Herbs in general are pretty underrated aren’t they and wild herbs seem to get an even wider berth afforded to them. This doesn’t make any sense at all does it? Today’s average supermarket punter is quite happy to buy cut salads in a bag, with a shelf life of a couple of days, rather than a lettuce head that last 4 times as long. We buy, in vast quantities, carrots, ready peeled and chopped into little batons for us – all of this at a vastly higher price than err, a carrot!
Why? We suffer don’t we from “busy life syndrome”. We are sooo busy that we often waste 20 minutes a day trying to convince and impress others about just how very busy we are. Don’t bother, just do 20 minutes extra work and your to do list will be a bit shorter at the end of the day.
But, when in comes to picking something out of our own gardens, for free! Well, that is challenging. So much of what we see in our garden is not only edible and free, it’s also delicious! You would think that we would feeding our kids shovel loads of Common hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) if only the presence of hog in the name alone….
Like so many forage species, the rule is pick them young and so look out for Hogweed in the late spring and summer. Pick the emerging leaves (still folded) at the base of the plant. The leaf and flower buds are usable too, just pick them and open the bud case and take out the contents. The magic happens when you fry it in butter until just a little crispy and then season with lots of salt and pepper. Even the seeds can be dried and used in sauces and chutney’s very much like you would use coriander seeds.
We rave about new season Asparagus and yet here is something, like Samphire, that is even better with a very similar taste.
The one other plant that you’ll need to know about if looking for Common hogweed for food is it’s relative – the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). In flower it’ll be taller than you are with flower heads as big as serving platters. It’s poisonous and an irritant particularly if you get the latex from a broken stem on your skin. None of which stopped the good old Victorians from introducing it to our sceptred isles as a decorative garden border plant. If you have it in your garden you will know that already by the queues of “Garden Police” at your front door shouting “that plant is illegal” at you.
As always in forage, if you are not 100% sure of what you have then heed the advice of comedian Sarah Millican advice and feed it to your least favourite bairn first! Only joking.
Venison is the altar boy of meats, often left in the shadow of products more familiar to the British table. For many it’s seen a niche product or, worse, one reserved for the “posh” hunting and shooting brigade. But, just for a moment, let’s look at wild venison against the checklist of ethical farming issues
Has it had a good natural life with the freedom to roam and fulfil its natural behaviours? – Tick
Has it had the opportunity to breed naturally? – Tick
Has it fed on a purely organic diet? – Tick
Is it low in harmful fats? – Tick
Has it been free from medication with antibiotics during its life – Tick
So what’s the problem with wild venison and why isn’t it our meat of choice for the celebration table. Well for some, it is. But for others, you’ll hear any manner of reasons: too difficult to get hold of, too expensive, don’t know how to cook it etc.
We believe that one of the barriers to eating venison is that, unlike its supermarket brethren, it’s just a little bit closer to that subject the modern shopper shies away from. Many shoppers like a few reality filters between their main protein source and its origins. Vac packed and jointed, displayed under lights intended to enhance the colour is IN, hanging in the butcher’s window with its beady eye looking out from the head which is still firmly attached is – OUT! For many, being too close to where our food actually comes from is an uncomfortable place to be in animal loving Britain. Somehow we have confused the whole process. A process that is fairly straightforward. If we choose to eat animal meat, the animal in question has to die to service that need. That’s not a revelation; it’s just the plain, simple truth but one that many prefer not to have to think about.
What defines and justifies the civilisation of the whole process is how the animal meets its end. Spend any time at all with an experienced stalker and many are struck by the unexpected order of priorities they have. Any ideas on the top one (apart from safety)..? Clean shot, is the answer. If you can’t kill it outright and humanely – don’t shoot. That equates to “get it right or go home hungry”. If, for some reason, something does go wrong – there is a responsibility to end further suffering without delay.
The Daily Mailers amongst the population love to hate the hunting, fishing mob, assuming perhaps that they are rolling in it (the truth is much different). That it’s cruel and inhumane to making killing into a sport, that’s its just obliteration of the wildlife in the pursuit of pleasure. But there is a wildlife and environmental case for controlling deer. Humans, we, long since euthanized any natural predator the deer had to keep their numbers within the natural balance of a given area. Mainly we did that for profit, so that “we” could use the deer as property to be reserved for the rich. So now, unchecked, and in ideal habitat conditions like the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley, they thrive. They thrive in numbers and densities that can affect overall health of the wild herd. Over grazing strips large areas of available food and that can lead to poor condition and even starvation. That grazing also has a real and serious impact on some of the area’s we have decided to save against the plough or development. No objective scientific review has concluded that the numbers should simply be allowed to do their own thing.
Why is it that, as a nation, we tend to demonise the hunter who takes what he or she needs for the table whilst we are happy to accept the role of the slaughter man who brings daily death on a wholesale scale? Why have we become distanced from the ways in which our protein is harvested?
Inconsistency of consumption
The culling activity goes on continually. The activity is timed according to the natural rhythms of the beast, is done by expert shots in as humane a way possible. The Forestry Commission cull on land under their control (although our area in the DeanWye is so rich in habitat that large tracts of the land are not in the hands of such a responsible landowner – local councils for example). The vast majority of the culled wild venison on Forestry land is gathered together at central points for onward distribution to the national food chain.
Wouldn’t it be great if the food miles where reduced and more of that meat was retained in the local economy for us all to enjoy?
We asked Rob Cox, Head Chef at the Tudor Farmhouse Hotel for a few venison tips. Here’s what he had to say:
In my view venison is best roasted especially the saddle. The haunch is also best roasted but it needs to be butchered correctly to remove sinew and end up with a tender piece of meat.
The shoulders can be braised but they are so lean it can become dry because of the lack of fat on the beast. With that in mind I like to mix in some pork belly and mince it to make sausages.
My favourite way though is a tartare seasoned with shallot, gherkin and tabasco and served with beetroot, horseradish cream, pickled berries and chestnut.
For a dinner I would go for roasted saddle with smoked bacon, red cabbage, Brussel sprouts and a few wild mushrooms.
Foraging sounds like excellent fun doesn’t it – alone in the countryside finding all your own food for free. What could be better? Having just come back from celebrating mushroom season Italian style for a continuing food documentary photo project we can say – we are fans! But it’s also a bit scary isn’t it. Alone in the woods for a start! What if you get attacked by a boar or an amorous stag like the Daily Mail are always banging on about.
What if I just end up eating overgrown lawn instead of an exotic wild herb? Even worse, what if that supposed French woodland delicacy of a dew-covered mushroom you’ve just picked turns out to be from the genus instantpainfuldeatharia? Just where do beginners to foraging actually start?
Amidst this glorious landscape of ours full of free, nutritious and healthy food as we are, it makes sense to get a little help before you start. Well you are in luck! The Parish Grasslands Project will be running a foraging day entitled a Taste of the Hudnalls. Described as a day of hunting for, and appreciating, the wild food available from the Hudnalls area.
Expert guide, Raoul van den Broucke, will be on hand to lead a small group through the lanes and fields of the Hudnalls on the afternoon of Saturday 29th October picking out tasty treats along the way. Raoul, once dubbed by The Guardian, “the Carluccio of the Wye Valley”, has a long standing expertise in wild food and will be imparting his knowledge to the hardy group during the day. Later the same evening at the St Briavels Assembly Rooms Raoul will be joining the fabulous Yvette Farrell of Harts Barn Cookery School http://www.hartsbarncookeryschool.co.uk/ in a “cook what you brung” style masterclass of using wild food in the kitchen. There is also a competition for the best wild food recipe –don’t miss that! Visit the Grasslands website for details http://www.parishgrasslandsproject.org.uk/news.html#hudnalls2016. We’ll be there to cover the whole story but don’t let that put you off coming along and do say hello. It’ll be a fabulous day – tell them we sent you…
Raoul is a familiar face at the Tudor Farmhouse Hotel where is has been wild food expert in residence for several years as well as the tutor on Tudor Farmhouse Hotel’s extremely popular residential and group foraging courses. Under the expert tutelage of Raoul, Tudor’s courses having been running for about 5 years now and are always such popular events for the hotel that extra dates have been added for this Autumn and there are some new spring dates for 2017 soon to be announced. With either the day group courses or luxurious forage, eat and stay packages on offer to choose from, they are not to be missed. See their website for details http://www.tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk/foraging-trips/
As well as being editor, chief photographer and head washer-upper at WyeDean Deli Confidential I also, amongst other things, shoot travel pictures for an agency with offices around the world. Of course a significant part of capturing the spirit of any place is the local quality food and drink and the people that go with that. Markets particularly, so long neglected in England, seem to attract me like a moth to a bedroom light. So, having spent most of September in three regions (equivalent of UK counties) of Italy, I am feeling particularly spoilt! I know, it’s tough isn’t it – please don’t, sympathy isn’t good for my self-esteem…..
Call it the vino rosso, the sunshine or the total immersion in the language of love, but a very funny feeling struck me during that trip on more than one occasion – How similar to the countryside of Tuscany, Italy is the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley. OK, I know that the similarities do have some limitations but before you write me off as a hopeless romantic or a raging drunkard, let me try and convince you.
The hills around Bagni di Lucca and Seravezza are heavily wooded with broad leaved trees, most of which, Beech, Oak, Ash, Chestnut, would be easily recognisable to any DeanWye inhabitant, Although steeper that anything here, the mountains are home to and have a long history in, quarrying – marble in their case. The people are either typically conservative country people of those who have moved into the area because they too want to become “typical country people”. There is a real sense of community and local pride in the small towns and tiny villages. The countryside around the villages is teeming with natures larder. Then there’s the weather….sorry, it’s all too easy to get carried away with these comparisons. Apart from the last example, the parallel to the DeanWye is, in my estimation, very difficult to deny.
But, somehow they are very different. Firstly, September is the busiest time of year in the Italian wild mushroom season. Wild mushrooms are very important to Italians. No not the farmed ones; the wild ones. Chefs and restaurant owners all have their own mushroom men – fungaioli. Men who venture into the woods, on dark damp dusks and dawns to secret spots and locations whispered to them by their fathers father. They tend to be students of the natural world and lifelong woodsmen. Mushroom season is a prelude to Chestnut season which gets equal billing with the Italian countryside residents and, well, I think you get the picture. Much, much more on fungi later. Here, I’m not to sure many normal people even think about seasonal wild foods with any passion at all – why is that?
This natural food of the forest, like all other wild foods, is noble food in the Italian psyche. It’s tied up in the peasant and wartime partisan lifestyle ethos of eking a living from the land in the absence of anything else. But that ethos isn’t something that is obvious or even expressed. It is the taste and the earthy, nutty smell of the product which confers the nobility. On one lazy Sunday lunch sitting outside in the shade, I ordered Tagliatelle al Tartufo (black truffles) and I could smell my lunch as soon as it passed the kitchen door – heaven! It’s the sense of occasion that stems from the seasonality, passing of the seasons and the transition of one part of the year to another. It’s in the occasion that everyone can be involved in and enjoy. It’s in the added luxuriousness it brings to the already very simple, tasty and fabulous Italian food. And of course, this being Italy – it’s time for a festival on the subject where locals and visitors alike have the day off, drink a little wine and and eat very well indeed!
Forget the UK as a whole. Ask yourself why don’t we in the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley prize this wild local crop as highly? Why don’t we value the fabulous venison, boar and game? Why don’t we all go mad for the hedgerow berry bonanza? And why don’t we go wild foraging for wild salads and herbs? All of it is right there! It’s what makes our area so special and yet we lack the passion for it. Perhaps it’s because we have lost connection with the land itself, the growing of and the variety of food, unaffected by chemicals, drugs and fertilizers. Then ask yourself this; if we have in fact lost that wondrous adventure of first finding our food, or some part of a meal, before we eat it in favour of what we like to call convenience – is that convenient trade-off to our quality of life really worth it?
We stayed in Bagni di Lucca as a guest of Tuscan Rooms a remarkably beautiful four storey town house and former soda syphon factory in a previous life. The fully restored accommodation, complete with a real lift (extremely rare in Italian villages), vertiginous garden terrace and original four flights of marble staircase is ideally situated to explore the region. Right beside the river and in the heart of the lower town and distance walking to a great bar, a pasticceria and several restaurants, guests can rent a room, a floor or the whole shebang. Paul and Colette, the owners, will even pick you up from the airport by arrangement. If you would like to see some of the images from that trip visit my Travel gallery on Facebook
If you regularly slip on obvious wet patches in the office lobby, don’t secure your ladders properly, don’t wear your seat belt or are constantly scolding your hands under the tap marked hot – this warning health is for YOU!
Some mushrooms are edible, delicious and good for you. Some are not. Some, no one knows if they are edible or not. Some need specific cooking preparation before eating and some can only be eaten in small quantities or the toxins build up in your body. IF, you have no idea which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF the jury is still out on which type of mushroom you have picked – don’t eat it. IF, you nevertheless go ahead and eat it anyway – please leave some of the raw ingredient in a convenient and obvious place for the para-medics to find or, as one eccentric mycologist did, write the scientific name in full on your hand in biro in the last remaining seconds before becoming comatose.
Fungaioli, skilled Italian mushroom hunters, gather mushrooms because they happen to know all about the habitat, natural and social history of a species from a collective experience of people like themselves. They tend not to be transient fungi hunters in it for the money between recorded episodes of “The Only Way is Essex”.
Fungaioli are also very savvy Fungus Sales Executives. They often deliver their treasure trove of truffley goodness in an attractive open topped wooden fruit box when the restaurant is open and full of customers just to ramp up the anticipation of the food obsessed Italians. Restaurant owners love this as it’s more likely that customers will return to THEIR restaurant for their autumnal fungus fix having seen the overflowing mushroom box come through the front door! Porcino (piglets in Italian) are the favourites amongst Italian chefs and restaurant customers alike. We know them by the common name of Cep but in fact, they are from a group more properly referred to as Boletus. With around 36 different Boletus in the British fungus list alone, most of which are edible, you start to see the sheer variety available and we haven’t even started on the Ink caps or the newly emerging Parasols!
In the current Tesco magazine a passionate and no doubt very nice Managing Director of somewhere or other, reports delivering 5 tons of three varieties (one of them native to Asia) to Tesco of mushrooms a week – three varieties! In the Dean Wye we have another giant flavour of the wild mushroom world – Chanterelle – a soft egg yellow funnel shaped mushroom with an exquisite taste. In spring Morels with their honeycomb heads, grow under our apple tree! Another spring fruiting mushroom is Chicken of the Woods, delicious when young and fresh. The Germans and the Dutch love them! Parasols, mentioned earlier, are delicious and gloriously paper-white when cut, if picked very early. The text books will tell you that, although not poisonous, they can be very bitter once opened.
With a gay spirit of adventure I decided to test that assertion of bitterness and sliced one of the open caps (they are so large – small kids use them as parasols hence the name) before frying them in a little butter, I added parsley and a little black pepper just before serving and tried them. They looked fabulous but the text books are accurate and I pulled a muscle in my contorting face trying to get them out of my mouth as soon as possible.
Even if you can identify a specimen, the common names don’t always instil confidence. Take for example, Trombette dei Morti (Trumpets of the dead). This mushroom apes the shape of a black trumpet but its Halloweenesque name actually arose because it grows around the 2nd November, All Souls’ Day. It’s other common name of Truffles of the Poor hints at its widespread use once dried and powdered as a food additive because of its intense aroma.
If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms we can recommend the book Mushrooms by Roger Phillips. It has very helpful with, sometimes life-sized, images of each mushroom together with a useful information panel and notes on edibility.