Transforming a field into a supermarket

Soda bread starter with wild herbs, samphire and pork
Soda bread starter with wild herbs, samphire and pork

Dig deep and help to spread some comfort this Christmas

0
Have your say

Waiting to be led through a succession of damp Cornish fields, our cagouled gang of food foragers chat sociably in a car park.

‘The best way to eat Wotsits is to suck out the centres,’ says one. ‘Form them into a chain and then lower them into your mouth.’

‘And always eat Hula Hoops by sucking them off your fingers,’ adds another seriously.

Five minutes later, we’re standing in front of a bunch of purple flowers looking less certain. Away from snacks territory, our knowledge seems to have dried up.

Caroline Davey, the owner of Fat Hen Wild Food Foraging and Cooking School (fathen.org), doesn’t look concerned.

She’s used to helping witless 21st century cooks learn that food doesn’t have to come from plastic bags, supermarkets – or even a plain old veggie patch.

With the Celtic Sea on the horizon, she explains the delicate purple flowers are common mallow plants, which can be found along fields, on waste ground, in gardens and on path edges, and are a staple in Middle Eastern soups.

Hedgerows, railway banks and seashores teem with edible leaves, flowers and herbs, Davey points out. The only difficulty is identifying them.

‘What do you think that is?’ she asks innocently, gesturing to a familiar-looking rural plant.

‘Cow parsley,’ I venture.

She looks worried.

‘No, it’s hemlock and it’s deadly. You can, however, eat the leaves and the stems of cow parsley,’ she adds cheerfully. ‘It’s known as wild chervil.’

The group nod wisely, very aware they are at Davey’s mercy.

‘In general, be careful of picking wild food from a cultivated area, as it could be covered in pesticides,’ she adds, as we eagerly fill our woven baskets with the aforementioned mallow. ‘But I know the farmer here, so it’s OK.’

Our three-hour foraging morning will culminate in a lunch cooked by Rick Stein-trained chef Mark Devonshire: a journey designed to get newbie foragers from ditch to dinner party.

Caroline stops suddenly and reaches down to pick some leaves off what looks like a green weed. ‘We call this nature’s wasabi.’

Offering me a bite, I gnaw on the leaf and a dazzlingly bitter taste explodes in my mouth.

Suddenly I understand the thrill of foraging. I’m overwhelmed this plant can be found growing wild in Britain and yet tastes as delicious as anything I’ve eaten in a Japanese restaurant.

Around me, the field transforms into an unlabelled outdoor supermarket.

We go on to pick alexanders leaves for a pasta dish, common sorrel, a citrusy, thirst-quenching leaf for use in our salad, and elderflowers to pop in our bread and butter pudding dessert.

Once back at the Fat Hen ranch, head chef Devonshire grabs our baskets and gets cooking.

There’s a starter of soda bread, monkfish main course and elderflower bread and butter pudding for dessert.

Soda bread starter with wild herbs, samphire and pork

· Makes three medium sized loaves

1.5kg white bread flour or a mix of white and wholemeal

2 pints of buttermilk

40g salt

32g bicarbonate of soda

Handful of oats

Mix of fresh seaweeds and/or wild garlic leaves, mugwort or wild fennel

· Preheat your oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. Sift flour into a wide basin-like bowl. Sift in salt and bicarbonate of soda. Mix thoroughly. Make a well in the centre of your mix and begin pouring in the buttermilk.

The trick of good soda bread is to just mix enough so it forms a nice pillowy synchronised mass in the centre of your bowl – enough to form a dough, but not too much for it to become stodgy. A wet dough gives the best results.

Add your seaweeds and wild herbs at this point and when you have the dough right, lightly flour your work surface and tip your dough onto it.

Separate the dough into three equal pieces and ever so gently make them into a round-ish form. Slash the top of each in a cross shape and place on a lightly floured baking sheet. Sprinkle liberally with oats.

Bake for 35-45 minutes. The loaves should look tawny brown and knobbly. Tap the underside of each loaf – it should sound hollow. Cool on wire racks and top with a tasty treat, such as pork rillettes and/or samphire.

n Recipe courtesy of discoverunearthed.com