When you live in a big city like Dublin, it can be difficult to reconnect to nature. Foraging, however, can be a solution. Instead of driving to a supermarket to put a plastic-wrapped vegetable into a plastic bag, try foraging, which acts as a reminder of the magic of the natural bounty of the earth. There are plenty of opportunities to forage your food in Dublin throughout the year. I have focused on a few basic ones to get you started, all of which you can find in Phoenix Park at different times throughout the year.
Daffodils may be the more recognisable symbol of spring’s advent, but it is wild garlic that gets the culinary circles most excited. From March to the end of April, the leafy greens invade woodlands, lending a beautiful garlicky perfume to the air. It can be found in Wicklow but, more excitingly, also in Phoenix Park. Make sure to have a root around the American embassy. Wild garlic comes in three stages, all of which are edible.
“I made a wild garlic oil, blending the leaves and letting them infuse in olive oil, before draining it. Now I drizzle it on everything.”
The first stage is the leaves, which you can cut with a knife or scissors. Leave the bulbs even though they, too, are edible — you need the landowner’s permission to take them. You can treat them rather like garlicky spinach; the leaves can be tossed sparingly into salad, or quickly sauteed in olive oil. I like to do half wild garlic and half spinach here, especially if you have to talk to anyone in close quarters for the rest of the evening. I particularly like to make it into risotto; follow your usual risotto recipe, but blend the wild garlic into the stock so that the sharp flavour mellows with a longer cooking. I also made a wild garlic oil, blending the leaves and letting them infuse in olive oil, before draining it. Now I drizzle it on everything.
The plant then begins to flower, making it bittersweet because it marks the approaching end of the leaves but the beginning of new opportunities. The flowers are beautiful and make a tasty decoration to any salad. I don’t think that their beauty is at all marred by the sharp punch of garlic that goes with every bite. The seeds can be turned into capers. Leave them in salt for over a week to dry them out and then place in the vinegar of your choice — apple cider works well as more neutral vinegar. Keep them in an airtight jar for a month before opening and, after that, they will keep for the year.
Nettles — foraging for the not-so-faint-hearted
Before I had ever eaten nettles, I imagined that my poor throat would be covered in the same little red stingy bumps that covered my knees as a child. I thought my parents had innovated a peculiar form of torture: death by risotto. However, harvesting, cooking, and eating nettles is not as perilous as I had imagined. If you wear gloves, cut the leaves with scissors, then blanche the leaves for 30 seconds, the stings will be gone and you’re left with a nutritional delicacy.
The River Cafe in London made nettles famous with their risotto, which had the creamy funky addition of taleggio known for counteracting the minerally taste of the nettle. Make it in much the same way that I described with the wild garlic. A tip for risotto in general: you don’t have to stir it nearly as much as you’ve always been told. Add the stock in large ladles and leave it to absorb without overly disturbing the pan — this lets the rice hold its structure, and not turn into a grainier porridge. The rice, like pasta, should also be cooked al dente. Risotto shouldn’t be mushy.
“I also think there is a beautiful poetic revenge on the stinging nettle by eating it.”
I also think there is a beautiful poetic revenge on the stinging nettle by eating it. You hurt me as a child, and in return, I will eat you as an adult. They’re leaves are best eaten young, so look for them around early spring.
When somebody told me that dandelions were edible, I was surprised. But really, what marks the difference between their juicy leaves and those we’re accustomed to eating? Dandelion leaves can be eaten in a salad or sauteed with chilli and garlic. They’re bitter, but delicious.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that you can find and eat mushrooms in Phoenix Park. The others were probably talking about the more magic variety, which can certainly be found all around the park — just follow the deer — but there are plenty of edible mushrooms in the park which you can have for breakfast without hallucinating during the day’s lectures.
“From books and websites, where you can identify them yourself, to Facebook groups where experts can identify the mushrooms for you, information about identifying mushrooms is everywhere.”
Picking mushrooms is daunting and more dangerous than picking the stinging nettles. Many of the varieties can be fatally poisonous, so it’s important not to step into the park and munch on the first fungi you find. There are plenty of resources, however, to help you sort yourself out. From books and websites, where you can identify them yourself, to Facebook groups where experts can identify the mushrooms for you, information about identifying mushrooms is everywhere. Alternatively, The Mushroom Stuff runs events in Dublin where you can go on a foraging tour, finishing up with a hearty bowl of mushroom soup. Their expert guides can identify anything you find. Mushroom hunting primarily takes place from late September through to early winter.
Foraging for your food will be a return to nature, even if you don’t find anything. The worst that happens is you take a pleasant walk through the wilderness of Phoenix Park. But if you go to the right spots right now, you will find wild garlic and nettles. Plus, the joy of cooking something that you found is insurmountable.