Food For Free (Part 1) - Wild dining

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This forager’s bible has sold half a million aopies since it was first published in 1972. Author Richard Mabey reveals why wild flavours tickle our tastebuds still

It’s mid-autumn and the colours on the Cumbrian dells are as topsy-turvy as 2011’s weather. Mauve bush-vetch is having a second flowering among the gold-brushed bracken fronds. White-winged oyter fungi (‘Whinlatter angels’) sprout from stumps under oak trees in full green leaf. Hogweed is in lacy flower and burnished seed on the same plant. The landsape seems bent on serving up the same kind of seasonal surprises as the new generation of cuisine sauvage chefs are busy assembling on their plates.

I’m up in the lake District for a wild foodie weekend, based at the Cottage in The Wood, near Keswick. Chef Rupert Willday’s passion for foraging infuses everything on the tables, even the plate decorations at breakfast. What he doesn’t offer is the opportunity for feral gorging. There are no Desperate-Dan-sized bilberry pies or bottomless mushroom stews. Instead there are spikes and washes of intense flavour, wild grace notes. At dinner he serves game sausages with a haw hetchup, which somehow seems earthily deep and lemon-sharp at the same time. He concocts an English version of Chinese five-spice – crushed seeds of fennel, ramsons, sweet cicely anf hogweed (uncannily like cardamom), plus herb bennet root (to stand in for ginger).

Description: Food for Free (Collins GEM). by Richard Mabey

 Food for Free (Collins GEM). by Richard Mabey

And there are greens, too, even at this late season. Sprigs of wayside bush-vetch, and thinning from the abundant sprouting of wood sorrel in the local forest, tiny acidic wafers on wiry cocktail stalks. The autumnal fellside landscape has come indoors.

Willday isn’t a lone voice, so to speak, in the wilderness. Simon Rogan’s phenomenally good L’Enclume, also in the Lake District, serves up mouthwatering confection such as golden turnip dumplings with Cheddar cheese, alxanders and rock samphire, and iced clery with chestnut and English truffle.

L’Enclume and Sat Bains’ eponymous eatery in the heart of Nottingham were both in 2010’s Good Food Guide list of the top three UK restaurants – largely on the strength of their imaginative use of wildings.

Wild dining

The benchmark for this new wave pf wild fine dining is Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant Noma, judged to be the best in the world. Redzepi uses a mind-stretching battery of wild ingredients, including birchwood, sea buckthorn berries, spruce shoots and bulrush hearts. His rise has been symbolic of the foraging renaissance, and it’s hard to find a serious restaurant these days that doesn’t feature wild food on its menu.

An entire infrastructure of profeesional pickers has evolved to service the trade – even the supermarket are getting in on the act, particularly with mushrooms. Wild food has gone mainstream.

How time have changed. O still have a photo of myself taken when I first began grubbing around for wild foods. I’m sitting croos-legged on the lawn in a kaftan, looking rather smug, and cradling an immense and suggestive puffball in may lap.

What this picture reminds me of, 40 years on, is that back then foraging didn’t feel as if it had anything in common with high gastronomy, or, for that matter, with lowly hunter-gathering (though of course it once did). It felt political, hippy and hedge-wise – a poke in the eye for domesticity as much as domestication.

Its recent rise to fashionableness has raised all kinds of worrying conundrums, not to mention the irony of smart dining-out being underpinned be the deeply unsmart business of bramble-scrabbling and mud-trawling.

Description: Food For Free

One of the best justifications for foraging has always been that it heightens your awareness of the natural world, and of the fundamental roots of food. Now, the growing availability of what might be called ‘convenience wilding’ can look like a shift in the opposite direction – not so much connecting with the wild as domesticating and distancing it.

Eyebrows have been raised, too, at the trend for treating honest, natural ingredient in such extravagant ways. Snails served in moss (“the aim of the persentation is to recreate the habitat of the snails”) can seem gross – a kind of gastro-porn – to some. Give us a billycan pf nettles over a camp fire any day, say the traditionalists. Even the growing popularity of foraged food – formerly viewed as a heartening shift in public taste – is now viewed suspiciously, as posing a threat to wild flora and fauna.

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