Wood Avens leaves can be eaten, but they don't bring much flavour to the table - it is the roots of this plant that we are interested in; they taste and smell of cloves, with perhaps a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon mixed in as well. Not what you'd expect from this innocuous looking plant!
Wood Avens is a prolific 'weed', it can found in abundance by the side of footpaths, hedgerows and woodland edges, most often in shady areas where the soil maintains moisture. As well as being prolific in the wild, you may also find it in your back garden - upon closer inspection, I found four or five plants in a very small area of flowerbed, needless to say they were dug up and used for this recipe. I'll explain later on how to process the roots into a useable spice.
Porcini mushroom (Boletus edulis):
One of the tastiest and most prized wild mushrooms. Commonly found in beech, birch, chestnut and oak woodland, these mushrooms are certainly one of the most exciting to find, not least because of their size! They can vary from the small and perfectly formed Porcini shown below to being the size of a dinner plate, though usually if they are left to get to such a size the maggots will have beaten you to it. September / October is the best time to find them here in southern England, though this all depends on the weather conditions - I've found the odd specimen in December.
|A perfect Porcini found on 26/09/13|
|Big 'n' little Porcini found on 04/10/13|
Wood Avens / Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum):
As previously mentioned, the roots have a clove-like fragrance and taste. This spice has been used in soups and stews, to flavour ale, as a hot drink, and was also hung in clothes cupboards in Tudor times as a moth repellant.
The plant is fairly easy to identify; it has three lobed end leaves followed by pairs of opposite leaves down the stem toward the root system. It has yellow flowers and velcro-like seed heads. See here for more pictures and ID information; http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/WoodAvens
I'd recommended using a spade / fork when digging up the roots, as they are rather delicate and will break if you just pull at the plant. More mature plants will have a larger central root with the smaller roots branching off from it, but younger plants will just have the thinner, hair-like roots.
To positively ID the root it is important to keep the plant whole - it is incredibly difficult to differentiate plant species by the root alone. Poisonous plants such as hellebores can grow side by side with Wood Avens, and although the leaves don't look alike, the roots can be superficially similar.
Once you have dug up and cleaned your roots, rub them between your fingers and you should get that clove-like fragrance.
How to process Wood Avens roots:
- Thoroughly clean the roots
- Dry either in the dehydrator, low oven, or in an airing cupboard
- Once crisp and dry, blitz in a blender / coffee grinder
- Store in a dry jar
Tip: don't open the blender straight away, as you'll get a cloud of pungent clove dust up your nose
|Ground Wood Avens|
A note on flavour:
I blitzed the thinner roots and thick central root separately to see if they tasted or smelled different, turns out they do! The thinner roots had a much more fragrant odour and taste - the thick central root didn't seem to have the same 'cloviness', and tasted more like you'd expect a root to taste.
As you can see from the picture below, they have a noticeably different colour as well - thinner roots (lighter), thick central root (darker). I'd recommend using only the thinner roots.
|Difference in colour between the finer, hair-like roots and the larger central root system|
How to crystallise Wood Avens roots:
- Chop cleaned roots into appropriate lengths
- Dip in egg white
- Cover in caster sugar
- Leave to dry in a warm place until crisp
Tip: Use larger, single roots such as the once pictured in the centre below, as the finer, hairier roots (which are usually intertwined), such as the ones on the left in the picture, are chewier once crystallised.
How to make the ice cream:
After much ice cream research, I found that the custard base for most ice cream recipes contains similar quantities of cream, milk, eggs and sugar. I kept these ratios the same and simply added the Porcini paste and ground Wood Avens;
- 300ml whole milk
- 6 medium egg yolks
- 100g caster sugar
- 300ml Jersey or clotted cream
- 3 heaped tbsp Porcini paste
- 3 tsp ground Wood Avens
*If you'd prefer a healthier ice cream, you can use 600ml of milk instead of 300ml milk/300ml clotted cream
- To make the Porcini paste, rehydrate a handful of dried Porcini with boiling water and blend
- For the ice cream, bring the milk to the boil in a heavy-based saucepan, then remove from heat
- Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl, pour in the milk and whisk well
- Return to the pan and cook over a low heat for about five minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Do not boil (if it starts to boil place the pan in a sink full of water to cool it down)
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream, Porcini paste and ground Wood Avens
- Leave to cool, then churn in an ice cream machine until thickened
- Place mixture in container and freeze
|Porcini paste, ice cream mix and ground Wood Avens|
|Churning the mixture in the ice cream machine|
And so what was the end product like? Unusual, interesting, and really quite pleasant. The taste of the Wood Avens was overpowering when the mixture was in the ice cream machine, but this taste was lost somewhat once frozen - perhaps a little more needed to be added?!
The crunchy, crystallised roots added a necessary sweet element to this savoury ice cream - it's probably more of a between-course palate cleanser than a pudding ice cream.
*To make a different flavoured ice cream, simply substitute the Porcini / Wood Avens with something else - I used the same recipe and put 200ml of homemade Meadowsweet cordial in and it was delicious - much sweeter and more like a traditional pudding ice cream.