Ed­i­ble flora

Learn­ing to for­age with de­li­cious food.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in Toller Por­co­rum, Eng­land

“This,” says our guide James Feaver, “is our main course.”

We were stand­ing in front of a dung heap in a high meadow in the English coun­try­side. Push­ing up out of the ooze was a low-grow­ing weed. He bent down, plucked a sprig and held it up.

“Fat hen. Hu­mans have eaten it for thou­sands of years. We’re go­ing to need a lot of it.”

Af­ter a glance among us, my fam­ily and I set about pick­ing with an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of gusto. When you are for­ag­ing for your food you can’t be too squea­mish about lit­tle things like cow dung be­neath your fingers.

I have long been fas­ci­nated with the idea of liv­ing off the land, find­ing sus­te­nance among the wild plants that teem in hedges and fields. So a week’s hol­i­day in Dorset, in south­west Eng­land — a county burst­ing with pic­ture-book coun­try­side — gavemethe chance to see how abun­dant na­ture’s larder re­ally is.

For­ag­ing is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in theUKand there are many teach­ers to choose from. On a rec­om­men­da­tion, I con­tacted Hedgerow Har­vest and booked a half-day course for me, my part­ner Fon and our 7-year-old son, Jimmy.

Ona clas­sic English­sum­mer’s day — mean­ing we ex­pe­ri­enced all weather conditions in one af­ter­noon— wemet up with James Feaver, who gave up of­fice work for pro­fes­sional for­ag­ing eight years ago. He now runs cour­ses in south and south­west Eng­land, but mostly in Dorset, his adopted home.

Wemet him in the vil­lage of Toller Por­co­rum, donned rub­ber boots and light wa­ter­proof jack­ets, and set off in search of wild proven­der.

We spent the next fe­whours walk­ing through lanes hedged in with soar­ing banks, down tracks drenched in bird­song, be­side clear streams and across un­cut mead­ows in search of in­gre­di­ents for a three­course meal.

If likeme you can’t tell wild sor­rel from a blade of grass, this quickly be­comes daunt­ing. But Feaver has gim­let eyes and an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of the ed­i­ble.

High in a hedgerow, a spray of tiny white flowers stood proud of the fo­liage. He hooked it with his hazel stick, pulled it­downto pick­ing height, and in­haled. “The smell of sum­mer,” he says. For cen­turies, coun­try-folk have used the fra­grant el­der­flower to add a zesty fla­vor to food and drink. Now it would bring its zing to our dessert. We plucked head af­ter head. I lifted up Jimmy so he could join the har­vest.

In quick or­der we found red cur­rants, wild mint and tiny, sweet, wild straw­ber­ries. The wicker bas­ket James pro­vided — a nice touch — be­gan to fill.

So far so idyl­lic, but this ar­ca­dia comes with thorns.

Of the many rules of for­ag­ing the most im­por­tant is this: Don’t eat any­thing un­less you are 100 per­cent cer­tain you know what it is. Some ed­i­ble plants look un­can­nily like ones that are deadly. For ex­am­ple, cow­pars­ley goes well in sal­ads but is eas­ily mis­taken for some­thing you wouldn’t want near your din­ner plate: hem­lock.

Other rules in­clude don’t up­root any­thing (it’s il­le­gal), only take sus­tain­ably and don’t pick from ground-hug­ging plants near foot­paths “where dogs can wee on them.” That was Jimmy’s fa­vorite rule.

Time was get­ting on. From Toller Por­co­rum we drove down steep, nar­row lanes to a nearby beach. Here you can see the stun­ning coast­line sweep in an arc from Port­land in Dorset right into neigh­bor­ing east Devon. A trove of fos­sils has earned it the name Juras­sic Coast and UNESCO World Her­itage sta­tus.

But we weren’t there for beauty or ge­ol­ogy. We were there for sea beet leaves, a close rel­a­tive of gar­den spinach that grows in low belts along the peb­bly fore­shore. More free food, right at our feet.

But don’t go thinking you can kiss good­bye to su­per­mar­kets just be­cause your eyes have been opened. That’s not the idea of the course.

“For­ag­ing isn’t re­ally about sur­vival,” Feaver has said at the start. “It’s about tak­ing the best of the wild and adding it to con­ven­tional in­gre­di­ents to make great-tast­ing food.”

Great tast­ing? We’d be the judges of that.

Back at our hol­i­day cot­tage, Feaver su­per­vised the prepa­ra­tion of the feast. For starters, sea beet soup. For main course, fat hen pesto bake, with more fat hen as a side dish, washed down with sparkling el­der­flower wine. To finish, el­der­flower and goose­berry fool, gar­nished with wild straw­ber­ries.

It was a rev­e­la­tion, es­pe­cially the sea beet soup which was one of the most de­li­cious soups I have ever had: rich, vel­vety and homey, like swal­low­ing a big bowl of con­tent­ment.

Ithad­beena long­day. We’dstarted at 1:30 pm and the last spoon didn’t scrape its empty bowl till 9 pm.

As he packed away his stick, bas­ket and scis­sors, Feaver said that af­ter do­ing the course, “peo­ple look at the coun­try­side with dif­fer­ent eyes.”

Yes, I thought. With eyes like din­ner plates.

For­ag­ing isn’t re­ally about sur­vival. It’s about tak­ing the best of the wild ... to make great­tast­ing food.” James Feaver, for­ag­ing guide

PHO­TOS BY JERRY HARMER / AP

Clock­wise from top: Fon­thip Boon­mak left, James Feaver, cen­ter, and Boon­mak’s son Jimmy Harmer, right, gather ed­i­ble sea beet leaves near south­ern Eng­land’s Juras­sic Coast; James Feaver, left, shows red cur­rants to Jimmy Harmer and his mother on a hunt for wild ed­i­bles in the county of Dorset in south­west Eng­land; the trio through a high meadow in the county of Dorset.

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