Ear to the ground: Dock pudding - the traditional way

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Well done to all the competitors and the winners who took part in the World Dock Pudding Competition which took place at Mytholmroyd.

Contrary to some national media reports, it is not a habit confined to the Upper Calder Valley to gather the wild sweet docks to cook in spring. At least as far as Cumbria the plant is eaten, where it is known as Easter Ledges. The ledges must be the river banks where it most commonly grows.

Another name for it is Passion Dock, no doubt alluding to Easter, or simply Common Bistort from its Latin name. The long-used Latin name Polygonum bistorta has recently been changed by the botanical authorities to Persicaria bistorta which you will find in newer field guides, such as Simon Harrap’s excellent Wild Flowers.

I suppose the traditional way of eating it with bacon and eggs will have arisen because of the plentiful supply of eggs in spring, and Europe-wide it is common to fry things in bacon fat because of the salt and other flavours it lends to a dish.

Having given up eating bacon over half a life-time ago, I had to concoct another recipe to try the docks. I cook them with fried onions, porridge oats and veggie stock cubes.

Adding nettles to the Dock Pudding is probably a very healthy idea. Stinging nettles are supposed to be packed with good nutrients. They should only be gathered very young, as the stings are delivered by tiny needles of crystallised silica, which is indigestible and can cause irritation quite apart from the sting.The sting is neutralised on cooking. The smell of fresh young nettle-tops steaming in a pan is very appetising, but a big colander full cooks down to hardly anything. A good idea is to incorporate them with another more substantial food like Dock Pudding, or a Homity Pie made with mashed potatoes.

I heard of a nettle-eating competition in a Dorset pub. The brave people were judged by the length of nettle stalk they had cleared of leaves – they ate the fully mature leaves raw. The technique I was shown was to pull the leaf off firmly grasp the nettle, comes to mind, roll it up tightly, place between the back teeth for a few hard chews, then a wash-down of cider.

A possible substitute, or even improvement, on the onion in Dock Pudding could be Ramsons. This is the local wild garlic, Allium ursinum; very common in wet woodlands.

A native plant well established in my garden is Good King Henry, Chenopodium bonus-henricus, which I originally grew from a packet seed. I have read that it’s the most vitamin-C rich green vegetable of all. A lot of plants are probably not grown to sell because of some fault they have such as a tendency to soon wilt, or this strange texture that Good King Henry has.

The sight of Ray Mears wallowing around in a swamp grubbing for Bulrush (Typha) roots which have to be rinsed clean of mud before being roasted on an open fire to cook the carbohydrate-rich insides is a big disincentive to wild plant foraging, but could be a life-saver I suppose if you’re cut off from civilisation.