Thursday, 20 October 2011


A few weeks ago, during what was an almost freakishly warm late September, I had the opportunity to go out on assignment foraging for wild foods with one of the most knowledgeable people in the country, Miles Irving. 

Miles has not only written one of the best books on the subject but also has a company that supplies foraged foods to top restaurants around the country and there was a wonderfully autumnal mist hanging low over the fields as I drove into the village in Kent where he bases his operations. 

Foraging has undergone something of a popularity boost in recent years with many people paying to go on courses aimed at learning to identify and sustainably gather the native plants and fungi that would once have been an essential part of the ordinary diet but have now fallen out of circulation.

On the relatively short walk along the nearby river Miles showed us some of the everyday plants that are easy and safe to identify. He also showed us the frightening similarity between some of the most deadly plants and their edible cousins along with a warning that they represent very advanced foraging knowledge, not to be attempted by anyone who has even the slightest doubt. 

The most shocking anecdote he told was of one of his course attendees who had grown up an orphan after her parents had both cooked and eaten what they described as cow-parsley soup and which turned out to be the inordinately poisonous hemlock.

He picked stem from the nearby undergrowth and showed us some of the identifying marks and characteristics and then, rather soberingly, showed us how little it would take to kill a person. It was a tiny amount, barely bigger than a coin and the leaf itself looked to the untrained eye exactly like the herb chervil.

As we walked further along the riverbank Miles picked mallow, sorrel, yarrow and rose hips amongst others, all of which we tasted and learned a little of their potential uses in cooking or traditional medicine.

The most surprising was the seeds of giant hogweed which not only looked amazing, backlit in the morning rays, but also tasted extraordinary - buttery, nutty, slightly citrus and herby.

On our return to the house we went into the preparation room. It was a hive of activity as three people worked relentlessly to fulfill orders placed by top restaurants. Boxes labeled with the name of the establishment were being checked against lists and pristine bags of various herbs and fungi were placed into them. All with a low-key semi-military efficiency.

Added to which, Miles himself was preparing sample bags to show to the chef team at Heston Blumethal's Dinner restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge, hoping to persuade them about these unusual and under-used flavours.

It is extremely important to stress at this point that no one should attempt to forage for food unless they have a good knowledge of what they are picking. Miles offers courses and has an excellent book on the subject but he urged caution even for those who were experienced.

"You can eat anything once, " he drily observed. "Just because it tastes ok doesn't mean it won't do you a lot of harm or even kill you."

"Even if you are experienced, there are certain families of plants that you should be extremely wary about."

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