Foraging for wild food: a viable dinner option?

Is it really possible to sustain yourself by foraging for food? Mark Hix puts his nose to the ground and looks for clues
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's definitely something in the air, and everybody seems to be talking about it. Foraging for wild food is gaining in popularity - they've been doing it on the Continent for generations, but we have always shied away from it. I can't see why; some of the tastiest vegetables and herbs that are in season now grow wild on our doorsteps and on our coastlines. You have to know where to find them, like Miles Irving, my wild food supplier ( www.forager.org.uk), who has been getting quite a bit of coverage recently.

A few weeks ago, I cooked for my annual dinner at Weymouth College, where I trained as a chef, in my native Dorset. I always make sure the menu features ingredients that aren't often seen in restaurants, let alone in the supermarkets. This year I featured razor clams, sea kale, sea beet and sea purslane, which got everyone round the table talking. All of these delicacies actually grow on the Dorset coastline, and yet, as I suspected, my dinner guests had neither heard of nor eaten many of the ingredients. I've been back to Dorset a couple times this year, most recently to the birthday party of Arthur Watson, proprietor of the Riverside in West Bay, and, as I usually do, picked up a couple of ideas there. I loved his cold salad with peas in a dressing of orange and bits of very finely chopped bacon and pork. I imagined it as a delicious spring dish with duck or pork, and here I have done it with pork fillet.

I've planted peas in my garden from some pea shoots I had left over - so now, hopefully, I'll have my own supply of peas in the pod. My hunter-gatherer outings also supply my sedentary cultivating activities, and the sea kale I was given from a beach in Kent and planted at home is showing some shoots, so I'm looking forward to harvesting that, although it will probably only yield one meal for two. I know it's hardly foraging, as I'll only have to go as far as the end of the garden, but it's free food and tastes all the better for of it. So, if you're out and about this Bank Holiday weekend, and heading to the countryside or the coast, keep your eyes peeled.

Pork fillet with peas, orange and smoked bacon

Serves 4

After thinking about the pea salad at the Riverside, I thought I had better give you the recipe, rather than keep you guessing. Pork fillets are pretty easy to come by these days, but don't overcook them; keep them a touch on the pink side. As for the peas, you may well have to use our European imports for the moment, as the late spring has slowed our home-grown ones down somewhat, or frozen peas, which I'm not too adverse to.

4 pieces of pork fillet, weighing 150-180g each
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, finely diced
Juice of 2 oranges and grated zest of 1
120ml rapeseed or olive oil
300g peas, cooked
A handful of pea shoots, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the shallots and bacon in a tablespoon of the rapeseed oil for 2-3 minutes. Add the orange juice and simmer until you have about 2-3 tablespoons left. Add the rest of the rapeseed oil and season then mix in the peas and pea shoots.

Meanwhile pre-heat a ribbed griddle or heavy-bottomed frying pan with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Season the pork fillets and cook them for 5-6 minutes on each side, keeping them slightly pink and moist. Leave the pork to rest on a plate for 5 minutes to catch any juices, which can be added to the peas.

Spoon the peas on to plates, slice the pork fillets into 3 or 4 pieces and lay on top.

Sea trout with seashore vegetables

Serves 4

If you're a fisherman and forager this dish could cost you next to nothing. When I'm on the coast I just can't resist filling a carrier bag with edible vegetables like sea spinach or sea beet, sea purslane and sea kale, and samphire a bit later in the year. The taste of sea beet is what shop-bought spinach should taste like, full of iron and slightly robust. They are rather like chard leaves with a thick white stem that can be left on or removed.

You can use some or all the sea vegetables you can find, if not you could improvise with, say, some baby spinach leaves, chard, cultivated sea kale, which is pretty expensive, imported samphire, etc.

Sea trout season is now up and running and various rivers round the country will have different start dates. I should warn you it will be pretty pricey to start with. I've yet to catch a sea trout, but I'm determined this is going to be the year. If you're struggling to find sea vegetables, a mixture of edible seaweeds, which can be found in health food shops, Asian supermarkets and Sainsbury's Special Selection, can be used. Alternatively, use a mixture of spring vegetables, such as runner beans, broad beans, young spinach leaves and so on.

4 sea trout fillets, weighing about 150-160g each with the skin on
2 tbsp olive oil
A good knob of butter
A couple handfuls of small sea beet leaves, trimmed and washed, or chard
200g sea kale, trimmed (or see above for alternatives)
2-3 handfuls of sea purslane (again, see above for alternatives)
A couple handfuls of samphire (when in season, or imported)

For the dressing

1tbsp good-quality tarragon vinegar
Juice of half a lemon
2tbsp olive oil
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper f

First, make the vinaigrette. Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar and give them a good shake or mix in a bowl with a whisk.

Trim the sea kale into small 4-5cm pieces, discarding any thick stalks, and cook in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes until tender, drain and put it into a bowl. Blanch the sea beet by leaving it for 30 seconds in boiling salted water, drain and mix with the sea kale. Pick the greenest tender leaves from the sea purslane and blanch for 30 seconds in boiling salted water, drain and mix with the rest of the vegetables. If you're using samphire, trim any woody stalks and blanch for 10 seconds in boiling water, drain and mix with the rest of the vegetables.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan, season the sea trout fillets and cook, skin-side down first, for 3-4 minutes on each side depending on their thickness; thinner fillets from smaller fish will need a little less.

Dress the sea vegetables with some of the dressing and season. Place some of the vegetables on to plates, place the fish on top, then scatter more of the sea vegetables on top and spoon over more dressing.

Jersey Royals with Cornish pilchards

Serves 4

I've recently been on a trip to Jersey for the very first time, to dig the first crop of the famous Jersey Royals. You may well have seen Cornish pilchards in tins from the Pilchard Works in Newlyn, Cornwall. Sometimes they are marketed as Cornish sardines, which is to entice us into buying pilchards; maybe they are trying to banish memories of those cheap store-cupboard staples in tomato sauce. But pilchards and sardines are one and the same thing anyway.

350-400g medium Jersey Royals
80g butter
2tbsp chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tin of Cornish pilchards

Cook the Jersey Royals in boiling salted water for 10-12 minutes depending on their size; if there are smaller ones, they can be added after the medium ones have been boiling for a few minutes. Drain and mix with the butter, chives and season. Cut any large ones in half and arrange on plates. Drain the pilchards and break the fish over the potatoes.

St George's mushroom and wild garlic risotto

Serves 4

St George's mushrooms are one of the first English mushrooms to pop up in the woods, hence their name, as their appearance is usually around St George's Day. If you fancy learning more about shrooms, and an organised mushroom forage, then Peter Jordan is your man. You can e-mail him at info@tasty-mushroompartnership.co.uk to find out more. Or you could use button, oyster or field mushrooms for this dish.

For the stock

1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
Half a leek, roughly chopped and washed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1tbsp vegetable oil
150g button mushrooms, washed and roughly chopped
10g dried ceps, soaked for 2 hours in a little warm water and drained
A few sprigs of thyme
5 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

For the risotto

200g carnaroli rice
70g butter
Mushroom stock
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1tbsp double cream
200g St George's mushrooms, cleaned and halved or quartered if they are large
A handful of wild garlic leaves (about 30g-40g), depending on your taste
Olive oil for frying
20g grated Parmesan

First, make the stock. Gently cook the onion, leek and garlic in the vegetable oil without colouring until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover with about 1.5 litres of water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 1 hour, skimming occasionally. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and keep hot if using straight away. The stock should be strongly flavoured; if it's not, reduce it to concentrate the taste.

To make the risotto, take a thick-bottomed pan and melt 30g of the butter, add the rice and stir for a minute on a low heat with a wooden spoon until rice is covered with the melting butter. Gradually add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition of liquid has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. When the rice is almost cooked, add 40g of the butter and the cream, check the seasoning and correct if necessary. The risotto should be moist but not stodgy.

Meanwhile, gently fry the mushrooms in a little olive oil over a low heat for a minute or so without colouring. Stir them into the risotto with the wild garlic leaves and Parmesan and serve immediately.

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