Food straight from springtime nature

Source: Anneli Tandorf, Visit Estonia

Food straight from springtime nature

Estonians have been using plants for food for as long as we can remember. Spring brings an abundance of vitamin-rich green shoots, which are especially good for those of us who haven't had much chance to bask in the sunlight during the long winter. If you think these shoots aren't edible, make sure you read this article and re-evaluate what you can snack on!

Fresh and scrumptious

Photo by: Danel Rinaldo, Visit Estonia

Spruce shoots are packed with vitamins, spruce needles have been used in many different ways by sailors and indigenous people in the Northern hemisphere to curb vitamin deficiency. Young spruce shoots contain oils, resins, carotenoids, tannins, and a lot of vitamin C, as well as minerals such as potassium and magnesium. Shoots are slightly sour and citrusy due to their high vitamin C content. In cooking, the shoots give the food an exotic and strong rosemary-like taste. Spruce shoots are also added to fermented beverages, such as beer for a fresh kick.
Fresh shoots should be picked and consumed immediately in late May when the 2–4 cm long hoots are the softest and tastiest. Carefully break only the shoot from the tree without damaging the rest of the tree. Pick shoots from different sides of the same tree, in order not to interfere with the development of a single tree.
Spruce shoots can also be stocked for the winter season by freezing or drying the shoots. Before freezing, rinse the shoots with warm water and allow the excess to drain. Later you can use them in smoothies, salads, or as a colourful addition to dishes.

Dandelion has been a valued medicine since ancient times. In folk medicine, dandelion is used to detox and energise the body. The plant cleanses the blood, reduces cholesterol, and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by diluting the blood. You can make a salad from its flowers and leaves. Dandelion flower buds can be pickled like a cucumber using a variety of cucumber pickling recipes. The leaves of dandelion are collected for preservation at the beginning of the flowering period of the plant in mid-May. The leaves are placed in a thin layer on paper or cloth for drying in a room with a good draft, and away from direct sunlight.

Messenger of spring

In early spring, dandelion leaves make for a peppery and delicious salad

Photo by: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Rhubarb is full of vitamin K, calcium, and potassium, also containing phosphorus, iron, B vitamins, vitamin C and carotene, organic acids malic, citric and oxalic acid, flavonoid compounds and others in moderation. Despite its strong taste, rhubarb contains up to 93% water and is also high in fibre. Young shoots taste the best, and rhubarb is most commonly used in cakes, jams, and juice. Rhubarb is also good for salads and is good in marinades because it makes the meat soft and juicy. Strawberry-rhubarb sparkling wine and several other dry rhubarb wines have become a popular choice among diners in recent years.

Goutweed is a leafy plant considered a nuisance by gardeners for its invasive resilience, yet praised in Estonia for its healing abilities. A wrap of goutweed leaves is said to ease inflammation. Goutweed isn't just for medicine though and is added to soups, salads, purees and, in South Estonia, to bread and scones. True fans even make goutweed jam.

Resilient ground cover

Estonians have turned to goutweed as a reliable food source during famines. Photo by:  Cbaile19, Wikimedia Commons

Wood sorrel is a plant that most people know. It contains a considerable amount of oxalic acid. It is recommended that young children watch the quantities consumed. Given their low body weight, high levels of oxalic acid can be quite dangerous to their health. Wood sorrel can be successfully incorporated in mixed and fruit salads, cold soups, green butter, and even cold sauces from the collected leaves. The leaves and flowers are also used to decorate dishes, from simple sandwiches to gorgeous chocolate cakes. When heated, the rabbit cabbage loses its characteristic appearance and the vitamins, but the harmful effects of oxalic acid are also reduced.
Common sorrel is a fresh and crunchy springtime staple, full of vitamin C that quickly relieves stress and promotes digestion. Tanning and bitter substances give the plant a sour, slightly bitter taste. A commonly found plant in Estonia, it grows on meadows, but also on coastal and floodplain meadows, roadside, bushes, ditches, rivers, and lakeshores. Chopped leaves are commonly used in soups and salads, both as raw or cooked.

Fresh wild garlic can be found already at the end of April. Thanks to its intense flavour, wild garlic banished harmful microbes from the body and aids with digestion. Did you know that springtime wild garlic contains 15–20 times more vitamin C than lemons? Wild garlic is great in salads, soups, herbal butter and pesto. However, keep in mind that wild garlic is under protection and should, therefore, be acquired for either personal use only, or from the market, shops, or friends who grow it in their garden.

Nettles are the first sources of energy offered to us by the spring. According to Estonian folk medicine, all parts of nettle can be used; however, these days it is mainly leaves that are used to make nettle tea, soup, or salad. Nettles help combat fatigue, invigorate, provide a lot of vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium, etc., reduce inflammation, and improve blood composition. In the olden times, Estonians believed that the nettle is a witch's herb, which is why it was often used in spells and rituals. The plant was thrown into the fire to protect houses from lightning and added to washing water to remove curses. It was believed that nettles protect from revenants, ghosts, and evil spirits.

There's plenty to eat in nature!

Photo by: Mart Vares, Visit Estonia

Bishop's weed can be a real annoyance to gardeners, but it is actually great on the table as well. Bishop's weed can be incorporated in soups, pesto, and salads. During times of hardship, Estonians used to turn to the bishop's weed to add volume to dishes and hence make the food supply last longer. In Southern Estonia, bishop's weed was added to bread dough; the plant was also used as a wrap to reduce inflammation. These days, healthy eating enthusiasts use the bishop's weed to make a variety of treats, even jam.

Cowslip blooms in May and June. This beautiful spring flower has over 200 names in Estonian. It only takes on fresh cowslip leave to fill the daily vitamin C quota of an adult. Cowslip is believed to flush out unnecessary substances from the body, help with cell renewal, have a calming effect, reduce anxiety and insomnia, relieve headaches and migraines, reduce couching, and remove sputum. Cowslip is great for making tea, blooms are ideal for use in salads.

A fisherman with a catch

Photo by: Stina Kase, Visit Estonia

Workshops and flavours from nature

If you want to gain more knowledge about foraging and horticulture, visit Energy farm (Energia talu) to learn more about local herbs in their workshops or take part in horticulture workshops at Klaara-Manni eco-garden (Klaara-Manni maheaed). You can go fishing with the fishermen at Lake Peipus and learn how to cook the lake fish in a local way.

Alternatively, you can ask the House of Flavour Experiences (Maitseelamuse Koda) to bring a cooking workshop to you or order an Experience Catering in the Forest Restaurant (Elamustoitlustus Metsarestoranis) to offer their feast in a location suitable to you.

Happy foraging and feasting!

Picking fresh produce straight from the soil

Photo by: Danel Rinaldo, Visit Estonia

Last updated : 02.03.2022

In category: Nature & Wildlife, Food & Drink & Nightlife