Paul Foster's Tuddenham Mill: River cafe

The chef's award-winning menu is inspired by plants gathered in the waterways around his Suffolk restaurant. He shows Jamie Merrill the riches of the riverbank

If you walk along one of the small tributaries of the river Lark in west Suffolk on a sunny afternoon you might just catch a glimpse of Paul Foster combing the riverbank, occasionally stopping to inspect a bush or weed before taking a precise cutting. Foster isn't a botanist though, he's the head chef at Tuddenham Mill hotel and restaurant and he's foraging for his patrons' supper.

Foraging is hardly new. Nettle soup was a staple for many living the Good Life lifestyle in the 1970s, but more recently, thanks to the efforts of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and superstar chef René Redzepi, whose commitment to wild food helped his Copenhagen restaurant Noma pick up the title of the "best restaurant in the world", more and more people have attacked Britain's rural hedgerows in search of free wild food.

Foster, 29, who brought his style of cooking to the heats of Great British Menu on BBC 2 earlier this year, who was nominated Up and Coming Chef of the Year by The Good Food Guide and was named Young Chef of the Year, by Observer Food Monthly, isn't just jumping on the bandwagon, though: "I know a lot of foodies see foraging as a passing trend... but for me it's not about making a song and dance about it for six months then forgetting about it."

He previously worked at Michelin-starred establishments including Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, The French Laundry in California and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford. Now with Tuddenham Mill's 12 acres of riverbank and water meadows as his "larder", Foster's menu includes mugwort, ribwort, meadowsweet, wild watercress, wild garlic, bulrush stems, wild asparagus and other plants found by or near the water. You'll have to work hard to spot them on the menu though.

"I like to let the tastes and textures do the talking, so I don't make a big deal of my foraged ingredients on the menu," says the young chef. "For example, I have hake and confit potato on the menu, but it doesn't say that it contains chickweed [which tastes like spinach when cooked] from the water meadow. It's there for its flavour, not because I want to say I use foraged food."

Joining Foster last month, it's clear he's excited about foraged food, though. He tells me he spotted a wild asparagus bush earlier in the year and we work our way along the riverbank and through the meadow to see if it has yielded a stem or two. On the way he explains that there are more ingredients in the meadow than he could ever use, including meadowsweet, elderflower, mugwort, wild asparagus, wild garlic, yarrow, bulrush and ribwort. "They love the moist soil," he says.

It was while working for Sat Bains as a sous chef that he first started using foraged ingredients. Since then he's worked with Miles Irving, the author of The Foraging Handbook, at Tuddenham Mill, and Irving still supplies some of the wild ingredients he can't track down locally. "Just like Miles I'm very particular about what I pick and where I pick it," says Foster.

"And if I'm unsure about something I'll send him a photo or drop him a call to check before it ends up in my kitchen and on the menu." As a general rule, foragers should consult a reliable book and ideally take part in a professionally led foraging walk before they try anything more adventurous than nettles and elderflower. On Irving's advice Foster also recommends picking only the leaves and stems and always seek permission from the landowner if you're not foraging on common land or public footpaths. It's also illegal to forage on sites of special scientific interest without a special permit.

For riverside foraging in particular, Foster explains, "it's important to make sure that there is clear running water and never forage anywhere if there is an eggy smell or boggy stench." Others do sound a further note of caution, though.

"You can look at foraging in two ways," says Fergus Drennan, one of the UK's leading foragers. "Most foragers have innate environmental concerns, some plants such as nettles and elderflower are abundant and foraging helps spread the word about protecting habitats from development, but there's a tension between foraging for personal consumption and to supply restaurants.

"As we know, the publicity from René Redzepi and other chefs means foraging is still ballistic right now and every restaurant that thinks it's half-decent wants to have foraged ingredients on the menu, which is going to put potential stresses on wild populations of plants."

Drennan points to the example of sea kale, which was almost foraged to local extinction by Victorian restaurants in 19th-century Whitstable and instead recommends a smaller-scale and more sustainable form of foraging. "Ultimately my gut feeling is that it is an environmental dead end to supply restaurants, but I admit it's not that simple. It's an area that could really do with some proper academic study to see what foraging is doing to biodiversity in the countryside."

Foster is aware he has a limited resource and takes a common-sense attitude to what he picks and what he leaves behind. On the way to the possible wild asparagus spot we stop for Foster to pick a few stems of mugwort from the riverbank. It has a musty and minty aroma and Foster will use it to replace mint later.

"I try and use foraged materials when they are in season to replace bought-in ingredients," he says.

He spots some ribwort plantain and puts it in his basket. "So when I can find meadowsweet, I use it to replace vanilla, while ground ivy replaces sage for some of the year. By matching flavour profiles I can then match them to ingredients I know they will work with." Reaching the wild asparagus means a scramble through some bushes and working our way across a stream. Sure enough, there, standing alone is one thick asparagus stem. It's like he's planned it, but Foster jokingly assures me he didn't plant it there for my benefit and it goes into his basket for later.

Now there's only a quick stop at the hotel's pond to pull up a few bulrush stems. Back in the hotel's kitchen Foster lays out his ingredients and sets to work on a mini menu for me. First off is a 40C poached salmon with a salad of mugwort fresh from our scavenging trip, sheep sorrel, chickweed flowers and watercress with shavings of wild asparagus. The flavours are light, but also peppery at times, which Foster tells me is the sorrel coming through. It's all very fresh, so doesn't overpower the salmon. This is followed by what on the evening menu appears simply as "West Country lamb, wild garlic and yoghurt".

To this seemingly simple dish Foster adds bulrush slices – from deep inside the stem and soaked in warm butter – and a yarrow garnish for the yoghurt. And somehow the strength of the lamb doesn't drown out the delicate – slightly nutty with a hint of cucumber – flavour of the bulrush. It's a triumph and with customers lining up to speak to Foster as I leave, you can see why he's is seen as such an up-and-coming young chef.

The awards haven't gone to his head though: "Lots of people have jumped on the foraging trend and ended up bastardising it. They are forgetting that you need to respect every ingredient and make it fight for its place on the plate. There's no point just chucking something on because it's foraged." At Tuddenham Mill at least, this is a trend that's not going away any time soon.

Foods to find

In town

It might seem unlikely but there are some great foraging opportunities in town. Pineapple weed, which looks like chamomile without petals, grows in the cracks of pavements and tastes just as its name suggests. Ideal to infuse into ice cream, it can also be made into a tea.

In the country

The best place to start is with nettles for soup. And there's more to elderflower (it's everywhere this time of year) than cordial. It is great in cocktails but can also be used in creamy puddings such as pannacotta. Beyond that, a good foraging book is essential.

By the sea

One of the sweetest tangy delights – best between September and December when they are vibrant orange – is sea buckthorn. Its berries, found in scrubland near sand dunes on the scrub-like buckthorn tree, work well in cheesecake when reduced to syrup.

For recipes visit wildmanwildfood.com

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaning Manager - York and Bradford

    £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Drivers

    £18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?