Spring was in the air at May’s Invisible Food Walk and we were on the look out for the newest shoots, buds and flowers the land had to offer. After such a long hard winter everyone was excited to see the trees and flowers returning to life and the promise in of a feast of dandelion fritters, hawthorne flower syrup, stuffed lime leaves and nettle soup only added to that feelingof optimism and newness.
Our ever expanding group began by walking over to Wyck Gardens to pick some particularly succulent looking leaves from the local lime trees. Not to be confused with those that produce citrus fruit, these towering trees are a common sight on London’s streets with large heart shaped leaves of the brightest green. We picked handfuls to take back to the centre and stuff to make a delicious light canape.
We also discovered an excellent patch of comfrey close to the proposed new site for the Ebony Horse Club in the far corner of the park. Both promise to bring new life to the plants of the area. Comfrey makes a wonderful plant feed and horses create excellent fertiliser! Hopefully the recently planted fruit and nut trees in the area will see the benefits first.
We moved onto Loughborough Park in search of dandelion flowers and hawthorn flowers. This small park is tucked away just off Moorlands Road and if you didn’t know it was there, you would never suspect that this shady park filled with winding paths, open spaces and a large playground is there. It is one of Brixton’s lesser known and unspoilt green spaces, making it perfect for foraging. We filled containers with handfuls of sunshine yellow dandelion flowers and delicate white hawthorn blossoms while the kids worked up an appetite on the swings. We also found a new variety of chickweed and picked some beautiful tender young nettles for the pot.
Back at the centre with our spoils still warm from the sun, we set to work turning them into the freshest meal imaginable. The nettle soup was first on the go, peeling and chopping potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots and garlic to form a savoury base. These were sweated down over the wood pellet stove before adding some bouillon and leaving to cook. The nettles would be added just before the end and everything blended to a creamy consistency.
Next to be prepared were the flowers. The delicate white hawthorn blooms needed removed from the stems and placed in a sturdy glass jar where they could infuse and form an aromatic syrup. Unfortunately this wouldn’t be ready for us to try today, but would be a perfect accompaniment to the next batch of dandelion fritters in around two weeks time.
The dandelion flowers also needed separated from their stems. This is easily done using a pair of scissors to snip them off and make sure they are free of any of the milky sap that dandelions produce when torn. The flowers need to be clean and dry to allow the batter to adhere to them evenly. Ceri had already made the batter before we went out foraging as the best batters need time to sit before cooking. She used a simple egg, flour, sparkling water recipe to give a light tempura-style coating to the flowers.
As the fresh lime leaves were being stuffed with rye and hand rolled by an army of volunteers, a friend of the group began to set up a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony to accompany the food we were cooking and wash down the banquet of buffet foods that people had brought. The pale green beans were slowly roasted in a pan over a portable stove and the smell of freshly roasting beans was spectacular. They were then ground and brewed in a tradional boiling pot, before being served with small chunks of Eritrean bread called hembesha. This slightly chewy dense bread flavoured with cardamom and coriander seed is delicious on its own and perfect with coffee!
In the midst of all this activity, it was time for the chopped nettle leaves to be added carefully to the soup. They will sting until cooked so should not be handled unless you like getting hives! The soup was cooked until the leaves wilted and was taken off to be blended. A frying pan went onto the stove and the butter was melted in preparation for frying the fritters as Ceri lightly dipped the flowers in batter. Each dinky little fritter goes into the foaming butter for a minute or two before being drained on kitchen towel.
They are ready to eat as soon as they are cooked. We passed platefuls of these gorgeous golden little morsels around and people who had finished eating the buffet with its Ethiopian lamb curry and injera, doused them in lemon juice and dredged them in icing sugar for a sweet treat to finish their meal. Others who had resisted the home made treats of the lunch table and had held out for soup as a main course dipped them in the gloriously savoury green liquid as the plain batter made them appealing to either a sweet or savoury tooth.
Once we had eaten our fill, fighting over the last few fritters and wiping our bowls spotlessly clean with the remaining chunks of hembesha, we savoured the coffee at the end of the meal. Sadly I was so busy making sure I didn’t miss a drop of soup, I didn’t get any photos of the coffee being brewed or poured. This made me even more determined to try a cup of it and I’m glad I did. Surprisingly light, yet rich and smooth in flavour, it was absolutely delicious. Despite not being much of a coffee drinker, I could have drunk several espresso sized cups of this. Taken black and very hot, it was incredibly refreshing and was the perfect end to to the meal.
This was another fascinating and delicious Saturday afternoon in Brixton filled with new experiences, flavours and textures. I look forward to trying the fritters again with elderflower as we had originally hoped to do, but were thwarted by the chilly May weather that had stopped them from blooming in time. I’m also a lot more keen to weed my flowerbeds now I’ve discovered such a tasty use for dandelion flowers!