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Foraging in the Forest of Dean

Forest Holidays
Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
03330 110 495
Cuisine: British
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Tiffany Kaba: By the end I will be able to light my own fire, make pine nettle tea and create new wild food recipes from my basketful of edible plants and nuts.
 
Although the words ‘Hunt, Gather, Cook’ don’t exist in my urban foodie dictionary, this way of living feels almost natural after just one day in the woods. I’m on a foraging and bush skills excursion in the Royal Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, one of England's few remaining ancient forests, covering 27,000 acres of woodland.  
 
The brief: to take on the role of intrepid explorer and hunter gatherer, in search of wild food delicacies for a hands-on cooking and food photography session. By the end I will be able to light my own fire, make pine nettle tea and create new wild food recipes from my basketful of edible plants and nuts. My survival skills will be tested by Gerry the forest ranger, Nick the Hunter Gatherer chef and Sean the foodie photographer, on hand to capture all the triumphs and disasters of our adventure.
 
Forest Holidays offers a selection of luxury cabin escapes at nine beautiful locations around the UK. We arrive at our Golden Oak cabin at dusk to find a hot tub on the terrace nestled amongst frost-laden trees. The options of in-cabin spa treatments and champagne are tempting, but instead we focus on our forest initiation; a night vision tour of with Gerry in the hope of seeing some wild boar and Muntjac deer.
 
Although largely nocturnal, wild boar are famously secretive so a sighting is rare. We learn to identify animal tracks using night vision goggles and spot a family of Muntjacs roaming freely in the meadows. Gerry is an old hand at the night tour, having pounded the paths of the Forest of Dean longer than any other, accompanied by his watchful owl, The Professor.
 
Autumn is a magnificent time of year to visit the forest as the harvest yields an abundance of fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, flowers and leaves all bursting with goodness. Early next morning, armed with large baskets and full of the spirit of fresh, rustic food, we set off into the woods. Nick Weston, Hunter Gatherer in-chief has ventured from his treehouse HQ in Sussex to demonstrate his skills and show us the ways of self-sufficiency. Nick started ‘Hunter, Gather, Cook’ in 2011, a foraging and cookery school specialising in animal butchery, outdoor cookery and wild cocktails. His book ‘Tree House Diaries’ documents the 6 months he lived off the land in a tree house built from recycled and natural materials. Nick offers us some words of wisdom for living in the wild: The forest is your larder so forage it as harmoniously as you can in order to reconnect with the original food chain.
 
Firstly we come across some sweet chestnuts which are distinct from their bitter (and somewhat poisonous) relative, the horse chestnut, as they have spikier outer shells which, when opened, present you with up to 3 sweet nuts compared to the single conker. Winter nuts always bring a scent of the Christmas festivities ahead and I begin to dream of barbecue roasted chestnuts and a warm cup of cocoa by the fire. In my daze, I stumble into an enormous nettle bush. Not a good start. Nick also warns me about some deadly oak moss as I gather an armful growing at the foot of a nearby tree trunk. When eaten raw, oak moss can make you severely ill but when cooked, acts as a lovely garnish or accompaniment to mushroom and fish dishes. Ribwort plantain is another new discovery for us with its long rib etchings down the leaf – surprisingly it tastes of mushrooms when chewed for long enough. Further on we gather wild chamomile, puffball mushrooms, wild sorrel and pineapple weed. With the happy promise of roast partridge and venison for lunch, we top up our loads with some ground ivy to accompany the meat. Ground ivy tastes minty but its scent becomes more sage-like when broken up. Rosehips await further afield, perfect for herbal teas and jams and a rich source of Vitamin C. Some wild garlic buds deep in the ground are cleverly sniffed out by Nick’s truffle hunter dog Bea. I’m assailed by the scents and sounds of the forest as we walk, listening to the rustle of badgers and foxes and feeling the crack of russet-gold conifer leaves at my feet.
 
We stop in a clearing to light small fires for brewing pine nettle tea. Pine nettles are a powerful antioxidant, decongestant and antiseptic. The brew tastes absolutely delicious and we collect a basketful of nettle tops to make nettle pesto, as the texture is similar to basil.
 
Back at base, we’re famished and it’s time to cook. Our spread of wonders includes some freshly foraged truffles and a variety of cheeses and vegetables as well as the meat. Nick is the first to go, demonstrating a superb dish of smoked wild venison ceviche using a blow torch to sear the venison, sprinkled with horseradish and ground ivy and presented in a kilner jar. Inspiration is suddenly upon us and we concoct an array of fresh, mouth-watering dishes: Partridge with toasted chestnuts, wild garlic and ribwort plantain, a blackberry and loganberry sauce, a creamy nettle and almond pesto and even a Himalayan balsam flower and vodka cocktail with juniper berries and wild mint. All using the fruits of our labour.
 
Stomachs groaning with hunger, we present our Instagram-worthy dishes to Sean the photographer and sit down to enjoy a meal which could resemble any in a fine dining restaurant, with the exception of a hefty bill at the end of it.
 
My adventure in wild food foraging has convinced me that it really is an all-round lifestyle winner, offering an abundant supply of food, plenty of exercise, fresh air and a real connection with the earth. After our workshop, I’ve fallen well out of love with the supermarket and head over heels with the flavours and aromas of fresh forest bounty. There is such thing as a free lunch after all.
 
Tiffany was a guest of Forest Holidays’ Forest of Dean location. Prices from £295 for a 3-night escape. Choose from luxurious cabins set deep in woodlands or in bright forest meadows. www.forestholidays.co.uk. 03330 110 495. 
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