My Dad used to talk a lot about the Pignuts that he ate as a child, telling me about them tasting like a cross between celery, parsnip and fresh nuts and that he used to carefully find his way down the plant with a stick, to find the tasty buried treasure, hidden in the soil below. I found out a lot about wild food from my Dad, but never got round to finding pignuts with him.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my local Countryside Rangers if they knew of anywhere that pignuts grew. I was really excited when I found out that not only had they found some, they’d also got permission for us to dig some up! Pignuts are protected, so you need the landowners permission to dig them up and don’t forget that every bit of land in the UK is owned by someone. You could have a look in your own back garden to see if there are any lurking there – then you can give yourself permission to dig!
We decided to make a morning of it and meet up at the ‘secret location’ (very James Bond) with equipment and ingredients so that we could cook up a feast in the woods!
The pignut plant is very similar to other species of umbellifer (such as hemlock and fools parsley), some of which are poisonous – so it’s important that you correctly identify it. Even though it’s called a pignut, the part you unearth and eat, is actually a tuber.
We found a patch of ground that had a lot of pignut plants on it, which unfortunately were growing in heavily matted grass weed. This was going to make digging down for the pignuts a lot more difficult!
I understand why my Dad told me that he needed a solid stick to assist in the digging – I looked around for a stick to help us carefully dig out the fragile stem, but could only find deadwood which was no help at all! Luckily, Morgan had brought some cutlery to use and along with a sharper knife, we were able to dig our way down. It’s important not to cut through or break the stem as you will lose your way down to the tuber. We dug down as carefully as an archaeologist unearthing a piece of history!
After clearing some of the grass away so that we could see the stem more clearly, we started to dig carefully down with a knife.
The stem twists and turns like a twisty, turny thing making the journey down to the nut, perilous! We had a couple of shouts of ‘yesssss!’ only to pick out a stone which looked like it might have been tuber treasure. Finally, Nige pulled out a dry clump of soil which promised great things!
After some gentle dusting off, we’d found a lovely heart shaped pignut. Not all pignuts are heart shaped, we liked to think that this one was special – just for us!
The outer skin peels off very easily to reveal a milky white nut.
We decided to cut the pignut into three so that we could all try a piece before we dug any more up. If we didn’t like them, we were going to leave them there! The texture was similar to a raw chestnut – quite mealy but pleasantly crunchy. The taste was celery straight away, leading on to nutty parsnip and then a lovely sweet ‘cake’ kind of taste. We decided to crack on and dig some more up. Soon, we had a few to take away with us for our woodland feast.
Morgan had previously spotted some ‘Chicken of the Woods’ which she took us to see. She’d already cut a small amount off for her supper a couple of weeks earlier, but had left the rest there for another day! Chicken of the Woods is an edible fungus that grows on trees. It’s one of the few fungi that is easily recognised as being edible, it’s very difficult to confuse it with anything else. It has layers of yellowish white structures, which grow out of trees. Don’t eat any Chicken of the Woods that you find growing on Eucalyptus, Yew, Conifers or Cedar Trees as these can upset delicate tummies – any other trees are fine. It’s supposedly called Chicken of the Woods because of it tasting rather like chicken.
We spotted another one, although it was a little bit too far up for us – but it looks so tasty!
The lower down clump was soon cut off and put in the basket for our lunch!
We set up the tiny camping stove in a clearing with a fallen down tree to act as a place to sit. There, we chopped up the Chicken of the Woods and our Pignuts and started to cook. If you’ve never cooked outdoors before (other than in your back garden when you’ve got the barbecue out – that doesn’t count!) you should give it a go. It’s something that connects you with nature and feeds your soul as well as feeding your body.
We melted some butter in the pan and added the Chicken (otW) with some salt and pepper. We cooked it quite a bit longer than you would mushrooms and then added a splash of cream and some Wild Garlic and Walnut Pesto along with the chopped Pignuts. The fungus was lovely, it has the same smell as mushroom but has a chewier texture and is a lot like chewing a piece of Quorn and the crunchier texture of the pignuts was a perfect accompaniment. I certainly didn’t get the ‘like chicken’ taste, but can imagine that if you’re down on your luck meat wise, finding a piece of Chicken of the Woods would certainly give you something meaty to chew on for your supper.
I’d brought along some Wild Garlic and Cheese scones which was great to mop up all of the wonderful juices left in the pan.
The texture of Chicken of the Woods makes it a perfect sponge for absorbing different flavours. It soaks moisture up in the same way as an aubergine. When I got home, I cooked the rest of the CotW and this time pan fried it very gently with some butter and garlic. Then to give more moisture to the cooking Chicken of the Woods, I cubed a courgette to add to the pan. I put the lid on and left it all to braise together. When the lid came off, the Chicken of the Woods had turned a beautiful golden colour which looked just like perfectly roasted chicken. It had absorbed all of the butter, garlic and courgette juices and was delicious. If you find a clump of Chicken of the Woods on your walk, I’d recommend that you cut off what you need and take it home, or better still go back the next day armed with a camping stove and cook it just where it grows.