Fergus Drennan is a 'wild food experimentalist and student of the wild realm', and I was one of nine would-be-foragers who had travelled to participate on his one-day foraging course in Kent. Throughout the day we would be searching for wild food in a variety of habitats and collecting ingredients for an evening feast in the woods. Samples of Fergus's culinary creations had been promised, along with a pickle and alcoholic drink to take home. It was to be a day full of things that fall under the 'magical and wondrous' category. I mean, chocolate coated mushrooms?! But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The wet sand sucked at our wellies as we followed Fergus along Reculver Beach at 9.30am. Halfway down the shore he presented the group with something that looked vaguely like a green blancmange. We peered at it with curiosity as he explained that it was one of many substances that could be made from Irish moss seaweed. This proved to be the perfect introduction to a course that would be as much about the fun things you can do with wild food as the practical aspects of foraging. After adding stones for eyes, Fergus left his creation on the beach ‘to confuse any passing botanists’.
Our first task was then to collect the season’s tastiest seaweeds. What had initially appeared to be a fairly barren rocky shore quickly became a place of abundance. Fergus pointed out several varieties including dulse, jap weed, laver, sea lettuce and gut weed as he scampered around the rock pools. We soon had our eyes trained on the rippling shallows and hands submerged in icy water.
It was then time to create our first treat to take home - a seaweed pickle - and the beach would be our kitchen. Numb-fingered, we filled jars with strips of bladder wrack and serrated wrack seaweeds, added cider vinegar and pickle spices, then stuffed in some sea purslain for good measure. Pickle production was quickly followed by the day’s first tasters: crackers topped with seaweed butter and a finger full of seaweed salt.
This set the tone for a day on which the focus was not simply what wild food is available in winter but on the amazing amount of things that can be done with it. The landscape was turned into a treasure trove of “eatable” curiosities that were as imaginative as the creations in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
From the seashore Fergus took us inland to explore grassland, hedgerow and woodland. Field blewit mushrooms were checked for maggots before being collected up for the evening's wild mushroom risotto. It was then time for another snack. Fergus passed around a jar of pinecones preserved in elderflower cordial. The fact that you could eat pinecones was news to me, as was the fact that they are delicious (and particularly good for the male libido, apparently.) Fergus put a spark to something black and knobbly and blew on it to produce what he described as a 'Neolithic lighter'. The King Arthur's fungus was passed around as it smouldered away, offering an insight into how our ancestors might have transported fire.
A short drive away we stopped on the parameter of some farmland where hedges were sparsely decorated with what looked like oversized sloes. The fruits turned out to be bullis plums, which we picked and added to pre-prepared jars of vodka with a dash of vanilla essence. The wild tipple would be another treat to enjoy at home in a couple of months time.
My inner child was wide-awake by this point and came rushing down the ladder of her tree house when I was offered a ‘hedgerow winegum’. These delectable chunks of fruit leather had been made from rosehips. Fergus’s wild sweet shop also included little candy stars that turned out to be made from blackberry stems and fairy-sized cups of birch sap mead. Our wild food treasure trail led us next to trees covered in clusters of bright orange berries. The laden sea-buckthorn branches can literally be wrung out to collect the juice, which we captured in large tubs.
As the day went on Fergus’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and ‘why not?’ approach to life began to rub off on the group. There was giggling as he animatedly told us about an alien abduction dream brought on by stuffing too much mugwort into his pillowcase. ‘I was actually beamed up,’ he explained, accompanying the description with some spacecraft sound effects. I made sure to collect plenty of mugwort to add to my own pillowcase that evening in the hope of a lucid dream.
Our final stop of the day was a sprawl of coniferous woodland where we would be looking for fungi and cooking our wild feast.
I was pretty surprised when Fergus produced chocolate covered mushrooms - surely one of the day’s most unlikely tasters. Whilst one person might see jelly ear fungus as something that looks alarmingly like gristly human ears, Fergus revealed that they are the ideal component for the ‘red bit’ in wild food Jaffa Cakes. The thin, gelatinous layer of jelly ear fungus created a textural treat inside the coating of dark chocolate.
The day ended with a campfire feast in the darkening woods where we had picked a haul of winter chanterelle mushrooms to add to the risotto. Oil flamed and spat, as Fergus chucked in the seaweed to deep fry it. In all the excitement he managed to burn a hole in the sleeve of his jumper, an accident that seemed to bring him as much delight and amazement as the rest of the day’s events.
We passed around plates of deep fried seaweed, filled our paper bowls with spicy rosehip and beetroot soup, and tried to identify the many flavours in the wild food risotto. Fruit crumble topped with sea buckthorn custard rounded off the meal. As darkness set in we donned our wind-up head torches and headed home through the trees.
Arriving back at my B&B I arranged winter chanterelles on the radiator to dry them out and contemplated the day. I felt an unmistakable sense of wonder as though the wardrobe to Narnia had just been kicked wide open. Fergus’s foraging course amazed and inspired, urging me to throw out the rulebook on what is possible when it comes to wild food. I also felt that the day had closed the illusory distance that modern life can sometimes create between me and the natural world.
My inner child slept very well and dreamed deep having been thoroughly well fed.
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