I love the warmer months. The sun shines, my skin feels happy and nature begins to blossom. Spring also marks the start of the foraging season for me. I went on my first ever foraging course over ten years ago and absolutely loved it. Many of the plants we found that day have stayed with me for over a decade! There's something deeply satisfying when scouring woodland and nature trails for recipe ingredients.
If you're not an experienced forager, I would highly recommend a Taste the Wild course (post-lockdown) so that you can learn more about what you're picking. If you fancy giving this recipe a try, I would recommend you check out this page so that you can be sure what you're foraging is indeed Sweet Cicely. If in doubt, leave it out. This panna cotta recipe works equally well with elderflower or vanilla pods.
Often spotted in Northern England, Ireland and Scotland, Sweet Cicely is a herb of the Apiaceae celery / carrot family. Found in parks, gardens, on roadsides, pasture, woodland and canal banks - the leaves, flowers, seeds and roots of the plant are all edible.
Sweet Cicely contains vitamin A and C, as well as, calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus. What's more, a natural compound found in sweet cicely called anethole, is actually sweeter than sucrose - the plant was historically used to sweeten food and drink, long before sugar came to the British Isles.
Sweet Cicely is great for foraging beginners as its unmistakable sweet aniseed scent is released by both the flowers and leaves when crushed. This alone should be sufficient to identify the plant (edible fennel is the only other plant which has a similar scent). Here is another good link to cross check & ensure the plant you're picking is Sweet Cicely. If the fragrance is absent, then leave it alone and move on.
Foragers use the young leaves of the plant in salads or to add a touch of sweetness to rhubarb crumbles. Sweet Cicely schnapps is also a thing, or if you prefer a more medicinal drink, the plant can be steeped into a tea & has historically been used as a tonic for asthma, breathing problems, coughs or chest and throat complaints.
I'm a big fan of aniseed, so I personally LOVE this plant and its wonderful anise flavour. I adore it even more because it grows abundantly just yards from my front door! This afternoon I took Jack out for his home school foraging lesson. We picked a basket full of Sweet Cicely flowers.
I'm going to use my foraged flowers to make a panna cotta. This recipe does involve a little bit of effort and a couple of unusual ingredients (I'll include the Amazon links) but I love it for a couple of reasons .. firstly there is something wonderfully satisfying about creating a recipe with foraged foods (I am cavewoman)! And secondly, they're such a wonderful little talking point at dinner parties.
1 tin coconut milk
30g sweet cicely flowers
30g coconut sugar (optional if you want more sweetness)
2 tsp agar agar (vegan gelatine here on amazon)
2 x jelly moulds (I use these)
Pick the sweet cicely flowers, trim & wash well. Then either dry in the sunshine or use a salad spinner to dry them as best possible
Pour a tin of coconut milk into a saucepan, add the flowers and sugar, then warm gently over a low heat for approx 20 mins allowing the aniseed flavour to infuse
Strain the milk through a sieve to filter out the flowers. Warm the strained liquid in the saucepan again and whisk in 2 tsp of agar agar
Pour into two mini jelly moulds and place in the fridge overnight to set
I like to decorate my panna cotta puds with warm, fresh raspberries for a tang and fresh flowers for extra beauty
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% certain you are not allergic to it. If in doubt, leave it out.