"At the moment I'm trying to work out why we use salt and pepper as standard at table. I mean, why not salt and ... fennel or hogweed seeds or nutmeg or cloves or cinnamon?" This sort of research is typical of Richard Osmond "Chief Forager" who runs the best wild food pub in the country with George Fredenham, another experienced forager. They both have an infectious curiosity about everything, especially if it's around their taste buds and finding out what's growing out there. Recently, I went on a foraging walk with them along the river Ver which runs through St Albans and as it was mid June the river bank was exploding with edible stuff - and a few things which you certainly shouldn't get anywhere near your mouth.
Although our expedition was near their foraging centre of St Albans the foragers often find edible plants and mushrooms on Hackney Marshes and Tottenham Marshes. Richard explained that you need to try to keep away from roads because of the pollution and particularly to get safe mushrooms, some of which are absorbent of heavy metals. On our riverside walk we found hogweed, wild hops, watercress (which used to be a major export from Hertfordshire), Pheasant Back mushrooms with a cucumber-like smell, feverfew - useful for migraine, and three-cornered leeks. Even near the St Albans station we found lovely lime blossom which can be used for tea-making though it is said to be only for women as for men it can take away your masculinity.
"I'll let you smell this leaf, as long as you promise not to let it anywhere near your mouth," Richard says as he hands me a broken leaf from a cherry laurel which smelt exquisite, just like battenberg cake. People have sometimes confused its leaves with bay leaves have killed themselves with the cyanide in this plant. Another dangerous finding was a mushroom that looked just like a field mushroom; but you can tell it apart by touching the underside where a yellow stain emerges. Not usually fatal but these can give you stomach cramps and D&V for a couple of days apparently.
Foraging isn't just about eating, but it links in with survival. On our walk we saw lots of nettles which can be used for nettle soup but also made into string. Bushcrafters recognise that basic needs are shelter, food, water, fire and ... string. Hunting for wild food is becoming increasingly popular as technology breaks our links with nature and when Richard Osmond and George were featured foraging on Countryfile with over 9 million visitors they found a big increase in business both for the pub and for foraging expeditions.
At the Verulam pub in St Albans we sampled many foraged herbs and delicacies of life outside the conventional food chain. My favourite was the "Deer spheres" with muntjac that their hunter, Bruce, had shot. For vegetarians there's an alternative - "badgers' balls". We also sampled George and Richard's microbrewery with the most delicious beer that includes foraged ingredients. But many of their spirits also have foraged flavourings such as the blackcurrant brandy and slow gins. The menu at the Verulam changes at least every month and is always seasonal. Their expeditions are wide ranging - the foragers offer seaweed-foraging breaks to Scotland with their local expert, Duncan. Richard and George are social and inclusive in their approach and have worked with foragers in urban areas and one who makes shoes from badgers' stomachs and even collects pollen from pine trees.
WoodlandsTV is host to a few of the foragers' films such as making 'medieval ink' from oak galls:
or smoking food in a tree:
If you are interested in a foraging expedition or a great wild-food pub, go over to www.the-foragers.com