I am an abashed lover of weeds. Where some gardeners might have an apoplectic reaction to the sight of dandelions crowding their lawns, nettles threatening an assault through their beds or ribwort spreading herself delightfully through any nook or cranny, I am comforted by their consistent and ancient resilience. More than this though it is their role in the world of bitter tastes and flavours that I find so enticing.
Not sour, nor astringent, bitterness lies somewhere out in the culinary wilderness and wastelands. And this isn’t just a metaphor for how bitter foods have dropped out of our daily diets. Practically all our native British bitters are ruderal species. They thrive where other plants cannot, growing on scrubland, in-between the cracks in the pavements, alongside railway lines, and taking over abandoned buildings.
Opportunistic, unfussy, hardy, undiscerning and often times indestructible, we foolishly denigrate our dandelions, burdock, mugwort, and vervain. Using Bitter plants for medicine is as old as civilisation. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic and Herbalism all extensively rely on bitter plants as the backbone of some of their most effective remedies. Known as “blood cleansing” medicines these bitter plants are employed to balance blood sugar, heal the gut, and promote better liver function.
In 1986 food writer Patience Gray published her seminal book, Honey From a Weed. It was whilst living on the Greek island of Naxos that her passion for edible weeds, or radikia, a word that means “plants with beneficial roots and leaves, but also specifically dandelions”, started. It is interesting that we have no such word in the English language to describe bitters or weeds in this way, and is perhaps an indication of how it is no longer as ingrained and defined in our culture as it is in others.
Traditionally though bitters were considered in the realms of culinary than medicinal use, and Gray’s beautifully insightful chapter on Edible Weeds (which could have easily been called ‘Edible Bitters’) is a testament to that. What is essential to know about the bitter taste is that all herbs contain some degree of bitterness. Anyone who has chewed on fresh rosemary, sage or even verdant glossy leaves of Italian flat-leafed parsley can confirm this - cooking or combining with other foods and oils is what makes them more palatable to our sensitive sensibilities. This means that we can all start to widen our palates with a few simple know-hows.
Simplicity is key in the kitchen. Weeds have been the sustenance mainstay of populations that traditionally have not had access to much - they were a way of providing additional nourishment in times of famine, and as medicine at a time when doctors were expensive and scarce.
In the March my workshop at Thyme will be exploring the benefits of our bitter friends through an adaptation of perhaps one of our most beneficial and largely (though not completely) forgotten dishes: Dock Pudding. This Cumbrian native includes no actual dock (the dock refers to bistort / Bistorta officinalis) and was a traditional staple during the Hungry Gap, when we supplemented our diets with the plants that needed no care or attention yet dutifully returned year after year.
Making use of the first bitter greens to appear in Spring, such as cleavers; lady’s mantle; chickweed; black current leaves, nettles and dandelion - we’ll take a closer look at the plants in this dish and how they’ve been contributing to our medicinal and culinary heritage. By looking at these plants more closely perhaps we can start to lift “weeds” into a different category - one that acknowledges their bitter properties as something to celebrate rather than avoid.
After spending years in London’s creative sector Maya Thomas decided to retrain at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, where she specialised in herbs for Women’s Health. Ballymaloe trained and and from a long lineage of cooks and medicinal plant people, she has worked with some of the best medicinal and culinary herb gardens, including Chelsea Physic Garden, Weleda and works alongside gardener-of-choice to the UK’s top chefs, Anna Greenland. Join Maya on 7th March at Thyme for her ‘Introduction to Spring Herbs’