Hatfield Park, English gins, ales, beef, pork and game when in season, watercress and seasonal vegetables, cakes, jams and pies. Entry to Stable Yard is free.