A milky bright yellow glints in the sunlight, peeking through the glass jar that contains it. A rapt audience of seven women watch Fergus as he opens the jar gently and passes a thimble-full each around the circle. It’s intense flavour matches the brightness of it’s hue and yet there is something delicate about it’s depth; the essence of wild coastal paths and ancient forests rolled into one. We are standing on a windy path along the Kentish coast, a 12th Century tower looming in the distance. We are in the splendid company, for a whole day, of ‘Fergus the Forager’. We are happy because we have just tasted pine tree pollen honey and it’s very, very good.
More of a magician than a forager, Fergus helps us discover that foraging is surprisingly colourful, sexy and a lot of fun. The things you can eat on a May day in England are delicious. I will apologise now for misspellings and any botanical inaccuracies; I’m more interested in sharing the overall diversity and excitement of the day with you (and I’m sure Fergus would be happy to answer any technical questions)…
Pine Pollen Honey occurred late in the day so let me start at the beginning.
The bouncy ‘jalopy’ of a vehicle pulled into the drive and we hopped in and travelled to the coast to a rather anonymous car park. Woven baskets in one hand and scissors in the other we start by a fluffy white bush; the kind of bush I’ve seen a million times but never really looked at. Its a Hawthorn bush and the flowers are sometimes called Mayflowers (reassuringly it is actually May). Fergus tells us to pick the delicate white flowers carefully pinching our fingers together to grasp just the flower tips. He produces seven Kilner jars with a transparent liquid in and we gently press the flowers into what turns out to be vodka. As we sit on the grass and laugh he passes around little cups of amber liquid of hawthorn syrup, tart and sweet at the same time… a good alternative to Elderflower cordial (more on Elderflowers later) and then produces a hot flask of Hawthorn tea; delicious and soft by contrast.
Slightly giddy from sugar we stroll through a grassy glade picking hog weed shoots (careful not to get the sap from the broken stem on your skin), cow parsley flowers (not to be confused with Hemlock!), some kind of garlic / mustard green stem with white flowers that tastes… weirdly… exactly like garlic and mustard. A few pinky violet flowers and some yellow flowers neither of which I know the name of get thrown in our baskets too. The next hour passes tasting Burdock syrup (an alternative to coffee??), eating mysterious tiny little star shaped purple sweeties (we are asked to guess what this could be?) Fergus telling us stories and insights into the complex world of wild food.
Back in the Jalopy we go further along the coast and rush to beat the tide which is quickly coming in. Wellies afoot we wade into the shallow water and collect six different kinds of seaweed. Wispy electric green fur that clings to rocks, something I always assumed was to be avoided, gets scraped gently away from the stone and bagged. Reddish ribbon like curls can just be rescued in time from the advancing sea, black, shiny, spaghetti like tendrils, bright green crimped leaved, create a surprising spectrum of seaweeds. Sitting on rocks we taste seaweed butter, prepared by Fergus from dehydrated seaweed pounded in a pestle and mortar and added to butter, spread on oatcakes. A weird seaweed ‘gelatin’ is un-moulded, we pickle some of the seaweed we have collected, mustard seeds, vinegar and sugar merge together in little squat jars, the low sun flashes through the mixture. At the top of the cliff heading towards the van Fergus halts us by a pine tree, it’s cones heavy with pollen, whipping a jar from his bag we have our yellow pine pollen moment. Further along the cliff top we see sorrel and wild fennel.
Then we are off again on the road… pulling up by a wasteland area. Walking up a rocky track, a random leaf plucked from the roadside is presented to us all. Simulatneously told to bite down it brings tears to our eyes. A wasabi-like head-rush occurs. This is potent green stuff. The one and only drop of rain of the day falls heavy and sudden and as if by magic Fergus squirrels us into a wooded ‘den’ he created on a previous visit. Inside this cathedral of Elder trees he points out an odd, ear shaped, crinkly brown, inedible looking mushroom growing on the bark of the tree. Miraculously he pulls some little brown morsels from his pocket; ear mushrooms (not their botanical name) soaked in Grand Marnier and dipped in Chocolate – Holy smoke these are good… Unlike anything any of us have ever tasted before. This is elegant, decadent foraging!
Clutching at handfuls of elderflower heads as we leave we rush to grab the last of the evening light. We are cooking on the beach tonight.
Three wood fuelled pit fires snake up to the clear dark blue sky; the sun is setting. Turner-esque in its drama, oranges and blues clashing wildly. Despite crazy wind we have found a sheltered spot at the base of the cliff. Fergus has made us beetroot and rosehip soup swirled with yoghurt. Spicy and rich it keeps us warm. This is followed by ‘seaweed-six-types’ deep fried quickly in smoking hot woks they pretty much explode up into the air. We are amazed how good they taste and how different each type is. They practically melt in your mouth, evaporating on contact with your tongue. By now we have sampled our Hawthorn flower vodka and concocted our own fennel version. Our souls are warmed and the sky darkens. Main course is sea bass marinated in turmeric and a secret spice mix; pan fried over the fire. A creamy Indian tomato sauce graces the hogweed (incredibly good) and we ooooh and aaaaahh at the most beautiful salad I’ve ever eaten. Laced with tiny flowers and all the leaves we have gathered through the day. Dessert reveals tempura battered elderflower heads dunked in maple syrup. Heavenly. A surprise compote on the side of Japanese knotweed knocks our socks off… like Rhubarbs elegant older sibling this is clever eating.
Satisfied and pleasantly overwhelmed we all sit and watch the sun disappear completely. Inky black skies soar above and we gather ourselves and slowly make out way by torches up the path.
A magical, inspiring day with my favourite friends in the world. A day like this reminds you what really matters. It celebrates the glory of our special landscape opens our eyes to the wonders of wild eating.
A special thank you to Fergus the Forager.
Thanks to Camilla and Nicole for the lovely pictures!
PS. The little star shaped purple sweeties? They were cut from the cross section of a Blackberry Bramble bush and candied in Blackberry juice…