The Forager's Calendar
Bistort Persicaria bistorta
As a matter of principle, it is best to avoid all wild plants for which there is only one recipe. It tells us that the plant in question is edible, but only just, and that the recipe is more a matter of tradition or over-determination than inherent culinary virtue. Rowan (for the jelly) is one, Bistort (for the northern delicacy known as ‘dock pudding’) is another. ‘Dock’ may seem odd when referring to anything made with Bistort, but is simply explained by it being in the dock family. This has not saved some writers from assuming the pudding to be made from the common and the (even more unpleasant to eat) dock.
Bistort is a common plant in the north-west of England, almost absent from central and eastern England and occasional in southern England, Wales and Scotland. It is a plant of wet meadows, wet roadsides and banks. Despite my low opinion of its properties as a food, it is a beautiful plant with long, bright green pointed leaves and a black root which often forms an ‘S’-shape. It is from the root that the plant receives it names which mean ‘twice twisted’. The pretty flower-head is cylindrical and composed of a multitude of pink blossoms. The flowers appear in June, but the leaves are collected when young, in April or late March. The leaves are edible, if a little past their best, once the flowers are formed, so knowledge of the appearance of the leaves and location of the plant (which grows in dense patches) is needed if you wish to pick them young.
The early season of Bistort coincides with the latter part of Lent and the making of dock pudding. Stinging Nettles are another ingredient and I suspect the dish is a nod in the direction of the ‘bitter herbs’ used in the Jewish festival of Passover which occurred around the same time as the Passion of Christ. Bistort is known by several names including ‘snake-weed’ (because of the shape of the root) and ‘sweet dock’, but also ‘passion-dock’ and ‘patience’. The last one is no-doubt a corruption of ‘passion’.
A recipe is supplied in the Leeds Mercury in 1938 by a Mrs. Emily Spence: ‘Wash a bundle of nettle and dock leaves, chop finely and boil until tender in very little water. Pour off most of the water and stiffen the boiled leaves with oatmeal….When cool form into croquettes and fry with a slice of ham or bacon. They are delicious’. Another writer (Yorkshire Evening Post, 1953) is considerably more ambiguous in his or her assessment, saying that, ‘Once tasted, dock pudding is never to be forgotten’.