Wild harvest: the edible delights of the countryside

Miles Irving forages in the countryside for edible plants - then sells them to top chefs. It's a perfect marriage of conservation and commerce, he tells John Andrews

It's half-past eight on a cold morning. A feeble sun shines on the water meadows outside Canterbury, on to the dead reed beds and the bushes of wild roses which are growing on a small patch of higher ground. Through the middle of this landscape a small spring-fed stream no wider than a few feet flows into the nearby river Stour.

Standing in the stream up to his knees in water is Miles Irving, a knife in one hand and a clump of water celery in the other. Water celery is also known as fool's watercress and on a morning such as this you can see why. But Irving is no fool, he is a forager, an eco-futurist. Ultimately, he's a man driven by the ideals of sustainability who spends up to six days and nights a week in the woodlands, meadows and sea marshes of Kent gathering wild fungi, nuts, seeds and plants. These he sells by the box to switched-on chefs. If you have recently eaten in the Rivington Grill in the East End of London, The Goods Shed in Canterbury or Bentley's in Mayfair, you will have most likely eaten the fruits of Irving's labour, in a salad, as a flavouring, or as a vegetable.

As Mark Hix, chef director at Caprice Holdings and the creative force behind the kitchen at the Rivington Grill as well as The Ivy, says, "It's about time, long overdue in fact: that chefs had someone offering them foodstuffs native to this country and direct from the land. It makes our menus more interesting, more diverse and more authentic."

A graduate of psychology and a carpenter by trade, Irving fell into foraging nearly two years ago after complaining about the soup in his local restaurant-cum-food store, The Goods Shed. The soup was wild garlic and it was delicious. The problem was that Irving had been putting wild garlic in his food for days and had gone to The Goods Shed for a change. When the chef there discovered that Irving could supply wild foods he signed him up as a supplier and the idea of Forager was born. It has since grown into a highly motivated and energetic small rural enterprise, a full-time way of life. Central to Irving and Forager's philosophy is the idea that sustainable use resolves the conflict between conservation and commerce. "I envisage a future in which native plant species are gathered from land which is actively managed to encourage them," he says.

Such thinking is the cornerstone behind the European Convention on Biodiversity, one of whose stated aims is the "development of sustainable use of genetic resources" and to which the Government has signed up. Encouraging native wild plant use or foraging could help the Government deliver this commitment. Foraging could even become a freestyle form of farming for the future. As it is, Irving works with farmers in Kent, some of whom actively encourage him to forage from their land for vegetables such as chickweed. He says: "They are happy to see someone else trying to make the land work and utilising a crop they would normally burn or feed to livestock."

Irving knows what he can and can't take from the land both in legal and ethical terms, an essential part of foraging as the laws of both are complex. Indeed, Irving is involved in establishing a standard kite mark for foraged food, similar to the Soil Association's one for organic products.

It is nearly midday now and the temperature has increased by a few degrees. We've left the water meadows and are walking through a patch of common ground over a south-facing hill on the other side of Canterbury. The ground is covered by a rash of bramble bushes but in one corner there is a carpet of bright green leaves belonging to a fragrant plant known as alexanders. Alexanders were introduced to these shores by the Romans and used in everyday cooking for almost 15 centuries until their popularity was exceeded by imported celery. Irving, and one of his foragers, Ross Evans, are silent as they gather. They merge into the landscape and are invisible to passing dog-walkers and cars on the road above. Evans takes the stems and leaves and slowly fills a box while Irving fills bags with seeds from the dead heads of the alexanders' flowers. These will soon be packaged up and sold in health-food outlets as an alternative to peppercorns. Irving's mobile rings and breaks the silence. It's the head chef from the Rivington Grill. The box of alexanders he took yesterday has gone, the starter they were used in, sprouting broccoli with alexanders and pickled walnuts, having sold out. He wants some more.

While Irving is on the line another call comes in, this time from Blaise Vasseur, the head chef at Kent gastropub the George and Dragon, the recent recipient of a Michelin Bib Gourmand, the closest award to a star that a pub can be awarded. Vasseur needs some sea beet, "pan-fried in butter, it's delicious", so our next stop is Whitstable, and a neglected piece of rough ground sandwiched between a golf course and the seafront. Here among the dumped car seats and unwanted tons of builders' sand grow gangs of sea beet, away from the wind and the salt.

In the colder months such sheltered spots offer an ideal habitat to the sea beet. Despite the ugliness of their immediate surroundings, these are healthy plants with brilliantly vivid and stout green leaves, not a blemish on them, their stalks an iridescent green and purple. Freshly picked, their taste is supreme.

Our final stop is a wood. Irving takes us off the main path and on to a trail made by a badger. A woodcock is startled by Irving's chocolate labrador Fudge and suddenly flies off, the sound of its wings echoing through the trees. Every sense is awakened: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. These are the tools of the forager and Irving's are highly developed. Deep in the gloom of the wood, Irving uncovers a patch of wood sorrel. The leaves of the sorrel are shaped like clover and Irving picks some and passes them to me. I start eating them. There is a taste of nothing and then the zesty flavour explodes. It is overwhelming, not just because of the flavour but because of the meaning of finding such delicious food growing freely.

For years these neglected native plants have been part of our land's natural evolution. Now it feels that they might well be part of a revolution, one which could change tastes and attitudes. What occurs in our restaurant kitchens today will reach domestic kitchens tomorrow. And it's already happening in some. As I drop Irving back at his headquarters, a set of sheds in a village, it is evening and he still has work to do preparing boxes of samples for an appointment he has the following day - with the royal chefs at Clarence House.

Miles Irving is writing a manual on foraging which is scheduled for future publication with Ebury Press. In the meantime, plant reference can be found in Food for Free by Richard Mabey (Collins Natural History). Always check what you pick. Some native plants are poisonous. www.forager.org.uk

If you go down to the woods today, you'll find...

Sea beet A similar taste to spinach when cooked but holds its texture better. Excellent with meat or fish.

Alexanders Works well in combination with other greens. Leaves and stem make good soup with celeriac, apple, wild garlic or sea beet.

Water celery Found in feeder streams, likes clean water. Leaves taste like parsnip and work well in salad.

Wood sorrel Some chefs cook this in between fillets of sea bass as it has a piquant quality. Can also be eaten raw.

Wild chervil Can be used to make herb dumplings or added into mashed potato.

Sea purslane

Found on salt marshes and in estuaries. From the same family as samphire. Great in risotto and with roast potatoes. It turns bright green when cooked and is good with lamb.

Three-cornered garlic Narrower than the broader-leafed wild garlic, this is a versatile herb which complements both meat and fish.

Rosebay willowherb High in vitamins A and C, the leaves look similar to lamb's lettuce but have more flavour. Good in salad or with cold meats.

Chickweed Raw, this tastes like lamb's lettuce, and when cooked it changes to taste more like spinach. Very tender. Was once sold widely at London vegetable markets.

Bittercress Found on woodland floors and among disturbed soil, bittercress has a mustardy aftertaste. Great for flavouring soups and sauces or eaten raw.

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