Foraging expert is just wild about food

MUSHROOMS Food foraging at West Dean, Chichester
MUSHROOMS Food foraging at West Dean, Chichester
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Chanterelle, cep, hedgehog fungus – Nik Westacott reels off mushroom species like he’s memorising a shopping list.

And in a way the chef with a fascination for fungus is doing just that. He’s planning to take a gang of foragers on a mission to find some wild food for their dinner.

Food foraging expert and chef Nik Westacott

Food foraging expert and chef Nik Westacott

Nik, who owns B&B 82 Fishbourne with private restaurant the Old Greenhouse near Chichester and a catering company, will be leading a course on foraging at West Dean.

Participants will roam the West Sussex estate looking for edibles such as mushrooms and berries and then enjoy a well-deserved meal.

Local food expert and writer Rosemary Moon will create a seasonal lunch before Nik cooks some of his favourite dishes with the proceeds of the morning.

He says: ‘Foraging for food is becoming more popular. Each year more and more people are coming out with me to look around and find out what is growing locally. It’s very encouraging but I don’t take large groups out. You have to be careful about looking after the countryside.’

Nik recommends that new fungus foragers should sign up for a course and be guided by experts because of the potential dangers.

There are about 200 edible types in the UK, but also 30 poisonous species. An example is the death cap, which can kill a healthy adult.

He says: ‘In France, you can go into a pharmacy and have your finds identified. At this time of year chemists have window displays of wild mushrooms, showing what the deadly ones look like.’

Other countries are more geared up for the mushroom hunt than the UK. But Nik says safety grows with experience.

‘It’s about familiarity,’ adds the chef, who has been food foraging for more than 20 years.

‘You look at a rose and a fuchsia and you can tell the difference. With experience, you can do that with mushrooms.’

He also says it’s important to obey Natural England’s code of conduct when looking for food in the countryside.

‘Obviously you need permission from landowners, that kind of thing. And you should be careful about how much you take. For example you shouldn’t remove more than 50 per cent of any one colony.’

But after considering the countryside and safety, foraging has plenty of rewards.

‘It’s long been a passion for me,’ explains Nik.

‘A lot of my colleagues wait for foragers to bring wild food finds to them, but there is nothing better than being out and about seeking the ingredients myself. It helps to stop the plunder of wild food if people who know what they are looking for gather it themselves.’

And then there is the taste of wild food.

‘The flavours in wild mushrooms are fantastic,’ Nik says. ‘Even if you add a few to a dish with cultivated mushrooms, they improve the taste of the finished product.’

The course – Wild Fungi and Edible Country Food – runs between 9am and 5pm next Thursday and costs £107.

Visit westdean.org.uk/college, e-mail bookingsoffice@westdean.org.uk  or call 08444 994408.