Sophie Wren shares a sense of place in Yorkshire led by the abundance and taste of bistort.
In the sheltered nook of a valley I kneel by the side of a stream and gather a bunch of large, spade-shaped leaves. The stream’s peaty water slides under a rough stone footbridge and onwards, towards woodland of twisty oaks. This place feels ancient, and I think about the people of old who might have stopped here to gather the very same leaves. The leaves are vibrant green in the sunlight and have a beautiful pink tint to their slender stems. They belong to a plant called common bistort, Bistorta officinalis, which has an abundance of local nicknames including ‘passion dock’, ‘sweet dock’, ‘Easter man giant’, ‘dockings’, ‘ledger’ and ‘snake root’. These many affectionate names hint at the plant’s local significance; it has a long history of being eaten in Calderdale, Yorkshire and is the key ingredient in an Easter time breakfast dish known as ‘dock pudding’.
In search of a Local Legend
Bistort is abundant in parts of Cumbria and Southern Scotland, as well as Calderdale. Elsewhere in the country it can be scarce or absent. I have searched many a stream bank in Northumberland, for example, and only found one small patch.
Look for it on the ‘ledges’: banks of rivers and streams, as well as in damp meadows. It grows in lively congregations and if you ever walk the river path between Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd you will see it carpeting the banks. Looking like the smart cousin of broadleaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius), common bistort has neatly-edged leaves and pink, ‘winged’ stems that differentiate it from members of the dock family.
Where its rhizomes have been exposed by the flow of the water you might see stout and twisted red-brown roots. The people of the past likened these roots to snakes, and their appearance may have been the inspiration for some of its more archaic names, such as ‘adderwort’. Flowers appear in summer and the pretty pink heads have an almost fluffy appearance, growing in spikes on tall, slender stems.
Dock Pudding for Breakfast
The local traditions surrounding common bistort in Calderdale are still very much alive and well. Every year around Easter time, people gather for the World Dock Pudding Championships in the village of Mytholmroyd, where contestants cook up their version of the savoury pudding in front of a crowd, ready for the judges’ taste test. The competition was founded in 1971 to keep the pudding-making tradition alive.
Basic ingredients for the pudding, which is traditionally served as part of a cooked breakfast, are: common bistort, nettles, oatmeal, onions and seasoning. There are many variations and ‘secret ingredients’ included by those who enter the competition. My colleague and good friend Leonie Morris devised an extremely tasty recipe, which is a contemporary twist on the traditional method and includes a spoonful of miso paste.
If you are interested in a unique way to enjoy this tasty wild food, check out my bistort bhajis video and recipe. The bhajis include two wild ingredients and cost just 50p to make.
There is something extremely special about gathering bistort along local stream banks, and cooking up dock pudding over a campfire, with our Live Wild foraging groups. Perhaps it is the feeling of being closer to our ancestors as we wander well-worn paths, chatting and laughing, nibbling the raw leaves and collecting handfuls in our baskets. There is also a sense of creating new stories that are part of a future legacy. Who knows, perhaps over time some new nicknames for this plant might even emerge!