It is all too easy to forget just how many wild plants are edible. It may take longer to pick ingredients than it does to buy them in a supermarket, but wandering and pondering whilst foraging is very therapeutic. You will return home with a basket of food, a healthy glow and a mind emptied of worries.
Caroline Davey, owner of Fat Hen Wild Food Cookery School, invited me to take part in a Wild Food Taster Day; with my passion for food and the outdoors, it was an offer I eagerly accepted.
It was a gloriously sunny morning when four keen foragers and I met Caroline in the small car park at Perranuthnoe near Penzance. We were enrolled on a Wild Food Taster Day, with a three hour foraging trip along hedgerows and the seashore, followed by cooking and eating our foraged ingredients. Armed with notepads, cameras and baskets we set off on our adventure. (I must just give Perranuthnoe a plug for having the nicest loos of any beach car park I know.)
Caroline spent eleven years working as an ecological consultant before setting up Fat Hen in 2007. Through her work she has acquired a vast knowledge of the Cornish landscape, footpaths, beaches and seasons. Over the past seven years, and with the arrival of her three children, she has gone from foraging for chefs and running cookery courses to establishing a wider cookery school based in a converted barn at her rural farmhouse. With the help of Mark Devonshire, who ran Rick Stein’s Seafood Cookery School for several years, she now runs courses as varied as Seafood Foraging and Cookery, Wild Food Cycling, and Forage and Feast Days in conjunction with The Porthminster Beach Café in St Ives and The Gurnard’s Head in Zennor.
Caroline’s knowledge of the plants she identified was astounding. She taught us about their habitats, flavours and history, how they are used in cooking around the world and, in some cases, medicines. We learnt how to identify plants and flowers at different stages of the year, and when and where we should be foraging them. Most importantly, we learnt what NOT to pick.
Below left: Black mustard flowers, strong and peppery, use them in a salad or a Bloody Mary. Below right: Black mustard leaves, also very strong, used in frittatas or salads or as a cooked green.
Above left: Burdock has a long white tap root, used as a root vegetable. Above right: Hogweed stem. Below left: Common mallow flowers brighten up a salad. Below right: Greater plantain has edible leaves and the leaves are better than dock leaves for nettle stings.
Above left: Apple mint adds flavour to salad dishes and meat, or simply pour boiling water over a sprig for fresh mint tea. Above right: Tree mallow flowers to add to a salad. Below left: Hogweed seeds have a sweet vanilla-y flavour, good for biscotti. Below right: Yarrow was used by Achilles to dress soldiers’ wounds as it stems blood flow. A more common is in salads, or dried to make tea.
Above left: Ribwort plantain’s seed heads have a curiously mushroomy flavour. Above right: Alexanders’ stems can be used like asparagus, and young leaves added to a salad. Below left: Rock samphire is named after St Pierre and delicious pickled, in a salsa verde or fritters, as we discovered later. Below right: Carragheen is often used as a gelling agent, a good vegetarian alternative to gelatine.
Above left: Serrated wrack is mainly used in beauty treatments but can also be used in cooking, in particular when it’s dried. Above right: Sea spaghetti is best treated as a vegetable and added to stews, soups, omelettes and salads, or deep fried.
By this stage we were beginning to flag, feeling the heat and in need of sustenance. Back at the car Caroline produced, as if by magic, refreshing homemade elderflower cordial and fresh bread, spread with her special mackerel pâté.
The pâté was made with ponzu (a Japanese sauce containing soy sauce, bonito (dried tuna flakes) and dried kombu seaweed) and pepper dulse. It was fresh, savoury and delicious, without the smoked mackerel flavour I was expecting, and full of umami.
Reinvigorated we headed back to Caroline’s idyllic farm and to the recently converted barn (above) housing her teaching kitchen which is full of character and charm, but equipped with all the mod cons.
Below left: the loo with a view, a luxurious composting toilet with views across the open countryside. Below right: Caroline’s children’s bug hotel.
Now it was time to cook. We all donned aprons, rolled up our sleeves and got to work sorting, washing and chopping our foraged flowers and leaves. We began with the pannacotta as that needed time to set, with Carragheen seaweed rather than gelatine as the setting agent. Then we moved swiftly on to preparing the laver cakes for our starter.
Under Caroline’s expert guidance we learnt to fillet mackerel and miraculously everyone left with all their fingers intact. Course by course we cooked and ate, learning so much about cooking and the ingredients on the way. Sitting together around the table bathed in sunshine in the garden, we chatted and enjoyed the delicious food.
Above left and right: deliciously savoury Laver seaweed & pancetta cakes with fennel & mussel sauce (or a poached egg for those of us with seafood allergies). Below left: fresh and succulent seaweed poached mackerel with zingy wild salsa verde, summer greens (including spear leaved orache and sea beet) & crispy rock samphire fritters. Below right: smooth and silky Carragheen pannacotta with Japanese knotweed compote (amazingly very similar to rhubarb compote) & moreish elderflower fritters.
Caroline emailed us all the recipes for everything we ate and cooked during the day and I am looking forward to recreating some of the dishes. I have already made a huge batch of elderflower cordial and have begun to incorporate more wild leaves and flowers into my salads.
Once again, thank you to Caroline for inviting me along, and thank you to the other foragers for their wonderful company during the day.
For more information about Fat Hen’s foraging and cookery courses please visit www.fathen.org or phone Caroline on 01736 810156.