13 September 2010

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch?

Oh yes there is. We're surrounded by food. I don't mean the usual high street outlets, the supermarkets (in all their shapes and sizes) or the local gems. I mean more literally. That wall over there, for example, might be covered in edible ivy. That clump of grass over there could be hiding some bristly ox-tongue. And as for those rocks when the tide goes out, why, it's a veritable feast...

Welcome then to the strange, fascinating and endlessly enjoyable world for foraging. As an offshoot of Mrs L's passionate "allotmenting" (she's the project manager and gardener, I'm in charge of destruction, strimming and other petrol-driven carnage), shes a voracious reader of gardening columns and such like. A little while back, she came across a young man named Fergus Drennan thanks to a Guardian article and, a few months later, with three friends and a lovely couple from Manchester, we found ourselves scrabbling around the Kent coast for, essentially, a free lunch. And some free garnishes, some free drink ingredients, some free things we can pickle and, indeed, most of the ingredients for a free dinner that will linger long in this mind.

The day was an education, packing in more information than I could possibly convey in a blog post. Rather than the specifics then - and a risk that someone might read this and start tucking into plants they've found on the walk to the tube - I'm going to go for broad strokes, lots of pictures, and a hearty recommendation that, if you can, get a foraging lesson from someone like the engaging, passionate Fergus who really knows their stuff - and then follow it up with a study of and constant reference to some of the excellent books that are available. Even if you never use the knowledge you glean again, the experience of standing in the pitch black, on a windswept and slightly drizzly beach, late on a Saturday night eating apple and plum crumble that's been cooked on open fires is one that, frankly, everyone should experience. It was slightly burned, a couple of rogue stones and pips had made it into the fruit (my bad, but you try peeling and coring an apple in the dark on a shingle beach) but it might just be the most delicious, warming pud I've ever eaten.

Herne Bay - or "nature's supermarket" as I shall now look at it...

Fergus talks us through the joys of seaweed harvesting


Yep, we're going to eat all of the above later.


We're also going to see this stuff later. It's a jelly made from a seaweed called carragheen that can be used as a natural gelatin replacement. For the record, this blob smelled like green tea.
Another reason to get professional advice: the speed with which the tide comes in or, as I now like to think of it, nature restocking its shelves.




Assorted edible vegetation from along the coastal path. The bottom one - sea purslane - was my favourite: crisp, salty and delicious.

Further inland, we found several rings of mushrooms

Beautiful, deep red hawthorns

Two minutes of gathering on a nearby common and we'd harvested a very fine crop of sorrel

Not to mention a decent crop of nettles - just the top three leaves or so, off non-flowering plants

Mrs L gets down and dirty with a sieve full of hawthorns, a smattering of blackberries and a splash of apple juice, to make an intense and simple fruit jelly.

The edible ivy that grows, conveniently, opposite Fergus' house.
Back to the house, we all helped prep lunch - the orange berries are the incredible, vitamin C-rich sea buckthorns

Ivy and wild rocket flowers for the salad

Within an hour or so, the hawthorn jelly had set enough to be sliced and cut, artfully, into stars.

The starter: the nettles we'd collected, plus some water cress and seaweed, blitzed with stock into a dark green, rich, hearty and tasty soup.

Something we didn't play a part in: a quiche that Fergus had made earlier with lots of garden vegetables and baked in a crust that is, remarkably, 20% acorn flour. Making that took 10 weeks of constant washing - thanks to two pillowcases and a nearby river - to remove the toxins and tannins, and a lot of grinding. An intriguing nutty flavour.

Probably the prettiest thing I'll eat this year. A flower-dotted salad made of all the things we'd collected earlier, plus a little feta and some artfully carved radishes.

Remember the seaweed gel above? The same plant was also used to set this panna cotta dessert, garnished with a star of clove-cured apple and the hawthorn jelly


A communally-churned sea buckthorn sorbet. Sharp, refreshing, oddly kumquat-like.

Cherry plums. Bemused - but glad - that the people living opposite the trees don't consider picking the fruit that grows there.

A remarkable - and huge - giant puffball, plus a few smaller examples. All secured from around a nearby go-karting track.

The beach at dusk. As dramatic a setting for supper as you could wish. Not that we could see it for long...

The "kitchen"

Wrapping sea bass fillets in seaweed

It's a brave man that deep fries seaweed in a wok over open flame.


Some of the deep fried results. The bottom one - gut weed - is the one traditionally served in Chinese restaurants. The best though was flash-fried dulse which tasted like crispy bacon.

The fruit - not a bad pile given how dark the prep time was

Dinner. Seaweed wrapped sea bass - amazingly moist, beautifully seasoned thanks to the saltiness of the seaweed - sea beet and tempura puffball. Amazing what you can do with a pan, a wok, some kindling and a lighter.

Look carefully. See the wok? That contains flour, butter, oats and nuts for the crumble topping.

Thanks to Andy's expert driftwood foraging, we had a rudimentary table to serve and eat from. This is the crumble kit: stewed fruit, the crispy topping and slightly smoky custard. Plus my empty bowl which wouldn't remain empty for long...

Best. Pudding. EVER.

8 comments:

adscomms said...

Looks absolutely incredible...

The Shed said...

That really is rather impressive, what a day.

I'm never eating another radish that isn't cut into a toadstool...

Chiara said...

Your weekend sounds like an absolute dream! I would love to experience that, alongside a generous helping of that sorbet!

Anna said...

That is, without doubt, the prettiest salad I've ever seen. I wouldn't know whether to eat it or sing The Sound of Music at it.

Kavey said...

So glad it was such a good day... I would have come but it just seemed too full on long for my feeble stamina-lacking self!

Jonathan said...

Good grief. That's some serious foraging. Hats off to you Sir.

fran39 said...

What a wonderful post of a wonderful day.

Claire said...

Hi Neil,.this is super impressive, Fergus said you might be able to send me a picture of the panacotta, the recipe for which he would like us to feature in a Wild Adventures supplement I am writing for Trail and Country Walking magazines. Would you be able to send one over? My email is claire@maxted.me.uk
Look forward to hearing from you soon,
Claire
(freelance journalist writing for Trail and Country Walking magazines)