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Saturday, 6 June 2009

Event report: Wild Food Forage

How much food can be gathered for free and from the wild? Can common weeds be a substitute for regular shopping? What's safe to eat? And are any of these wild plants really worth eating?
These were were some of the questions answered during Sunday's foraging expeditition around Henham Park in Suffolk. Guided by Jacky Sutton-Adam, The Wild Foodie, a 20-strong group of intrepid foragers gathered for Food Safari's first wild food event. Foraging for wild food is by its very nature an unpredictable activity, affected by changing seasons and weather conditions but the rain held off and over the course of two hours and three sites we identified and tasted a multitude of plants.

We were guests of Henham's owner Hektor Rous who
kindly let us roam wild across private land. (Tip: when foraging always get the permission of the landowner). Our first spot close to Henham's luxury B&B The Stables yielded a range of wild plants some of which can found in my back garden!

  • Nettles - steam like spinach
  • Ground elder - use chopped as a herb

  • Ground ivy - makes a great restorative herb tea
  • Cleavers (aka 'Sticky Willie') - steam the stems like asparagus
  • Elderflowers - highly scented, use in cordials on in the panna cotta

  • Sea purslane - good in salads
  • Samphire - steam like asparagus
  • Fat hen - steam like spinach
  • Chickweed - use tender leaves raw in salads
  • Hop shoots - raw in salads or check out Sophie's tempura below

We then moved to a very different part of the estate on the beautiful River Blyth estuary. A walk along the shore revealed surprisingly succulent plants such Sea Purslane and my favourite of the day Samphire. This classic wild plant teams wonderfully with simply cooked fish and is typically available in July from fishmongers. There are some nice Samphire recipes here from Hugh Fearley-Whittingstall's Guardian food column. It's too early in the season to pick samphire but we collected plenty of Sea Purslane for lunch.

From the Henham estate we moved to the more domestic surroundings of The Anchor's allotment at Walberswick which provides a steady supply of veg to their kitchen and gathered salad ingredients including the wonderfully named fat hen and the ubiquitous chickweed.

The forage culminated with a memorable feast at The Anchor. All that foraging had made us hungry and it was fascinating to see how wild ingredients can be transformed into dishes in the hands of a professional chef. Sophie Dorber produced some amazing dishes featuring the wild plants we had gathered: samphire fritters made with gram (chickpea) flour, hop shoot tempura, a Moro-influenced carrot and ground elder salad, risotto made with a wild mushroom called Chicken of the Woods (on account of its juicy texture reminscent of chicken breast), flash-fried sea cabbage and a dreamy elderflower panna cotta. One thing that struck me was how some of the 'edgier' flavours of the raw plants were mellowed by cooking to become star ingredients

Mark Dorber served a range of beers to match the dishes starting with a thirst-quenching, elderflower scented real ale from Lowestoft's Green Jack brewery called Summer Dream and including a number of belgian gueze and lambic style beers made with wild yeasts.

By 4.30 everyone was feeling pretty sated and despite the unusually dry spring meaning we couldn't leave with basketfuls of produce, we did leave with some new skills and full stomachs! You really can eat wild!

We'll be running more Wild Food in a Day forays for mushrooms and other wild foods in the autumn. Please visit our web site for more information.

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