Last weekend I had the great pleasure of running a series of foraging walks and wild cocktail making workshops at Port Eliot festival. It is truly a special festival with a cornucopia of things to see and do, all in a stunning setting along the banks of the River Tiddy. On each of my walks I guided groups of festival goers through the estate, picking wild strawberries to nibble along the way, gathering sorrel, ribwort plantain, nettles and dandelions before arriving by the river to uncover sea aster, sea beet, spear leaved orache, sea purslane and sea arrowgrass which were then whipped up into simple al fresco fritters cooked on a camping stove and enjoyed in the company of some truly lovely people. The wild cocktails proved equally popular as I unleashed unfamiliar flavours on enthusiastic audience members, giving some classic cocktails a hedgerow twist. The Port Eliot Fruit Cup was perhaps the highlight, being a wild take on the summertime staple: Pimm’s. With its base of seville orange and rhubarb gin, wild strawberry & bilberry shrub and finished with lashings of elderflower fizz the Port Eliot Fruit Cup was a more complex, grown up version of the usual pitcher of fruit salad that so many of us are used to being served. I’d like to think that, in that moment, a taste of summer was captured in a cup and if the tipsy enthusiasm of the workshop members was anything to go by it was a resounding hit!
I must admit i’m not doing the best job at keeping up with the blogging for 30dayswild – too busy enjoying my outdoor adventures! This week has featured dog walks up Carn Marth and through Penhale dunes, gathering elderflower and watermint to make elderflower champagne and watermint truffles, a foraging walk for a lovely couple from London and a foraging walk at Wild Fal, messing about with boats, picking samphire, wild fermentation and meals outdoors. Let’s hope the week ahead is equally packed with wild adventures!
Days 3, 4 and 5 of #30dayswild
As a teacher of foraging and wild food cookery I am fortunate to spend a lot of time outdoors and this weekend I once again looked after a stag party at 7th Rise, cooking for them, taking them on a foraging walk and running a game butchery course. The prospect of working a stag do may not appeal to everyone, but these are stag do’s with a difference. Just being in the woods and spending all day outside from waking up until bedtime, cooking over fire and eating communal meals using fresh, seasonal ingredients can have an incredibly positive effect on people.
There was an article in the Spring issue of Wild Cornwall, the magazine of Cornwall Wildlife Trust about the benefits of spending time in the woods, or ‘forest bathing’. The article looks at research from Japan which shows evidence of spending time in woodland being directly linked to the increased production of human natural killer cells, which are a type of white blood cell that helps fight tumours and viruses. The Wildlife Trust have also recently published the results of a study alongside the University of Derby that looked at the benefits to health from surveys carried out as part of last years 30 Days Wild campaign with some fantastic results.
Over the course of the weekend I encouraged the lads to get back to nature and they wholeheartedly embraced the experience. On our foraging walk we gathered wild greens to make a forager’s soup with 3 cornered leek, wild garlic, rock samphire, sea beet, spear-leaved orache, wild fennel, watercress, hairy bittercress, ground ivy, watermint, nettles, sorrel, wall pennywort and hogweed shoots all going in the pot to create a sublime seasonal dish, accompanied by freshly baked bread and freshly caught shrimp from the seashore, cooked within 15 minutes of being landed. With breakfast, lunch and dinner all containing wild ingredients cooked over the fire and eaten al fresco beneath the canopy of a mighty horse chestnut tree it was hard not to feel incredibly lucky to be doing this for a living and the boys all thought I had the best job in the world! As I swam in the refreshingly cold water of the river Fal this morning I couldn’t help but think that they might just be right.
They say you are what you eat, so I’m going to make sure I eat at least one thing wild each day for #30dayswild. On day 1 with my Fox Club friends I enjoyed a free range forager’s frittata cooked over an open fire on the beach. Day 2 saw me teaching a course in rabbit butchery at Wild Fal where the initial reaction of the process as being a bit gross soon changed to a deeper appreciation and understanding of where our meat comes from. Most days I eat a predominantly vegetarian diet, but when I do eat meat I believe it is important to make ethical choices about what I buy and the welfare of the animal is hugely important. As well as teaching the skills involved in game butchery I also encourage students to think about their level of engagement with the process beyond simply picking up some cellophane wrapped chicken breasts from the supermarket to cook for dinner. An animal that has led a natural, wild life is, to my mind, a more sustainable alternative to farmed meat.
With our rabbits skinned and boned we prepared a ragu and slow cooked it in a pot hanging over the fire, enjoying conversation as the sun slowly set in the sky across the river. There’s something incredibly satisfying about preparing and cooking food in this way – from the butchery to the making of the fire for cooking over to then eating your dinner in the company of new friends in a beautiful, natural setting. Meals are just more delicious when you cook and eat them outdoors!
In Cornwall we’re blessed with a mix of hedgerow, woodland and seashore habitats and today we explored all three, gathering a selection of seasonal wild plants to cook up for our lunch on the beach.
The Fox Club kids all learned about responsible foraging and that while the hedgerows are a great a source of food for free there are some deadly poisonous plants out there too so its important to know what you are picking and to be completely sure that you have correctly identified a particular plant.
With a basket full of tasty wild edibles we made our way down through the woods and wild flower meadows to the beach and gathered sticks and driftwood for our fire. Before long we were ready to start cooking our forager’s frittata and everyone joined in cracking some eggs and tearing up our foraged bounty to mix up together and pour in to the pan.
It wasn’t just the eggs that were free range as the kids soon took off to explore the beach and returned with limpets to cook on the hot stones too. Everybody (adults included) tried a cooked limpet and once the frittata was golden brown and cooked to perfection we sliced it up and enjoyed a taste of the wild, gazing out to sea and soaking up some sunshine in a beautiful corner of Cornwall.
I’ve got a confession to make: I am addicted to pignuts. There, i’ve said it. It’s out in the open and I am not ashamed. I have spent many an idle moment this month on my hands and knees in bluebell woods across Cornwall, scrabbling at the earth on the hunt for those elusive ‘nuts’. I’ve found some absolute whoppers, but i’ve probably lost more than i’ve found and sometimes almost lost the plot completely…
The humble Pignut (Conopodium majus) is not a nut, but a tuber. Which is where the confusion arises in the nursery rhyme “Nuts in May”. After all, May isn’t the time of year you’d expect to be gathering nuts. The rhyme is generally believed to be referring to the gathering of pignuts, as collecting them was once a popular childhood pursuit in the days before computer games. The flavour is, however, reminiscent of a hazelnut or a sweet chestnut and to my mind it is also quite like Jerusalem artichoke, both in appearance of the tuber and in flavour. The leaves of the plant look very much like carrot tops, which is no surprise as they are part of the carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae), but for novice foragers it is important that you are 100% certain you know what you are looking for as there are many poisonous plants in the same family.
You’re also going to need permission to dig up the plant as otherwise you’d be breaking the law according to the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, but they are widespread and common in open woodland, hedgerows and pasture. The process of digging them up is one requiring perseverance and patience as well as a light touch. Once you’ve found and correctly identified the plant you need to gently dig down into the earth, following the spindly stem as it gets thinner and more delicate. Breaking the stem is all too easy and as it never grows straight down, once the stem breaks it can be very hard to find your pignut at the end of it, particularly as it often likes to grow amongst bluebells and celandines in a tangle of roots and bulbs. Nevertheless, once you have successfully unearthed yourself a pignut, you will be so pleased with yourself that you’ll want to try and dig up another. And another. And maybe one more for good measure.
You’re never going to be able to make a feast from your harvest, but I have enjoyed a fair few of them as a satisfying wild snack over the past month or so. They are at their best raw and freshly scrubbed, but I also chopped and toasted some in a dry frying pan, which brought out their nuttiness and gave them a crisp crunch and made an appropriately wild coating for some wild spiced rum and chocolate truffles that I prepared for an event at Mount Pleasant Eco Park in Porthtowan earlier this month, selling out of all that I’d made within the first two hours. I’ll definitely be gathering some more before the plants die back in the summer and the pignuts remain hidden underground until next spring.
Last week saw the end of Cornwall’s birch tapping season. Unlike wild game there isn’t an official date for open season and it varies depending on which part of the country you live in and it even varies from tree to tree. The first trees I tapped in mid-March didn’t produce sap straight away, but a few days later the sap had started to flow and I made regular evening pilgrimages to a patch of nearby woodland where there are several mature silver birch trees and began my yearly harvest with a view to making not just the regular Birch Sap wine which I have blogged about previously, but this year to brew a beer with the sap as well.
If you’ve never tasted birch sap before then you’d be surprised at how similar to water it actually tastes. There’s a hint of sweetness and a slightly thicker mouthfeel with maybe a lingering note of wood at the end, but by and large it is pretty flavourless and colourless. It does however have a reputed wealth of health-giving properties and I even read an article last year that it is the latest health fad amongst the rich and famous “the new coconut water” I believe was the phrase used…
Personally I like the taste, but to be completely honest its more the ritual and being tuned in to the rhythm of the seasons that I like about the whole process. By the end of the first week in April, the leaves on one of the trees had started to open up and looking skywards there was a tinge of green amongst the upper branches, but the neighbouring birches and the surrounding oak and hazel had yet to put forth leaf buds, but with the longer days and with a good spell of sunshine you can almost feel the trees growing on a day by day basis with each visit to collect the next batch of sap.
I’m not sure if its the lasting impression that Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World left on me as a young boy, or the stories my late grandad used to tell about poachers in the New Forest, but I have to confess that I also get a vicarious thrill from the illicit activity of drilling holes in trees to collect the springtime nectar, especially when most woodland in this country is owned privately by someone somewhere and I most certainly haven’t asked their permission, which according to the letter of the law I technically should. I don’t know who t owns the trees where I tap my silver birches – they are in two different spots well away from the nearest houses, one is at the bottom of a valley along the banks of a stream that feeds in to the River Fal and the other is surrounded by farmland at the foot of Carn Marth. I do ask permission from Mother Nature though and I try not to be greedy with how much I collect from each tree. Afterwards I do my best to plug the holes I have drilled and, so far, after 3 or 4 seasons of tapping the trees appear to remain in rude health. I hope they will continue to thrive, their sap rising in spring once more next year and for many years to come.
With spring now well and truly in the air it is the perfect time to be getting out and about foraging and that is exactly what a group of friends decided to do this past weekend, enlisting me as their guide along a beautiful valley just outside Boscastle. The group of 10 were staying in a lovely old farmhouse and we were able to step out the front door straight in to fields and hardly had to go more than a few steps before we encountered our first edible wild find – the wonderfully named Veronica beccabunga, or Brooklime as it is more commonly known. After explaining its tendency to harbour liver fluke the group decided it was better to just observe the plant rather than pick it and we proceeded to head on down the valley. We didn’t have to go much further before we were safely able to test out our taste buds on fresh, spring stinging nettles, successfully picked and eaten without any stings, although this isn’t something i’d recommend you try at home! We encountered wall pennywort, watercress, primroses, bramble buds and hairy bittercress as we headed down through the woods to the stream, and then as I waded in to the water to point out the deadly Hemlock Water Dropwort my phone managed to fall out of my coat pocket and in to the stream! Fortunately it survived the encounter and we continued on along the valley discovering sorrel, gorseflowers, scarlet elf cup mushrooms and Alexanders as well as finding puddles filled with tadpoles and a stray football in the stream. On our return to the farm for lunch we dined on wild garlic frittata and sweet chestnut beer bread with homemade wood sorrel ricotta that i’d made the night before and washed it down with a glass of 2 year old birch sap wine, followed up by some organic ice cream made on the farm. All in all a good day and a good start to this year’s foraging courses!
Saturday saw the sun shine on Cornwall for St Piran’s Day and in honour of the occasion my good friend and fellow forager Matt Vernon and I ran a wild food pop up at Dynamite Valley Brewing Co in Ponsanooth.
In homage to the brewery’s American influenced ethos we decided to cook up our take on some US classics with pulled venison, hog dogs and a black bean burger on the menu. All of these came served in brioche buns that I made using one of the brewery’s beers in place of milk. The bread almost outshone the food with people wanting to buy rolls to take away with them and head brewer Ross saying it was the best bread he’d ever tasted. I’d heard about a famous burger joint in America where the patties were served on sliced white bread so as not to distract from the burgers, but I think the buns with their rich mix of sweet and savoury goodness worked as the perfect vehicle for the dishes we’d cooked up.
The black bean burgers were made following a recipe I found online and are a cut above your average veggie burger, especially when served up with some of our sorrel mayo and black mustard Mayo, pickled rock samphire, wild leaves and a slice of Cornish Yarg cheese, which is made less than a mile from the brewery and comes wrapped in a rind of stinging nettles.
The hog dogs I had made the day before under the expert guidance of Frank Linn, master butcher and owner of The Butchery School, using wild boar, pork belly and seasoned with wild spices I had gathered from the hedgerows: juniper berries, hogweed seeds, Alexanders seeds and wild marjoram. The dogs were dished up with a smattering of matt’s wild spiced catsup and some fried 3 cornered leeks that I’d picked that morning and finished with the garlicky white leek flowers.
Last but not least was the pulled venison, cooked according to matt’s special recipe, brined for 24 hours, then cooked on the bone, low and slow for 8 hours in a smoky sauce, melt in the mouth tender and full of deep flavours.
With the work we do at 7th Rise and on foraging walks throughout the country we’re used to cooking up tasty wild dishes that change people’s perception of foraged ingredients and with the rave reviews we received on St Piran’s Day, we’ll definitely be running more events as the year goes on, so keep your eyes peeled as each pop up will be different, depending on the season and the style of cuisine we choose, but always showcasing foraged, wild, local ingredients
Welcome to the first post on my new blog – a celebration of wild food, foraging and the great outdoors. I was privileged at the weekend to be asked to lead a couple of foraging walks and give a talk and tasters session on wild booze at the most excellent Port Eliot festival. The festival itself was great as always with big spring tides on the river (perfect for early morning wild swimming), plenty of interesting foraging (from spear leaved orache to wild strawberries) as well as some great music, theatre and comedy. Particular favourites were the Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band, my good friends at Rogue Theatre and comedian James Dowdeswell. I totally managed to miss some of the things I’d planned to see like the wonderful Suzie Mac and Kernow King and a screening of the new adaptation of Under Milk Wood, but I had a great time and I’m hoping that the rumours of it being the last Port Eliot are unfounded as it is one of the highlights of the Cornish summer.
Keep checking back regularly for updates on my foraging adventures in Cornwall and beyond and do get in touch if you’d like me to take you on a foraging walk.