Wednesday, October 12, 2011

fat hen

Chenopodium album is the botanical name, in england we call it ‘fat hen”, there are probably numerous other local names, but this is the most common.    The reason being that it was used to fatten hens for the table.  In france it is known as “chenopode” and is used just the same.

young Fat Hen leaves

A combination of prior knowledge, a handy reference book that Aimee and Marc had with them and some of Marc’s archaeological facts have been combined to tell you these facts.

Fat hen plants love colonising disturbed soil, so since civilisations began, this plant has been growing close to humans.  It grows quickly, providing plentiful fresh green leaves that are rich in vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, they are also a good source of protein, trace minerals, B-complex vitamins, vitamin C,  iron, and fiber. These have been harvested, eaten raw and cooked, until recent times, when larger leafed spinaches and leaf beets became more popular and stole the show.  After many centuries of culinary participation, fat hen became a weed.

close up stems of drying seed
A resurgence in foraging and eating the free bounty that nature provides has us (well some of us) leaving this delicious plant to grow amongst the vegetables and around the the garden for later use.  It can be harvested from spring through to the first frosts and eaten raw in mixed leaf salads or prepared in a similar fashion to spinach, steamed or sauteed and served hot with butter and salt.  By harvesting the younger leaves, the plant then shoots again to produce more tender growing tips again and again and again.  Stopped only by drought, frost or being weeded out completely. Even then, it goes to make good compost.

The leaves of fat hen are not the only part of the plant that is eaten.  The seeds too, were eaten fresh from the plant and also dried and stored for use throughout the leaner winter months.  Archaeological evidence shows that an early settler of the British Isles, perfectly preserved in a peat bog, had been fed a meal of fat hen seeds amongst other things before he was sacrificed all those years ago.

a large clump with new seed forming

There is ample fat hen going to seed around the garden at Nicolas’ so we have been harvesting it by the handful, dry roasting it in a frying pan to remove any residual moisture before storing it away in sealable glass jars for the winter.  Aimee has been adding plenty to the bread that she bakes every morning, giving it a good nutty crunch.  It also finds itself in the homemade salad dressing, which goes very nicely with a bitter leaf salad and any other dish that we see fit.  It seems a shame to let such a flavoursome and nutritious freebie go to waste when it is so easy to use.

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