One of the things I’m missing greatly during this lockdown is the chance to go for a botanical mooch around Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park, and one of the plants I won’t be seeing this year is the goat’s beard – Tragopogon pratensis – otherwise known as “Jack go to bed at noon” – whose name comes from the way the flower closes up at around midday. It’s hardly a rarity but I really like it and look forward to meeting up in a hay field most years, but not this one it seems.
However our allotment neighbour is growing its posh cousin, salsify – Tragopogon porrifolius – and it has exactly the same lazy habit of turning in at lunchtime. The flower is a rather grand episcopal purple in contrast to its country cousin, sometimes known as ‘meadow salsify’, which has yellow flowers. By coincidence, both plants crop up in Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” when she is writing about edible weeds. Nowadays it would be illegal to forage here for wild plants in the way Gray describes it on Naxos, but she writes that foragers there only take a small portion of the root in order to leave the plant to recover for another year.
This brings to mind one of the arguments used to defend the enclosure of common land, on the grounds that – according to ‘the tragedy of the commons’ – greedy peasants act against the good of the whole community by taking more than their share. Not on Naxos, they don’t, and if anyone gets a bit greedy there’s tremendous community pressure to put things right. In the UK, similarly, the so-called tragedy of the commons remained a bit of a Daily Mail fantasy in the style of – brazen foreign peasants steal our birthright – because a whole common law tradition would be invoked against any offenders. Isn’t it true that they’re always greedy peasants that spoil the arcadian bliss, and the only remedy is for the wealthy landowners to enclose the land and take it all for themselves?
Anyway, salsify and goat’s beard both get a mention in Patience Gray; Geoffrey Grigson’s “Englishman’s Flora” and in almost all the herbals for their astringent and blood cleansing properties. Our neighbour’s small crop on the other hand was a bit disappointing with forked roots that were impossible to peel and a rather woody texture. Mrs Grieve in her 1921 “Modern Herbal” says it doesn’t grow well on stony clay soils (like ours) and doesn’t like manure. Culpeper says it’s not as good as Scorzonera, another exotic Victorian favourite that’s having a bit of a revival at the moment in the seed catalogues.
So there you have it. If it’s a bit of springtime blood cleansing you’re after, the more unapproachably bitter the food is the more good it does you. I once worked with twin brothers who would eat raw onions for lunch in the same way I might eat an apple. They were as fit as fleas, but afternoon conversations were best avoided. But not all of Patience Gray’s advice should be taken as canonical. I’ve got some misgivings about sea squill, or sea onions, that crop up in all the herbals and yet seem quite dangerous, also local (Greek) hyacinths – and as for eating foxgloves (“but only the yellow ones”), that seems more like a downright suicidal spring tonic. It’s true that in this country during famines and food shortages people would eat the roots of lords and ladies – Arum maculatum – but only after careful preparation and instruction from a long line of grandmothers who no longer exist to keep us out of trouble. It’s a mercy that most foraging handbooks are full of warnings about being able confidently to identify the quarry, but another one I see often is alexanders, which may be the country cousin of celery but which also looks a bit like some of the more lethal members of the carrot family and I can vouch for the fact that in Pembrokeshire at least they can be found growing within yards of one another.
Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, and on the subject of subtle differences in flavour, I’ve baked quite a few loaves with the bag of standard bakers flour, and it works well with yeast bread and in sourdough alike, but somehow lacks the flavour of the organic flour I normally use. Certainly the sourdough starter seems to dislike being fed with white flour and there’s a distinct swing from its usual apple flavour when fed with organic rye towards a more vinegary acetic acid smell. All the breads benefit from a bit of my dwindling supply of spelt flour.
Flavours are tricky to describe, but with bread – as with the rhubarb flavoured with sweet cicely – there’s an indefinable richness as if a whole bunch of new instruments have joined the orchestra. Growing, cooking and eating your own food is an education.