This is the story of a dish that started with a name. It's always fun to find a rhyme or nonsensical thread of meaning by word associations – a pun in other words – when naming or describing something. It gets to the point where you do it on purpose... So when we conjure up dishes to enable folk to use some of the more abundant wild ingredients we work with, we are on the look out for catchy names – cheeky or silly even - which will get people' exploration of the unfamiliar off to a playful start. During one particular brain storming session re: simple and accessible ways of cooking with our favourite coastal wild green vegetable – sea aster - we came up with this one: Aster Pasta.
So there it was: the first ingredient of a dish - sea aster - and a name that provided the second – pasta. From here the further conception of the dish was guided by a simple principle I first learned many years ago from Jamie Oliver at his 15 restaurant. At this point I digress to mention that Jamie was our first London restaurant customer - quite fitting as 15 existed to give opportunities to marginalised youth and in this case was pivotal in giving an opportunity to many marginalised edible wild plants – often dismissed as weeds – and a boost to the self esteem of our fledgling wild food business! The simple principle I learned at 15 was as follows: Italian cooking is all about taking a small number of high quality ingredients, maybe as few as 3, and cooking them simply to great effect. In this sense, Italian cooking is possibly at the other end of the spectrum to the complex wizardry of some aspects of fine dining. Anyway, you can't get more quintessentially Italian than pasta (though pizza no doubt stands neck and neck) so in conceiving a new pasta dish, this principle marks out the territory.
We didn't get much further developing the dish that day but as I continued to mull upon possible uses for sea aster, I began to develop a hunch that cream would make a good partner for its succulent texture and tangy flavour. In the mean time Jo Robinson's's book, Eating on the Wild Side, had taught me that chopping or crushing garlic ten minutes before cooking allows an enzyme in garlic (which is destroyed by cooking) to trigger a reaction which produces the powerful anti-oxidant allicin. Allicin is something of a cure all, having amongst other things, anti cancer and anti bacterial properties. I was now primed to put a healthy dose of suitably prepared garlic in anything I cooked!
A rainy Monday soon afterwards conspired to bring the 4 afore mentioned ingredients together. My 8 year old daughter Ella was off school with a tummy ache and it fell to me to work from home and oversee her cosy sofa bound day-off school snuggled up with a book. A stomach soothing two cups of fennel tea later she announced she was hungry. It was around 11a.m. I looked up from my work to inquire as to just what it was she fancied. “Pasta!” came her prompt reply. “Pasta? I'm not cooking pasta at 11 a.m. Its not even lunch ti....” I petered off to rethink my pasta parameters because the following thought had popped like an idea whose time hadcome, into my mind: Aster Pasta!
Thus my glamorous but still slightly poorly kitchen assistant proceeded to the kitchen to cook. Ella started peeling garlic while I put the pasta (linguine) on first, as in spite of its high starch content, pasta turns into a low GI food once cooled. With this in mind, once the pasta was ready I drained it immediately then ran it under cold water. The aster can be (and was) a bit muddy so needed a bit of cleaning - best under warm water. I find a repurposed (dishwasher washed) toothbrush best for cleaning the chunky stalks. These I decided to finely chop the and fry with the garlic (ten minutes having elapsed). I stacked the flat leaf blades into piles of 8 and sliced them lengthways into thin strips to resembles the linguine pasta. This turned out to serve an unintended purpose in flavouring the dish... Next we got the pasta reheating with a bit of oil, then Ella added cream to the garlic, I introduced the aster, which was allowed to warm through for a just minute, then we married the everything together with the pasta.
The result was so tasty that Ella (tummy upset by now all but forgotten) consumed her portion and demanded more. And I began to doubt it could be that good in its own right: I had summer truffles in the same pan a few days earlier and wondered if the pan had not been adequately cleaned since. But a post pan scrubbing repeat of the dish for my wife Ali proved this theory mistaken - it appears that garlic, aster and cream are a match made in heaven and that cutting them into fine strips allows the maximum flavour release into the cream.
We give flowers when a child is born. We give flowers when we fall in love. We display flowers when a person dies. Why, you may wonder, has one part of a plant been so integral to non-verbal human communication over thousands of years? Since its inception in the summer of this year, we have been supplying the wonderful community kitchen project Refettorio Felix at St Cuthbert's with wild produce. All the photos below are from their servings over the last few months, and include a beautiful array of foraged flowers to go with a brief (human-centric) history of flowers...
The studied and meticulous use of flowers in human interaction began in the 19th century. The Victorian age brings up ideas of conservatism and stoic grandparent-types not smiling in photographs; a time when talking about your feelings was tantamount to walking around with a cat on a leash. It was an uncommon, vaguely disagreeable sight. However, this was also the era that brought about ‘floriography’; the language of flowers.
In Hamlet, the character of Ophelia gives an entire monologue when she hands out flowers to the other characters; though they think she has gone crazy. The flowers convey individual messages and in order to know what Ophelia is saying you must consult the dictionary of flowers. Firstly, she gives her brother Laertes both Rosemary and Pansies; explaining their role in remembrance. She gives Fennel and Columbine to King Claudius; Fennel translating as flattery and Columbine as the flower for male adultery. She then gives Rue, the symbol for bitterness and regret, to Queen Gertrude and keeps some for herself. She then picks up and sets down Daisy, not handing it to anyone; the Daisy denoting innocence. Finally, she says she would have brought Violets but they had all withered after her father died; Violets being the symbol of faithfulness and fidelity. She is making a scathing comment on moral decline in the Danish court and doing so with only her choice of flowers.
Going back even further the symbolism of flowers is apparent in their role in ornamental attire. ‘Tussie-mussies’ was the name for small bouquets worn by a broach, or with a ‘posy holder’ often made of silver. The old English term ‘nose-gay’ was used in the 15th-century to mean an ornament that appeals to the nose. Of course, this upper-class endeavour soon became an obsession for many who were in the game of ‘capturing’ scents. Napoleon’s lover Josephine wore violet-scented perfume as her trademark; violet perfume being particularly expensive and difficult to attain. This is because violet contains ionone which short-circuits our sense of smell, so whilst it continues to exude its fragrance we lose our ability to smell it. One second it is there and the next, gone. Years after her death, when Napoleon was set to be exiled to St Helena, he made a pilgrimage to her gravesite where he had planted violets and picked some. He entombed them in a locket he would wear until his death.
What does all this floral fancy have to do with food you may ask. In many ways flowers have for all of history been a commodity, something to be cut out, stuck in, something to gawk at. When Andy Warhol was asked about his painting ‘Warhol’s Flowers’ (1964); a pop-art treatment of a hibiscus plant; he said that the intention of ‘letting images repeat and repeat... manifests my belief that we spend much of our lives seeing without observing’. The truth is that flowers have always been telling us something. They are the outstretched hand of plants; the picture you see in identification books, the transient gift of nature; they turn our heads and they make us feel loved. And they can be our reintroduction to re-wilding our diet as well.
Sakyamuni Buddha is said to have held a teaching once with many respected disciples. He sat at the front and silently held up a flower. There was some confusion and then one of his disciples, Mahakasyapa smiles and the Buddha concluded his teaching. The flower Buddha held up was that of the Lotus plant, which symbolises estranged love. So the next time you sit down for a meal and see a pretty flower on your plate, off to the side or perched decoratively on top of a salad, remember; it’s trying to tell you something.
Seasonal recipes to help you get the most out of foraged ingredients when in their prime