May is the season for wild food
As spring arrives in Southern Finland and leaves begin to appear on the trees, chefs go crazy for wild food, which includes not only game but also everything that grows in the wild that you can eat. Wild herbs, for example, can be found just about everywhere, even in Helsinki, and they can be savoured also in local restaurants.
Sami Tallberg is one such chef who is a big fan of wild food, and for him May is the best month.
“Spring is my favourite time of year. The start of the wild plant season is a promise of something new. I keep my eyes wide open in May, when nature offers such an amazing range of excellent ingredients,” Sami tells us.
Having discovered wild food during his years in London, Sami gathers all the possible ingredients he can by strolling along the shoreline, over the islands and through the parks of Helsinki.
“I get an almost ecstatic feeling at the start of the season, when the orpine [hylotelephium telephium] and the red sorrel [rumex acetosella] appear. You can usually find orpine on the rocks around the first of May.”
Other wild herbs that can be found in early spring include nettles, ground elder [aegopodium podagraria], wood sorrel [oxalis acetosella], garlic mustard [alliaria petiolata], ground ivy [glechoma hederacea], spruce shoots, blackcurrant and birch leaves, bittercress [barbarea vulgaris] and dandelions.
Sami Tallberg’s enthusiasm for wild food is contagious. Minister of Culture and Education Paavo Arhinmäki was so impressed that he awarded Sami the Finland Prize in December 2012. The award is significant not only for Sami personally but also for Finnish food culture on the whole.
Entire meals from wild ingredients
Sami Tallberg uses wild food not just for decoration but also as actual food that you can eat.
“You can do anything with wild herbs! They work in salads, as side dishes, as spices and even as main dishes. You can construct an entire menu around them,” Sami says.
“Seasonal food is very topical right now. It makes sense to live in the moment and enjoy the ingredients when they are naturally available.”
Most mushroom fans hunt for morels [gyromitra esculenta] in May, but Sami Tallberg has another favourite springtime fungus.
“The St. George’s mushroom [calocybe gambosa] is like a spring champignon. It has a very refined flavour and is popular in Central Europe.”
Sami’s favourite fish at this time of the year is perch, which he serves with morels, deep-fried nettles or butter sauce made from birch sap.
Enjoy wild herbs in restaurants
When Sami Tallberg returned home a few years ago, he began collecting the wild herbs that grow along the shoreline and in the forests around Helsinki. He then introduced the herbs to local restaurants, so he knows exactly which ones were receptive to the idea of wild food.
“All the top restaurants were very enthusiastic about wild herbs. For example, Juuri had been cooking with them for a long time already. Spis and Chef & Sommelier also use them a lot, even as main ingredients. In addition, wild herbs can be found on the menus of Olo and Luomo. Kuurna and Ateljé Finne also use seasonal herbs.”
The list goes on: you can also enjoy wild flavours at Ask and Pure Bistro, for example. In fact, Sami has a hard time thinking of any good restaurants that don’t already use wild herbs. He considers wild food to be something of a popular movement right now.
“It would be great if people would select restaurants to go to based on whether they serve wild herbs,” Sami suggests.
Rediscovering forgotten herbs
“Nature offers an abundance of plants that taste at least as good as cultivated plants and herbs. Wild food is also the most suitable source of nutrition for us, as it grows in the same environment in which we live,” Sami Tallberg believes.
He encourages everyone to learn to identify and gather plants.
“It’s fun to compare their flavours and textures to more familiar herbs. Don’t be afraid to use them!”
These “exotic” wild herbs may take us out of our comfort zones, and Sami Tallberg is aware that changing our embedded habits takes a long time. A good way to begin is to go out and pick them in the wild.
“Your senses are really alert in nature, and you can see for yourself what is available and at its best. You should treat wild plants like any other salads, herbs and vegetables: taste and add spices, but don’t judge them on first appearances in the forest.”
Many wild herbs can be picked alongside paths and trails. If you visit the same place frequently, you can thin the plants from time to time in order to encourage new growth. This works with ground elder, nettles, rosebay willowherb and many other plants, allowing you to enjoy delicious new shoots.
Text: Mariaana Nelimarkka
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