Ismay Atkins gets a taste of the wild near Land’s End.
I was focusing intently on a busy Cornish hedgerow: layer upon tangled layer of wild flowers and humble-looking leaves squabbling for space, none of them looking remotely edible.
It was the first outing of my wild-food weekend, and fortunately I was not the only beginner unable to mask my suspicion as professional forager Caroline Davey picked a nettle leaf, folded it up, touching only the non-stinging underside, and started munching away appreciatively.
Foraging inevitably calls to mind billy cans and worm-eating survival trips, but it became quickly apparent that Fat Hen’s ‘forage and feast’ weekend had nothing to do with hardship and everything to do with foodie indulgence. On the first morning at Fat Hen base camp, two beautifully converted barns on a dairy farm a few miles from Land’s End, professional chefs Matt and Claire started proceedings with a round of wonderfully aromatic hogweed-seed biscotti and fresh coffee, followed by a quick lesson on how to make mackerel ceviche. Each morsel of lemon-‘cooked’ fish was later wrapped in wild black mustard leaves and served with ‘hedgerow’ cocktails in flutes as the evening’s aperitif. Not a billy can in sight.
Throughout the weekend, the team’s passion for British wild edibles was infectious. After a forage along the shores of Sennen for rock samphire (great pickled or with fish), sea spinach and laver seaweed, Matt popped up with a two-burner to whip up black pudding topped with butter-fried seaweed. And so the feast continued: three-cornered leek, wild fennel and yoghurt soup and a riotous spring salad (containing sorrel, marsh flower, ox-eye daisies, sweet violet leaves) for lunch; venison with wilted sea spinach, followed by vanilla pannacotta and elderflower fritters for dinner…
Inevitably, foraging attracts a degree of controversy. If everyone foraged, some fret, there’d be nothing left. Davey is an ecologist by training and her practices are impeccable: only harvest enough for yourself from abundant or pest species (the delicious, chive-like three-cornered leek is one, as is the humble nettle); use scissors to protect the roots; and always seek permission to forage on private property. (On a separate note, never ever eat anything you cannot positively identify: careless foraging can cost lives.)
Slow food, very slow food
In any case, after a few expeditions it became abundantly clear that foraging is in minimal danger of razing the local wildlife, for one fundamental reason: this is slow food, very slow food. In supermarket terms, the sorrel aisle is several miles from the elderflower section – and the seaweed counter can only be reached by clambering over dozens of slippery rocks. But the scenery made light of the work, and the rocky scrambles helped us work up an appetite.
Back at Fat Hen, the comments enthusiastically scribbled in the visitors’ book (‘empowering’, ‘invigorating’, ‘liberating’, ‘satisfying’) told a story of just how far most of us have become detached from the source of our food – but more importantly of how good it feels when we reconnect. Clearly, the chefs, Champagne-and-elderberry cocktails and spectacular seascapes eased the way to wild-food heaven but still – we did the picking, right? Now, where’s that navelwort?
Where to eat
Gurnard’s Head Though the upmarket menu and rustic chic decor place Gurnard’s squarely in the gastropub category, the food is fuss-free – this is high-grade hearty British comfort food, with plenty of locally foraged wild grub. Think lobster, mussel, pea and lovage risotto with rock samphire, smoked pilchard with three-cornered leek fritters or rack of lamb with chickweed salmoriglio. The owners are firm believers in ‘the simple things in life done well’. Bookings are recommended (essential on school-holiday Sundays). There are a few comfortable rooms upstairs (£80 a night).
The Summer House This blue boutique B&B, squeezed into a pretty lane in Penzance, is just a few paces from the promenade. The classy rooms are fresh and stylish and, with their baby blues, sunny yellows, pinstripes and lashings of white, are 100 per cent chintz-free. Breakfast can be taken in the cute patio garden out back, complete with Cornish palms, and guests can also take advantage of the Summer House’s 12-table ‘Dinner Club’, serving superb Mediterranean cuisine. Book ahead as there are only five rooms and they are in great demand.