Why did we stop eating the Fat Hen, wonders expert Carl Mintern, who is celebrating the season for finding the jewel in the mushroom-foraging crown
July is here and we are in the full swing of summer, with the call of our gardens and the great outdoors as strong as ever. I find myself suggesting walks to my wife and children most evenings, exploring woodlands and footpaths, always with a glint of excitement at what I might find to bring home to use in the kitchen.
Eat the fat hen
One such exciting find to be on the lookout for at this time of year is fat hen (Chenopodium album), also known as wild spinach. This plant, both nutritious and prolific, was a staple food for thousands of years, used as a valuable food source dating back to prehistoric times. Like so many things today, it has fallen out of favour as a menu item simply by virtue of its accessibility – it grows everywhere, and who wants to entertain guests by serving something that everyone has growing in their garden?
Well, me, obviously.
Amazingly, this plant which most people will never try has leaves that taste similar to those of spinach and can be treated the same way in the kitchen. Gardeners throughout the country will be picking it and throwing it to the compost, rather than saving the tender leaves and lightly steaming or tossing in butter. It also makes a fabulous base for soups.
Fat hen has diamond-like, sometimes referred to as goose-foot-shaped leaves, with a coating of delicate white hairs covering them. You can find it masquerading as a garden weed, and on any footpath or waste ground. The fresh growth of leaves and flowers near the top are the choicest pickings for the kitchen.
Another July staple which we must all be passing every time we drive down a country lane is elderflowers, from the elder tree (Sambucus nigra). This plant is extremely important to the forager as we come to harvest from it three times throughout the year. First, in early summer for the flowers, which we use to make cordials and other surprisingly exciting treats, then later in the summer for elderberries to make pies and jellies. Finally we return in the depths of winter for a mushroom (the jelly ear – Auricularia auricula-judae) that is found almost exclusively on the elder’s branches.
Early July is usually the end of the window for collecting elderflowers, so set to it before it is too late.
Often used as a hedging plant, they adorn roadsides right across the Blackmore Vale. Since late May, collections of the tiny off-white flowers have been hanging in sprays the size of breakfast bowls, enriching my walks with their deliciously distinctive sweet smell. Many of us gather the flowers to make cordials by steeping them in water and adding sugar, but a lesser-known use is to batter them whole and fry them, making elderflower fritters as a showstopping accompaniment to your summer dining.
It is worth remembering that every part of the elder is mildly toxic raw and should always be cooked before consumption. Of course, I frequently hear anecdotal stories of people who have nibbled on the raw berries since childhood, but the mild toxicity is a scientific fact and one this forager cannot ignore when sharing his knowledge and passion, either here or on a guided walk.
Simply the best
Finally, towards the end of this month we are hopeful we may find one of the jewels in the mushroom-foraging crown, the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). This bright yellow mushroom is one of the best looking, and tasting, mushrooms to hunt for full stop. Hopeful excursions for this mushroom can start now and continue right until the end of the year.
With its distinctive funnel shape and apricot smell, this mushroom can be found in many diverse woodland habitats. The chanterelle’s preferred growing spot is on the sides of mossy banks nestled into last autumn’s leaf litter. It is a firm mushroom that you can wash without fear of it becoming spongy. It can then can be used as you would any shop-bought mushroom – just with a far more satisfying feeling as you do so.
Beware the false chanterelle, which appears similar. There are three simple differences and even novices can learn to distinguish them:
When cut in half, the false chanterelle is all one colour, whereas the chanterelle hides white flesh beneath the striking yellow outer.
On close inspection, the true chanterelle does not have gills, but instead its flesh forms folds which give the gill-like appearance. The false chanterelle does, indeed, have true gills.
Finally there is that aroma of apricots associated only with the true chanterelle. If you tick these three boxes you are sure to have a safe foraging experience, and one that would make many jealous, knowing you have hunted down one of the most prized finds in the foraging calendar.