Hawthorn leaf buds, otherwise known as bread-and-cheese to country children who nibbled them on the way to school, are the little tassels of tender young leaves clustered round infant buds. They first appear as a fuzz of greenery in the hedgerow. Pick with care - the prickles that protect new growth from predators such as ourselves are remarkably sharp. If you’re not going to use them immediately, store in the fridge in a plastic bag or a box, with a dribble of water.
The flavour of the leaves when young, before the flower buds open, is mild, peppery and sweet. After the flowers open, the taste of the leaves becomes increasingly bitter, though a brief soaking in cold water with salt will soften the flavour. Use the young leaves raw to liven up a dull green salad, or sprinkle over warm new potatoes dressed with olive oil and salt, or combine with parsley fifty-fifty in a tabbouleh with mint. All wild leaves have a stronger flavour than their cultivated cousins; so a little goes a long way.
In cooking, use as you would parsley: as a finishing stir or decorative sprinkle on a soup or stew – so useful at a time when the parsley patch is not yet productive (mine has trouble surviving the winter). The robust flavour of the mature leaves, finely chopped, works well in a stuffing for a rolled lamb shoulder or roast chicken. Stir into soured cream as a sauce for smoked fish – salmon, eel, trout; use to replace parsley in fishcakes and fish pies; it works well in a garlickly chimichurri to serve with grilled meats and in a salsa verde as a dip for new potatoes or the first green asparagus spears, blistered under the grill.
ELISABETH LUARD, @elisabethluard.