AA - The Restaurant Guide 2014
Mat Follas discovers a bumper crop of wild garlic growing in the woods
All European countries have a deep-rooted culture and understanding of wild foods, yet in Britain, foraging is generally seen as something for the sandal-wearing hippy crowd, and is often referred to in the same breath as collecting road-kill and other unsavoury practices.
Historically, though, we foraged for key ingredients as much as any European country, yet this seems to have been lost as a result of land clearances during and after the Second World War, and the rise in the 1970s of ready meals as a status symbol, which really meant that eating meals prepared from wild foods was looked down upon as lower status dining.
Thankfully, this is something that is slowly beginning to change. Led by restaurants like L’Enclume and Le Champignon Sauvage, who consistently produce some of the best cuisine in the world, highly skilled chefs with a passion for amazing food are showing us how it can be enhanced by the remarkable flavours that wild ingredients can give.
My personal inspiration for wild foods came as a foreigner to this country: I saw one of my neighbours come back from a walk with a
basket of leaves and flowers he’d collected, which he then proceeded to turn into an amazing meal, with the only additions being a few potatoes and some chicken wings, bought for 10p each from the butcher. His thrift was more than a little admirable, but what shocked me was the explosion of remarkable flavours he achieved, and the underlying fun of what, to him, was an everyday occurrence. It's no surprise though that he hasn’t introduced foraging to his family, despite it being a lifelong habit (he's a man in his 80s) as, he says, "they wouldn’t eat this type of food".
My first wild food dish was scallops I’d dived for myself, barbecued and tossed in some melted butter with a few wild garlic leaves chopped through. Simple but absolutely delicious, and flavours that no shop-bought scallops or regular garlic could have provided. It’s a dish I replicated when I was on MasterChef and gained huge praise for from the judges. It made me appreciate how lucky I am to live in this part of Britain, and was the start of my journey to understand the produce that’s freely available.
The revival of wild food in popular culture has to be laid at the feet of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who brought an awareness that the green things often can be eaten, can be fun and, more than anything, can taste good.
A bunch of red-nosed farmers in a shed sampling scrumpy cider in the depths of winter is about as far away from the overly corporatized, manufactured life that so many of us were leading; it seemed a kind of nirvana, but in a terribly British way.
It lead us to Dorset on holiday, and we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to make the break from our old lives to something more real - we moved to Dorset and found ourselves in an area where farming and living off the land are part of the everyday. That way of living is a delight to us and part of the experience we want our guests to enjoy too.
Not everything about wild food foraging is great. It needs to be remembered that just because you can eat something, it doesn’t necessarily mean its good - a lot of things that you can eat to survive frankly don’t taste very nice, or of anything, so why bother?
I’ve seen cooks making the mistake of using a foraged ingredient to be trendy rather than trusting their taste buds when it’s obvious the ingredient is really adding very little to their dish.
I’m also not a fan of using wild ingredients sourced a long distance from a restaurant - I believe it should be something special about the area the restaurant is in and that the picking of the wild ingredients is tightly controlled to minimize damage to the environment. Many plants I pick in small amounts for personal use I would never use in my restaurant as the impact on the environment would be too great.
Keeping it local can often seem like a buzzword, but for restaurants that do it well, like those in this guide, do bring something truly special to the whole dining experience.
We need to be sensible when foraging: wild chervil and hogweed are great unusual ingredients, but they also often grow alongside a variety of Hemlock that can be mis-identified and is very poisonous - as Socrates found out to his cost. Similarly, lords & ladies, which is known to cause anaphylactic shock, often grows alongside wild garlic, and without care, can be picked by mistake. A death cap mushroom looks, to the untrained eye, like a common field mushroom.
My advice is never, ever start to forage using just a book to identify. Begin with two or three simple plants, such as wild garlic, nettles and blackberries, and thenget someone with proper experience to show you. I recommend you don’t forage for mushrooms at all unless you
are really committed to learning and take care - there are plenty of very good cultivated mushrooms for very little cost. However, there are some mushrooms that are more identifiable: hedgehog, chanterelle, puffballs and porcini are the only mushrooms I forage for - the rest I leave to the real experts.
A good friend of mine and a forager who used to supply our restaurant, the late Jo Francis, spent her life learning about mushrooms, and she had the best philosophy on the subject I’ve come across - there are 50 or so varieties of mushrooms that you can eat, and frankly only about 10 of them taste any good.
I believe her philosophy holds just as strongly for most wild foods. It is worth the effort to have, say, a top ten plants which are simple to identify, create flavour combinations that cultivated plants can’t easily achieve, and have a minimal impact on the environment. As you might have guessed, wild garlic would be at the top of my list!
Restaurants are windows to different worlds. There’s the classic formal restaurant we all know, with white starched tablecloths, silver service with fawning waiting staff, which still has its place in modern restaurant culture, but at the other end of the scale, where we The Wild Garlic sit, is more experiential, albeit a fairly gentle introduction to some of the more unusual flavours that can be found in this part of the UK.
Others certainly do it better than us: L’Enclume, Le Champignon Sauvage, The Elephant - all three AA Rosette awarded and above. We’re still on our journey and frankly delighted to be one of just 19 restaurants in Dorset to hold two AA Rosettes. We choose a casualness of style that reflects the type of restaurant we like to dine in, but I have seen foraged ingredients used abundantly in far more formal dining environments too.
So what next for foraging as a food trend ?
Trends come and go by their nature. We now see that Copenhagen's Noma, is no longer ranked as the number one restaurant in the world, and The Fat Duck and other restaurants that focus on molecular gastronomy are now struggling to stay in the top 50.
The next movement, in my humble opinion, will focus on elegance of presentation and using a mixture of recent trends - molecular gastronomy and foraged and unusual ingredients - but with a deep-rooted style based on classic techniques and classic dishes. By classic, I mean classic to that region, country and culture, and in that, I think British restaurants really can, and do, hold their own. We have a rich heritage of traditional dishes, many of which are being re-introduced into restaurant culture as we start to take a real pride in great British dishes, cooked well.
As part of that whole movement, I believe foraging is now moving into the mainstream, as many restaurants now use ingredients that would have been considered foraged and really quite daring only a few years ago. Samphire is now ready available; specialist companies supplying the restaurant trade now grow ingredients like sea kale, a Victorian delicacy that was cultivated until the 1970s and is now making a slow comeback.
I’m delighted to have played a small part in bringing wild food foraging into the mainstream of the restaurant trade and into the public awareness - it’s a special and fun part of our cultural heritage that should not be lost.
You can learn more about foraging by joining Mat Follas on one of his one-day wild food courses. The course starts with a drink and a chat about edible wild plants, followed by a few hours exploring the countryside and seashore looking for plants of culinary value, before heading back to The Wild Garlic for a late three-course lunch hosted by Mat.
See this article in AA - The Restaurant Guide 2014