As those of you who have delved into the flavoursome fountain of  flowers, fruits, fungi and foliage of the forager’s world will know there is a general misconception regarding self-sufficiency  while out in the ‘wilds’ of our great country. Although it is possible to be completely reliant upon naturally foraged food it is quite simply, bloody hard work.

If you or I were to wander off into the woods right now and attempt to ‘live off the land’ and completely rely upon wild plants for food we would find the experience very far removed from the romantic idea of wandering around the forests with belly’s full of foraged food, sat around a camp fire enjoying all of the leisurely time with a small carving project. The reality would be spending every minute trying to scrape together enough food to keep your energy levels high enough to then go out and find more food.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly our bodies in the western world are fueled upon high carbohydrate, high sugar diets which is processed by the body and is turned in to energy. This means that our bodies are used to having carbohydrates as and when we need them; almost instantaneously if we desire. Unfortunately nature rarely works this way.

Secondly, if we are working on the concept that our bodies are more used to processing high levels of carbs for energy then it makes sense that we should focus our efforts on collecting foods that are high in carbohydrate contents. This is the main difficulty when trying to be self-sufficient in the UK. We simply don’t have a great deal of plants that have a high enough carbohydrate content.

Now to say that we don’t have any sources of carbohydrate in the UK would be wrong as we do have a few plants that give us carbohydrates in one form or another. Burdock for example can have very large starchy roots on them pact full of carbs however the only problem is getting to them. Having to dig them out is a long and laborious task and the end result is rather pointless as you expend much more energy digging up the root then it will ever provide in food forms.

Another form of carbs that we have access to are seasonal gluts such as nuts and seeds from hazelnut and acorns, sedge seeds and plantain seeds as well as many, many more ! However the very obvious draw back to these sources are that they are only available at certain times of the year. We can of course process these so that they will last the year round but once again this requires a lot of forward planning and preparation.

Thankfully there is one source carbohydrate that we can get to fairly easily that doesn’t require any more preparation than a quick wash before throwing in to the embers to cook and that is Greater Reed Mace, sometimes called Cattails. Cattails grow profusely along most of our waterways in this country where we can collect the roots very quickly and easily just by reaching down and pulling. Due to the soft silty soil that Cattails grow in and the fact that they grow in water means pulling up the plant is a very easy process.

The process that follows is a successful experiment of mine to extract this carbohydrate from the roots of Cattails in the form of starch which can be dried and made in to flour.

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Cattails also called Greater Reedmace

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Cattail seed heads make this plant easily recognisable and are great for tinder

Firstly find some Cattails! These are easily recognisable as ‘the sausages on a stick’ which make the seed heads. Cattails like all reeds grow very close to or in water so the easiest way to find them is to head to your local canal or river. After correctly locating and identifying your Cattail it’s time to begin the harvest.

Before we do start pulling up the roots there are two important points to note. Firstly you must have permission to up root these plants from the land owner as it is a criminal offence otherwise. This is easily circumnavigated by the fact that most fishing lakes and ponds encourage reed clearance around the fishing pontoons which help keep them accessible. It is also relevant that when you are picking your particular waterway to pick the cleanest water you can for obvious reasons.

Secondly it is of paramount importance that you correctly Identify reed mace from other water plant life as there are some potentially deadly lookalikes for a novice, however learning the difference is very easy. Once you have found a nice clump simply run your hand down the plant to its base (which is probably going to be underwater) and pull! The plant should come up relatively easily however you may notice that the roots of your plant is attached to plant next to it so you may need to work a few stems free to get the root up without breaking them. Once the root is free give it a quick wash, cut off the remaining top part of the plant and leaves (saving and storing them for cordage and other craft projects) and repeat until you have enough. As this was only an experiment I only collected a carrier bags’ worth of roots.

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Grasp the base of the plant and pull firmly to uproot

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Cattail roots ! These long roots are called rhizomes!

The next step is washing the roots free of mud as this makes the peeling a whole lot easier as well as minimising any cross contamination once you have clean roots. Only a quick wash is needed and a sponge or scourer will do to get most of the dirt off.

cattail root washed
Roots washed ready to be peeled.

Once the roots have been washed its time to peel them. This isn’t a difficult process however it’s not as easy as peeling carrots or potatoes. This is mainly due to the fact that these roots are spongy and flex underneath the peeler meaning that the peeler may have trouble getting a purchase on the root. In my experience it’s useful to have a peeler and a knife sat next to you as you may have to swap between the two to successfully peel the roots.

cattail root peeling
Using my years of potato and carrot peeling expertise I set about peeling the thick rind off the roots.

Once the roots are all peeled you need to shred them in to the finest pieces possible. At this point you may feel the starchiness of the roots which can feel a little slimy at times. Once the roots are shredded cover them with water.


cattail root peeled and ready
Roots peeled !

cattail root shredded
Shredding the roots!

This is the fun part, all you need to do is work the roots in the water with your hands. This will release the starch from the roots to be deposited in to the water. You will really have to work them as much as you can squeezing and manipulating the roots as much as possible. As you can see by the pictures below I enlisted the help of a potato ricer to help ring out the remaining roots and extract every last bit of start I could from them. This process of manipulating the roots should take at least 20 mins and by the end the water should look almost the same colour as coconut milk. Once you think you have extracted as much as you can collect up the remaining roots and ring as much water out of them as possible and then discard. At this point try to get any larger bits of debris and root out of the water.

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Time to get your hands messy!

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Just keep mashing!

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…and mashing!

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Enlisting the help of a potato ricer to wring as much water and starch out of the roots as possible! (thank you to Mrs Linda Keane for not killing when she found me in her living room with her potato ricer)

ricer 2

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As you can see by the thickness and colour of the water that is coming out the potato ricer certainly did what it was suppose to and you can clearly see the starch.

Once the roots have been removed from the water simply leave the pan on the side for 3 hours or even better over night. This will allow all the starch to sink to the bottom where by pouring gently the water can be trickled away without disturbing the starch.

With the paste that remains spread this on to a clean baking tray and bake in the oven on the lowest heat to slowly dry the paste out. Once this is dry break up the large ‘biscuit’ that has been made and crumble it in to a crude flour and there you have it a source of carbohydrate from Cattails roots. If you wanted to refine the flour using a pestle and motor or flour mill to grind the flour even finer you can do.

Once you have finished processing also ensure you store the flour in an air tight container in a cool dry place for an easy store of carbohydrate nearly all year round.

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