Eat Your Enemies

Thursday 7 March 2019 20:44

Before anyone gets overly excited I have decided to exclude humans from this little dissertation although I agree that this makes it less compelling as a discourse than otherwise. I don’t doubt either that there are literally hundreds of plants and animals out there that one might equally regard as enemies of our species; my own small sample consists only of those I have personally tracked down, cooked and eaten. Well apart from the coypu that is and I’ll explain about him later. Today’s blog concerns ground elder but my list also contains the following: stinging nettles; purslane; coypu; signal crayfish; squirrel (grey), and I shall write about each of these villains in due course.

I accept too that one man’s enemy may be another’s best friend. Purslane, for instance, has any number of saving graces. It is a plant that I personally love and revere but my French neighbours loath and are intent upon driving out of existence, but the aim, when it comes to eating your enemy, is not to exterminate completely but rather to cull judiciously on a sort of ‘cut and come again’ basis. Keep on killing and they’ll just keep on coming - these are, after all, great survivors.

What is needed is a few more people ready to try eating them - in which case I hope my little peroration will persuade the reluctant amongst you to join in the hunt.

Ground Elder (aka Bishop’s Goutweed)

Nothing kills ground elder. It has two lines of attack: copious seeds and a weblike spreading root system. A friend has battled for years with a persistent patch which grows slap-bang in the middle in her showcase flowerbed. Last year in a final bid to be rid of it forever she took out all her plants and had the top six inches of the bed removed and replaced with pristine weed-free topsoil. All her prized plants have now been replanted (after very careful examination of roots and attached soil). She thinks she’s got it sorted but I’m just waiting for the howls to erupt - any minute now I guess - when the first shoots start pushing their way up through her virgin earth. I know she will be watching like a hawk ready to dig up any that pokes its nose above ground. 

Me? I’d be ready to snip off the first two or three inches of each furled up leaf and stalk. This is the best edible bit - a tasty little shoot only properly available in the spring. Lovely to eat rawly crisp in salads or softened in butter, the limp stalks can be mixed into pasta or mash. 

Supposedly introduced into Britain by the Romans as a food plant and for its medicinal properties, ground elder must once have been highly prized. Amongst the very first of all edible vegetation to show in the spring (which can be as early as February), it is also at its tastiest then. Later, after flowering it becomes harshly pungent and has distinctly laxative properties, so best avoided then.

Ground elder (named for the leaf’s resemblance to those of the elder tree) has any number of other names but the one I like most is ‘bishop’s goutweed’. That name says it all doesn’t it? I detect in it a medieval peasant’s healthy disrespect for the clergy who ruled him, and, given that the name has persisted for so long, is probably a well founded presumption concerning the lifestyle of men of the cloth in earlier times. Gout is forever associated with those who imbibe quantities of red wine; bishops in their palaces obviously qualified. 

The very name ‘goutweed’ identifies it as a medicinal herb once used to treat gout and arthritis; the leaves and roots would be boiled up and applied to the affected parts which would then be wrapped in heated cloths. Interestingly, monks too used it as a medicinal plant and it can still be found growing in patches in the ruins of many monasteries.

Ground elder is a member of the carrot family and easy to identify in the wild. It has oval serrated leaves each ending in a point and grows in three groups of three on a grooved stalk. It has a mild lemon-parsley flavour so works well with fish - a few early shoots stewed in butter with a hint of garlic poured over a pan-fried fillet and few new potatoes is a very tasty dish. It can be used simply as a fresh herb or as a salad ingredient. Use it in soups or omelettes along with young nettles or make the pesto below.

Don’t be deterred by its pungent smell when you pick - it disappears on cooking. This is an enemy easily tracked and caught; it’s free, it’s healthy and is one of the most delicious of the wild greens. Good hunting! 

Ground Elder Pesto

I stumbled across a great website recently https://myfoododyssey.com/ and found this very excellent recipe. It’s enough to make a small jarfull. Once I had made the pesto I gently stirred it into some linguine, with a scatter of fried sour dough breadcrumbs and slivers of parmesan cheese on top. Simple and delicious supper.

65 g ground elder leaves

50 g shelled, roasted & salted pistachio nuts

100 ml light olive oil, plus extra to cover if storing

1 lemon, juice only

1 clove garlic crushed

¼ tsp fine sea salt  (to add if necessary)

Wash the ground elder leaves and spin dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with a clean tea towel.

Place the ground elder leaves, pistachios, oil, lemon juice and garlic into a food processor or blender.

Process the ingredients for about 30 seconds. Open the mixer, scrape down the sides with a spatula or spoon, replace the lid and process for a further 30 seconds. The final pesto should have a slightly course, grainy consistency.

Taste. Check for saltiness. Add the ¼ teaspoon of sea salt if necessary.

If not using the pesto right away transfer it to a clean jar and cover with a slick of oil. The oil keeps out air and stops the top layer from discolouring. The pesto keeps well in the fridge for several weeks.

Serve spread on warm slices of sourdough toast as an aperitif or stir through warm pasta for a quick and nutritious meal. This quantity of pesto is enough for two generous servings combined with 200 g (7 oz) of spaghetti.





  Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017


  ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9  

  240pp, paperback with flaps

  Size: 216 x 138mm

  Price: £12.50 Black & white

Where to find some of my writings:

Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.

PPC 96 August 2012:

      Food on the Move

PPC 99 November 2013:

      Hospital Food - à la française

PPC 101 October 2014:

      The Limejuice Run

PPC 104 December 2015:

      Cabbage Rules

PPC 110 February 2018:

      Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane