Hops And Hop Shoots
By Mike on Monday, May 2, 2011, 22:36 - Permalink
May 2011 - I found some hops growing wild in a hedgerow. It's a little early to be looking to harvest the fragrant flowers, but in spring, the tender shoots are available to pick as a green vegetable.
Hops - Humulus lupulus - a phenomenally fast growing twining climber with three-lobed, toothed leaves and tough, wiry fibrous stems.
The stems are covered with tiny backward-pointing bristles which snag and catch on just about everything, helping the plant to maintain purchase on twigs and branches as it climbs.
The flowers, when they appear in late summer, are clusters of bell-like cones, composed of overlapping pale green scales. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.
They were supposedly introduced to Britain by the Romans, but for use as a green vegetable (which is what I'm trying here). Only later, around the turn of the first millennium did they start finding a use as flavouring and preservative in beer.
The part of the plant of interest here is the tender growing tips of the shoots.
In spring, harvesting these will do the plant no harm at all - it'll just send out new side shoots from below the point the shoots are picked.
Lower down, the stems are tough and stringy - so the best way to pick them is just to find the lowest point at which the growing shoot separates easily when pulled.
I only picked a couple of handfuls of shoots - but it's enough to have a proper taste.
After rinsing them under the tap, I dropped them wet into a hot pan with some butter and a splash of white wine.
In about three or four minutes, they had turned dark, fresh green and wilted.
I served the shoots simply with a slice of buttered bread.
The taste is pleasant, but not remarkable.
The texture, however, makes this wild vegetable a bit tricky. The bristly nature of the stems persists through cooking (or at least, it did through the light cooking I gave them - and I didn't want them to discolour through overcooking). This makes them feel wooly in the mouth, and hard to swallow.
It's said that Hop shoots are similar to asparagus, but in my opinion - and at least this time - they fall short of the mark.
Hops As A Vegetable
I'm just not sure Hop shoots are the delicious and delicate wild vegetable that their reputation seems to suggest - maybe I did something wrong, but it's hard to see how they could be made palatable in texture, as a whole vegetable, without being cooked to the extent that they start to lose appeal in terms of colour and nutrition.
Apparently they can be cooked in omelettes and made into soup - perhaps these are better options. If you find them growing in great abundance, and the terminal shoots are plump, it might be worth picking them for these purposes.
If you have an experience of eating hop shoots that went better than mine, I'd love to hear about it.
Update - August 2011
August 2011 - I'm planning to brew my own beer later on this year, so I set out to find some hops to use in it.
What Are Hops?
Hops are the cone-like female flowers of - Humulus lupulus - a fast growing twining climber with three-lobed, toothed leaves and tough, wiry fibrous stems.
They're not exactly wild in Britain, but can be found in hedges and woods where they have escaped from cultivation in fields and gardens. They tend to be regionally common - that is, if you find one plant, you'll probably find other specimens not too far away.
Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants - and unfortunately, the specimen I visited earlier in the year to pick shoots (see above) is a male.
So I had to look around a little further - but quite easily found some female plants in various hedgerows within a mile or two of my home - and in perfect condition for picking.
The pale green, nodding flowers are borne in dropping clusters - not always immediately apparent, but looking up through the plant from underneath, there were plenty to be found.
They're quite delicate and easily bruised - best picked in whole sprigs, rather than as individual flowers (leaving the stalks on makes them easier to hang up for drying too).
These are wild, or at least feral hops - and the flowers are fairly small - less than 2cm in length. Cultivated varieties often bear great cascades of larger flowers.
I picked a large double handful of hops - enough, hopefully, for one batch of beer making.
But I'm not ready to start brewing just yet, so I'll need to preserve them. They can be frozen or dried.
At commercial scales, they're dried in an oasthouse using artificial heat, but I won't need anything so elaborate.
To dry them, I just strung them together and hung them in an airy corner of a room, not in direct sunlight.
In a couple of days, they were papery and completely dry. I packed them in a plastic bag and sucked the air out to keep them as fresh as possible.
Before I can start brewing, I need to complete Project Wholegrain, which will provide the barley I need to make malt for my beer.
The flowers produced by the male plants are just big clusters of frothy little blossoms - no good for brewing.
In addition to their primary use as a flavouring and preservative for beer, female hop flowers are also used in herbal medicine - a small pillow stuffed with hops is reputed to aid sleep, but I have no idea if this is truly effective.
Update (Much Later)
Project Wholegrain unfortunately didn't yield enough barley to make beer and other priorities took precedence - and that's as far as this project ever went. I do now know where I can get plenty of hops when I am ready to try this all again...