A taste on the wild side
PUBLISHED: 12:28 07 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:28 07 October 2014
As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness begins, now's the time to explore our fields, woods and hedgerows for wild food. From fruit and fungi to edible weeds and nuts, there's a huge variety of ingredients ripe for the picking. Doretta Sarris Hogan goes in search of a free lunch
Autumn. It’s always been my favourite season; a time for tranquil country walks through fallen leaves; precious conkers bursting from their shells and the smell of woodsmoke curling from garden bonfires. But now there’s something different in the air: an unmistakable frisson, a sense of excitement, as an increasing number of wild-food enthusiasts throughout the county are picking up their baskets and preparing to make the most of the bumper crop of fruits and berries weighing heavy hanging on the boughs this year.
Thanks to TV foraging champions such as Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the pursuit has seen a huge rise in popularity and, with the heavy rainfall last winter followed by a hot summer, enthusiasts and beginners alike are not about to be disappointed.
‘We are guided by nature, so it’s always hard to predict exactly what is going to be in season,’ explains Stuart Blackman, otherwise known as the Country Bumpkin. ‘But all wild fruit, such as plums and blackberries, as well as nuts, seem to be in abundance this year. This is a great time for foraging, and it’s definitely become more popular. People want to know where their food is coming from.’
Blackman, a native of Woolmer Green, has always been a fan of eating off the land – when he worked at Rank Xerox, he would frequently bring in tasters of recipes he’d concocted using foraged plants or locally-caught game. ‘People would ask me for the recipes, or to bring in more,’ he says. Taking voluntary redundancy allowed him to turn his passion for wild food into a profession and he now runs the Old Dairy Tea Shop in Tewin and organises foraging days and wild-food nights. If you fancy a walk on the wild side, you can join him for a full day’s foraging which, be warned, can include ferreting for rabbits as well as gathering edible wild plants from the hedgerows surrounding Woolmer Green. Or if you prefer to let him do all the hard work for you, you can expect to find rustic delicacies such as nettle soup, pheasant, squirrel, hogweed tart and elderflower and pine-needle shots on the menu at one of his wild-food nights, which take place at pubs in the area.
Turn back the clock of course, and foraging was once simply part of everyday life, and there are staples that any of us can gather today. Apart from wild blackberries, raspberries, crab apples and sloes, look out for wild garlic (the best time for harvesting the bulb is between July and December, when the plant is dormant); hogweed (abundant everywhere, it’s a member of the carrot family and used like spinach); giant puffballs (pick only if pure white like a marshmallow – inside and out – and slice before grilling or frying); haws (the red berries have a nutty taste); elder-berries (make wine, syrup or add to pies and crumbles); and hazelnuts (pick when the leaves turn yellow – if the squirrels don’t get there first!).
Then there are mushrooms, which can be found growing widely across the county, particularly during September and October. But how can we be sure that we are picking something that’s safe to eat, and not a potential poison? ‘Identification is so important,’ explains Richard Osmond of the Foragers, a group of wild-food chefs at the Verulam Arms pub in St Albans. ‘I recommend that if you’re foraging independently, rather than as part of a guided group, you should first put the emphasis on identifying the plant rather than eating it. Get as many reference books as you can, look at internet resources, be as pleased with yourself for identifying a poisonous plant as an edible one.
‘Some of our favourite foraged mushrooms are large tree-growing fungi – often the strangest and largest mushrooms we find. Chicken of the Woods is bright yellow, with the texture of tender chicken and the flavour of rich egg yolk. Beefsteak fungus looks like a raw slab of steak sprouting from an oak. Squeeze it and it bleeds.’
The Foragers has been a must-visit on the Hertfordshire dining scene since 2010, with a ground-breaking menu of cleverly-concocted dishes and drinks incorporating locally-foraged ingredients.
Highlights for this season will include sloe gin cured trout and braised and smoked short-rib beef served with a hedgerow barbecue sauce). There is also a recently-launched range of products, so you don’t have to go foraging to bring the wild flavours of the countryside to your table at home, with hogweed salt, bear garlic salt and Mars Silvanus (god of the forest) wild forest liqueur to name just a few.
But if you do want to get down and dirty, you can join the group on one of the monthly walk-and-banquet forays (the location is emailed a week before the event). There is also the Saturday forage, a guided walk around one of the team’s favourite Herts foraging spots which involves identifying edible plants before, naturally, heading back to the pub for lunch.
‘If a meal tastes better when you cook it yourself, you should try tasting the meal that you found for yourself in a forest clearing at 6am on a dewy October morning,’ says Richard. ‘It’s all about that satisfaction, excitement and taste.’
>>> TOP FORAGING TIPS
• Don’t forage on private land or Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
• Be considerate of wildlife – pick in moderation.
• Take care not to damage surrounding plants.
• Wash all foraged plants and fruits thoroughly.
• Recommended reading: Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers by Roger Phillips (Macmillan, £15.50).