really wild food : foraging with Fergus Drennan

24 Apr

When society crumbles and supermarket shelves are bare, Fergus Drennan is going to be a very popular man! He used to supply restaurants with foraged foods and now runs foraging courses for small groups in the Kent countryside, he has experimented with living for a year on foraged food and has written widely on the subject, so really knows his stuff.

The Man booked us a day’s foraging course for my birthday last year but we waited for longer days and for things to really start growing. I was really looking forward to it, but I didn’t realise quite how much fun we would have, how much I would learn and what great food we would be eating. At 9am sharp a group of us assembled outside The Goods Shed in Canterbury, then just after 9 Fergus screeched into the car park, apologising for being late, but he had spotted some St Georges Mushrooms and he wanted to pick them for our dinner; you can’t really argue with that! We bundled into Fergus’s car and hurtled off to the first destination, behind an un remarkable suburban cul-de-sac for some river bank foraging.

Fergus was an incredibly enthusiastic teacher, covering the basics of foraging before leading us off, stopping every 30 seconds or so to point out edible morsels or cautioning about what to avoid. The hogweed above was gorgeous (asparagusy) fried with butter, lemon and pepper but the sap can cause burns if it gets on you skin before cooking so you need to be careful! River bank forage complete we were whisked off to the woods to learn how to turn these,

into this;

a chocolate coated, sloe gin infused wood ear mushrooms (incredibly sweet and tasty actually)!

As time went on Fergus was worrying that we were running late and it felt like he was having to force himself to move on the next area. After a quick stop to pick up so super hot Dittander leaves we headed back to his parents house at about 3.30 to make lunch. By this point I was so hungry I could have eaten the cat, but we quickly rustled up a three course lunch of some of the prettiest, most unusual food I’ve ever eaten; most of which I had helped gather that morning.

wild leaf soup with added nettles.
mixed wild leaf salad with feta and radish mushrooms
wild mushroom tart with rye and acorn flour
vanilla panna cotta with carageen, wood avon root flavoured apple and blackberry star

I think we all felt a little guilty leaving so much washing up behind but Fergus was in Mad Hatter “I’m late” mode, he assured us it would be fine, and we still had vodka to infuse, dinner to cook and a whole seashore to explore, so we had better get a move on! Off to the sea-side we went, again at high-speed, Fergus’s eyes always scanning the hedgerows. We picked gorse flowers to infuse vodka, fun but painfully prickly!

Afterwards we moved on to learn about Alexanders ( herbal, celery ish), Sea Beet (salty spinach), salt made from Sea Purslane and the many types of edible seaweed. Always having an eye for a high value item I was thrilled to find a native oyster.

Less impressed to have to leave it, but it was the only one so it wouldn’t have been fair really. Dinner felt like it was the thing we had been building towards for most of the day, although lunch was so huge we thought we might struggle fortunately we all found room. As the light was fading we built fires on the beach, adding to the prehistoric hunter gatherer feel, there is something very ulifting about preparing and cooking a meal together.

We deep-fried seaweed (and nearly Fergus too), it was so much tastier than anything I have ordered from a takeaway, lots of umami and a dash of iodine!

That was just a taster for the main event; sea bass (not foraged) with wild fennel wrapped in laver seaweed, nutty burdock roots and those lovely St Georges mushrooms fried with Alexander stems.

It was very tasty, I think almost anything cooked on a fire has a head start, but the flavours were incredibly clean and contemporary tasting. For pudding we knocked up a crumble from Japanese Knot Weed, (a hideously invasive plant which could see you have your mortgage refused if it’s growing in your garden); but which tastes very similar to rhubarb without the very sharp tang. It was lovely, and exceeded my expectations but to be honest I think we were all struggling to fit anymore food in by this point.

We both finished the day exhausted, with heads too full of information to remember any of it and immensely grateful to Fergus for dropping us back at our hotel. The whole day was a full on, slightly mad cap immersion in foraging that has given us both a different perspective on food. A brilliant birthday present and an experience I’d definitely recommend.

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