With the low winter sun streaming along London's Regent's Canal, the scene could almost be beautiful. But it's not long before this stretch of the waterway in Hackney reveals its true colours: empty drinks cans and burger boxes litter the towpath and, just visible beneath the murky waters, a plastic shopping bag drifts by like a dead jellyfish.
Unless you're a rat, it doesn't look like the sort of place you'd particularly want to look for food. But here I am, accompanying the award-winning chef and restaurateur Mark Hix. He is carrying a fetching wicker basket, with a view to filling it with plants that can later form the basis of a gourmet meal. We are foraging: a food-sourcing activity as old as the hills, and which is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance.
Hix, a long-term advocate of wild food, will be doing an awful lot of urban foraging in the next few weeks. Next month, he'll join forces with the farmer and free-range-chicken aficionado Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to host a five-course charity banquet for some of the most wealthy and glamorous people on the black-tie circuit. And it will involve using an unusual quantity of locally foraged wild produce.
Four hundred guests, paying £1,000 a ticket, will file into the opulent surroundings of the Guildhall in the City of London to enjoy some of the finest dishes Hix and Fearnley-Whittingstall can muster. After the multi-course dinner (its menu is printed overleaf), diners in their finery, who will include Sophie Dahl, Jemima Khan and Richard E Grant, will be entertained by Annie Lennox as well as The Ronnie Scott's All Stars band, while they sip rare vintage champagne from the house of Perrier Jouët.
It may sound like the kind of star-studded bash that seems to light up our booming capital every other week. But this event, called The Feast of Albion – and billed by its organisers, the global luxury lifestyle group Quintessentially, as the most glamorous of the year – has a twist: every single significant ingredient used in Hix's kitchen will have been sourced from within 50 miles of Tower Bridge in central London.
Ingredients will be transported to the feast using the most environmentally friendly means possible.
The purple sprouting broccoli, which is being grown at a farm in Pangbourne, near Reading, will make the trip into the city by bicycle (presumably not along the M4). A mountain of other organic vegetables will wind its way to the venue by a boat rowed down the Thames. It will, if you like, be the ultimate exercise in local sourcing.
The feast, on 13 March, is the latest example of a growing trend among some of the country's leading chefs and food lovers: to shift our seemingly insatiable appetite for imported, exotic foods (which, be they Spanish strawberries, or butter shipped from New Zealand, often clock up thousands of miles on their journeys to our plates), to locally grown, seasonal produce. And, increasingly, that food is being sourced not from organic farm shops or specialist online retailers, but for free from our hedgerows, lay-bys and towpaths.
Not long ago, foraging was the exclusive preserve of sandal-wearing folk with beards – a 1970s stereotype that never made it mainstream – or country bumpkins with beautifully manicured kitchen gardens and apple orchards. In 1971, the naturalist Richard Mabey published Food for Free, which hit the shelves at the same time as jars of lentils and Birkenstock sandals. It quickly became a sort of bible for DIY foodies who fancied a spot of cheap grub, but were suspicious of processed and factory-farmed food.
Mabey's philosophy remained a niche concern for years but edged towards the mainstream, if only slightly, in 1986, when Roger Phillips published Wild Food. Featuring alfresco recipes alongside full-colour photographs of British plants and fungi in London's gardens, parks and railway cuttings, the book introduced readers to the delights of the now ubiquitous rocket, as well as ceps and alexanders, a forgotten parsley-like vegetable apparently delicious cooked simply in butter and black pepper.
For now at least, alexanders remains a neglected plant. But, to the delight of foraging pioneers like Phillips and Mabey, our bookshops and television list-ings have started to groan with tomes and shows espousing the virtues of hidden herbs and vegetables. Amid growing concern over food sourcing and eating organic, foraging has become a 21st-century fad, for everyone from Jamie Oliver and his laconic gardener, Brian, to some of London's top restaurateurs.
Staking a claim as the Mabey of the new age in foraging is one Fergus Drennan. Based in Canterbury, Fergus the Forager has turned a niche hobby into a profession. Trawling the countryside for mushrooms, herbs and seaweed, Drennan has supplied Jamie Oliver's Fifteen and celebs' favourite The Ivy with fresh organic produce, and has his own website, Wild Man Wild Food.
Drennan doesn't stop at picking mushrooms and wild strawberries. He calls himself a vegetarian, but he still eats meat, just not the £1.99 chickens and cuts of intensively reared pork you find in the average supermarket. Drennan's supermarket is Kent, and his meat aisle is the road network. Last year, he showed viewers of his BBC show The Roadkill Chef how to knock up a badger burger or a deer steak using animals killed by cars.
"Some of the few things I avoid are cats and dogs," he told The Independent. "They've always got name tags on their collars, and since I have two cats, it's a step too far."
Prime-time TV viewers have also been treated to the antics of the survival expert (and forager) Ray Mears, together with the former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers and her posh sidekick Guy Grieve – a sort of foraging version of the Two Fat Ladies – who travel Britain searching out wild food in the Channel 4 series The Wild Gourmet. Meanwhile in London, the chef Oliver Rowe has caused a stir on the restaurant scene by opening Konstam, which sources 90 per cent of its ingredients from within reach of the Tube network, including mushrooms grown beneath the North Circular road in East Ham.
For the rest of us, wild-food schools have taken root in all corners of the country to teach people that there is more to be found out there than blackberries and nettles. For the first time since before the Industrial Revolution, Britain may be becoming a nation of foragers.
"They're down here somewhere," says Hix, stealing a march beside the graffitied wall of a factory that backs on to the Regent's Canal, which flows eight miles from Paddington to Limehouse Basin, near Canary Wharf. Soon, a green gap opens up between the wall and the potholed path. To me, it looks the kind of straggly strip of weeds you might spot at the edge of a car park or between railway lines, but not to Hix.
"There," he exclaims, pointing as he crouches. It's only as I join him that I see what he's looking for. Sprouting from the base of a dead-looking stalk, between thistles and grass, is a feathery green leaf with a yellow tinge that looks a bit like dill.
"That's wild fennel," Hix tells me. "Taste it." Resisting thoughts about how many stray dogs may have cocked their legs over this particular plant, I nibble on a leaf and, sure enough, the familiar aniseedy flavour of fennel bursts forth. Ignoring bemused glances from passing pedestrians and cyclists, we pick the lot, load up the basket and continue our hunt for herbs.
Further along the canal, which was opened in 1801 and served as a vital transport link before the railways came along, Hix shows me the kind of stinging nettles that will form the basis of his soup at next month's bash. "You should use gloves really," he says, wrapping a bare hand around a clump of nettles, "You take the tops and cook it in a soup or just wilt it. They have a wonderful, earthy, flavour."
While nettles are off the menu today – our targets are fennel and other wild herbs and leaves – the plant is just the kind of food that Hix thinks we should be eating more of. "Most people just walk past these kinds of things," he says, "but if you keep an eye out, you come across all sorts of things in hedgerows or patches of grass like this. We've all become so used to going to the supermarket and filling the basket without a thought for where the food has come from. Part of caring about that is realising what we have around us."
Hix's passion for locally sourced food – he toured the country in search of some of the finest ingredients and dishes the nation has to offer for his acclaimed book, British Regional Food – is shared by Patrick Holden, a smallholder and the director of the Soil Association. Funds raised by an auction at the feast will go towards the association's Farm School initiative.
Launched last month, the project aims to teach children the story behind the food on their plates. "We are more disconnected from our food than any generation in history," Holden says. "Reconnecting people by growing food organically, and teaching them about seasons and where the food is grown, will give more meaning to food."
As part of its plan to achieve this, the Soil Association is raising funds to offer every primary-school child in the country the opportunity to visit an organic farm and get hands-on experience of "real" food and its origins. "We need to re-equip our children with the skills and knowledge to be different," Holden says. "That knowledge is still there, we just need to transfer it. We then want to take the experience back into the school curriculum, and, hopefully, into children's lives."
Holden believes that shifting our reliance on imported foods to local produce could soon become more than "a nice thing to do". He says: "This century is going to see enormous changes on a global scale due to climate change and fuel depletion, which will have a huge impact on global food security. The best way to respond is growing our own food and managing and harvesting nature's bounty."
Our basket stocked with a bountiful supply of wild fennel and other hidden herbs, we repair to Hix's home in Kingsland, near Islington, to cook and, more importantly, eat the kind of dish guests can expect to gorge on at next month's feast.
First, we pause at the chef's front door, where he points at a nondescript plant growing, like a weed, in the pot of an ornamental tree. The weed is, in fact, bittercress, whose leaves have a tangy flavour a few notches milder than rocket. It quickly finds its way into our basket.
In Hix's garden, which is dominated by an enormous wood oven and a smoker, the chef shows me the other herbs in his collection. Sprouting from makeshift pots are plants such as wild chervil, which, like fennel, possesses an aniseedy flavour, as well as wild sorrel, with its lemony tang, chickweed, dandelion (great in salads, apparently), pennywort transplanted from Hix's West Country home, and red chard.
At the edge of one flowerbed, Hix spots a lush growth of what looks like long, luxurious grass. "I didn't even know I had that," Hix says. He picks it and offers it to my nose. It has a very strong smell of garlic, but without a bulb in sight. "That's wild garlic – a very different plant," he says. It's the final addition to our basket, whose contents we know dunk in Hix's kitchen sink.
Hix and I assemble the rest of the ingredients for a dish worthy of inclusion on the Feast of Albion menu. First we prepare a saddle of wild rabbit, which Hix believes is a neglected meat.
"You can pick up a cut like this for three or four quid at any butcher," he says, "and it's delicious." The chef browns it in a very hot pan and puts it in the oven to cook.
Next comes the bacon. He retrieves an entire belly of pork which he has soaked in a briner to cure for days, and then smoked. He dices a hunk of it and fries it with croutons cut from a homemade loaf of sour bread.
After 10 minutes, the rabbit is cooked to perfection. Hix takes it off the bone, and adds chunks of it to a bed of our wild herbs, which I have expertly finished in Hix's spin-dryer, topped with the croutons and bacon. Dressed with a cider and rapeseed oil vinaigrette, and washed down with London porter, it is the most delicious salad I have eaten, made that bit more enjoyable by the knowledge that, just half an hour earlier, most of the herbs in it had languished by a litter-strewn towpath in Hackney.
"You don't get better than that," says Hix. With a bit of luck, Sophie Dahl and her glamorous friends will, next month, be inclined to agree.
The £1,000 feast of forage
Venison sausages with Cumberland sauce
Venison: shot by the gamekeeper at Windsor Great Park, which borders the Queen's back garden
Brawn on toast with piccalilli
Mutton and turnip pies
Mutton: lovingly reared by Prince Charles at Highgrove, just down the M4 in Gloucestershire
Smoked salmon with potato latkes and horseradish
Pickled herrings with beetroot
Herrings: "responsibly" caught in driftnets at fisheries in Thames Bay
Beetroot: grown by organic producers in Romney Marsh, a wetland in Kent and East Sussex
Crispy pig's head salad with soft-boiled duck egg
Pig's head: from free-range porkers hand-reared at Laverstoke Park in Overton, Hampshire
Purple sprouting broccoli with anchovy dressing and pickled walnuts
Purple sprouting broccoli: grown at Iain Tolhurst's organic farm in Pangbourne near Reading, one of the country's oldest organic farms
Oysters: gigas oysters grown in Maldon Oyster Company fishery in the river Blackwater, Essex
Nettle and wild garlic soup
Nettles: picked by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his team from London's Hyde Park and the banks of the Thames
Roast venison fillet, braised shoulder and a faggot with bay and juniper sauce
Richmond Maids of Honour
Farmhouse cheeses served with rosehip jelly
Cheeses: soft blue cheeses made from cows' and ewes' milk by Two Hoots Farmhouse Cheese, in Berkshire
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