Steely green-grey leaves of Sea Purslane, delicate cotton like Rose Bay Willow Herb flowers, fiery Arsesmart, Catsear and Mugwort daisies, Ribwort Plantain and the bright yellow flowers of Ladies Bedstraw are all in the process of being pressed and dried by a couple of kilos worth of cookbooks on my kitchen table. Evocative, mysterious and downright silly names of ingredients I can pretty much guarantee do not appear in any of recipe books applying the pressure. They are all wild growing herbs and edible plants we foraged this weekend guided by the expert hand of Miles Irving in the woods and along the coast near his home in Kent.
Miles runs Forager, a supplier of wild food to restaurants including St John Bread and Wine, Paternoster Chop House and the Rivington Grill and has recently published a book on the edible plants of the British Isles (take a look here), so it's fair to say we were in good hands picking through vast array of edible plants and berries around us. "Peckham's good for wild rocket, especially along the old canal path", he confided, "and you'll get wild garlic in Sydenham Woods", assuring us that you don't need to stray too far from Zone 1 to forage for wild food. In fact, Miles regularly does well attended foraging walks in London parks and along the Thames, educating "switched on foodies" where to find interesting wild plants and how to avoid poisoning themselves. "You can make a beeline for wild rocket when it flowers because of the distinctive yellow petals, but Greater Celandine looks very similar and it's deadly poisonous...", he pauses, " ...I'd really like to see you write that down.," he says with a rye smile.
Later at Miles house, I was picking elderberries from the stalks to go with lunch, work that stained my fingers purple for the rest of the day. However, the combination of venison with the berries in a red wine reduction was stunning and worth the odd looks in the newsagents on the way home. The other revelation from Miles's kitchen was Sea Aster, a succulent shoreline wild plant that is my new favourite vegetable. It's like a cross between samphire, asparagus and spinach with a lovely silky texture.
That afternoon, walking along the Kent coast we found super food Goji berries, Samphire, salty sweet Sea Purslane and wrestled with tart Sea Buckthorn berries which are notoriously hard to get off the shrubs. We picked dark green Seebeet, from which all beets have been bred, including chard and beetroots. The challenge for Miles, it seems, is making sure that he doesn't over use each foraging spot. He visits scores of sites throughout the year and whilst some are regular as clockwork, others are fleeting and only a deep understanding of his quarry keep the whole enterprise going. That and some luck. Driving past a stream, he goes to point out one of places he gathers watercress. A bright yellow JCB is tearing the plants out, freeing the clogged stream, "That one's gone for a couple of years then", he says, with the smallest of sighs. Walking back up to the car laden with foraged goodies, Miles eyed the myriad swaying yellow heads of wild fennel flowers with a knowing eye. I guess he'll be back to this spot pretty soon.