Growing up a rather feral child in the wilds of deepest rural Kent, with a sister five years my senior who didn’t really want to know me (and who can blame her – I was quite annoying) did have its advantages. I believe that my childhood – most of which was spent clambering up trees and around muddy fields finding ways to entertain myself – has at least something to do with the fact I’m creative, feel a deep-rooted yearning for nature and am a sucker for a spot of foraging. Back when we were kids in the 80s, foraging didn’t garner the same ‘cool’ credentials restaurants such as Noma and L’Enclume have helped to attach to it in recent years. It was just something we did.
My dad, who to my knowledge, had never read a book on mushrooms in his life, just seemed to know for sure which ones were OK to pick on VERY early mornings when the dew was still soaking the grass – and our feet – and we needed a torch to find our way across the fields and hills. We’d get back to the house as the sun came up and fry our haul up in plenty of butter, garlic and garden herbs, scooping them up with warm toast. I can still remember the sheer delight of cooking something we’d picked ourselves, and the incredible deep, earthy flavour these mushrooms had. Cobnuts were also a childhood favourite, and my dad would battle the squirrels for the juicy, creamy wild nuts that grew on the trees by our house, filling plastic carrier bags up as he stalked around, cigarette in hand.
And while my rural upbringing couldn’t be more different from my urban adult reality – I live in a gritty, industrial part of north east London, I have rediscovered the joys of foraging and hedgerow cookery, thanks to the sheer diversity of wild food growing in the capital and my proximity to Walthamstow marshes, where elderflower, wild plums and meadowsweet abound. As a cook and food writer, having access to wild produce is super exciting, not just because it’s free (though obviously that’s an advantage), but because of the potency of flavour that these uncultivated ingredients offer. The more I learn about, cook with and eat foraged produce, the more I’m convinced that it offers new and exciting flavour profiles we simply can’t find in much shop-bought produce.
So it was particularly exciting for me when Farmdrop approached me to go down to Kent and meet Miles Irving, one of the country’s most authoritative foragers who supplies some of the most acclaimed and cutting-edge restaurants in the country – and now – which is great news for us home cooks – Farmdrop. I’ve had Miles’ book in my collection for a few years, and eaten much of his produce in restaurants too, but it was brilliant to meet up with him on my old stomping ground of Kent and explore the wealth of native ingredients growing there.
We started on the Oare marshes, picking sea purslane and sea blight – both juicy members of the goosefoot family that I’ve experimented with before, but we also picked some amazing things I’d never heard of, such as sea arrowgrass, which tastes perfumed, almost like coriander – and Mugwort – a gorgeous plant whose flowers smell sweet and herbal, and which is traditionally used in Japan as a syrup to flavour Mochi.
We tasted bright, crunchy green Hogweed seeds, which have an incredibly lemongrass/lime leaf esque aromatic taste and according to Miles are used a lot in Iranian cuisine with pomegranate rice and rose water. They were also originally lacto-fermented (which turns them pink), and used in Russia to make an early version of borsch. Now that’s something I’m going to have to try out for myself. On a suburban street nearby we found a tree hanging with bright orange rowan berries: insanely sour and tannic little berries which are good for making bitters, granitas, syrups and jellies and adding a punch to broths or salads.
Back at Miles’ headquarters we spent some time in the development kitchen with chef Tobyn who created some delicious pasta dishes using fresh seaweeds, while Miles made a foraged salad with all kinds of potent wild greens, roasted beetroot and spices made from wild Alexander seeds and dried ground hogweed seeds. Miles is so passionate about the fact we should all be eating more local, foraged native produce, rather than imported ingredients that have been stagnating on supermarket shelves for days, and when you step into his world and taste some of the exciting products he’s gathering, drying, processing and experimenting with, it’s evident that he’s absolutely right.
Rosie Birkett’s Seaweed cured Pollock, elderflower beurre blanc and sea vegetables
Estimated cooking time – 3 hours
This fish dish is a foraged update on a classical idea that would be great for a special romantic dinner or intimate dinner party. Meaty pollock fillets are given a blast of umami seaweed flavour with this simple cure and coating made using dried, powdered dulse seaweed. Giving them a light cure helps to firm up the fillets and keep them super succulent when pan fried. They’re then cooked to perfection and served with a silky and indulgent elderflower beurre blanc and juicy, salty sea veg.
For the Dulse powder
Preheat the oven to very low – about 50 degrees C. Lay your seaweed out on a flat roasting tray. Bake it for 30-40 minutes, until dry. Then remove the seaweed from the oven, returning the tray to the oven, and up the heat to 130. Once it’s at temperature, cook for another 5-8 minutes, until totally dehydrated.
For the elderflower beurre blanc
125g unsalted butter
1 tbsp chopped shallot
3 tbsp elderflower vinegar, plus 2 tsps, to finish
3 tbsp water
For the cure
1 tbsp sea salt
2 tsp caster sugar
1 tbsp seaweed powder, plus another tbsp, to coat
2 tbsp clarified butter
2 handfuls of sea purslane and sea aster, washed
1. To lightly cure the fish. Combine the seaweed powder, salt and sugar in a food processor and blitz until well combined. Pat your fillets dry and cover with the cure. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
2. To make the beurre blanc, cut the butter into cubes and chill in fridge. Put the shallot, vinegar and water into a frying pan and reduce by a third. Lower the heat, and using a whisk, start to stir in the butter a little at a time, whisking after each addition until it emulsified to create a thick and creamy sauce. Midway through, I like to add a tablespoon or so of water to make it a bit lighter and paler. You want pale and silky, not custardy. Whisk 2 more tsps of the vinegar in and season lightly with salt. Keep warm.
3. Remove the fish from the fridge 30 minutes before you want to cook it. Gently rinse off the cure using a little cold water, and pat dry with clean kitchen towel. Then place the fillets in a baking tray and scatter over some more of the seaweed powder, to make a coating.
4. Put the sea veg in a bowl and cover with boiling water for a minute, then drain. Set aside.
5. To cook the fish, heat the clarified butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan or skillet. Place the fillets skin side down and don’t move them. Allow them to cook for 5-6 minutes, depending on thickness, basting them with the butter as you go. When the skin comes freely away from the pan, flip the fillets and cook for a further couple of minutes so they’re cooked all the way through – you’ll start to see the flakes, but don’t hammer them until they’re flaking apart.
6. Divide the beurre blanc between warm plates, pile on the sea veg and rest the fish on top. Scatter over a little more dried seaweed powder and top with a little more purslane, scattering some more around the edge. Serve with extra beurre blanc and crusty bread to mop it up.
Chef’s tip: Clarified butter
Warm the butter in a saucepan over a low heat until melted. Skim off the foamy white layer of milk solids from the top and discard. Remove the butter from the heat and wait 5 minutes then slowly pour the clarified butter into another bowl, leaving the bottom layer of milk solids in the saucepan behind.
Rosie Birkett’s Bavette steak with seaweed aioli, wild watercress, and wild mushrooms
Estimated cooking time – 40 minutes
Bavette steak is a cheaper cut that’s got a meatier texture but is full of flavour. It’s best cooked hard and quick and then sliced across the grain once rested. Here it’s paired with a creamy seaweed-laced aioli for added umami, and peppery watercress. Wild mushrooms are so good right now, and work beautifully with steak so we’ve put some of those in there for good measure. A really wild steak dinner.
500g bavette steak
100g wild mushrooms
knob of butter
1/2 shallot, finely chopped
sprig of thyme
finely chopped parsley
2 tsp white wine vinegar
40g watercress, washed and dried
For the aioli
1 egg yolk
1 pinch of white pepper
1 pinch of salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1.5 tbsp dulse powder (see above)
150-180ml neutral oil
1. To make the aioli. Blitz the egg yolk, egg, salt, garlic and half the lemon juice in a food processor until smooth. Next set it to a low speed and gradually trickle in the oil. You need to be careful here and go slowly, only adding more oil once what you’re pouring has been absorbed and emulsified. If it splits and goes sloshy, you can rescue it by adding more lemon juice. Keep adding the oil until you have a lush, thickened, but still slightly pourable aioli. Add the seaweed powder, the rest of the lemon juice and more seasoning if it needs it and blitz again until smooth and silky. Refrigerate until you’re ready to serve.
2. Remove the steak from the fridge at least 30 minutes before you cook it so it can come up to room temperature. Season with sea salt, black pepper and a little of the seaweed powder. Heat a little rapeseed oil over a very high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or frying pan. Fry the steak for three minutes on one side, until a caramelised crust has formed, then flip it over and cook for a further 1-2 minutes, depending on how rare you like it. Transfer to a chopping board to rest for at least 8 minutes. In another frying pan, melt the knob of butter gently and sweat the shallots and thyme for a few minutes, until the shallot is translucent. Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms, seasoning with salt and pepper and cooking for 3-5 minutes, until caramelised and cooked through. Season with the white wine vinegar, cooking until it’s evaporated. Stir through the chopped parsley.
3. Slice the bavette against the grain and serve with the mushrooms scattered over and some watercress and aioli.