Using foraged ingredients is nothing new but the trend has become more mainstream over the past two years. However, the wider use of foraged food in restaurants also carries a certain amount of danger. Joanna Wood reports
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Lately, you haven't been able to pick up a newspaper, check out Twitter or flick on a television culinary programme without the "F" word cropping up. We're talking about foraging - nothing to do with Gordon Ramsay's erstwhile TV series. Of course, foraging, or more precisely using foraged ingredients, is nothing new. Wild mushrooms are menu staples in the autumn and, in modern times, trailblazing chefs have been slipping other kinds of foraged food on to menus for nearly a decade. Longer in some cases. But in the past couple of years the trend has become mainstream, thanks to mentions beyond industry media, in particular on popular TV shows and in respected broadsheet papers and foodie magazines.
Which begs the question, why all the attention now? We'll come back to that in a moment, but for clarification's sake let's state what a foraged ingredient is. In essence, it is a wild food - most often a plant or its seeds/fruit (although you could argue that honey from a wild beehive, should you ever find it, is a foraged ingredient), from land or sea: in kitchen terms, something that is not cultivated, but which has culinary usage. Depending on the season, we're talking about the likes of chickweed, sea purslane, samphire, mugwort, elderberries and flowers, alexanders, ransoms, wood sorrel, nettles, wild mushrooms with weird and wonderful names, cobnuts, sloes and blackberries. The list is long and varied.
As to the question of "why now?", it certainly helps that a high-profile chef like René Redzepi, chef-proprietor of Copenhagen's Noma restaurant and the current darling of the world's culinary press, has used native Scandinavian wild plants as the building blocks to his unique, contemporary Danish cuisine. But others have been quietly using foraged food on their menus for years. In the UK, pioneers include the likes of Mark Hix, Simon Rogan, Sat Bains and David Everitt-Matthias.
"René's the one everyone has picked-up on," says Bains, whose two-Michelin-starred eponymous Nottingham restaurant puts out a signature dish, NG7, which uses wild ingredients from his immediate area (chickweed, jack-by-the-hedge, wild chervil and goutweed among others). "He's this young, good-looking guy with a swagger about him - and when you get so much exposure in the world press as he does then something is always going to filter down."
And filter down it has, not only to fine-dining menus, but to dishes put out by contract caterers in executive dining rooms, to brasseries, bistros and foodie pubs all around the country. Chefs such as Bains regard the move towards using native wild ingredients as being bound up with the wider culinary movement of produce traceability and a rediscovery of British ingredients in general. "It's part of getting back to the land, reflecting what's around us," he says.
That attitude is mirrored by young guns like Lee Streeton (executive chef, London Syon Park hotel), Paul Foster (head chef, Tuddenham Mill, Suffolk - a 2011 Acorn winner and Observer Food Monthly‘s Young Chef of the Year) and Mat Follas (chef-proprietor, the Wild Garlic, Beaminster, Dorset, and Masterchef winner in 2009) all of whom use wild ingredients judiciously on their menus. Streeton talks of a "love affair" with the land. Foraging, he rightly points out, is something people have done for hundreds of years - "we just forgot how".
There's no doubt that the culinary rediscovery of Britain's wild food has resulted in some fantastic restaurant dishes and expanded the native ingredient larder significantly. Many wild plants have great spice-and-herb-like flavour profiles and inject punch on to the palate in surprising ways. But the wider use of foraged food in restaurants across the industry carries a certain amount of danger. At least according to some critics.
Marina O'Loughlin, the resident restaurant critic on London's Metro newspaper, recently had a pithy, sustained rant in an issue of Square Meal magazine about "weeds", taking over menus. She complained of "pools of sulphuric khaki sludge" appearing at restaurant tables and held a particular grudge about a pudding she had once been served.
"On a perfectly palatable gooseberry parfait," she complained, "the chef had strewn a carpet of fibrous, foraged plant life. These… added nothing to the dish from a deliciousness perspective - quite the contrary."
Maybe O'Loughlin hit upon a chef who hadn't thought through his cooking. But she is an experienced critic and it is too easy to just dismiss her comments as those of a jaded restaurant commentator about a one-off meal.
The problem is that when a culinary trend takes off, it does so for better or worse. Some chefs just jump on fashion bandwagaons without bothering to fully understand the new techniques or ingredients they are utilising, merely because they see their peers cooking in a novel style. You only have to recall how fusion cuisine was bastardised by unskilful hands (it has never lost its subsequent tag of "confusion" cuisine), or how disastrous so-called molecular gastronomy can be when attempted in uneducated kitchens.
"Foraged ingredients have to have a purpose in a dish," stresses Streeton. Foster agrees. "It's important to really understand the ingredients and not just use them for a gimmick." Foster recommends going out foraging with an expert, such as Kent-based Miles Irving of Forager (www.forager.org.uk), as a way of deepening culinary knowledge of wild food. "You get to see the ingredients in their natural habitat and build up an appreciation for them," he explains. "You see the life cycle of a plant and how you can use it in different ways at different stages."
Irving supplies many of the UK's leading restaurants with wild ingredients. His specialist knowledge has guided chefs such as Foster and Ben Spalding - of the much-talked about new London restaurant Roganic - to foraged leaves with intriguing or intense flavour profiles. For instance, wild celery, which has a much stronger kick than its cultivated cousin, meaning that you need only a tiny amount to achieve a taste-depth in dishes.
However, just because some foraged leaves and plants have amazing flavour profiles, it doesn't follow that they all have. "There's an awful lot of new clothes for emperors, I'm afraid," concedes Tom Harris, head chef at St John hotel in London, part of Fergus Henderson's St John empire - an establishment committed to the ethic of sourcing British ingredients. "Some taste shit… there is a reason that ground elder has been left to run wild and reindeer moss never cultivated: these are weeds whose virtue I have yet to discover… and I have tried!"
There are other issues floating around the use of foraged ingredients. Disturbing biodiversity by over-harvesting at sites is a potential problem. Knowledgeable and responsible foragers such as Irving are careful about how they collect their supplies. But increasing demand from chefs and amateur cooks (Irving says he has trebled his output over the past four years) means unscrupulous suppliers and over-keen amateurs can denude important habitats very easily. There have been problems in recent years, for instance, with mushroom collecting in Epping Forest in Essex.
Then, there is that little niggling doubt that some chefs might just be using foraged ingredients to hike up their menu prices. Maybe that's more perception than reality. It's certainly hotly refuted by Harris. "When was the last time you saw a £10 supplement on a dish with hairy bittercress on it?" he asks.
Let's accept then that foraged ingredients are in from the wilderness and here to stay on menus, and applaud the fact that they are helping to reforge the identity of British cuisine.
That said, what are the sensible ways to use them? Some can be used raw just to finish off a dish, or in salads - wild watercress or sea aster, for instance. Many can be effective when made in to tisanes, which can be used as palate cleansers or flavour heighteners, or as flavour bases for desserts like panna cotta, possets or soufflés.
Still others can be used as spices or seasoning tools, for instance, those garnered from the sea or coast - samphire, sea purslane, or many of the seaweeds - have a natural saltiness and iodine kick that perfectly complements fish. And dried hogweed seeds, with their cardamom flavour notes, are great with meat and game. It really is a case of experiment and see. But the golden rule is: never use a foraged ingredient for the sake of it. Wild food, like any other dish ingredient, has to justify itself.
And never forget that in the course of exploring the UK's wild larder you will start and end many love affairs with the ingredients. The chances are, though, the process will help to form your own culinary identity, as well as that of our reawakened national cuisine.foraging fundamentals â- Learn about wild food yourself first hand by going on courses run by recognised experts - understanding the ingredients means you'll use them properly. â- Always wash any produce thoroughly before using. â- Only use foraged food when it actually improves a dish and make sure you really understand the flavour profiles of anything you do use. â- If foraging yourself, make sure you have permission to do so from the landowner - and be absolutely certain about identifying plants before using them. â- Leave mushroom foraging to the experts. There are too many poisonous ones for the amateur to trip up on. â- Make sure you don't use the few wild herbs/plants that are protected species. â- Never use foraged ingredients to hike up menu costs - customers will clock it. Â plants and culinary uses â- Wild chamomile Use in a tisane, with something like fresh mint (to refresh palate). â- Mugwort Good for chilled tisane (works well with chocolate). â- Hogweed seed Dried and ground to make seasoning for game and meat (particularly good with pork). Has a cardamom-like flavour note. â- Hogweed (fresh leaves) Use as a green leaf vegetable, or as a salad leaf. â- Sea buckthorn berries Make a curd to use in desserts. Quite astringent, has pineapple and passion fruit flavour notes. â- Wild watercress Use as a herb/vegetable, match with beef. â- Elderberries Use fresh, or in a sauce, with game. â- Stinging nettles Use as you would spinach. Quite astringent - good flavour match with goats' cheese. â- Mallow Use roots, quite gelatinous. â- Sea aster Good as a salad leaf. Quite salty. â- Wild celery Big celery hit, use in similar way to cultivated cousin, but in much smaller quantities. â- Rosehips Use in a tisane, or for jellies, syrups, jams, and so on. Matches well with cinnamon, ginger and honey for a tart filling. Â Please note: this list is not exhaustive. Further reading: â- The Forager Handbook Miles Irving (Ebury Press) â- Edible Wild Plants & Herbs Pamela Michael (Grub Street) â- Hedgerow (River Cottage Handbook No 7) John Wright (Bloomsbury Publishing) Watch the video >>