About FredTheForager

Fred is the author of Poisonous Plants in Great Britain (2008). With his partner Natascha he runs a community herbal dispensary in Wiltshire and teaches herbal medicine and foraging at The Wild Side of Life. He has had three medical botany lectures published by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, of which he is a member, contributed to 'The Herbalist' and the 'Journal of the International Register of Consultant Herbalists & Homeopaths' and given numerous lectures on medicinal mushrooms and the microbiome to professional bodies in the UK & Ireland.

Autumn Foraging Update… or ‘What’s up?’

Early autumn update: Time for ceps!


Depending on where you are from, some of you may know this mushroom as the penny bun (England), cep (France), porcini (little pig – Italy), steinpilze (stone mushroom – Germany), or even Karl-Johans-svamp (Sweden)… in fact there are dozens and dozens of recognised names for this species around Europe, which attests to its universal popularity throughout history. Between 20,000 and 100,000 tonnes are harvested globally for the commercial market per year, commanding high prices, yet this is not an uncommon mushroom.

In England, the cep or penny-bun can fruit in two or more waves if weather conditions are correct. This year in our local south-west woods we have already seen a light fruiting of ceps, many in the vicinity of oak trees, during early August.  Now, as we head into the first week of September, there is plenty of rain and things are looking good for the next wave. We may well see a third wave as we head into October, by which time they will most likely be more prolific in association with beech woods. This is the typical pattern it seems with the cooler conditions triggering this later ‘wave of ceps’ a week or so earlier than elsewhere, further to the north. A combination of acid soils, underneath oak or beech with birch and holly both present, seems to produce the best results, although forestry spruce plantations and underneath pines can also be very very productive places to look and should not be overlooked.

Each year we pray for that vital autumn rain that will produce this magnificent second harvest across the region!

CepCAP: Yellowish brown to reddish brown… but predominantly brown, looking just like a bread bun on a short, swollen fat stick – hence the name ‘penny bun’.  Often there is a paler margin around the edge. 

SIZE: typically 10 to 30 cm across – that’s over a foot! Underneath there are no gills but instead (like all of the mushrooms in the bolete group) a sponge like layer, comprised of the tubes, which are only visible when you cut the mushroom in half, and the visible surface of ‘pores’. The pores of this mushroom are very small, they are round, very pale yellow when young – almost an ‘off-white’ colour, ageing later to a dingy olive brown. 

FLESH: All parts of the cep’s flesh smell a little sweet. The flesh tastes sweet and nutty, young specimens can even be sliced and eaten raw, something that is very unusual for most wild mushrooms. Eaten in this way they are delicious with a restrained drizzle of lemon juice and a little salt. The cep’s white flesh does not change colour when cut or bruised. many other similar boletes do go through distinct colour changes, particularly to blue, but not this one!

Cep stemSTEM: The stem of the cep can be very very fat indeed, often with more usable flesh in it than the cap itself! The upper stem surface is covered in a very fine, pale/white, raised fishing-net pattern or ‘reticulum’. This white fishing reticulum is a distinctive feature.


If it doesn’t have it then it’s not a cep. If it isn’t at least white-ish then it’s not a cep. No reticulum, darker brown reticulum or reddish-brown reticulum all indicate other species, not all of them are edible, so beware!

FACT: The tasty cep contains lovastatin, so can help to lower cholesterol. It also contains mood stabilising compounds such as serotonin, melatonin and tryptamine that are found in the human body and could possibly help to alleviate depression. It is delicious and drys well, particularly the ‘sponge’ from underneath the cap, which makes a terrifically flavoursome and high in protein stock powder.

While we are all making the most of late summer, I wish you all a wonderful autumn filled with mushrooms and the joyful crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. I hope to see some of you in the forest this autumn!

best wishes,
Fred the Forager!

The Silence You Can Hear

Click! I have just turned off the TV. Every channel, every internet news hub, every radio station, every newspaper, all I can hear screaming at me is “COVID-19”. I had a chat with some ham radio buddies on other continents the other day, Africa, New Zealand, the US, they all said the same thing… “you can’t get away from it”… not the virus, but the words; the incessant mill of talking over the same facts and figures again and again, all day long, like some kind of global brainwashing programme. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat… did I mention repeat?

Sounds familiar? I have been listening a lot to something else that sounds familiar, yet it is something I have heard less and less of for a number of years now. It is the sound of silence.

I remember as a child going out into the fields, climbing trees and fishing on the riverbank, when there were surprisingly few man made sounds. Even when it was quiet, it was if the sound of nature had been punctuated by some sort of silence that had a shape, conveyed some sort of meaning or information to me about where I was, though I would have struggled to put it into words back then. In classical music this is called tacet, so this is nature’s classical music and we are talking about the shape, of a pause.

For a number of years I have been noticing that there is something odd about the sound of silence. Do you know what I mean? It is as if the animal in me goes on alert when I hear that silence. Is it too quiet? Nature, in all her grace, is full of noise, but this is a silence itself punctuated by distant man-made noise and shaped by the reverberations of a man made world. It defines the shape of that noise, just like the negative space defines the objects in a painting. The scene somehow conveys to me the information of risk; it coaxes me to be aware, not to settle in too much, or to lose my alertness, because I might need to leave in a hurry. The sound, or scene, is hard and abrupt at its edges; it is not bounded by soft curving boughs or the shimmering riffles of a brook in the sunshine. We are all animals and even if we are not consciously alert to the information being carried to us by our silent surrounds, the animal within knows all too well what they mean.

Imagine my joy then. I stepped out of the back door and heard another silence today. It was familiar, sweet, charming my heart with whispers of adventure, of encounter with the natural beings, flowing between intervals of bird-call, billowing grass, rustling leaves and accompanied by an orchestra of smells; flowers, damp soil – known as ‘petrichor’ – named in the Greek from petra, stone and ichor, the divine fluid that (still) courses in the veins of the gods.

Image: Venus pulling a thorn from her foot in beautiful countryside. Pierre Audouin (1768-1822), after a drawing by Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831) after a painting by the School of Raphael, (1482 – 1520), Wellcome Museum

In this cacophony of sound, of smell and of silence, I remembered. A word itself that describes the re-uniting of severed limbs or a conjoining of old friends. I remembered, but the memory was not a single event, not a period of time so to speak, but it was of a state of being. As if transported, I was taken to a place so easy and free in my childhood; the days of wind in my hair and mud between my toes, and though it bought deep deep joy in those days it went unnoticed. Unnoticed because the deafening bars of the ‘man man mancub’ were not hemmed so close together around this silence back then. Instead, its edges were defined softly, the time signature of the tune also not as intense as it has recently become. Yes, I stepped out of the back door and the silence I heard was the old silence. Spontaneously, I ‘remembered’.

I understood its presence. It spoke to my animal. It spoke to me of hope. It spoke to me of the crippling pain of the world that we have created and it called to my soul for the mancub to waken, to change the sound by changing the beat of its heart. To pull out the thorn. I shed a tear, then many tears.

So how does lockdown look in my world? It looks, sounds and smells like the old silence.

I have been out tending the garden now for many many days. My hands in the soil, planting food and the medicinal herbs that we may need more of in the future. Creating habitats and feeding the wildlife, listening to the sound of calling-birds looking for new mates, hearing the rustling of the leaves and imbibing the complex symphony of smells. All of this is information that I know what to do with in the very core of my being, as do you! Information that we are hard-wired, through millions of years of evolution, to understand. It is too old for language and though the poet will grapple to put it into words yet still it can be understood by all. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, all of nature is part of the same orchestra and the arrangement is always perfectly composed for the ear. I am a forager and a herbalist. There is still time for these activities in the lockdown life and foraging puts fresh, valuable, very very local food on our table. What I gather on my daily walks and in the garden amplifies the dictum of Hippocrates; “Let food be thy medicine”. I would very much like to add to this advice; “Let the shape of silence be a guide unto your life”.

For the Love of Seaweed and Foraging Friends

It’s that time of year when we like to take a trip to the coast. Preferably somewhere fairly remote and clean with dramatic scenery. The British Isles can be very dramatic indeed outside of the holiday season and if you enjoy dramatic landscapes the coast in late winter will seldom disappoint. Our trip brought high winds and freezing temperatures, so thermal base layers, arctic parkas and army issue woolen snoods were the order of the day and we managed to play in full comfort despite the weather; fishing on the rocks, gathering shellfish and above all getting in a vital seaweed harvest for the coming year.

We decided to run an early Forager’s Retreat just for ourselves for once – well a group of close friends, all foragers… a sort of forager’s enclave with evenings spent preparing and eating wild food in front of the fire to get in the mindset for the coming year of harvesting and preparing. The location for our stay? Glebe House in Pembrokeshire is a wonderful choice which I would highly recommended at any time of the year.

The coastal habitat supports a diverse array of foods, so we did not limit ourselves to eating seaweed for the weekend but the young tender leaves, shoots and buds of alexanders, navelwort, scurvy grass, rock samphire and sea beet were all on the menu as were a variety of shellfish. This is a time of year to celebrate the greening of things. So many flavours and textures to incorporate into stir-frys, frittatas, smoothies, delicate soups and little side-dishes of steamed spring vegetables. At this time of year the increase in abundance, now fully evident, brings hope to the heart for the year ahead and inspires us to get out and do more of what we love best – gathering our food.

Seaweeds are a very nutritious source of food. Many people in Western Europe have not tried them and do not realise just how diverse a source of food they can be. Every species found growing near to the shore around the British Isles is non-toxic*, so they are generally pretty safe to experiment with, but although some types taste GREAT when prepared in the right ways, there are also some tastebud shocks to be had. Some are truly sensational, but no, not all of them are nice! It has to be said that gutweed Ulva intestinalis, purple laver Porphyra umbilicalis, the wracks Fucus/Ascophylum species, sugar kelp Saccharina latissima and pepper dulse Osmundea pinnatifida** are among our firm favourite foods as foragers, well worth going out for!

* There is one toxic species in deeper water.
**Much squealing and happy dancing from Tasch… finding pepper dulse was a first for her on this trip!

Young pepper dulse growing from a rock

One of the missions for our trip was to gather, process, dry and powder enough wrack to cover our nutritional needs for a year. Wrack, like most seaweeds, is rich in iodine, which is an essential micro-nutrient for a healthy thyroid gland. Like other brown seaweeds it is an abundant source of chlorophyll (a and c) and is also rich in many other micro-nutrients, minerals and vitamins, including A, C, K, and niacin (B3).

When one uses seaweed as a tasty concentrate in cooking, one should also be aware that it is possible to consume too much iodine from some seaweeds, particularly kelp, although this would not be a problem with occasional eating. If you consume a seaweed product every single day this becomes a consideration as you don’t want to overdose and block the thyroid gland altogether. Using anything with this degree of regularity generally requires a different approach to dosing. Some samples of dried kelp powder are so rich that a regular daily dose of more than a fraction of a teaspoonful could actually be an iodine overdose over time for susceptible people. This is possibly the reason why goitres, the tell tale swelling of the throat, have always been so common among the Japanese fishing families who use kelp as a major component in their diet. The moral of this tale? A little bit of what you fancy does you good… too much too often and it generally ceases to be a good thing.

For the remainder of this post I shall focus on making wrack powder. Wracks come in a number of different types. Each species has its own characteristics by which it can be identified; there is knotted wrack, serrated wrack, bladder wrack, twisted wrack, channelled wrack, but turned into wrack powder they generally taste and smell pretty similar and can be used in similar ways.

Wracks are fascinating organisms, reproducing by means of mobile sperm and eggs produced in different parts of the algal body. Incredibly, the female reproductive parts actually attract swimming male sperm by secreting pheromones into the water. It should be noted that the young pale green wrack growth can be washed and diced for inclusion in salads where it gives a pleasant vitamin A enriched crunchiness. In Greenland wracks are traditionally used as a boiled green vegetable. They do, in fact, make good greens though it takes a fair amount of cooking to make them tender unless you use only the youngest pale green growth. Wracks are very common. Search for them in the middle intertidal zone and you will normally not be disappointed, but take care not to be greedy as they are also food for many other animals.

Washing wrack to remove debris ready for the drying process

Once you have a few armfuls of wrack it must be washed and dried. These days it is particularly important as our seas are not as clean as they once were. As well as quite a bit of sand, my recent batch, from a pristine bay with very little human habitation, still yielded a small quantity of tell tale blue and yellow plastic flecks. You don’t want to eat these as many plastics are endocrine disruptors and some also release heavy metals as they break down. Unfortunately the inhabitants of the sea all have to eat them. I have long accepted that as a member of the species that has so tragically polluted this planet there is going to be some of this pollution in my food no matter where it comes from. Whilst I seek the cleanest food that I can find it is a reality that all food, whether wild or no, is at least to a small degree contaminated with our chemical wastes. Seaweed is not more contaminated than anything else grown in sea or soil, but it is certainly no exception either.

Drying can be accomplished on a washing line, or even over a rock on a sunny day with a good wind. Alternatively, dry your wrack by hanging near a fire, or use a dehydrator. A fast blender of the type used to make raw-food smoothies will generally be sufficient to grind the wrack to a powder providing that you process it in small quantities.

image of a hand with knotted wrack float bladders

Characteristic float chambers of knotted wrack.

spiral wrack twists

The twists of spiral wrack accentuated by drying.










The photographs below show the drying process in action and the final product! A teaspoonful of wrack powder provides an umami component to stocks and sauces whilst providing essential micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. Once the flavour is cooked-in a little it is delicious and well worth the time taken to gather and prepare.









AS WITH ALL NEW FOODS, if you decide to try eating any kind of seaweed then please eat just a little at first to make sure that it agrees with you. Food allergies and intolerances can occur to just about anything!

For more information on the wracks check out our friend’s great page here...


Worth taking a trip out for in January…

The middle of winter can seem like the very bleakest of times! Much of the bounty of the autumn months has passed and in early January the weather does much to deter even the most ardent foragers. However, for those who still dare to venture out and seek the sheltered spots a pleasant surprise awaits. The youngest and tenderest of the spring vegetables are already with us, together with a number of tasty and nutritious plants and fungi that can be found by the determined all winter long.

Let’s see if I can tempt you outside to track down and gather some nutritious winter wild food…

CHICKWEED, Stellaria media, can be found all through the winter and in fact is probably at its level best in winter and early spring. The tender tops of the plant make the best vegetable while the lower portion of the stems can be a bit tough and stringy. I eat the whole upper portion of the plant and the leaves from lower down. Chickweed (see photo) has one very distinct identification feature which will soon turn you into a chickweed expert when it comes to finding this plant. The stems possess a SINGLE row of hairs along one side only. Every time the row of hairs reaches a nodal point (where the leaves and shoots emerge) it moves around the stem by one-quarter turn before continuing on. This subtle feature is actually very easy to see if you hold the plant up so that it is silhouetted by the sky behind.


close up showing the distinctive single row of hairs

…chickweed is not only one of our commonest wild vegetables, it is also one of the most delicious! It can be enjoyed as a tender and flavoursome salad plant, or made into a somewhat iconic winter soup. I like to add a smaller proportion of another good wild winter vegetable – the red dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum, when I make my chickweed soup.

Here is the recipe.





Half a dozen small potatoes – washed but not peeled; chopped into small chunks
3 shallots
2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
3 large handfuls of washed chickweed herb
2 large handful of red dead-nettle tops

winter soup ingredients

As soups go this is about as simple and easy as it gets. It is truly delicious though and full of winter vegetable cheer!

Chop the shallots and garlic, and gently saute them in a little extra virgin olive oil until they begin to lightly brown then remove them from the heat.

Add the shallots, garlic and chopped potatoes along with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper to a small saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Bring them to the boil for a minute or so then and turn down the heat to a low simmer. Add the chickweed herb and red dead-nettle tops and stir frequently. Keep checking to see if the potatoes are cooked. When the potatoes are soft you can either blend in the pan or transfer the whole mixture to a blender. The soup, once blended together, has a wonderful body and is thick and creamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve at once with crusty bread!

chickweed soup

Perennial Wall Rocket

Perennial wall rocket, Diplotaxis tenuifolia


PERENNIAL WALL ROCKET, Diplotaxis tenuifolia,  is another good winter plant to look out for. This plant with small four-petalled yellow flowers survives quite well through the winter though it may not look its level best in the coldest of weather. The leaves look a lot like the kind of rocket that you can buy in salad bags from the supermarket and the flavour is about the same too though a little bit more spicy! This picture was taken in late December… in the middle of winter you will need to pick through the plants a bit to find the best leaves, but they are truly delicious!


COMMON or GREY OYSTER MUSHROOM, Pleurotus ostreatus, frequently fruits during the middle of winter. The chillier weather of December brings good pickings of one of the tastiest of all mushrooms, the FIELD BLEWIT, Lepista personata, although these are rarely found much after the beginning of January. January however is the peak time for a tasty bright orange-yellow mushroom that grows on dead and decaying trees and stumps…

Velvet shanks

VELVET SHANK, Flammulina velutipes, grows in dense clusters and the stems are covered in a brown velvet down over the lower portion. The gills are pale cream in colour and are not attached to the stem. There is also no evidence of a ring of any kind on the stem. These mushrooms are widely cultivated throughout Asia and you may have even come across them for sale in supermarkets in the UK under the name of ‘enoki’ or ‘enokitake’. The cultivated enoki has a much smaller cap and is wholly whitish, which means that it does not actually look as if it is the same mushroom as the wild one, but it is!

velvet shanks plate of

Velvet shanks are really worth going out to find. Old hedgerows, the edges of ancient trackways and green lanes make the perfect foraging spot for this prize and you may have to poke about in the hedge bottoms a fair bit on order to spot the half-buried orangey clusters of mushroom caps growing from the deadwood at the base of hedging shrubs such as field maple, hawthorn and wych elm. They are not too fussy however and I once even found a cluster growing from the base of a leylandii conifer hedge at the bottom of someone’s garden! Just be sure not to eat any that you find growing from yew as it is possible that they could have taken on some of the toxicity found in that majestic tree. They are probably fine but just to be on the safe side…

A walk around the field margins and woodland edges at the moment will turn up quite a number of food plants to experiment with. The youngest of CLEAVERS are up and if they grow in your area then young ALEXANDERS are available too. Both are delicious steamed and served with a knob of butter however It is best not to attempt to eat cleavers raw as the tiny hooked hairs that cover the plant can be somewhat scratchy to the throat. JACK BY THE HEDGE, also known as GARLIC MUSTARD, has actually been up for some time and its early tender basal leaves tasting of both mustard and garlic are just right for an al-fresco sandwich or to garnish a dish of cooked potatoes.

So… walking boots on, hand baskets at the ready! There really is no need to stop foraging just because it is the middle of winter and it can be very rewarding indeed for those who take the effort to go out and look. I hope you have enjoyed the few pointers that I have given to get you on your way but there is no substitute for direct experience. Have a happy and nutritious winter foraging adventure!

Chilterns Society Seasonal Gin

Foraged by Fred the Forager, distilled by Wayfinder Distillery…

Take a Sip on The Wild Side!

Much of early summer was spent on development work with the fabulous folks at Wayfinder Distillery in Beaconsfield, owned by Laurie Othen, in creating a new foraged Summer Gin to promote the conservation work of the Chiltern Society – an organisation whose primary focus is to conserve the wildlife habitats of the Chilterns Hills and their surrounding areas of natural beauty. You can find out more about their work here… www.chilternsociety.org.uk

Seasonal Gin

Around 18 different botanicals were foraged on hot sunny days to bring out their maximum potential and transformed into the (obviously secret) formula to develop an uplifting new flavour for our limited edition Chilterns Seasonal Gin – the Summer Gin marking the first of a unique hand-crafted series (See media release below).

Although I cannot disclose the exact ingredients (for fear of torture or worse still), many pleasant days of foraging and ultra fresh (literally just-gathered) deliveries of delights such as gorse blossom, 2 kinds of cherry and sloe blossom, cuckoo flower, elderflower and sweet woodruff saw to it that a full and diverse flavour palette was developed from which to blend our gin. All in all 18 different botanicals were tinctured and tried together in the blending process until a well rounded flavour with a signature of summer flowers was settled upon. The result – fresh and flowery with a citrus afternote that lingers on the palette – both refreshing and delightful, just like the Chilterns hills themselves!

The profits from Chiltern Society Seasonal Gin go directly to support the Chiltern Society and their work in conserving vital wildlife habitats for our future. For this reason, as if the delightful flavour on its own was not enough,  I highly recommend that you try some for yourself! To get in on the action you can purchase a rather lovely re-useable ceramic bottle (ideal for your own sloe gin experiments too or you should even be able to get it refilled if you visit the distillery)… here’s the link to purchase.

Check out the press release below from the gin launch for more info on this wondrous nectar and to see the product launch event!

Chiltern Society Seasonal Gin Launch

Published on August 21, 2017

We are delighted to announce the launch of our first limited edition Seasonal Gin, flavoured with cherry blossom, elderflower and orange.

This delicious gin has been specially created for us by the Wayfinders Distillery in Beaconsfield. Laurie Othen, the enterprising owner of Wayfinders, is excited to be part of this project and has generously offered to donate profits from the sale of the gin to the Chiltern Society in order to support our conservation work in the Chilterns.

The botanicals which give the gin its unique flavour were foraged in the Chilterns countryside by Fred The Forager from The Wild Side of Life.  It was then down to Wayfinders to combine the ingredients to come up with the final product which really offers a true taste of the Chilterns.

At the launch event held at Northolt Barn at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, guests were able to taste the classic combination of Summer Gin and tonic or more adventurously, Summer Gin and all-natural fresh apple juice kindly donated by Chiltern Ridge of Chartridge. Both combinations proved very popular.

Summer Gin is available to purchase here.

Every bottle sold will be helping our efforts to preserve the Chilterns countryside. What better excuse could there be a glass or two of this wonderful seasonal gin?

Gin makers

The Chilterns Summer Gin development team


Voted Best Food Foraging Education Provider of the Year 2017! (England South)

Sharing a little success in the 2017 Food & Drink Awards with our readers… as it’s now official!
The Wild Side of Life has been awarded the title Best Food Foraging Education Provider of the Year (England South) and our fabulous Devon Forager’s Retreat on the North Devon coast was also voted best in category!

The 2017 Food & Drink Awards Press Release

March 6, 2017

Food and drink award logo

Trade Monthly Announce the Winners of the 2017 Food & Drink Awards

United Kingdom, 2017– Trade Monthly Magazine have announced the winners of the 2017 Food & Drink Awards.

We are pleased to announce that The Wild Side of Life, based in Avebury, Wiltshire, has won the award of Best Food Foraging Education Provider (England South) and The Devon Forager’s Retreat, also run by The Wild Side of Life has been voted best in category!

The 2017 Food & Drink Awards raises a glass to those whose devotion, innovative thinking, and tireless efforts have seen them achieve outstanding results. The extraordinary performance delivered by those in this industry, deserves to be both rewarded and recognised, and we are proud to have that honour.

Speaking on the awards Rachel Davenport, Awards Coordinator said: “The food and drink industry has such a pivotal role in our daily lives; as such it requires only the most dedicated and hardworking individuals and firms to keep it going. I would like to congratulate every single one of my deserving winners and wish them the very best for the future.”

Trade Monthly prides itself on the validity of its awards and winners. The awards are given solely on merit and are awarded to commend those most deserving for their ingenuity and hard work, distinguishing them from their competitors and proving them worthy of recognition.

To learn more about our award winners and to gain insight into the working practices of the “best of the best”, please visit the Trade Monthly’s website (//www.trade-monthly.com/) where you can access the winners supplement.

Hurrah! Thank you to those who nominated us (whoever you are) and to all of you who voted for The Wild Side of Life. We are committed to providing you with high quality, enriching & educational experiences in the years to come and to foraging with many more of you in our beautiful woods, hedgerows and meadows! Special THANKS must of course go to the wonderful Natascha Kenyon, who has given so generously of her time, expertise and inspiration over the past 5 years.

fred holding a pignut

A Tale of Tinctures

Tinctures were first introduced to me in my travelling years in northern England. A fellow man of the roads named Pete had a reputation for working effectively with plant medicines and treating people who lived on the sites where we lived when they went down with coughs, colds and tummy bugs. Pete introduced me to his passion for making simple tinctures and 25 years on I make and use them all the time.

grinding herbs in a pestle and mortar

Preparing a batch of fresh herb for tincturing

Tinctures need not be a mystery, in fact in this blog I am going to tell you all about what they are, why they are useful and I’m generally going to de-mystify them for you, as one of the things that I often get asked is ‘what is a tincture’. Well… tinctures are useful things, I reply!

All living things, including plants, are absolutely jam-packed full of organic chemicals, many of which our amazing body is capable of using in different ways; there are essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, enzymes that catalyse chemical reactions in our bodies, materials that provide food for the healthy bacteria and fungi that live inside us, compounds that block certain chemical reactions and provide relief from processes such as inflammation, substances that tone up mucous membranes and toughen up tissue, the list goes on and on and on and is in fact huge! Aside from the minerals, all of these compounds are known as ‘organic compounds’ because they contain the basic carbon building blocks of organic life – so the term ‘organic compounds’ has nothing to do with organic agriculture, or the notion that ‘organic things are good’. In this case, organic simply refers to the chemistry of carbon and molecules with a carbon backbone (think ‘carbon based life-forms’).

shelves full of tincture bottles

Tinctures – potent herbal medicines in a compact form

A herbal tincture is a preparation where some of the organic compounds in herbs are ‘extracted’ in a solvent which is usually alcohol in the form of ethanol (brandy, vodka, etc.) but it can also be glycerol (called a ‘glycerite’), or even vinegar, which is a source of the organic solvent ethanoic acid or ‘acetic acid’. What matters here is that we are using various organic solvents to dissolve the organic compounds present and get them into a solution. Depending on the solvent used, as well as its strength or concentration and how much water is also present, different strengths of tinctures with different ranges of medicinal actions can be obtained. Some of the compounds present in plants do not dissolve very well at all in alcohol, so for example if you were keen to create a medicine that used the soothing mucilaginous ingredients found in mallows there would be little point in making a tincture of your mallow roots or leaves in spirit – the soothing slippery substance known as mucilage has a low solubility in ethanol. Once in a solution the dissolved compounds in a tincture become very available to the various chemical processes that happen when we ingest them.

Angelica archangelica

Angelica, Angelica archangelica
used as an anti-microbial / anti-viral, keep the acrid sap off of the skin when preparing

There is less in the way of organic compounds in a few drops of plant tincture than there was in the amount of herb that was used to make it, yet some tinctures behave in ways when we take them that point to their active principles being very readily available to the body. Some tinctures can be quite powerful in their actions; very often with tinctures a little plant goes a long way!

To traditional folk herbalists a tincture is also much more than a chemical based medicine. In European folk belief, it is as if the very souls of the plants come to reside in the tinctures. Tinctures are seen as potions brimming with life forces and even consciousness rather than as the dead chemical medicines that we have come to expect, but that is a whole different story.

There are many methods that can be employed to make tinctures and each of them has its merits and its complications. Tinctures can be made by the slow passage of solvent through a large batch of herb material in the filtration method, and probably the most common method, the ‘weight to volume method’, requires that a given volume of solvent be used to extract the vital ingredients from a given weight of dried herbal material, providing a certain amount of standardisation as regards the process.

However it should be remembered that plants are not standard things. Depending on the weather patterns that year, the strains used, the soil type they are grown in, how many viral and insect attacks they have had to endure already and probably a whole load of other things we aren’t even aware of, plants are not easily standardised.

The most simple tincturing methods use chopped up fresh plant material rather than dried and here I am going to give you the most basic method, often known as ‘The Simplers’ Method’. It is more than adequate for most home use in that it provides very effective tinctures at a low cost and for the minimum amount of effort. Really it is perfect for the kitchen herbalist making remedies at home.

The Simplers’ Method

filtering Rose tincture

Beautiful, delicately perfumed rose-flower tincture
used by the most famous of European plague doctors, Nostrodamus

Firstly, by way of explanation, historically a ‘simpler’ was a person who created medicines from plants, and perhaps minerals too, employing a very small number of plants (often just one) in each medicine. This approach is great for making mild remedies that deal effectively with the symptoms of common ailments and is a thread of tradition within folk herbalism. In contrast, modern holistic practitioners look deeply into the whole life patterns of their patients and prescribe complex regimens of herbs to address deep seated patterns and imbalances.

At their simplest, most basic level, the ‘herbal simples’ include the tinctures made by the simplers’ method and a range of other ‘simple’ pills and potions that are perhaps most effectively used in a similar way to over-the-counter medicines. A fundamental difference that cannot be over-emphasised is that even a single plant may contain hundreds of organic compounds in a state of dynamic electrochemical balance. By contrast most over the counter pharmaceuticals contain one single isolated active ingredient – so in other words there is nothing simple at all about a simple!

Making a Specific Tincture

A simple tincture that uses fresh (non-dried) plant material in a ratio of 1 part by volume of herb to 1 part by volume of solvent (typically brandy) is known as a ‘specific tincture’. I use the abbreviation ‘sp. tinc.’ on my labels to denote this. In practice this produces a tincture that is weaker than 1 part herb to 1 part solvent due to the air spaces in between the chopped plants and the water content of the plants, but for our purposes these tinctures are generally plenty strong enough for use.

Plants that are useful for tincturing using this method include those with a lot of essential oils and other volatile (typically ‘smelly’) compounds as well as a range of other ethanol soluble compounds such as alkaloids and organic acids. It is also suitable for herbs with some water soluble components as brandy or vodka for sale in the UK typically contains 40% alcohol by volume, the remaining 60% being comprised of water.

In the days when alchemical methods dominated the preparation of herbal medicines, the ‘spirit of vine’ (brandy) was highly regarded. Because all fermented plant material eventually produces alcohol, which when fully distilled yields ethanol regardless of which plant you started with, ethanol or ‘pure spirit’ was regarded as the spirit held in common by all plants, in contrast to their soul or essence which bore the characteristics of the individual species and even the individual plant concerned. Using this alchemical terminology the process of tincturing is one of dissolving the soul of the plant concerned in a sea of plant spirit – known as the menstruum. Just as the metal mercury was regarded as the spiritual principle of all metals by the alchemist, so spirit of wine was regarded as the equivalent – a vital source of the spirit of all living plants, also metaphorically described in some mediaeval texts as ‘mercury’.

I digress… for those of you who have followed thus far, here is my version of the simplers’ method, laid bare for you I hope in terms that are simple to understand.

Recipe – Ingredients and some equipment that you need:

  • Herb material containing alcohol and water soluble compounds suitable for tincturing. In practice many but certainly not all herbs.
  • Spirit in the form of brandy, vodka or stronger spirit (‘spyritus’ / ‘everclear’) so long as it is fit for human consumption. Do NOT use rubbing alcohol / isopropyl alcohol as this is poisonous. The spirit should contain at least 40% ethanol by volume (abv) or be at least 80 proof. Stronger alcohol will extract more components but less of the water soluble components producing different characteristics.
  • A clean, sterilised bottle and lid
  • A funnel
  • A clean, thoroughly rinsed tea-towel or muslin cloth
  • An unbleached coffee filter or similar
  • Labels

Step 1) Take a herb that contains useful ethanol soluble and / or water soluble components. Typical herbs that fit the bill are rose flowers, lemon balm, angelica, skullcap, meadowsweet, etc. Avoid herbs that have very strong actions and carry a risk of toxicity like some of the nightshades for example. This method does not give a very clinically accurate dose and you wouldn’t want to run the risk of taking too much of these stronger herbs. According to folk tradition the herb should not be cut down with an iron blade and should not be allowed to touch the ground unless it is a root – make of that what you will – I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if it has any importance themselves. It is most definitely important however that you use plant material cut at the time of the year when that plant is at its most potent (research) and that the material that you use is not diseased or damaged in any way by pollution.

Step 2) Chop, shred, bruise and dismember the herb using whatever means are available. Stone pestles and mortars can be useful as can rolling pins and perhaps a blender! The purpose of this is to rupture cell walls as well as dramatically increasing the surface area that will be exposed to the solvent. BEWARE though – once cell walls are ruptured, enzymes will be set loose that may catalyse the rapid degradation of your plant material. You will need to work quickly to get this stage complete and to get the plant material (known as the ‘marc’) into the solvent (stage 3) to counteract this as much as possible.

Step 3) Place the chopped, bruised herb material into a washed and sterilised jar so that when pressed down it three-quarter fills the jar. Pour in your spirit a little at a time, whilst stirring the herb about with a small stick or the handle of a wooden spoon, to release any trapped air. This will ensure maximum contact between the spirit and the herb, preventing any of the material from spoiling as ethanol is a very good preservative. Once you cannot fit any more spirit in, ‘podge’ (technical term) the herbs down with your stick / spoon handle so that they fit into the jar in a nice compact way and then top up the fluid so that it covers the herbs by around one centimetre. A little less is ok, this is not a precise science. The objective is to prevent the herbs in the jar from sticking out of the spirit for long periods of time as this could cause them to oxidise and spoil. Place on the lid and tighten.

Elderflowers tincturing in vodka

Elderflowers tincturing in vodka

Step 4) Place the jar somewhere where you will see it a lot. You will need to shake the jar once daily and podge the herbs back down below the spirit each time. If you put the jar on the shelf that is directly in front of you when you eat your breakfast you will remember to do this most days! You will need to allow the tincture to sit, shaking and podging once daily, for one month or roughly one lunar cycle. Leathery or waxy leaved herbs don’t give up their vital compounds so easily and you may need to leave them for longer, perhaps 6 weeks. The same applies to the tougher mushrooms such as the bracket fungi. The tincturing phase works best if you put the jar somewhere at ambient room temperature and with diffuse light. The UV light in daylight will encourage many compounds to dissolve by supplying a little extra energy to the mixture. Too much heat may cause some of the delicate aromatic compounds to be lost or to degrade, so when tincturing, extra heat is not recommended. Equally a cold room may slow down the process too far.

Step 5) After the allotted time has elapsed you will need to ‘press out’ and coarse filter your tincture, prior to bottling. The initial pressing out step involves passing the tincture – marc and menstruum together – into a coarse filter such as a very well rinsed clean tea-towel. The tea towel or similar is used to line a funnel and the tincture material poured slowly through it into a bowl. Once it has finished dripping, the solids can be wrapped in the tea-towel and the whole squeezed and wrung out to remove the rest of the remaining liquid. It will be cloudy and contains lots of small particles so will require further filtering if it is to be stored for long periods.

Filtering off the marc - the solids left in the filter paper

Filtering off the marc – the solids left in the filter paper

Step 6) The cloudy tincture can now be passed through a second filter to remove the fine particulates. An unbleached coffee filter works very well for this, as does a kitchen towel at a push. For maximum shelf life the resulting tincture should be completely clear.

Step 7) Tinctures, once made and filtered, should be stored in tightly stoppered bottles in a cool and dark place. Stored carefully in this way they should remain effective for at least 2 years, perhaps longer, with one or two exceptions.

How to Use a Tincture

Tinctures of the gentler herbs that are commonly used for many complaints can be taken several times per day in doses of between 5 and 30 drops per dose depending on the strength of the tincture and what it is being used to treat. The tincture should always be taken in a little water so as to reduce the alcohol by volume to below 20%. Anything above this tends to be evacuated from the stomach very quickly, hence the need for dilution. Some tinctures, for example tincture of Arnica montana, are traditionally used on the skin rather than internally. If you are doing this it would be a good idea to do a little spot test somewhere first to make sure that you are not allergic to the herb being used. Always do thorough research about the plants that you are working with.

Disclaimer: Everything in this article is provided for your entertainment only. I do not endorse you, the reader, to carry out these practices and if you do then you are doing so at your own risk. I am not responsible for the consequences if you decide to follow the information on this page. Always consume alcohol sensibly and if you take herbs check for any contra-indications that may be damaging to health or interact with other medications first.


I hope you have enjoyed reading this article! If you would like to gain some practical experience of working with herbs and of tincturing, you could try one of our herbal weekend courses here, where we will show you everything you need to know to get you started:

Putting the Spice Back…

Where is the spice? That is a good question, as one could be forgiven for thinking our ancestors in these islands didn’t care much for it before the middle ages. I can’t help thinking that this may be a misconception that has arisen out of the cuisine of the last 100 years though; doubtless somewhere there is a food historian who can put me on the right track?…

Jack by the hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge: image by Sannse at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (//www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

We DO have wild spices growing here in Britain and Ireland. Much of the knowledge surrounding their use must be lost if it was ever here in the first place, so I am going to do a bit of learning by experimentation instead and from time to time share my experiments here, with you!

Jack by the Hedge / garlic mustard – Alliaria petiolata

I thought I would start with this plant because it is a good contender. Not only is it in the very edible cabbage and mustard family, its leaves are hot and spicy, tasting of mustard as well as garlic – as its other name, ‘garlic mustard’, explains… but what of the seeds I thought? According to Saul et al, in “Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine”1, garlic mustard was definitely in use as a spice in the baltic region of Europe over 6000 years ago.

seeds of garlic mustard

Jack by the hedge – garlic mustard in seed

Some time ago I remember sampling some out in the forest as I was walking along a shady wooded ride and being immediately taken aback by their ‘kick’. I revisited this place where garlic mustard grows all around, so as to recreate the sense of connection with this experience and take my spice journey further on to its next stage.

The first obstacle I came up against was that the seed pods appeared to be all ripening at different stages, meaning that some seed fell to the ground as soon as I touched the plant, but much of it was practically inseparable from the stringy seed cases surrounding it.

I soon resolved to harvest all of the seed pods regardless of maturity and attempt to ripen them in the sun when I got home. I found that I could save a lot of time by holding a large bag open and stripping the whole seed pods en-mass by sliding my hand down the stems. Here is the result…

garlic mustard seed separated from the pods

garlic mustard seed separated from the pods by sun drying then rubbing between the palms

Once at home, I placed the seed pods in a large glass dish and let the sun do its work. I brought them in each evening and waited until things began to warm again each day before putting them back outside on a table in the sun. After about 3 days more than three quarters of the seed was fairly ripe and I judged that the remainder had probably hardened enough to strip from the pods without much damage.

I found that the best way to remove the seed was by rubbing the pods between my palms, and to twist any that were stubbornly hanging on to their seed between my fingers until they ruptured and twisted undone. The seeds, being small and heavy, all sank to the bottom of the bowl. I then used a colander to separate the seed pods from the seed – putting the whole lot through it 3 times…

garlic mustard seed ready for storage

SPICE SCORE: 8 out of 10

I dried the seed a little further to lower the moisture content prior to storage, simply keeping it out in our warm scullery on a stainless steel tray for a couple of days.

The result is surprisingly good. Though the quantity obtained is small, it is very hot, packing a real punch. It is also pleasant in texture when used as a whole seed. There are definitely overtones of horseradish, garlic and pepper and a little will go a very long way but be warned, the heating effect is cumulative!



1 Saul H, Madella M, Fischer A, Glykou A, Hartz S, Craig OE (2013) Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070583

St. George’s Mushroom, Wild Garlic and Elderberry Antipasti

Today I awoke to the sight of a magnificent frost covering the Avebury stone circle and a bluer than blue sky heralding a bright (though as it turned out showery) spring day. Needing to re-shuffle the stores in the pantry I noticed there was still a three-quarter full 2 litre jar of dried St. George’s mushrooms left over from last season, so with the new season definitely underway now I decided to get creative with the flavour of these delightful mushrooms by making an antipasti that combines them with wild garlic ‘capers’ and dried elderberries. You can make this antipasti of mushrooms with either fresh or dried St. George’s and incorporate other foraged ingredients to make a flavour combination that is uniquely your own. Using dried mushrooms has the advantage that it can be made from stores whenever a fresh batch is needed. A lot of other mushrooms will preserve well using this method too, but there is only one way to find out which flavours will work together and that is to experiment. Here is my recipe, enjoy!…

Fresh and picked St George's mushrooms

Forager’s St. George’s Mushroom, Wild Garlic and Elderberry Antipasti


1.5 litres of dried St. George’s Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). You can use fresh St. George’s Mushrooms instead if you like, but you will have to experiment with the volume of brine (vinegar/salt/water) to ensure that there is enough for the quantity that you have. The recipe below should work with approximately 1.5kg of fresh St. George’s too.
A small handful of wild garlic flower buds.
A small handful of dried elderberries (optional).
A thinly sliced knob of root ginger.
2 tbsp of sea salt (I used herb salt in mine).
A generous twist of black pepper.
400ml olive oil.
400ml mustard oil (you could substitute sunflower).
800ml organic cider vinegar.
400ml warm water.
(All quantities are approximate)

Step 1: Marinating

St georges marinadingPlace the mushrooms, elderberries, ginger, wild garlic buds and black pepper in a large Kilner jar or other similar storage jar. Mix together the warm water, cider vinegar and sea salt until the sea salt is completely dissolved. Pour this liquid brine over the solid ingredients in the storage jar, stir with a wooden spoon and allow the whole to marinade in a warm place for 2 hours.

Step 2: Brining

the brining stage

Strain the liquid from the mushrooms in the jar using a colander or sieve and place it in a saucepan. Bring to the boil over a high heat, stirring occasionally. Do not let the liquid boil over. Once you have the brine on a rolling boil, add all of the mushrooms and other solids back into the liquid and bring the mixture back up to the boil, allowing it to boil for 4 minutes.  Note: Longer boiling times are required for some other edible mushrooms, particularly those in the Russula (brittle cap) and Lactarius (milk cap) groups, as well as honey fungus (Armillaria mellea). If in doubt please consult a reliable source for information about the mushrooms that you intend to pickle. After 4 minutes remove the saucepan from the heat completely. NOTE: After this point all utensils, bowls and jars that come into contact with the mushrooms MUST be sterilised first (using boiling water is fine).

Step 3: Draining

draining the mushrooms

Once again separate the solids from the liquid by straining. You can bottle the brining liquid in a tightly sealed sterilised jar for future use and it ought to be good for at least another couple of brinings. You can always top it up if you start to find you haven’t got enough, so best to keep it for later and avoid wastage.

Spread the solid part, mushrooms, spices and all, onto a clean tea cloth that has been boil washed to remove any traces of taint that may be left behind from washing powder or detergent. Ideally place the dish cloth on an oven tray or similar which will catch any moisture that drips through. Leave the mushrooms to drain for an hour or so, then carefully press out any excess moisture by rolling the solids up in the tea cloth. Do not press too hard or you will ruin their appearance and crush them!

Step 4: Covering in oil

filling the jars

Carefully ladle the dried off mushrooms into the sterilised jars that you have prepared one layer at a time. Cover each layer in your chosen vegetable oil. I have started experimenting with a 60:40 mixture of mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil. So far this seems to be working a treat, imparting a warmness to the pickle as well as improving the colour, without being too thick or having too much flavour. By pouring the oil into the mushrooms in layers and stirring very slowly you will be liberating as many air bubbles as possible from the oil, which will improve the shelf life of your pickle.

Step 5: Labelling

writing the labelsAlways remember to label your produce carefully. Everyone must have found an unlabelled jar at the back of the cupboard at some point – with unknown contents that are probably well past their best. Always put the date of manufacture on the label.

Your pickled mushrooms will improve in flavour over a month or more. You should aim to start eating them within 2 months and once you have opened a jar keep it in the fridge and consume within a couple of weeks. For this reason it is better to make lots of small jars rather than one big jar full! Unopened jars kept in a cool place should keep for at least 6 months, probably a good bit longer.

Bon appetite! Enjoy with salad leaves, artichoke hearts or ladled onto doorstops of bread!

If you would like to learn how to identify and find the St. George’s mushroom for yourself, the time is now and the season is short! Why not come and join us at The Wild Side of Life in Wiltshire for a day of St. George’s hunting and dining using wild food ingredients, and enjoy your St. George’s mushrooms over a glass or two of champagne. Bring a friend along to enjoy the fun with you and your second ticket will be half price this year . For more information on this special forage and feast (Saturday 7th of May 2016)

forage day champaigne picnic

The St. George’s Mushroom Champagne Picnic (7th May 2016)

St. George’s Mushrooms and Morels, the Time of the Green Man

This is a blog post about the tradition of St. George and the St. George’s mushroom. For details of the forthcoming St. George’s Mushroom Champagne Picnic please go here. 

St. George’s day approaches (23rd April) and heralds the beginning of spring revelry.  The Catholic St. George was a graft onto older stock and the slayer, or perhaps handler, of dragons is found throughout Europe, the near east and Russia today as a protector and patron saint. In earlier times he took the form of the ‘green man’, representing the rejuvinatory power of spring and the mysterious balance of light and dark, growth, decay, winter and summer that is central to the farmer’s and the forager’s year. In Orthodox Christianity as well as in Russian folk magic and even among the shamen of Siberia, the protector George is often called upon, consulted and prayed to before going ahead with any major work

Green man  - by Grinagog

The Green Man – by Grinagog (grinagog.deviantart.com)

Al Khidr, the Green Saint of Islamic folklore is perhaps another guise assumed by George, or perhaps more accurately another echo that has come down to us via that same ancient river of belief. In the holy-land they are venerated together at one and the same shrines (for example in Bethlehem and Jerusalem) along with Elijah, bringing Jew, Christian and Muslim to enter the same places of worship.  Similarly, in parts of India the cult of Kwaja Khadir is observed by both Muslim and Hindu. In some areas of Eastern Europe the festivities of Green George (Gergiovden) are marked by decking a young man in foliage resembling very much the more modern Hastings Jack in the Green and often he is paraded through the streets prior to being given a good ducking in the village pond or local river.  This festival is very popular in many regions, particularly among the Romani, taking place over the feast of St. George as rendered before post-mediaeval calendrical changes on the 6th of May.

Very soon too, in English fields and meadows, it will be time to make May garlands and walk among the wildflowers of spring purely for pleasure and contentment. In the folk customs surrounding our old May-day the ‘Green One’ will be readied to marry the May Queen, his bride. In England too we have our own traditions to commemorate his life and his passing, as in the (probably now garbled) Padstow Obby ‘Oss song…

“O’ where is St. George, O’ where us he O’
He’s out in his long boat, all on the salt sea O’.
Up flies the Kite and down tails the lark O’
Aunt Ursula Birdhood, she had an old ewe
and she died in her own Park O'”

In contemplation and in honour of these cycles of time and of the year, take a walk out into the grassy meadows and limestone woods to seek the plump creamy-white fruit bodies of St. George’s mushroom. A sign given forth by the earth herself to warn us that night time frosts are now coming to a close and it is the time to be industrious in the fields.

Calocybe gambosum - St. George's mushroom

Calocybe gambosum – St. George’s mushroom

It smells pleasantly ‘floury’ (as if fresh from the miller’s wheel) and often occurs in large wheels in the turf. St. George himself was said to have been ground into flour or ‘broken on a wheel’ at his execution and spread upon the land by his Roman captors, as commemorated in the lines of the old English mummers play “I’ll grind yer bones to dust and send you to the Devil to make mince pie crust”.

St. George's, chickweed and dandelion blooms

St. George’s, chickweed and dandelion blooms are a good combination!

Be very careful to identify it correctly as there are some other whitish mushrooms that are very poisonous. St. George’s mushroom is very tasty though and highly sought after and prized in Italy and France. In Britain it has undergone something of a revival in recent years and it is to be found on the menu’s of many of the better restaurants and gourmet pubs. It can be sautéd in butter and goes well with shallots, asparagus, bacon, eggs and dandelion blossoms. It can also be pickled. The delicate complex flavour is easily overpowered by bolder ones and this is a mushroom to use as the feature of a dish, not a side portion, so take some care about who or what you partner it with.


A warm tossed St. George's salad

A warm tossed St. George’s salad

Also highly prized at this time of the year are the elusive morels, often appearing in limestone woods and on sandy soils during the spring. The caps of these fungi, (there are several species) have an irregular honeycomb like appearance and the cap and stem are hollow. They are difficult to find but highly regarded as a cooking ingredient.

Morchella esculenta - Edible morel

Morchella esculenta – Edible morel

Morels should be dried for storage and re-hydrated using warm water, herbs and a little salt for half an hour or so before cooking as this improves their flavour considerably. They go well with cream based sauces and add something very special to many dishes. Fresh morels can also be stuffed – one popular recipe uses crab meat, egg, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs – and baked for 15 minutes at 180°C. Be sure of your identification and do not confuse them with the poisonous gyromitra or turban fungus that looks a bit similar. Never eat morels raw as occasionally this has caused poisoning! Once again, if in doubt a visit to an expert is required.

If you’d like to sample the joy of Finding your own St. George’s mushrooms then why not try out our St. George’s Mushroom Champagne Picnic on Saturday 7th May 2016. You can find out about it here.