Hogweed has become a legendary monster. A gigantic vegetal villain, lying in wait by riverbanks to spring upon unsuspecting couples out for an evening stroll, and dissolve them. Annual headlines in the media, horror stories, even a song by Genesis, all warn of this lurking menace. Like many tales these have a basis in truth, but are waved about with gleeful abandon, another example of why some have lost touch with the natural world; it’s scary, and dangerous.
Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is indeed a scary prospect. Introduced as an ornamental plant in the 19th Century, it can grow to more than four metres in height, and has stiff-bristled stalks that are often blotched red. Its leaves are dark green, very broad, and deeply lobed. It is most often found growing along river edges and in damp ditches. Its sap is seriously phototoxic, causing cell damage at a genetic level and stripping the skin’s ability to resist UV light. Exposure to this sap causes blisters and burns that are exacerbated by sunlight and can be extremely painful and long-lasting. It is regularly removed from public spaces if discovered, and should be avoided at all costs.
The related common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is of more pleasant character. Found along roadsides, damp hedgerows, and on disturbed or waste ground, it is smaller than its oversized cousin, rarely growing taller than two metres. It has broad, dark green, deeply divided bristly leaves, and bristled green or red stalks. When it flowers it produces umbrellas of dull white blossoms. These then go to seed, and the seeds – both when green and when dry – make an excellent wild spice, with notes of carrot and of cardamom.
The sap of common hogweed can still cause skin reactions so gloves are advisable when picking. (I speak from painful experience here.) When young – which is when the new growth shoots are harvested – it can be confused with the giant hogweed, so this is a plant you should get an experienced guide to show you the first couple of times. Caution here, as with all foraging, is paramount – if you’re in doubt, don’t pick anything. It is, however, delicious and well worth some effort in getting to know.
The flavour of hogweed is difficult to pin down. It is a member of the carrot family, and there is an aromatic quality that ties it to this family tree. There is an element of parsley, and a sweetness somewhat akin to parsnip. The texture, when cooked, is a little like asparagus. Pick young shoots, before the leaves have uncurled, by cutting at ground level. Very fat buds are the unopened flowers, and these are very good indeed. Although rather fibrous and hairy, once your haul is cooked it softens and the aromas are released. Common hogweed really is an excellent wild vegetable.
Hogweed, poached egg, wild garlic oil, bacon crumb.
The aromatic quality of common hogweed is an ideal plate-fellow to richer flavours, such as a soft-poached egg. The wild garlic oil lends some peppery punch, and the bacon brings some salt and savoury.
Ingredients. (serves 2)
10 – 12 young hogweed shoots, trimmed of their leaves and washed
3 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
a handful of wild garlic leaves, washed
100ml or so rapeseed oil
a few pickled wild garlic flower buds (optional)
2 slices good sourdough
For the wild garlic oil, blanche the leaves in boiling water for 10 seconds, and then immediately transfer to a bowl of iced water. Once cold, drain, squeeze out any remaining water, and roughly chop. Transfer to a food processor and set to its lowest setting. Gradually drizzle in the oil until it is all bright green and well combined. Pass through a fine sieve, season to taste, and set aside in the fridge until needed. This will keep, chilled, for around three days, and you will have some left over; use as a marinade for meats or in a salad dressing.
For the bacon crumb, cook the bacon rashers in a frying pan, very slowly, until they are crispy and most of the fat has rendered out. Transfer to some kitchen towel to mop up any remaining grease. (Keep the pan and the fat from this cooking.) Once cooled, blitz in a food processor to a crumb consistency, being careful to not go too far as you’ll end up with more of a bacon mousse. Set aside until needed.
Cook the hogweed shoots in the pan you cooked the bacon in, adding a knob of unsalted butter if needed, until starting to brown and crisp at the edges.
Meanwhile, poach your eggs in just-boiling water with a splash of white wine vinegar for 2 1/2 minutes. Remove and drain. At the same time, toast the bread.
To plate, drizzle some wild garlic oil around the edge of the plate. Add a slice of toast (buttered or not, as you wish). Pile the hogweed onto the toast, and top with a poached egg. Sprinkle on some of the bacon crumb, and garnish with the wild garlic pickles (recipe here) and a few wild garlic flowers.