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Kent Life - - Vine Life - WORDS: Caro­line Read PHO­TOS: Manu Palomeque

Since a marked rise in pop­u­lar­ity more than 15 years ago – when TV chef Hugh Fearn­leyWhit­tingstall was filmed cook­ing road­kill and pick­ing through hedgerows for his tea – the cult of wild food has con­tin­ued to grow.

Noma, the Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in Copen­hagen which has cre­ated a whole move­ment around gourmet for­ag­ing, is fre­quently voted the world’s best, and Bri­tish chefs too have de­vel­oped a love of wild in­gre­di­ents.

In Kent, Chartham-based For­ager Ltd, which has been sup­ply­ing wild food to restau­rants for 15 years, has re­cently moved into the con­sumer mar­ket, launch­ing for­aged food boxes.

De­liv­ered weekly to your door, they aim to in­tro­duce sub­scribers to to­tally wild in­gre­di­ents and pro­vide in­for­ma­tion with recipe cards and YouTube video clips.

Lack of knowl­edge is, af­ter all, the big­gest hin­drance to wouldbe for­agers. Hav­ing the abil­ity to look at a piece of land and recog­nise the edi­ble things and the ined­i­ble things is some­thing which only comes with re­search and a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence.

And it’s not even as sim­ple as pick­ing some­thing and eat­ing it. There are sev­eral dif­fer­ent uses for many plants and prepa­ra­tion is of­ten com­pli­cated.

The best op­tion for new­bies is to find a pro­fes­sional for­ag­ing tu­tor and go along to a course. There are dozens to choose from across the county and their fo­cus changes with the sea­sons.

MICHAEL WHITE:

Ru­ral Cour­ses, Frit­ten­den Michael White from Ru­ral Cour­ses in Frit­ten­den, near Cran­brook, be­gan his busi­ness af­ter de­cid­ing that life in the city was not for him.

“I was raised on a small­hold­ing in Kent so my par­ents were smallscale farm­ers and we for­aged as part of our lifestyle,” he says.

“My love of the coun­try­side just grew as I lived in Lon­don and I got the di­rect com­par­i­son. I got

While some of us call net­tles and dan­de­lions weeds, oth­ers think of them as lunch. We meet Kent’s

pro­fes­sional for­ag­ing tu­tors

more in­ter­ested in self-suf­fi­ciency as a way of avoid­ing a typ­i­cal route into em­ploy­ment.

“When I fin­ished my stud­ies I left Lon­don and be­came as self-suf­fi­cient as pos­si­ble – and for­ag­ing was a big part of that.”

So rather than set­ting out to be­come a for­ag­ing tu­tor, he learnt his trade as a means of sur­vival. Af­ter he moved back to the coun­try­side, Michael at­tempted to re­duce his cost of liv­ing so much that he would only have to earn a min­i­mal amount of money.

“I’ve al­ways been a prac­ti­cal per­son and a hard worker, so that’s where the cour­ses came in. The cour­ses are a way of us­ing my knowl­edge to earn an in­come through what other­wise could be a very dif­fi­cult way of life.”

Michael finds that many of his cus­tomers come with a keen in­ter­est in the coun­try­side al­ready. And there are those he calls ‘arm­chair for­agers’ who have de­vel­oped an in­ter­est through see­ing for­ag­ing on tele­vi­sion.

“Which is good,” he says,

“but some­times they’ve been in­spired by these very hammedup for­ag­ing ex­pe­di­tions, where around ev­ery cor­ner lurks an ab­so­lute del­i­cacy. It does the likes of me a slight dis­ser­vice be­cause it gives peo­ple un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions.

“The na­ture of for­ag­ing is that it in­volves a bit of work and get­ting out there.”

LU­CIA STU­ART:

The Wild Kitchen, Deal

An­other Kent for­ager is Lu­cia Stu­art, who has been run­ning

The Wild Kitchen in Deal since 2012. Liv­ing by the sea, Lu­cia doesn’t take her for­ag­ing ex­pe­di­tions to the woods or hedgerows but along the coast.

“My fa­ther was an amaz­ing cook and foodie,” says Lu­cia.

“He cre­ated de­li­cious things in my child­hood, like dan­de­lion salad with lamb chops roasted on a wood fire, sor­rel omelette and net­tle soup.

“I grew up gath­er­ing food that grew wild, not just be­cause it was ‘wild’ but be­cause it tasted won­der­ful and it was fun to col­lect.”

Hav­ing worked as a chef in Lon­don and owned a ru­ral café in the south of France for 10 years, she in­creas­ingly turned to wild food. An ex­per­i­men­tal cook, Lu­cia leads coastal for­ag­ing walks which fin­ish with a gourmet feast back at her Deal town­house.

“The closer we can con­nect the food to its ori­gin, the bet­ter,” she says. “When I am for­ag­ing in all the dif­fer­ent land­scapes in Kent – the White Cliffs, mud flats, rock pools, the se­abed, the seashore – I am never hap­pier. I see this in my cus­tomers as well. It’s hard to lure them off the land­scape some­times.”

Knock­ing up any­thing from sim­ple wild oys­ters and sea­weed to the ex­otic-sound­ing choco­late­cov­ered beech leaves and lilac blos­som Turk­ish de­light, Lu­cia says Kent al­ways has some­thing de­li­cious to of­fer.

“Spring brings ten­der greens – wild gar­lic and juicy stems such as Alexan­ders. Colour­ful sea­weeds ab­sorb sun­shine which they metabolise into healthy min­er­als. Late spring brings flavour­ful flow­ers and coastal leaves such as wild spinach. Sum­mer sees the coastal suc­cu­lents such as sam­phire.

“These au­tumn months bring mag­nif­i­cent ber­ries, seeds for spice, and sweet shell­fish – fat mus­sels and large oys­ters.”

GARY JOHN­STON AND NI­COLA CLOWES:

Jack Raven Bushcraft

But it’s not just about find­ing wild food. One of the for­ag­ing cour­ses run by Gary John­ston and Ni­cola Clowes of Jack Raven Bushcraft fo­cuses on find­ing nat­u­ral herbal reme­dies. The pair have been run­ning the busi­ness from their base at West­well, near Ash­ford, since 2011.

“We for­age in a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways,” says Gary. “For eat­ing and for mak­ing tra­di­tional herbal reme­dies.

“We run for­ag­ing for edi­ble plants in the spring and sum­mer and then move onto fruits and ber­ries in the late sum­mer and then fun­gus in the au­tumn.

“We for­age for plants for herbal uses from April to Septem­ber as dif­fer­ent plants come into flower at dif­fer­ent times of year.”

Ni­cola is a qual­i­fied herbal­ist, as well as hav­ing 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as a nurse. She takes clients on walks around hedgerows, mead­ows and wood­land to look at the many plants and trees that have tra­di­tion­ally been used by herbal­ists. These in­clude plan­tain, St John’s wort, yar­row, dan­de­lion, hawthorn and chick­weed.

“She looks at how to pos­i­tively iden­tify them and tell them apart from any po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous looka­likes,” says Gary. “And, af­ter a wild food lunch, we try out var­i­ous in­fu­sions and de­coc­tions be­fore mak­ing some oint­ments.”

Of course it’s not al­ways safe to go for­ag­ing with­out some­one knowl­edge­able. Many dan­ger­ous plants have been mis­taken for edi­ble ones in their time – most fa­mously hem­lock, which is of­ten taken for cow pars­ley.

Mush­rooms have a bad rep­u­ta­tion too, with ev­ery­one seem­ing to have a story about ‘a friend of a friend who poi­soned him­self with wild mush­rooms’.

Michael White’s ad­vice on safety is sim­ple. “Start small by learn­ing about a man­age­able num­ber of plants and fungi that you can safely iden­tify, then grad­u­ally add to your reper­toire each year.

“Al­ways be 100 per cent sure be­fore you eat any­thing and make sure you work with a de­cent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion book or re­sources on the in­ter­net. Best of all, get per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and learn from some­one more knowl­edge­able than you.”

Lu­cia Stu­art adds: “There are old for­agers and there are bold for­agers, but there are no old bold for­agers, as they say.”

All the pro­fes­sional for­agers agree that wild food is more nu­tri­tious than cul­ti­vated veg­eta­bles, which are of­ten grown purely for their looks.

At its deep­est level, for­ag­ing is about un­der­stand­ing na­ture and tap­ping into our an­cient hunter-gath­erer in­stinct. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that fans of this way of life are also of­ten en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. It’s hard not to be con­cerned with the en­vi­ron­ment when you’re spend­ing so much time out and about in it.

“For­ag­ing is about build­ing a con­nec­tion to the nat­u­ral world around us,” says Gary John­ston.

“It leads us to un­der­stand where our food tra­di­tion­ally came from and builds an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the won­der­ful en­vi­ron­ment around us. If peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate the en­vi­ron­ment, they’re go­ing to be more in­clined to help to pro­tect it. Which can only be a good thing.”

‘There are old for­agers and there are bold for­agers, but there are no old bold for­agers’

ABOVE: Al­ways iden­tify fungi be­fore pick­ing LEFT AND RIGHT: Michael White, for­ag­ing in Fit­ten­den

‘The closer we can con­nect the food to its ori­gin, the bet­ter’

ABOVE: Lu­cia Stu­art in her Wild Kitchen in DealLaven­der le­mon­adeElder­flower tea or wild fen­nel vodka tonic any­one?

LEFT:BE­LOW:

RIGHT: The in­gre­di­ents for plan­tain oint­ment BE­LOW: Gary John­ston and Ni­cola Clowes

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