Foraging with ‘Fat Hen’

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Laver and Gutweed – Ulva intestinalis (edible seedweeds)

My first foray into foraging was as a child on a pony. Perfect height for picking overhead apples. As we got bolder we started planning our horseback scrump-and-run rides.  We’d stuff pockets with plastic supermarket bags, plan routes via favourite cottage garden trees where the branches hung over roadside walls and took kids and apple-rustling to a new level, both in advantageous height and galloping get-away speeds. It was a fairly innocent crime. We liberated the fruit that would have eventually fallen on the road and spoiled.

Anyone who picks blackberries on an early Autumn sunny day; collects fallen chestnuts and hazelnuts or elderflower heads to make a delicious and simple cordial is simply foraging. We don’t need to do it to survive, but we love the occasion of it especially with our families. Plus there’s something irresistible about the thought of free food, flavours that haven’t been commercialised and the illusion that we could survive on what we can pick and gather on any local walk.

My freezer is full of sloes when I couldn’t resist over-picking in a particularly abundant season past but at least I have sloe schnapps on the go for Christmas. I can recognise, three-cornered leeks, rock samphire and sea beet as good to eat and frequently, when I see them, I pick these to include in regular meals. Some of the most delicious and memorable ‘wild’ foods I’ve had has been in the form of dandelion root flavoured creme brûlée with elderflower sorbet, shortbread biscuits with wild carrot seeds and yarg cheeses wrapped in nettles or wild garlic leaves.

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Son leaping the stream on Watergate beach

The longing to know more and find other unique and delicious flavours and experimental recipes means I can’t resist opportunities to be guided by those with knowledge. Caroline Davey aka Fat Hen led me and my 12-year-old son on a short walk, the weekend before last, around Watergate Bay.

In just a few yards between car parks,  we’d learnt how good nettles were as plentiful and nutritious food. Even how to eat them raw without stinging ourselves. We’d been introduced to Alexanders  – a relative of celery and parsley and once commonly eaten until Celery was introduced into our kitchen gardens in the 17th century, and since the plant which grows vigorously in Spring was mostly dying back, bit the black peppery seeds while Caroline gave a run down on the best recipes for the stems and leaves. There were others….I bought my child along as he’d be better at committing the names to memory, and just before we got carried away with excitement that almost every plant is edible, even if their mostly strong and rather bitter flavour is too much for our modern palettes that crave sweet tastes, Caroline bought us two innocuous looking leaves from the stream and asked us to guess which one was edible. The one most like a giant parsley, was Hemlock Water Dropwort . Not tasty at all…she wouldn’t let us even smell it… This was the one to avoid as the most poisonous of all British plants.

On the beach there were seaweeds galore. Two were gut weed (it needs overnight soaking to clean the tubes of sand) and laver (as in the Welsh laver bread) were recommended for roasting.

I won’t rush to eat sea rocket or scurvy-grass that sailors consumed for being rich in vitamin C. The Hottentot fig from South Africa that has naturalised on Cornish cliffs I might use as  aloe vera  for skin rashes and lesions.

Caroline does cooking courses too.  It makes sense to follow through after identifying and collecting wild foods to learn how to prepare and cook them too. She described “Rock Samphire Fritters” where you dip pieces of rock samphire into a bowl of buttermilk immediately followed by dipping into some seasoned gram flour. Then gently dropped into hot oil and cooked until golden. I was curious and salivating and just as keen to give this one a go as I am to find out more about Fat Hen gourmet courses.

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Stinging Nettles – Urtica dioica

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Hottentot Fig – Carpobrotus edulis

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Sea Beet – Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima

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Common Scurvy-grass – Cochlearia officinalis

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Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima

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