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Forest Feast

Forest Feast
The forest in late spring is awash with edible treats. Will Roberts goes foraging.
 
 
Dew-soaked grass squeaks underfoot as we walk through the manicured gardens of Swinton Park, through an old iron gate, into the wilderness of the estate.

Chris Bax, the group’s leader and guide, takes us past a herd of pale brown roe deer towards a line of trees up a little hill.

Foraging tip: You always find more edible treats in the forest.

But before we can reach the woodland, we stop under a lime tree and within five minutes of our hunt, we’ve found our first food – this foraging lark is easy, I didn’t even get my knees muddy. We don’t pick the lime leaves though, we’re a couple of months too late for that. What would have been a tasty, sweet salad accompaniment in early spring, when those bright green leaves first appear, is now far too leathery to be enjoyable.

I pick a leaf from the tree, rub it between my finger and thumb and give it a sniff – but that youthful syrupy smell I’m after has long gone. The flowers, when they come out, make a good, honey-scented tea, Chris tells the group, before we make for the woods, where the feast really begins.

On the left of the path as we enter the forest is a swathe of slender plants with leaves the shape of those you’d find on top of a pineapple. Chris crouches low to ground, grabs one of the stems and pulls it out of the earth. It’s Rose bay Willow herb or fireweed – a useful plant because all of it is edible. The tender tops can be sautéed, while scraping your thumb down the inside of the tougher base stems rewards you with a starchy but sweet paste – perhaps no culinary use, but a nice snack nonetheless.

Before we collect some of the top stems Chris offers
Forest Feast
us a word of warning. He pulls up what I think is another rosebay willowherb, but it turns out to be dog’s mercury – which is poisonous. To me they look identical, bar a slightly different leaf shape. So with a keen eye I pick some green tips, double-checking each one before I dump it in the wicker baskets we’ve brought along.

We find a big burdock plant – “Great roots like a sweet potato or parsnip,” says Chris, holding one of its massive leaves. But, like the, lime tree, we’re in the right place at the wrong time to get the most of this plant. He explains that whichever part of the plant is most active, generally has the most energy and sweetness in it. At the moment the burdock leaves are stretching out in preparation for the summer sun, while the tuber lies shrivelled underground. Come autumn, when the tuber swells to prepare itself for the winter, it will be at its best for eating.

We stumble across dozens of forest treats as we walk – wood sorrel, with its tiny shamrocks which taste of Bramley apple skins, a peppery member of the mustard family called lady’s smock and a handsome elder tree. The flowers on the elder aren’t in bloom, so thoughts of champagne or cordial are premature, but the buds, with a mild broccoli-flavoured crunch, can be pickled. That said, with every chew I can’t help but think how much better it would be to wait a fortnight for those green buds to turn into the beautifully fragrant blossom.

It seems that most forageable foods fall into two categories. Firstly there are those that are edible, but are nothing more than bland crunch and shouldn’t be regarded as must-eats. Our ancestors may have lived off them, but thankfully, we are much better off. Then there are the hidden stars, such as wood avens – a green three-leaved plant, with roots that have a wonderfully heady smell of cloves. Chris uses them to flavour bread sauce to accompany game.
Then there’s wild garlic and its brother hedge garlic, which each have their own, uniquely strong flavour. The former’s flowers give a shot of garlic straight to the heart while it’s leaves are much more subtle. Hedge garlic leaves are much closer to onions in flavour. Ground ivy is a great alternative to mint while the chickweed which littered the forest floor tastes of newly-podded peas.
Bittercress is another which I would welcome onto my plate – it isn’t too dissimilar to watercress and is available all year round.

“There’s all you need for a good salad, just there” says Chris, pointing at the ground, where bittercress and chickweed are growing side-by-side.
We make our way back to the hotel – where the fruits of our morning will be cooked before our eyes. Before we reach the hotel we stop to carefully pick the tender tops from nettles, before Chris shows us how to disarm a fierce looking thistle – the ribs of the plant can be treated like celery, he tells us.
Back at Swinton Park’s cookery school, the group sits down to a well-earned lunch.

First our rosebay willowherb is fried in butter and tossed in salt. The leaves crispy up like seaweed while the stems taste of asparagus.
Then there is a chilled soup, flavoured with chickweed and bittercress.
Next the nettle tips are used in a risotto, which comes with a couple of pan-fried scallops.

Garlic leaves and Parma Ham are wrapped around a fillet steak for the main course – the leaves leaving a subtle footprint on the pink steak.
Our dessert wasn’t picked by us, but was still good. An elderflower jelly is surrounded by peppered strawberries and drops of sage-infused syrup.

I challenge anybody to find a meal with more spring in it.

Chris Bax’s Wild About Food courses at Swinton Park, near Masham, North Yorkshire, cost £90, including the meal.
For more details call 01765-680900 or visit www.swintonpark.com
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