Roger Phillips has made a new online course for the Idler Academy
Roger Phillips, now 86, is the master forager. His first book, Wild Flowers of Britain, was published in 1977 and sold over 400,000 copies. It was followed by Wild Food, Mushrooms and Trees in Britain, Europe and North America and many more. Alongside other pioneers like Richard Mabey, Roger Phillips encouraged us to get out there and find the foodstuffs in the fields and hedgerows.
We’ve just released his new online course, filmed in a garden square in London. To give you a taster, we have selected a few choice morsels from his new book, The Worldwide Forager, published by Unbound.
On a desert truffle-hunting expedition, we drove to the Spanish border and started searching for heavy amanita in the open, evergreen oak woods, typical of this very arid area. It would have been a hopeless task on our own, but we had the help of one of the foremost Portuguese mycologists, José Luís Gravito Henriques, who quickly explained that in the dry, hot conditions that prevail in that area, the mushroom remains underground until it is fully developed. As it turned out, the year we went the winter had been very cold and spring was late, so the mushrooms were still totally underground. However, Gravito searched under the oaks and eventually was able to teach us to look for a slightly cracked distortion of the ground and, on digging, we discovered the button forms of this exciting, edible Portuguese speciality beneath the earth’s surface. On our return to the quinta, we cooked them quickly in Tristan’s own olive oil with a squeeze of garlic. The day of searching was long and tiring, but the result was worth it. Delicious.
A large relatively common mushroom of wood-edges and unimproved grassland, parasols start out with spherical, club-like heads on a tall stem, before they open wide and almost flat, like a parasol. We had been searching the woods all day in southern Wiltshire for good edible mushrooms with only a modicum of success, when we returned to 10 Castle Street (a restaurant and members’ club) where we were staying and were met at the door by Bea, the daughter of the owners and her friend Kiki, who were very excited about finding a vast supply of parasol mushrooms in the field behind their school. As usual, the adults were put to shame by the sharp eyes of the children. The chef made a soup with our finds and then topped it off with pieces of parasol that he had dipped in a Japanese batter and briefly fried. All ten of us around the table agreed that it was a wonderful starter.
These are wonderful flowers, but you often hear that they are toxic. This dates back to World War II. During a chronic food shortage when there was nothing to eat in northern Holland, they started to sell old dried-up tulip bulbs in food shops. They were horrible to eat mainly because they were old and dry, but in fact they were not toxic! The petals are quite edible raw or cooked with a variety of delicate flavours like lettuce, peas or cucumbers. The light-coloured blooms (cream, pink, peach or white) are the sweetest, while the strong colours have the strongest flavour. You can use them to garnish salads, but they are more commonly used as an edible spatula to sample dips. If you use the entire blossom, cut off the pistil and stamens from the centre of the bloom. Some people find the bottom ends of the petals can be bitter and snip them off, too. Personally, I find this unnecessary – a touch of bitterness can enliven the palate.
In the early 1980s, I worked with Joy Larkcom on her innovative and now iconic masterpiece The Salad Garden. Joy introduced me to many flowers that add colour and flavour to our salads, but the one I was most struck by at the time was pansy flowers. They are the simplest things to grow, and they flower constantly, month after month. The flavour is slightly sweet and mild, so they happily mix with any salad you can think of. The wild pansies, which the Americans call Johnny Jump Up, are terrific, too. Pansies have been medicinally evaluated and found to contain antioxidants (anthocyanins). They have been shown to improve cough suppression in children with asthma, and to help patients with insomnia. They have also shown promising results in treating dermatitis.
If you are a cake maker, try using pansies by candying some of the more striking blooms: just paint them with whipped egg white and then dust them with icing sugar and leave overnight in a warm room. They will remain fresh and colourful for at least a year!
This is a native bulb, formerly found in the wild in south-west England. It naturalises very easily, and spreads rapidly by forming bulblets and through seed. In spring, we have it all around the three-acre garden of Eccleston Square. Beryl, who helps in the garden, hates it, as it is far too prolific for her to get rid of, so there is always a good crop left for me. The leaves are evergreen, but that means it has the advantage of being available in winter, well before the common wild garlic comes into leaf. The taste is similar to wild garlic, with the flowers, leaves and bulbs having a distinctive onion-like flavour. I think the flowers, with their delicate garlic taste and smell, are my favourite. Salads and cooked dishes alike benefit from a sprinkling of blooms.
From The Worldwide Forager by Roger Phillips (Unbound)
Worldwide Foraging with Roger Phillips, Idler Academy online course, £35. Click here to see the trailer