Foraging has become a widespread topic for food writers in the United States, although we suspect that at this point the theory outruns the practice by a considerable distance. Lots of us find fiddleheads during springtime in New England, blackberries and blueberries later on, but that exhausts the Editor’s effort to claim wild foods.
Interest in foraging arose considerably earlier in Britain, and by now accomplished chefs in a number of distinguished restaurants forage regularly for menu items. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall employs a forager for his River Cottage, and features him on his television program. Others forage too, including our own Rural Correspondent and Education Correspondent.
A Television Forager.
Valentine Warner has a BBC television series devoted to finding and preparing wild seasonal foods. He is a hunter and trapper as well as forager. The series has spun off two cookbooks, and if neither of them concentrates on actual foraging, the flyleaf of the first one describes Warner as “a cook, forager, fisherman, and above all, culinary adventurer” whose book “celebrates seasonal cooking, traveling around our rivers, fields, woods and shores, often preparing food he’s just picked, caught or shot--but that we can all buy from the shops--while paying homage to the best farmed ingredients.” (What to Eat)
Like our Rural Correspondent and Fearnley-Whittingstall, Warner is an enemy of the signal crawfish, but unlike them hews to certain unfortunate clichés that may be unwelcome to readers of britishfoodinamerica. For example, he describes the hated signals as dead ringers for Morris Zapp: “Fat, garish, destructive, obviously American, our rivers are overrun with the signal crayfish…. ” Warner naively claims that “you must first obtain a licence” to trap signal crawfish, overlooking both the difficulty that such a course entails and the ease of poaching them from the river. (What to Eat 109) The only recipe for crawfish in his What To Eat Now is not so good either, an arduous preparation that relies on an awkward stuffing of hazelnuts and pastis. His other recipe, from the subsequent What To Eat Now, More Please!, for crawfish tacos, is better, but the generous dose of chipotle just about overwhelms the flavor of the crawfish.
Otherwise, however, Warner seems personable enough, if a little full of himself, and most of his recipes are interesting and appealing. Sprottled eggs, for example, are so simple and perfect that the Editor is shocked never to have encountered them before and embarrassed that she did not invent them.
Three Destinations in Cheltenham and an Intriguing Cookbook.
Over in Cheltenham, David Everitt-Matthias operates Le Champignon Sauvage, a restaurant that has earned two Michelin stars. The restaurant, universally known to the local cabbies as ‘the Champion Sausage,’ is not just innovative and excellent but reasonably priced too. It stands in Suffolk Road, a cozy Regency terrace up in Montpelier, flanked by a shop called Q&C Militaria (‘for queen and country?’) and a public house appropriately if unimaginatively named the Suffolk Arms. Around the corner and up the road lies a series of antique and junk shops, a Cheltenham rival to Magazine Street in New Orleans. Down the hill from Suffolk Road, the Promenade and Courtyard behind it are lined with upscale shopping, including a good kitchenware store and a number of elegant women’s clothiers along with Cooking The Books, a shop specializing in all manner of cookbooks new, facsimile and used.
Cheltenham itself was fortunate in housing a Regency spa, and if its architecture of creamy stucco and Portland stone does not quite rival Bath, Brighton or Bristol’s Clifton, it nevertheless comes close and more than justifies a visit on its own. Cheltenham also hosts one of the biggest annual racing meets in Europe.
Back on Suffolk Road, Q&C is an important enterprise, not only for its good stock of badges, medals, edged weapons, uniforms, banners and oddities, but also for the good works of its proprietor in the redress of a glaring injustice. He is John Wright and his cause has been the pension and residency rights of Gurkha veterans in Britain. Thanks in large measure to his indefatigable efforts, these elite soldiers with a tradition of tireless service in the British army now receive more than the grim pittance and exile that formerly was their meager due. Mr. Wright had no trouble persuading the Editor to contribute a few pounds to the cause.
At The Suffolk Arms we also found more than immediately meets the eye. The paneled rooms of the bar are cozy (there is a warming fire) if unprepossessing enough in a threadbare way, and the locally brewed Goff's Jouster in cask is good. The bacon sandwiches that its kitchen produced for the Editor and Rural Correspondent were a paradigm of this humble and classic English comfort food. Unsmoked loin bacon cooked just short of crisp, the proper way, needed nothing but the good white bread enclosing it, a smear of English mustard and pint of Jouster.
Our sandwiches bore no traces of Asian influence, so the cook at the Suffolk Arms is versatile, for at night the place, or rather its outsized back annex, turns Thai. A corridor past the little Edwardian barrooms opens out to a 1950s bowling alley (or is it skittles?) of tarnished chrome and red vinyl, lined with tables holding cruets of spiced condiments: This is a true eccentric like the Rock & Bowl at Mid City Lanes in New Orleans (two towns separated at birth?). We would like to try the Thai if we got to Cheltenham more, or if le Champignon Sauvage were not so alluring.
A sample luncheon menu from Le Champignon Sauvage
One of its lures further sets it apart, for Everitt-Mathias is a forager, and forage gets pride of place on his menus. He credits an aunt for igniting his interest in wild foods and writes in his cookbook, Essence, that:
“She wasn’t a professional, she was a midwife, but she was a very gifted hedgerow cook…. She would take me out to the countryside, or sometimes just the local overgrown common, where we would pick all kinds of things: wild garlic for soup, blackberries for her delicious bramble and apple crumble, sorrel for salads, and oak leaves and cowslips for wine. This early interest in wild food lay dormant for a long while, and I didn’t return to it until I’d been cooking at my own restaurant for 15 years.” (Essence 11)
At that point, Everitt-Matthias won the ‘National Chef of the Year’ award in Britain for his work at Champignon Sauvage:
“This kind of recognition gave me more confidence in what I was doing, and the hunger to go further. I started experimenting with different spicing and flavour combinations, developing my palette and bringing things up to date. Wild food began to enter my repertoire--some old things my aunt had taught me, plus new ideas of my own.” (Essence 12)
Now he and his crew collect alexanders, burdock, chickweed, elder shoots, wild garlic (ramps?), various mushrooms, nettles, pennywort, purslane, wood sorrel and more, and cook with ingredients like cep powder, along with his own pickled apples and salt lemons and grapes.
Everitt-Matthias credits France as his greatest influence, but more in terms of a passion for food than for a particular technique. He includes Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal (Everitt-Matthias, too, likes his foams and froths), Pierre Koffmann and Gordon Ramsay in his pantheon, but also cites his “reading about some of America’s great chefs--Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio, to name but a few.” (Essence 12) Their influence shows in the lightness and innovation of his food, and in his insistence on the purity of flavor--or ‘essence.’
Everitt-Matthias also could have cited Paul Prudhomme, odd as that sounds superficially. Prudhomme, too, has innovated to transform and extend a traditional cuisine; their common tenet is a fascination with layers of the same flavor. For example, Prudhomme breaks down the Louisiana trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper, not into its constituents but by using portions of it in different ways at different times within a recipe. The vegetables are fried in butter until golden as the base of a jambalaya, but added later too, so that they simmer to a fresher crunch to layer and concentrate the flavor of the final dish; sauce Creole to accompany the dish braises these base ingredients, in a different manner again. The discussion of ‘building blocks’ in Essence thus could have come straight from Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen: “One technique I favour is to take the same vegetable and serve it raw, cooked and pureed in the same dish. This gives three different levels of texture and brings a rounded flavour to the dish.” (Essence 14)
It strikes us that Everitt-Matthias cooks in the contemporary-complex manner of an Adria, Blumenthal or Charlie Trotter, Anglicized by his bent for the wild and the local, for after all he is working in England and in a way keeps true to his roots. Traditional English pairings prepared in a twisty way include roe deer with sloes, hare and juniper, mallard and crabapple. The innovations, however, do not spill into parody in the manner of Blumenthal’s recent writings; they do not serve snail ice cream at the Savage Mushroom (and why not ditch the French and call it that?).
Many of the preparations in Essence are as simple as the ones that Blumenthal or Trotter has published, which is to say that if you finish each home-prepped element some of the recipes are surpassingly difficult. Many of them resemble Russian dolls, recipes within recipes that require cross reference to the creation of complex constituent bases, froths, pickles, sauces and other components. For this home cook at least, Essence is aspirational rather than practicable on a daily basis.
Still, the Editor likes this cookbook, for its foraging (there is an appended guide to wild foods), its good nature and its guile. It is possible, too, to dip into recipes and subrecipes that are enjoyable to make and good to eat. You can choose an element or two of any given program and apply it to something simpler than the dish envisioned by Everitt-Matthias, and some of his homemade larder essentials, really pickles and other condiments, like his salt grapes, can pair with various liquids for use with simple grilled or fried fish. Everitt-Matthias likes to use a reduction of Verjus and butter or his straightforward not-just-simple syrup of white port, Verjus and sugar.
Opportunities for foraging are greater in the United States than in the UK due to the greater proportion of forested land and lower population density in North America, but it remains an open question whether wild foods will populate American restaurant menus. In contrast to Britain, it is not legal to serve game that is shot rather than farmed, and the FDA may also frown on the sale of uninspected forage; we are unsure. Nothing should stop the home cook from hunting down wild fruits, nuts and vegetation, however, and the illustrated wild food glossary that appears at the end of Essence is a good place to find inspiration.
David Everitt-Matthias, Essence: Recipes from le Champignon Sauvage (Bath 2006)
Paul Prudhomme, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (New York 1984)
Valentine Warner, What To Eat Now (London 2008)
What To Eat Now, More Please! (London 2009)