Edible Meadows: flavours from the floodplain

“Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass

As the remembered beauty of summer meadows fades under the autumn leaves, we can we still enjoy our connection with that fleeting riot of photosynthetic joy. Hay has been the way we’ve preserved the nutritional value of our meadows for centuries – but you don’t have to have hooves to enjoy its gentle flavours.

I spent a large part of the summer crawling around in some fantastic floodplain meadows carrying out my PhD research into the sustainable management of floodplain meadows for hay production. Preparing my dried hay samples for analysis means I’ve been immersed in the sweet, heady aroma of good quality hay and it always makes me hungry. The Open University’s annual Bake Your Research competition is really all about cake, but I’ve taken things a little more literally and actually been baking with the hay I’ve been researching. And the results have been tasty indeed!

When hay is heated it undergoes the Maillard reaction, in which proteins and sugars react to cause a browning effect – just like when you toast bread. C.J Weddle describes toasted hay as having “…a sweet, tobacco-like scent and a golden or caramel color. While this makes a tasty treat for livestock (animals love it!), the nutritional value of caramelized hay is next to nothing.”. We’re using it here to add flavour to other foods, so we don’t need to worry about the nutritional quality of the hay itself. This can simply go into your compost after use as any wild seeds will have been destroyed.

Use high quality, well-dried hay for these recipes. These are some of the ideas I’ve tried but use your imagination and bring a little hay to your favourite foods.

Hay infused cream

This is a really simple way to capture some gentle hay flavours that is great for both sweet and savoury dishes:

  • Toast your hay at 180oC for 10 minutes, turning occasionally so it doesn’t burn.
  • Place a handful of toasted hay in a jar or jug.
  • Bring some dairy or plant-based cream to a simmer.
  • Pour the hot cream over the hay.
  • Cover and leave to infuse overnight.
  • Use as it is or, for a sweet cream, beat in some icing sugar to taste.

For savoury use, team this up with mushrooms, leeks or pasture-fed meat. It also works well in a spiced pumpkin soup.

For your sweet tooth, add the sugar and try it with an apple crumble or poached pears.

It also works well in a spiced chai latte or mocha accompanied by fresh baked gingerbread. The perfect treat after a chilly autumn walk!

To continue the dairy theme, here are a few enticing ideas I’ve not yet sampled:

Hay baked roots

Hay baking has been the perfect way to enjoy the fantastic selection of local organic roots and squash arriving in my weekly veg box.

  • Make a hay nest in an oven-proof pot or on a sheet of foil – a great way to indulge your inner hedgehog.
  • Rub a little olive oil on the skins of your root veg.
  • Nestle your veg into the hay, covering them over the top.
  • Add a lid or fold the foil into a packet.
  • Bake for 60-90 minutes at 200oC.

I like to add in some quartered onions and a couple of garlic cloves in their skins to add flavour. For sweet potato or squash, try sprinkling on a few caraway seeds.

Woodland bounty

We all know that a healthy ecosystem needs a variety of connected habitat types, so – while you’ve got the oven on for baking – why not add a little woodland bounty to your meadow flavours by chucking in a tray of chestnuts to roast. Some pan-fried woodland mushrooms and wilted autumn spinach would be just the thing to complete this autumn feast. There are loads of great foraging resources available now, so make sure you forage responsibly and confirm your mushroom identification before you indulge.

Further reading

Hay with dairy:

Hay ice cream https://www.greatbritishchefs.com/recipes/hay-ice-cream-recipe~
Hay cheese https://www.nettlebedcreamery.com/our-cheese/witheridge-in-hay/
Hay custard https://www.greatbritishchefs.com/recipes/hay-custard-bramley-apple-recipe
Hay mayonnaise https://www.greatbritishchefs.com/recipes/hay-mayonnaise-recipe

Baking with hay:

Hay-bake kohlrabi for a taste of ancient and modern Ireland https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/hay-bake-kohlrabi-for-a-taste-of-ancient-and-modern-ireland-1.4328464?mode=amp
Carrots Cooked in Hay https://www.bonappetit.com/people/chefs/article/carrots-cooked-in-hay-a-recipe-demonstrated-by-puritan-company-chef-will-gilson
Lamb cooked in hay https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/lamb_cooked_on_hay_64832
Hay food, don’t think it’s mad… https://www.goodfoodireland.ie/blog/hay-food-don%E2%80%99t-think-it%E2%80%99s-mad
Making and using a hay box to cook in https://www.woodland-ways.co.uk/blog/outdoor-cooking/making-and-using-a-hay-box-to-cook-in/


Wild Food UK https://www.wildfooduk.com/
Woodland Trust: Foraging, what to look out for each month https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/things-to-do/foraging/

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