“WEEDS are the ultimate convenience food. They ask of you no money, no search for a parking space at the supermarket, no planting, no watering or any other maintenance whatsoever.”
The Melbournes of Derbyshire and Cambridge, including our Lord Melbourne, were once known as the Melde-Bournes; melde being the Anglo-Saxon word for the common weed we know as fat hen. Apparently, the two counties, or bournes, were huge producers of melde (Chenopodium album), grown for food and fodder.
There is deep human history attached to weeds.
What we now call weeds, and declare war on, were our ancestors’ most nutritious food and lifesaving medicines.
While you may not want to eat all the weeds that the handbook’s authors recommend as edibles, or try curing your ailments with them, learning a little of these plants’ provenance makes for fascinating reading.
I am grateful to discover that my old autumn foe onionweed is, in fact, my friend.
Also known as angled onion or three cornered leek: “When used raw, the whole plant, including bulbs and flowers, excels as a spring onion substitute. It has a mellow, sweet, onion-garlic flavour as good as any cultivated Allium.”
Best not to cook your onionweed as it becomes fibrous. Simply cut it off in handfuls just above the ground, wash well and add to the salad bowl or cheese platter.
Foraging experts go looking for it near waterways and grow it in a shady spot in the garden, making sure it does not spread far and wide.
Nettles get the rock star treatment. They are “one of the most nutritious and versatile greens available: high in powerful antioxidants, and bountiful in protein – up to 40 per cent by dry weight”. They also contain masses of calcium.
One of the most interesting recipes included in the handbook is for nettle gnocchi, using three cups of tightly packed nettle leaves with the usual gnocchi ingredients, then served with a garlic and herb sauce.
Weedy frittata would be perfect on those days when you can’t shop for fresh food and the snails have eaten the spinach. Take four cupfuls of common weeds such as fat hen, nettles, dandelion, green amaranth, mallow or sow thistle – which go well with eggs – and follow the usual method. The bulb of the onion weed can be substituted for garlic if you’re having a lean week.
Each of the recommended top 20 edible weeds are photographed and carefully described for ease of recognition and there are plenty of cautionary notes and tips for safe consumption.
It’s great to know that the so-called deadly nightshade, which always worried me when small children were nearby, is more properly called blackberry nightshade, has edible berries when fully ripe and was introduced to Australia for food during the goldrush.
And oxalis, that incredible invader, can be used like a herb to flavour omelettes and vegetable stews.
In the handbook’s introduction, Costa Georgiadis, a dedicated weed ingester, writes: “Weeds are the mongrel street fighters that come along and re-establish life where there is only death and desolation. They are the true pioneers of soil building, bringing life and tolerating the torment that our technology and development inflicts.”
We can respect these nutritious battlers and take some sweet revenge by eating them, too.