By Benjamin Daniells
Sometimes you can’t compete with the wilder eats.
If you were asked to eat something called Hogweed, without really knowing much about it, i’m sure most of us would raise a quizzical eyebrow. Even at The Black Swan, where the unknown and experimental is welcomed, this plant fails to induce intrigue. Hogs are something you throw on a spit and weeds are, well, exactly that; a plant in the wrong place.
You can no doubt imagine Tommy’s face when I asked if he had ever tried hogweed seeds. Indifference would be a fair assessment. Perhaps that is a little unjust, as with all ideas spread by word of mouth, you could precept enough passing interest to warrant going out on the hunt.
For those who haven’t knowingly come across it, I’ll tell you a little more about the plant. First up, it’s part of the wild carrot family. Confident identification is vital, as this plant family harbours a few baddies that don’t mess around (unfortunately I’m speaking from experience). Luckily Hogweed is one easiest to identify and probably the most common, certainly in our corner of the world where it can be found by the side of every road and on the edge of every woodland. Unfortunately, as it grows up, hogweed sap is a phytophototoxin. In english, this basically means that when it is exposed to sunlight the sap can cause our skin to inflame and even burn. Whats more, Common Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), which is what we want, has an evil sibling called Giant Hogweed (heracleum mantegazzianum) that is certainly not to be messed with. Giant in this case is well earned. It regularly grows upwards of 4 metres tall, with a stem resembling a young tree trunk. It’s so big that the skeletal remains of giant hogweed often survive the winter, marking their position well into spring. Whats more, the sap of giant hogweed is much more toxic and can severely burn even those of us with the toughest skin.
I realise I’ve not painted a very pretty picture. An unappetising name and scary heritage; just what we all desire when it comes to dinner time. I promise though that the adrenaline fuelled forage is worth the effort.
The young shoots and green flower buds of hogweed are often described as the best wild vegetable in the UK. Imagine wandering around country lanes and discovering wild asparagus at every turn and you’re about there.
At this time of year though, the seeds are what we are after. You could harvest them green, at which stage they are rather bitter and pungent; great for pickling. I like to leave them to dry on the plant where they become remarkably flavourful and in the right hands, extremely versatile. Some might say they taste of cardamon, others would offer a comparison to tangerine peel. Neither do it justice. It’s a flavour all of it’s own.
So after that conversation with chef, I waited for the weekend and then went for a wander with the dog, to set about collecting some seeds. I wanted to see if they were all that I had built them up to be and knew that if anyone could make them work, the team in the kitchen were the ones to do it.
At 0900 on Monday morning I handed over a small glass jar, perhaps just a few grams of seeds. By 1600, they had made their way into all sorts of dishes, both sweet and savoury, in the hands of multiple chefs. Ice Cream being perhaps the initial stand out favourite. Cue questions of could we have some more? Where does it grow? How do harvest them?
The next day, Nick the development chef, rolled up to work with a box full. And just like that, we have a new addition to the spice rack and the menu:
Hogweed with Elderflower and Sheep’s yoghurt
Elderflower Vinegar. Honey Gel. Set Hogweed Custard. Honeycomb Tuille. Sheep’s Yoghurt Ice-cream.
Follow Ben over on our newest Instagram account @theblackswangarden to see what else Ben is growing and foraging here at The Black Swan at Oldstead.