Many wild plants in the UK are edible – before the wide range of cultivated vegetables became available people called them ‘pot herbs’ and ate them for dinner. They were much appreciated ingredients, supplementing vegetables grown in the garden. In modern times, people have become oddly finicking and dainty about what they’ll eat; suggest to someone that they might enjoy sampling a wild plant and you will likely be met with a moue of distaste as if you’d proposed eating raw tree bark. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly’ they’ll say, ‘Why do that when you can just go to the supermarket?’ or ‘What if a dog has peed on it?’
Ask these questions – ‘Do you know where the supermarket food you buy has been, how far it has travelled, how it was grown, what it’s been sprayed with and who (or what) might have handled it before you bought it?’. Unless you visited the field where it was grown, the answer can only be ‘No’ and yet the wild plant is viewed with a suspicion which might well be more deserved of the shop bought plant. To me, it doesn’t seem rational – this food is nutritious and if it has grown in woodland or your garden, then it is likely to be organic. It is local, fresh and, more to the point, it is free. I’m not advocating a move to only eating wild plants, but promoting the idea of trying them before dismissing the idea out of hand.
Which brings me to the wild plant ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria). It is thought to have been introduced by the Romans as a pot herb and was later grown around monasteries and known as gout weed, since it was thought to ease the gout suffered by monks as a result of their rich diets. Today it is found in many gardens, under hedges, alongside walls and in woodland. Spreading by its roots and sending up new shoots, it is a vigorous grower and can form dense patches, invading clump forming plants in a short time. It can be controlled by careful digging, but the smallest fragment of root left behind will easily form a new colony.
What to do? One way to control ground elder is to use it as the Romans intended and eat it. I see ground elder often so, as it’s said to be at its best in spring, I collected a carrier bag full and brought it home to try, adding it to a risotto and serving it with trout. I hadn’t actually tried ground elder before eating it, but had crushed a leaf to sniff and it smelled fresh and pleasant. Cooked, it was reminiscent of parsley with a touch of lemon so was a very good partner to the trout. We both liked it very much and will cook it again.
A word of warning – choose the younger ground elder leaves as they will be more tender and avoid picking after the plant has flowered, as it then develops laxative qualities. If a laxative is what you’re after, then go ahead.
Recognising ground elder is pretty straightforward. The bright green leaves uncurl from the soil in early spring and are thusly described: ‘Aegopodium podagraria is perennial, growing to a height of 100 cms with rhizomes. The stems are erect, hollow and grooved. The upper leaves are ternate, broad and toothed. The flowers are in umbels, terminal with rays 15 – 20, with small white flowers’.
And so to the recipe.
Ground elder risotto
A carrier bag of ground elder leaves, washed and with roots removed.
2 onions or large shallots, chopped
Olive oil for frying
200ml white wine
300g risotto rice
Cup of pre-cooked or frozen garden peas (if you feel like it)
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
In a large frying pan, fry the onions gently until softened and very lightly browned. While they are cooking, lightly steam the ground elder until wilted, cool and roughly chop. Add the rice to the onions, stir in and then add the white wine and some of the stock. Cook over a low heat, stirring regularly and adding more stock as the rice absorbs it. You may find that you need more or less according to how soft or al dente you prefer the rice to be. When the rice is at the texture you prefer, mix in the ground elder leaves and the garden peas if you are using them and heat through again before serving. Season at the table and, if liked, add grated parmesan cheese.