Tag: Family foraging

Sea beet leaves and elderflower: Learning to forage for food

We recently took a family out for an afternoon learning to forage in Dorset followed by cooking a wild food-based meal. They included a journalist who wrote the below great article about their experience. It was in The Daily Mail and numerous other papers / news sites across the US including the Washington Post and Yahoo News. The coverage was also in other countries including Canada, Namibia, Kuwait and New Zealand!

If you would like to experience a bespoke / private foraging activity for your family or group please look here.

 

 

“This,” said 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 — gave me the chance to see how abundant nature’s larder really is.

Foraging is increasingly popular in the U.K. and 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.

On a classic English summer’s day – meaning we experienced all weather conditions in one afternoon – we met 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.

photo shows James Feaver, a foraging guide, holding a spray of elderflowers on a field trip in search of wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2006 photo shows James Feaver, a foraging guide, holding a spray of elderflowers on a field trip in search of wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

We met 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 few hours 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 three-course meal.

This July 12, 2016 photo shows James Feaver, left, a foraging guide, leading Fonthip Boonmak and her son, Jimmy Harmer, through a high meadow in the county of Dorset in southwest England, in search of wild edibles. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows James Feaver, left, a foraging guide, leading Fonthip Boonmak and her son, Jimmy Harmer, through a high meadow in the county of Dorset in southwest England, in search of wild edibles. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

If like me you can’t tell wild sorrel from a blade of grass, this quickly becomes daunting. But Feaver has gimlet eyes and an encyclopaedic 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 it down to picking height, and inhaled.

“The smell of summer,” he said.

For centuries, country-folk have used the fragrant elderflower to add a zesty flavour 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.

In this July 12, 2016 photo, foraging guide James Feaver, left, shows red currants to Jimmy Harmer, center, and his mother, Fonthip Boonmak, on a hunt for wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
In this July 12, 2016 photo, foraging guide James Feaver, left, shows red currants to Jimmy Harmer, center, and his mother, Fonthip Boonmak, on a hunt for wild edibles in the county of Dorset in southwest England. Feaver offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in foraging for edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves, which are then used to prepare a meal. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

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, cow parsley 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 favourite 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 neighbouring 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.

 

Photo shows Fonthip Boonmak left, James Feaver, centre, and Boonmak's son Jimmy Harmer, right, gathering edible sea beet leaves near southern England's Jurassic Coast. Feaver is a foraging guide who offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in how to find wild edibles. The sea beet leaves were used to make a velvety green soup as part of a supper prepared from the foraged plants, herbs and flowers. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
Photo shows Fonthip Boonmak left, James Feaver, centre, and Boonmak’s son Jimmy Harmer, right, gathering edible sea beet leaves near southern England’s Jurassic Coast. Feaver is a foraging guide who offers a course through his company Hedgerow Harvest in how to find wild edibles. The sea beet leaves were used to make a velvety green soup as part of a supper prepared from the foraged plants, herbs and flowers. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

 

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 had 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.

This July 12, 2016 photo shows bowls of velvety green soup made from sea beet leaves, part of a supper made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The foraging expeditions are led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, which teaches participants how to identify, find and cook edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows bowls of velvety green soup made from sea beet leaves, part of a supper made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The foraging expeditions are led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, which teaches participants how to identify, find and cook edible plants like elderflowers, mint and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows a baked pesto dish made from a plant called fat hen, with a serving of Sea Beet leaves on the side, as part of a dinner made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The wild edibles were foraged as part of a course, led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, that teaches participants how to identify and cook with plants like fat hen, elderflowers and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)
This July 12, 2016 photo shows a baked pesto dish made from a plant called fat hen, with a serving of Sea Beet leaves on the side, as part of a dinner made from wild plants gathered in the county of Dorset in southwest England. The wild edibles were foraged as part of a course, led by James Feaver through his company Hedgerow Harvest, that teaches participants how to identify and cook with plants like fat hen, elderflowers and sea beet leaves. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer)

It had been a long day. We’d started at 1:30 p.m. and the last spoon didn’t scrape its empty bowl till 9 p.m.

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.