Things have been slowing down for winter, the trees are once again bare and the ground is again familiar with frost and ice. Now is the time to make use of the stores collected and preserved over the year of berries, mushrooms, but especially spices.
The word spices almost feels synonymous with far-off lands, yet so many flavours can be found growing wildly and abundantly right here in the UK. I’ve pulled together a list here of some of my favourites that are fairly easy to find and flavours that are fun to work with, especially with the festive season upon us. Although not all native to the UK, some of these wild plants are more common than you might expect, and their resemblance to those that we import might surprise you. You can think of some of these local versions as direct alternatives to those imported spices, but they do carry their own unique flavours so you can create really interesting dishes with them. A wild food hero of mine, Pascal Baudar, refers to this idea of working with local wild flavours as your local “terroir” (a term used in winemaking).
Alexanders seeds are jet black and they smell and taste just like black pepper. The plant is not strictly native to the UK since it was brought over by the Roman empire, but I reckon its been here long enough to call it our own. Alexanders is generally found in the south by the coast, but it can certainly be found further inland too and I’ve come across it in London. Use Alexanders seeds anywhere you would use black pepper – I used alexanders seeds in this recipe for Marinated Goat’s Cheese with Wild Herbs & Spices.
Wild Carrot Seeds
These beautiful little nests of fuzzy seeds are quite distinctive and I think they’re stunning. The flavour of the seeds are vaguely reminiscent of caraway. (They traditionally have been used as a natural method of birth control, so I wouldn’t recommend to use them if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive.)
Wild Fennel Seeds
It’s amazing how abundant wild fennel can be – I’ve found fennel particularly by the coast, but I also found some by roadsides in Hackney so it really could be anywhere. I know the flavour isn’t for everyone, but I’ve always loved things like fennel, liquorice and aniseed so I could eat fennel seeds like sweets! I might even try making a fennel brittle over Christmas…
Common Hogweed Seeds
Common hogweed grows just about everywhere and the umbels of light brown, flat, disc-like seeds are quite distinctive in the autumn and early winter. Crushing a single seed between your fingers reveals a pungent hit of orange peel with cardamom and they keep their flavour beautifully when dried. They can be used in both savoury and also sweet recipes such as these Wild Plum & Hogweed Seed Flapjacks and are perfect over the festive season.
Magnolia trees are usually planted as ornamentals but established trees can be really prolific. The flowers vary in their flavour and particularly their bitterness, but they often have a beautiful ginger flavour that is remarkable and can be preserved by drying. I love finding new trees and giving them a taste to find out that tree’s very own unique blend of floral, ginger notes. Usually the flavour is least bitter when the buds are just about to open up. I used the fresh petals in this recipe for Wild Garlic, Mushroom, and Magnolia Petal Gyoza.
Staghorn Sumac Berries
This is another surprisingly common spice as sumac trees are also often planted in parks and gardens and actually spread quite easily if left to their own devices. They’re not usually found growing wild, but if you have a garden they grow well in the UK, or you could see if you have a friendly neighbour with a sumac tree.
Wood Avens Root
This “weed” hides in plain sight almost everywhere and now is a great time of year to harvest some as all of the energy is being piled into the roots ready for a burst of growth in spring. The roots are where the flavour is and it tastes just like clove, hence the alternative name for this herb of “cloveroot” – great for your christmas bakes. Make sure you have permission before uprooting any plants, even on public land. You could try using it in this recipe for Preserved Pears in Rooibos Syrup.
It’s so worth exploring wild spices! I’ve really enjoyed building up my wild spice larder this year so I can blend and combine them into different recipes. I keep mine in a steel, masala dabba which is an Indian spice tin with separate inner tins for the individual spices. It’s perfect for a wild spice collection and they can be stacked too so you’re not limited on how many spices you can store.
A note on safety – do make sure you’re always triple-checking your ID of plants. Some of the plants listed are members of the carrot family which has a number of deadly members so make sure you use a trusted ID guide or have an expert show you.
Have you tried any wild spices? Let me know in the comments or tag me on Instagram @plotandlane where I love to see your creations!
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