If you’re anything like me, close examination of your garden lawn brings a heavy heart as you realise that there are actually more weeds – dandelions, daisies, plantains and the like – than grass. The thought of befriending my lawn, even learning to love the weeds, had never occurred to me. Until I met Miles Irving.
Miles forages for the nation’s top chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Richard Corrigan, Mark Hix and Gordon Ramsay. For six days and nights a week throughout the year he tramps through the woods, meadows and sea marshes of Kent gathering wild fungi, nuts and plants that end up on Britain’s finest tables. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, he’s just written the ultimate bible on wild foods, The Forager Handbook, and at weekends runs courses for ordinary punters like me.
We arrived at Miles’ red-brick terraced house in Chartham, near Canterbury, on a radiant summer morning. There were primary teachers from Islington, keen to instruct their little ones on issues like sustainability; a theatre lighting director (not sure how foraged food fitted in with floodlights and follow spots); and foodies like me anxious to find out how to extend our larders at no extra cost. We were welcomed by Miles, long locks tamed by his trademark trilby, and his chocolate labrador Fudge, who, like most dogs, has foraging in the blood and accompanies Miles wherever he goes.
We’d assembled on the lawn outside Miles’ home, and since two of the group were delayed, our forager leader decided there was no time to lose. We were soon on our knees scrutinising the lawn for food. We started on dandelions. Miles was already getting excited, extolling their taste (delicious in salad with a pungent dressing), their nutritional virtues (high in iron, calcium and vitamin A), and their diuretic qualities (the French call them /piss-en-lit/, which means ‘piss in the bed’). I’d tried dandelions before, but their next-door-neighbours, the daisies, were the real surprise. Pluck the leaf fronds and you have something very like lamb’s lettuce, which can be thrown into sandwiches. Blanch them for 30 seconds, said Miles, throw on a knob of butter, and you have an attractive and tasty vegetable – with more protein than everyday veg like cabbage or leeks. Interestingly, most wild food is far higher in nutrients than cultivated stuff, so our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have had far better diets than us. Pole position goes to common mallow, which has nearly three times as much protein per 100g as spinach – something for Popeye to think about there. Here on Miles’ doorstep we’d already found a feast that was both tasty and healthy. I’d be looking at my lawn in a new light, I mused.
Just in case we forgot what was what when we got back to our urban dwellings, Miles had given us exercise books into which we stuck the plants that we’d foraged, classifying them under plant family. I felt as if I was back at kindergarten – all I needed now was a satchel and some white ankle socks. The books were a godsend: one green leaf is all too easily confused with another, and by the end of the day our books were bulging with gathered greenery.
We were about to move onto plantain (great mushroom flavour substitute), but the last two guests finally arrived so we were pulled away from our lawn snack and shuttled to our next foraging destination, some buttercup-filled meadows bordering the river Stour. “Pretty much everything in sight is edible, apart from the buttercups,” said Miles. “You can literally eat the view.”
He was right. We had a munch at ‘fools’ watercress’ (pie-cress), then a nibble of hawthorn blossom. Its flowers have an almond flavour and are good in salads or stewed with beef; the leaves are tasty and the berries are bursting with vitamin C. Its versatility led our ancestors to call it the “bread and cheese” tree. When there was no food in the house, there was always the hawthorn hedge.
The plant that really tickled my tastebuds was the dittander, the poor man’s horseradish, with large oval leathery greyish green leaves. I’m passionate about horseradish, so was chuffed by the idea of a free readily available source. Interestingly, when horseradish was first introduced to Britain, sometime before 1500, it was used only for medicinal purposes, with dittander root used in the kitchen. In his book, Miles describes how he once stumbled over a cluster of dittander roots when foraging on the beach with Paul Brown, then head chef of Le Caprice. Paul went back to his London kitchen and knocked up the most fabulous dressing to accompany salmon and oysters.
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