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Fruits of the forage: sea purslane, wild chives, alexanders

Categories: Expert guidance

Tim Maddams is a private chef, cookery teacher, presenter and author. In a three-part series he shares his tips on foraging for wild greens, along with recipe ideas to make the most of them. This month: sea purslane, wild chives, and alexanders

I love a bold statement. I love their simplicity; how they fit into language and life. My favourite for the last few years has been to respond to the children’s excitement about potential snow fall (how do they know? I’ve never seen them check the forecast...) with the very grumpy statement: “It never snows in Devon.” This statement has been held as insoluble truth in our house for the last few years. But my loss of face has not been the only fall out of the unusual and repeatedly heavy snowfall across the region. First among them, for me anyway, has been the delay in getting this instalment of the spring foraging series off the ground.

But the snow has melted and as I sit writing these words, the spring sunshine is pouring through the window with all the false promise of a school disco. I can feel the sap rising and my body responding to the age-old flow and ebb of the seasons. Sunshine. Spring. Hope. Joy. I am resolutely ignoring the cold snap forecast for the coming weekend, and indeed today’s quick forage has proven there is no stopping nature. The lane-side banks and the salt marsh are erupting with life.

Without further pre-amble, I give you the latest offerings from the wilderness.

Sea purslane

Sea purslane
Ever eaten salt marsh lamb? Very good it is, and sea purslane is one of the reasons. This is an incredibly common plant and manages to survive in some form all year round, and as such is a cornerstone of the sheep’s diet as it wanders the marshes. It’s not the best-tasting wild plant out there, tasting mostly of salt, with a hint of iron and other minerals. It does have quite an unusual texture, though, and is lightly succulent. It’s also abundant and though at its best for the next few weeks, passable leaves can be picked most of the year round.

I tend to use it lightly chopped and added as a seasoning, or in place of capers in a herby dressing or some such. It’s very good indeed just washed, picked from the tough stems and tossed with well-buttered new potatoes and black pepper—it provides more than enough salt all on its own, so you should not need more. It can be used to season sauces for fish and of course mutton or lamb. My favourite experiment with sea purslane to date has been as a seasoning for mutton tartar, but that may be a bridge too far for many, with or without the sea purslane.

It is a very easy plant to find: simply wander along an estuary edge or salt marsh and look out for a pale green-grey, oval-leaved plant. It often grows in great swathes, so being unable to spot it in the first instance may be a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. All that needs to be done to harvest the plant is to snip off sprigs of the greenest, freshest looking tips. The stems are quite tough—I tend to use a stout pair of scissors or a knife to save accidentally pulling up the roots.

Once harvested (or duly purchased from Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies or Turnips at the Market), a good wash and removal of the stems is all that is needed to get your hoard ready for further use, and it keeps well in the fridge for days.

Wild chives

Wild chives
Also known as wild onion or crow garlic, this diminutive allium packs one hell of a punch. I’d certainly not advise using it in the same quantities you would shop-bought chives. This is another easy win for the beginner forager as it is very easy to identify, often abundant in hedgerows, way sides and woodland banks—though it never seems to achieve the all-out takeover of its cousins, the wild garlic and the three-cornered leek.

I tend to just snip off the green shoots when they are young and tender—they get very woody in the summer after flowering—and use them to add an oniony hit to anything at all. Most often I will chop them (sometimes with some sea purslane as well) and add them to scrambled eggs—this, frankly, is so good that I tend to have it again the next day as well, just because I can. I have spent hours before, washing and scraping the whole plant, bulb included, to cook like a sort of wild spring onion and this works, but they are very strong. They also pickle quite well, again if you can face all the faff.

They work very well indeed in a hollandaise—just added at the end for an extra vibrant dimension—as an accompaniment for poached egg, or grilled fish for that matter. I have in the past used them to stuff sardines and that works like a charm. Though they get discarded after they have done their job nestling in the cavity of the gutted fish during grilling, they impart a great, charred onion flavour to the cooked flesh.

Alexanders

Alexanders
This is a flavour you will either love or hate. If you are not an alexander fan, it will be apparent to you the very first—and likely the last—time you taste it. They are known by a rather scathing family member of mine as “filthy rhubarb”, and a second tasting has been deemed only mildly preferable to actual death. I love them.

They are very easy to identify and rather common, though mainly round the coast. Apparently this plant, which looks a little like a cross between celery and hog weed, was introduced by the Romans as a fodder plant for their animals. They failed to take it with them when they left, and it’s been busy carrying on without them for quite some time.

Its taste is something between celery, fennel and soap—in a good way. Its leaves are the strongest-tasting part, the tender stems being the best bit for use as a vegetable or even in place of rhubarb for an upside-down cake. Cooking the stems in a little water and butter with plenty of salt and pepper until the water evaporates and leaves the stems all lovely and soft makes a great side dish for fish, or even the main event on some toast with a little mint. The leaves make a rather excellent—if unusual—ice cream, which personally I love and most people seem to be able to tolerate. I blend the well washed leaves into the still-hot custard just before passing through a sieve.

Happily, this plant grows twice in the year; early spring (the first harvest of which is arriving at Fitz Fine Foods now), followed by another attempt in late summer or early autumn. Don’t bother with it once it has flowered, it goes very bitter and tough.