Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a common deciduous tree in British woodlands. The leaves are edible for the first few weeks after they appear in the spring and the tree produces an edible nut.
Where does Common Beech grow?
Common Beech (also known as European Beech) is native to southern England, although there is some debate as to whether it was actually introduced up to 4-6,000 years ago. It can be found in much of Europe and seems to prefer well-drained and slightly acidic soils.
Beech was often planted for firewood, furniture and other uses and there are Beech plantations that are centuries old scattered across the UK.
Are Beech leaves edible?
There are two edible parts of the Common Beech – the leaves and the nut, AKA Beechmast. The leaves are best eaten when young and in the first few weeks after they appear on the tree. After that they tend to be too bitter and/or tough.
The nuts are slightly harder to collect – they are either out of reach of the human forager or they have been nabbed by the local squirrels before you get a chance to grab them. The nuts are on the bitter side and contain a decent amount of tannin, but not enough to stop them being regularly eaten by both humans and livestock in the past. The nuts can be gathered and pressed into oil.
The taste is like a sort of nutty lettuce, and a subtle texture that works well as an addition to salads or sandwiches.
Excessive consumption is discouraged as there is some evidence to suggest that they are toxic in large quantities, and for some people.
How to identify Common Beech
Beech trees can be identified by their smooth, grey trunks and the distinctive leaf-litter underneath them. Beech tends to be found in small (and occasionally large) stands with several trees close together – the leaves from previous years form a dense carpet underneath. Beech leaves take longer to break down than leaves of similar size from other hardwoods and this, along with a relative lack of light and other factors, leads to very little undergrowth establishing itself under a canopy of Beech trees.
Potential dangers and misidentification
The easiest mistake to make when looking for Beech trees is to confuse them with Tilia platyphyllos, sometimes known as Large-Leaved Lime. This tree is common in parts of England and has been used in herbal medicine.
Beech Leaf Noyau Recipe
There are several recipes found for Beech Leaf Noyau. Most agree on three key ingredients – Beech leaves, gin and sugar (sometimes honey).
1. Wash and dry enough Beech leaves to fill a large jar/container
2. Cover with gin
3. Leave for a week (some say a fortnight) then strain off liquid
4. For each pint add 1lb (453g) of sugar dissolved in water (some specify boiling water, volume changes but about 1/2 pint)
5. Add brandy (most recipes agree on ‘lots’) and stir
6. Bottle when cold
This really does capture the nutty-sweetness of Beech in a pleasing alcoholic drink. There’s a lot of variance in recipes and the timing for collection of your leaves seems to matter more than quantities of sugar etc. I have tried lots of variations and they’ve always been at least vaguely successful. The most it will cost you is some time.
And potentially some ruined gin.