THE day of my first ever foraging trip with wild food expert Rob Caton from Wild Harmony arrives. So I find myself kitted out in waterproofs and warm clothing as I descend on the National Trust’s Wallington near Cambo at 9am sharp.
Our destination is Rothley Lake which is part of the Wallington Estate. It’s not open to visitors yet, so the chances are you’ve never heard of it, although if you’ve travelled on the road from Scots Gap to Rothbury in Northumberland you will have passed it.
From the road the lake looks tiny but it’s actually seven hectares in size and the trust has plans to open it up to visitors as a nature reserve in 2012.
On arrival at Rothley Lake we set about looking at the identification books Rob has brought with him. They have very clear images of all different types of sorrel including common, lamb’s and yellow. You can also get wood sorrel which was the first find of the day on this foraging trip. Wood sorrel is the size of clover and looks quite similar. It has what I can only describe as a very zingy fresh taste and it whetted my appetite to find more.
On our walk through the woodland surrounding the lake, I begin to identify the wood sorrel and even pass some to the Wallington foresters who are accompanying us on this foraging trip.
However, after about an hour of walking around in the cold, my enthusiasm starts to wane a little. We can’t find any sorrel! That’s the trouble with nature – it’s unpredictable. While you’d normally find common sorrel (rumex acetosa) plants that are about 3in high at this time of year, we struggle to find any. Rob tells me it’s due to the cold winter we’ve had – many plants are later than usual which is not surprising. I was just about to give up hope and starting to think of the comforts of my warm office and shop-bought food when there, hidden among the grassy shore of Rothley Lake, Rob finds a tiny common sorrel plant. It is so small I would have walked straight past it, or over it.
There are five of us on this foraging trip, and after an hour-and-a-half we finally managed to find one common sorrel plant. So while my hopes of gathering a few handfuls of leaves and heading home to cook up a tasty omelette are dashed, we still managed to find and identify common sorrel. We each tasted a tiny leaf which, similar to the wood sorrel, is zesty and fresh, if a little more earthy, before I headed back to my warm cosy office.
The good news is that over the next month, common sorrel plants will start to flourish so your foraging trip might be a little more successful than mine.
Take a look at Rob’s tips for identifying and cooking with this lovely zesty plant. When you do find some, why not start a foraging diary to mark when and where you found it? If you take a little of the plant and let it reproduce, you can go back throughout the season to pick more.
For more information on events and activities with Rob’s company Wild Harmony, including bushcraft and foraging days, log on to www.wildharmony.co.uk
For more information on the National Trust log on to www.nationaltrust.org.uk
ROB'S TIPS FOR IDENTIFYING COMMON SORREL
COMMON sorrel is a perennial weed growing up to 60cm tall and 30cm wide.
It has erect stems bearing broad arrow-shaped leaves, 3-10cm long. Lower leaves are longer than they are wide, with backward-pointing lobes. Upper leaves are smaller and clasp the stem. The leaves have a high vitamin C content and contain oxalic acid which gives them a zesty flavour similar to lemons. Always ensure you positively identify any food you forage before eating.
The leaves of common sorrel can be confused with Cuckoo-pint (Arum Maculatum) which is poisonous. The leaves of Cuckoo-pint are much larger and normally deeper green in colour, sometimes with dark patches. Sorrel has a full centre mid-rib, Cuckoo-pint does not.
Because the leaves of common sorrel contain oxalic acid you should not eat them too often or in large quantities. Do not eat if you suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, gout, are pregnant or on medication from your doctor.
Salads: Add to salads throughout the spring and summer for a zesty, refreshing taste. Cut or tear the leaf and add to your other ingredients.
Omelette: For an omelette with “bite” gather two large handfuls of leaves, remove the stalks, wash and slice. Add the sliced leaves to your omelette just before the eggs set. When the leaves wilt and change colour from a light green to a darker green the omelette should be ready. Avoid using naked metal pans and utensils as the acid in the leaves can react with the metal and spoil the flavour.
Butter: For a tangy-tasting herb butter, mix finely chopped sorrel leaves with a small amount of garlic, salt and pepper. Add this to your favourite softened butter. Great with brown trout.