foraging in summer
Guest story from foraging expert, Clare McQuillan.
Welcome back to this series with me, Clare McQuillan, forager, curious cook and wild food guide. This time we are talking about summer. The solstice and longest day have now come and gone but the summer foraging season is just hitting its stride with still much bounty to be gathered in the hedgerows and the hint of what is to come - the fruiting season.
It has been an exceptionally warm June following a slow and cool spring. Because of this it feels like many of the plants have been in a big rush to bolt up and take advantage of the warmth and I have already observed hazelnuts forming in their clusters, apples swelling and blackberries forming. But we aren’t ready for them yet! That’ll be later. Right now, we have the last of the greens, shoreline plants flourishing and most of all the summer flowers with their inspiring aroma leading the way in the forager's kitchen.
In this part of the world, we are officially in the flowering season. For me, spring and autumn are the times of abundance with baskets of wild greens in the early part of the year replaced by fruit in the latter part. Summer may seem scarcer but our foraging efforts are rewarded with big flavours and beyond all, beauty. When I think of summer foraging the first thing that comes to mind is almost always the late May smells of hawthorn blossom, elderflower and rowan. The smell of these abundant flowers seems to permeate the air almost completely and then almost overnight they disappear. It is up to the keen forager to grab hold of these unique and heady flavours in cordials, syrups, vinegars, jellies and in liqueurs so we can revisit them in dishes through the rest of the summer. Then, from June we will have meadowsweet, honeysuckle, rose and wild thyme to gather to join wild strawberries, raspberries and bilberries in the early July months.
Summer is a brilliant time of learning for the amateur forager as we can truly engage in all of our senses to help with identification as the specific qualities of each plant become more apparent with their flowers, seed pods, scent, texture, terrain. Now is the time to take advantage of those bright evenings and slowly explore the parks and shorelines of your area - you will be astonished at what you might find when you take the time to look.
These are just a few of my favourite things to gather in Summer.
- Elderflower or meadowsweet - Abundant and sweet. You will find this in every park in Ireland. Always gather on a dry, sunny day and don’t leave it too late. The flowers or elderflower have already finished in my part of Belfast.
- Bilberries - These beautiful little punches of tart sweetness are so incredibly well hidden and special that if you didn’t know the plant you would pass them by. They prefer old woodland and a bit of altitude so keep an eye out on your next hike.
- Wild Strawberries - Not uncommon in this part of the world but you have to beat the slugs. These small berries pack a real aromatic strawberry hit and do really well in pots in the garden if you don’t want to battle with the land molluscs.
- Honeysuckle - My favourite summer flower. They make the most incredible cordial too! All other parts of honeysuckle are toxic so use the flowers only.
- Linden blossom - These are the flowers of the lime or linden tree. They’re around for just a brief few weeks but make one of my favourite teas. A very common park tree that you will smell from a way off when it is in flower.
- Pineapple weed - A member of the daisy family, this plant likes to grow where it doesnt have too much competition and looks like a daisy or chamomile with no little white rays around the edge. It has a flavour just like pineapple.
- Nettle seeds - A tricky one to gather but so abundant and delicious. I use these wherever you would use a sesame or poppy seed. They have an intense nettle flavour that settles when dried to a greenness that is welcome in crackers, bread or just scattered over breakfast.
- Shoreline edibles - Sea aster, Orache, Sea radish and Sea beet. Get to know your shoreline plants. A lot of them are at their best now and they are some of my favourite things to eat.
We have so many edible flowers around at this time of year which may not be the most amazing for flavour but are great for decorating on the cake like below. Most will not survive the night in the fridge so pick them as you need them. You may already have them in your garden.
- Rosebay Willowherb
- Japanese Rose
- Herb Robert
- Cat's ear
- Green alkanet
- Oxeye daisy
- Holly hock
- Sweet woodruff
- Pink sorrel
- Hedge bedstraw (which is what I have used below)
A Reminder for Summer Foraging
As usual, the number one rule is to be aware of what you’re picking when gathering flowers, plants and fruit. Plants such as bittersweet, hemlock water dropwort, giant hogweed, foxgloves and even the humble buttercup are out to harm us so take heed and do some research before launching into your summer gathering and make sure you are absolutely certain before adding wild plants to your dinner. Remember, plants should never be uprooted without prior permission and not all places permit foraging so check before you go.
Foraging to Fork
This recipe includes foods that you can forage in the summertime for a delightful dessert.