Wouldn’t it be great to get good wholesome food for free? Well, it’s easy enough. All it will cost you is time, care and a little effort. Foraging for your own food is all the rage. Top chefs, such as Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz in Guipúzcoa, are stuffing their high-end tasting menus with wild food.
Some of this wild food is available in the Boqueria at Petras, but it’s a lot more fun to find it for yourself. So, for those taking a trip to the great outdoors this month, whether to the mountains, the seaside or the woods, here are just a few of the goodies there for the picking. Don’t forget to heed the Tips and Warnings!
In this group of local edible wild plants, the Latin name is first, then, on the next line. are the common names in English, Catalan and Castilian, in that order. Common names for these plants can vary, so the Latin name is best used for identification.
Sea lettuce/Enciam de mar/Lechuga de mar
This highly tasty and nutritious seaweed is found most abundantly in nutrient-rich environments, such as ports and estuaries—but as these are also often pollutant-rich environments you may be better off collecting yours in isolated rocky coves, such as those in the Costa Brava. The name is a helpful identification guide—sea lettuce looks like a bright green piece of damp lettuce, and is either found attached to rocks or washed up by the waves. Before using, wash thoroughly and soak in water for a few hours. It can be eaten raw in salads or added to soups and stews—in dried, powdered form it’s a good thickener for these dishes. It’s an amazing source of all kinds of nutrients including iodine, proteins, iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, B1 and C. It can be stored frozen for up to six months before it starts to lose flavour.
This is a good example of one man’s weed being another man’s free lunch. Common purslane is most often found growing in and around cultivated fields and gardens in low to mid-altitudes.
It’s a ground-creeping plant with thick reddish stems and succulent-like, fleshy leaves, pointed at the stalk end and very rounded at the opposite end, growing in branched pairs. The leaves can be picked throughout the year, but the most tender leaves are collected from plants without flowers. It can be cooked like spinach and its slightly sour, salty taste combines well with root vegetables and pulses. The youngest, tenderest leaves are also good in salads. It’s worth seeking out for its essential omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B and C and its antioxidants. Perhaps this is why Pliny the Elder recommended wearing purslane as an amulet against all evil.
There are also a lot of more familiar fruits and seeds from the market stalls that are out there for the picking. Though most hazelnuts will ripen in August and September, there may well be some prematurely mature wild specimens out there to be picked this month. Look for hazelnut trees in damp, shady, hilly spots, near brooks and steams. The prickly outer sheaf turns brown and papery when the nuts are ripe, but you have to catch them quickly before the squirrels and birds do! This month you should also be able to find cherries, raspberries, wild strawberries and pine nuts.
Most of you will know nettles and what they look like, but perhaps you don’t know they’re a very useful green leaf in soups, salads and even infusions. Nettles are rich in mineral salts and histamines, as well as vitamins A, B, C, E and K; they’re recommended for anaemics and men with prostate problems, and have been used as medicine for over 2,000 years. Use gloves to pick young fresh leaves from plants that haven’t yet flowered, then wash well and blanch them in boiling water to remove their sting. Use in salads and soups.
Rock samphire/Fonoll marí/Hinojo marino
Shakespeare mentions the risky business of rock samphire collecting in King Lear: ‘‘Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!’’, but luckily you don’t have to dangle off a cliff to get some. Rock samphire is very plentiful on Catalan coasts, particularly in Mallorca, where in pickled form it’s a staple accompaniment to pa amb oli. Look for it on the landward edge of rocky shores. It’s a small, dark green, fleshy, succulent-type plant, with a characteristic, aromatic scent, a little like a cross between lemon and fennel (hence the Catalan and Spanish names). It can be collected throughout the year—just look for young and tender shoots. Rich in vitamin C, it was traditionally eaten by sailors who would look for it on the shore after a long vegetable-free sea journey, to cure scurvy. Follow the Mallorcans’ lead and pickle it in a boiling mix of equal parts water and vinegar and two tablespoons of salt per litre of liquid.
A good source of vitamin C, this plant is found in grasslands, meadows and pastures in the mid-slopes of mountain ranges north of the Llobregat. It has distinctive arrow-head shaped leaves and small red and green flowers that cluster in upright slender spikes from May to August. Pick the youngest, most tender leaves, which have a very distinctive tart, almost lemony flavour and are very thirst quenching, which is great if you’ve walked halfway up a mountain to collect them. The leaves’ acidic bite makes them a perfect addition to a mixed leaf salad. This sharp flavouring is due to oxalic acid, which can be dangerous for people with certain diseases such as arthritis, gout or kidney stones. Sorrel can also be cooked, like other green leafy vegetables, and this reduces both the tartness and the oxalic acid content.
Tips and Warnings
Go well-equipped: take bags or baskets for your pickings, a walking stick for pulling down branches and thorny bushes, thick gloves to protect your hands and, most importantly, a good field guide—preferably one to tell you what to pick (such as Plantes Silvestres Comestibles, by Núria Duran, Mercè Morguí and Mercè Sallés. It's in Catalan and tells readers what's poisonous.) A knowledgeable human guide is even better. And if you're in doubt about any plant, just leave it out.
Don't pick from polluted or industrial sites, near heavily used roads or sprayed commercial crops. Always wash thoroughly what you pick. Respect private land. Don't pick in protected areas. Don't uproot if not necessary, don't take more than you need or parts you don't want. Don't disturb wildlife.