“Good cooking is a result of a balance struck between frugality and liberality,” wrote Patience Gray in the introduction to her seminal 1986 work, Honey From a Weed, an account of her peripatetic roughing it around various primitive corners of the Med.
“It is borne out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of Nature’s provisions, epitomised in the raising of a crop, we’re in danger of losing touch with life itself.”
Her mid-century foraging across forest and shoreline is a far cry from our well-stocked global larders. She never purchased a plastic pack of ‘wild’ rocket in her life. It grew outside her rustic stone dwelling and like all the other edible ‘weeds’ tasted far more intense.
Not quite at this level, but a return to frugality may be closer than we think as post-Brexit the supermarket shelves are increasingly stocked with tumbleweed. The grande dame of making do, Patience’s ways may yet be a virtue.
As a dog owner myself I’m reticent about urban foraging; at the same time I’m averse to buying drab pre-packed veg, preferring to grow my own limited crops or to seek out growers (preferably organic) who cut out the middle man.
I invariably take two bags to a local market on a Sunday, where farm folk travel over from West Lancashire, guaranteeing 80 per cent of their seasonal, conventional produce to be from their own fields (lemons I don’t expect from outside Ormskirk). Two bags? To fit in the bunches of beetroot, carrots, celeriac and radishes all with their ample fronds still attached.
They are the tops, in more ways than one. We are talking young specimens with bright, spry leaves and stalks; if they are muddy and wilting just chuck them. And fear not they aren’t toxic; indeed they are rammed with goodness.
Juicy beet bits are reminiscent of rainbow chard – a member of the same family – but I also love the uber pepperiness of radish tops added to a South Indian dal. It takes moments to turn either into the simplest of fresh salads. With the iron-rich beetroot briefly blanch the stalks and reunite them with the leaves, dressed with a splash of sherry vinegar and olive oil.
Carrot tops contain around six times more vitamin C than the root, plus potassium, calcium and phytonutrients. The abundant lacy leaves soon lose their swish, so I’d recommend swiftly turning them into a pesto that does not lose by it slight bitterness. By all means blend the tops with native hazelnuts, rapeseed oil and cheddar or, better still, go the Ligurian way (minus the basil but using pine nuts, parmesan and extra virgin olive oil. If you’ve got me trofie pasta in the pantry all the better. I substituted linguine.
Radish tops are the most perishable of all. Separate them, store in a fridge and use within 24 hours. Perhaps substitute them for spinach in a herby filo pie with feta and nigella seeds or just wilt them in butter with grated nutmeg. Postscript: they are perhaps the most nutritious of the trio. They rank right up there with broccoli and kale in terms of antioxidants, while they’re also packed with vitamin C and calcium.
Now come on, eat your greens.