Finders eaters

Had you been standing on the bridge over Faversham Creek early the Sunday before last, you would have seen a strange sight.   A lanky dark-haired man, head down scanning the ground like a truffle-hound, leading a gaggle of 15 tousled chefs from their warm minibus to a grassy strip beside the muddy creek. Striding ahead with the truffle-hound is Shane Osborn, chef and co-owner of the two Michelin-starred London restaurant Pied à Terre.   Every year, he treats his brigade to a day out.   This year, he decided to take them foraging along the Kent coastline with one of Britain’s leading wild food experts, Miles Irving.  


As the chefs gather around Irving, he plucks a handful of chickweed and passes it for everyone to try.   They nibble the nutty-tasting plant as Miles starts to explain how it can be used as a delicate bitter note in salads.   None of them has cooked with it before, and, aside from Osborn, only one of them has been foraging.  


Their pale, blinking faces reflect a life spent working in basement kitchens.   It feels odd being outside in the fresh air.   Miles, meanwhile, is keen to demonstrate the diversity of food that can be found in grassland.   Within minutes, he’s giving the chefs hairy bitter-cress leaves, daisy leaves and bristly oxtongue to try.   As he finds each plant, he explains how to identify, pick and prepare it.   Someone mutters “yuck” as they chew on a daisy leaf.   Miles recommends blanching it to remove some of the bitterness, before lightly finishing it in butter.


At first, it feels a bit like a school trip, but once everyone has tried some exquisite-tasting wild celery, the atmosphere relaxes.   Cheffy jokes abound as they eye up some plump white geese feeding in the mud nearby.   Lunch? Meanwhile, Miles whips out a knife to cut some dandelion leaves and buck’s-horn plantain. One of the chefs pulls out a bag and stuffs in sundry samples to evaluate back at the restaurant.   Irving – aka the Forager - is one of their wild food suppliers.


It’s a peculiarly intense gustatory experience sampling 13 different plants in quick succession.   Many of the younger chefs find the bitterness of plants such as pine-flavoured yarrow leaves and spicy pepperwort seeds quite unpleasant. “I see it as part of my job to help train and develop the palates of my chefs,” says Osborn. “There’s no doubt that foraging is a bit of a fad at the moment, partly because chefs are always searching for something new.   However, like all fashions, I’m sure that the good elements are here to stay.   I’ve been using wood sorrel for 10 years in my dishes and there are other ingredients, like sea purslane, samphire and wild garlic, that I’m sure will remain popular.”


Before long, we’re heading off to forage on the shoreline of a shingle beach, near Whitstable.   Spring is in the air and excited chat drifts on the sea breeze as Irving explains that much of what we see around us is edible.   Great clumps of Alexanders, brought over by the Romans, are recognized the chefs, who have braised the stems in chicken stock with tarragon.   Wild fennel, wild onion leaves and juicy sea beet leaves, evoke equal interest, but a real cheffy thrill comes when everyone bites into dittander leaves.   They taste of peppery hot horseradish.   According to Irving, dittander root was widely eaten before horseradish was introduced to Britain. Osborn is enthused:   “I’m going to experiment with this, may be with poached halibut or turbot topped with melted butter and a few fresh dittander leaves and root shavings.”


By the end of the morning we have tasted 39 different wild foods.   Everyone is ready for the final treat of the day, a Michelin-starred lunch at The Sportsman in Seasalter.   As we tuck into mounds of home-made bread and butter (the latter made with the restaurant’s own salt), we start to discuss the trip. Marcus Eaves, head chef of Pied à Terre’s sister Michelin-starred restaurant L’Autre Pied,   says: “When you’re out here foraging, it really makes you think about the tastes and flavours of different plants, whereas if someone rings you up and offers you something unfamiliar, you’re likely to say no out of force of habit.”  


Culinary ideas are buzzing across the table, particularly in relation to ingredients that had familiar flavour associations, such as the wild celery, sea beet and dittander. “I want to nurture their excitement,” says Osborn, “so we will try a couple of ingredients at a time and develop some dishes, first for lunch and then maybe dinner.”    The natural saltiness of sea beet might add an extra dimension to a spring fish dish, while the wild celery is heading for a light broth with scallops or mackerel.  


The day has laid bare a natural terroir for London chefs.   We’ve literally tasted the landscape.   As I eat my local slip sole with seaweed butter, it seems impossible that we could ever go back to ignoring such wonderful produce.


Miles Irving’s “The Forager Handbook” is published by Ebury, 26 March, 2011






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