The custom of grubbing for Earthnuts, or Pignuts is as ancient as mankind itself. Although these tasty tubers are beloved of pigs (hence the name) they are a most unusual and rewarding woodland snack and there was a time when they were a popular nibble for country children on their way to and from school.
The fern like leaves appear along with the Lesser Celandine in the spring. During May and July they develop umbellifer heads with white flowers not unlike Cow Parsley. According to Gerard and others the Dutch once ate them 'boiled and buttered, as we do parseneps and carrots'. Unearthing a pignut is a delicate operation. The root disconnects from the tuber very easily, which can be several inches from where the stem appears above ground.
Follow the stem under the earth using careful scraping with a twig, fingernail or knife. Eventually you will reach the pignut which is covered with a chestnut coloured skin. If you can wash the nut at this stage it avoids getting muddy fingernails while peeling. As soon as I found the one shown in the picture, an earthworm appeared and dived into the hole it left!
Scrape off the papery outer coating to reveal the Earthnut. The older name for Earthnuts is 'Earth Chestnuts' and this gives you a clue to their taste - a chestnut texture but with a more earthy taste. There's nothing like carefully digging one of these up during a walk in the woods. Do it with your fingernails. As the earthy taste hits the senses you are drawn more completely into contact with the nature around you. A true 'pomme de terre'.
Gerard's Herbal mentions that 'There is a Plaister made of the seeds hereof, whereof to write in this place were impertinent to our historie'....Probably witches again! Earthnuts get a mention in Shakespeare's 'Tempest', from Caliban as he promises:
"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And with my long nails I will dig thee pignuts".
With thanks to R. Maybee, R. Phillips and M. Woodward's version of Gerard's Herbal.
From an ebook called 'Wild Food' underway at simonthescribe.
If you wish to republish this article (with this resource box intact) you will find excellent quality pictures to accompany it at http://www.simonthescribe.co.uk/pignuts.html