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Foraging with Chris Harrod

Walk on the wild side: foraging with Chris Harrod

by Pete Dreyer 18 June 2019

Pete Dreyer spends a day in the glorious Welsh countryside with Michelin-starred chef Chris Harrod of The Whitebrook, where he shares some invaluable hints and tips for finding the wild herbs, leaves and flowers that make his dishes some of the best in Britain.


Foraging for wild food is becoming increasingly popular across the UK – there are thousands of edible plants growing wild in woodlands, estuaries and hedgerows across the country, and more of us are taking an interest in the delicacies available around us. The key of course is in education – you should never eat something unless you’re absolutely sure of what it is, and that it’s clean! Sure, you could grab a load of books from your local library, become a botanist and painstakingly trawl over the details of thousands of plants. Or, you could head out into the wild with someone who already knows what they’re talking about.

Chris Harrod shot to prominence in the 2018 series of Great British Menu, where he stood out from the crowd with a suite of dishes that featured a plethora of wild ingredients. First, there was ‘Sensory garden’ – a dish of mugwort-smoked beets with black pudding, caramelised onion and wild herbs and seeds. The star of his fish course was mackerel that had been cured in meadowsweet – a sweet, medicinal herb that grows prolifically in the spring. His ‘Everything but the Squeal’ suckling pig dish received straight ten-out-of-ten ratings from the judges, featuring sharp lamb’s sorrel to cut through the fatty pork, and his ‘Tea & Cake’ finale got him to the final banquet, pairing hazelnut cake with a mousse made from woodruff – a woodland plant that, when dried, has a strong marzipan flavour.

We joined Chris for a day in the heart of the Wye Valley, and he kindly took us out foraging for some of his favourite wild edibles.

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A collection of wild edibles, foraged in the space of an hour in the woodland next to Chris' restaurant
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Chris heads out foraging for ingredients to use in the restaurant multiple times a week

Hop shoots

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Hop shoots are supposedly one of the most expensive vegetables in the world, but you can find them growing in hedgerows all over the country. Hops are what gives beer its bitterness, but like many plants they generate new growth over the spring. These shoots taste a lot like asparagus or broccoli, but with a little of that hoppy bitterness. In Italy they call these shoots ‘bruscandoli’ – you’ll often see people out picking them in the spring to use in a risotto or a frittata.

Hedge bedstraw

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Hedge bedstraw is part of the cleaver family, recognisable by the star-shaped leaves and similarity to other cleavers like stickyweed and woodruff. Cleavers all grow prolifically so they’re relatively easy to find and identify (as long as you know what you’re looking for!). Hedge bedstraw tends to grow in big clumps, and the tips have a lovely fresh broccoli flavour that goes nicely in all sorts of dishes. Pick the young shoots and use them fresh as a garnish – anything a bit older will be fibrous.

Orache

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There are lots of different species of orache, but they’re all identifiable by their halberd-like shape. In terms of flavour, orache has a great deal in common with spinach; pick the leaves young and they have a natural sweet, nutty flavour that makes them great in salads. As the leaves grow larger and older they develop a strong iron flavour, perhaps even stronger than spinach. A quick wilt in a pan helps to break down any toughness in the leaves, and you can use them as you would use spinach leaves – Chris often pairs orache with lamb at The Whitebrook.

Meadowsweet

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If you’ve ever been out walking and smelled something sweet and medicinal, it could well have been meadowsweet – it grows in big clumps and becomes especially pungent in early summer when it flowers. Meadowsweet has a pretty distinct, unusual flavour on its own, but when combined with other ingredients it can produce some interesting combinations. You can pick the leaves or the flowers (the flowers are stronger) and infuse them into liquids to make custards, sorbets, ice creams and the like, as well as cures and vinegars. ‘We make a black cherry, white chocolate and meadowsweet dessert at the restaurant,’ says Chris. ‘When you combine white chocolate and meadowsweet you get something that tastes like marzipan!’

Woodruff

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‘This is one of my favourites,’ says Chris. ‘Woodruff takes a bit of work to get the flavour out of it – you have to dehydrate it and then infuse it into liquid afterwards, but it has this amazing vanilla and almond flavour, very similar to tonka bean.’ Indeed, it is remarkable – even fresh you can detect a slight hint of vanilla, but the flavour is pronounced once you’ve dehydrated the leaves (this destroys the cumarin – a toxin that also exists in tonka bean). Chris used woodruff to flavour a mousse as part of the ‘Tea and Cake’ dessert that won at the Great British Menu banquet in 2018.

Ground ivy

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Ground ivy is related to mint, but doesn’t really resemble the mint that most of us are familiar with – the leaves look different and the flavour is more bitter. ‘It’s a little like shiso in some ways,’ Chris says. ‘I use it in small doses in a green sauce, like a salsa verde – it definitely adds something extra and helps to lift the other ingredients.’ Ground ivy grows in large swathes close to the ground, and has recognisable leaves and purple flowers in the summer.

Hogweed

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Hogweed is part of the carrot family, but has a more unique flavour that is slightly reminiscent of celery. It’s extremely versatile too – you can eat young stems if you blanch them to remove any woodiness, the leaves have a delicious nutty flavour when crisped up in butter, and you can pick the buds just before the plant flowers and eat them like broccoli. Just make sure you’re dealing with hogweed and not giant hogweed – the latter is very dangerous and has phototoxic sap that can cause serious burns, so only pick it with someone who knows what they're doing! To see how Chris uses hogweed in his cooking, take a look at his Wye Valley asparagus recipe.

Jack-by-the-hedge

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This hardy plant also goes by the names ‘hedge garlic’ and ‘hedge mustard’, so no prizes for guessing what it tastes like. The younger leaves and flowers make great garnishes on dishes where you want that peppery flavour, but you can still use the bigger leaves in purées, and the seeds also have a distinct mustard flavour. Chris often uses the large leaves to make a custard, which he serves with British escargots, and he makes a Jack-by-the-hedge oil to serve with his suckling pig dish.

Fiddleheads

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Fiddlehead ferns are commonly eaten in France, but less so in the UK despite the fact that they’re not difficult to find in shady woodland. They’re only good for a few weeks or so in early spring, the reason being that you can only eat them whilst they’re curled up and tender – once they start to unfurl they become tough and less pleasant to eat. Fiddleheads have a lovely asparagus flavour to them – you’ll want to dip them in water to remove the fur from the stems, but after that you can blanch them quickly or fry them in butter. They make up a part of Chris' signature Wye Valley asparagus dish.

Wood sorrel

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Some chefs pay a lot of money for wood sorrel, but it can be found in dark, mossy woodland areas at almost any time of year. It looks very similar to clover – they’re both trifoliates – but wood sorrel has heart-shaped leaves. The stalk in particular has an incredible citrus flavour that works well with all sorts of different things – Chris loves to pair it with strawberry and uses wood sorrel to make anything from ice cream to pâte de fruit over the course of the year. If you find it in flower you’re in luck – the flowers have all the same flavour but with a hint of sweetness.

Wood avens

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Wood avens (also known as colewort or St Benedicts herb) have an interesting history – in old folklore, the plant was thought to ward off evil spirits and snakes. Keep an eye out for the buttery yellow flowers – once wood avens flowers the roots produce a compound called eugenol, which is also present in cloves. Take the root, dry it out and then use it to give a fragrant clove flavour to dishes.

Violets

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Purple violet flowers stand out easily against the greenery of spring and are relatively easy to find as a result – they have a very delicate, perfumed flavour and make a nice garnish for fresh dishes. They are, however, purely a garnish – if you want that signature violet flavour for anything else you’ll need to buy violet essence, or you’ll need a centrifuge to remove the liquid from all your violet flowers!

Yellow archangel

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This wildflower is common all over the UK, so much so that we often walk past it without batting an eyelid. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten as salad greens – they have a slight peppery spice to them – but the flowers are the real prize, with a lovely delicate sweetness that makes them a great garnish for desserts. Chris often uses the flowers to make a nettle custard, but he also uses the flowers in lots of canapés at The Whitebrook.

Vetch

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Recognisable by its small, thin leaves that grow in opposing pairs, vetch is a member of the pea family and has a lovely sweet pea flavour to it. Nab the young growth at the top of the plant as it’ll be the sweetest and most tender – as the leaves get older they become more fibrous and less pleasant to eat. There are various different vetch species, some of which contain toxins – look for vetch with purple flowers that grow along the flower stem, rather than in a crown on top. The flowers also have a sweet pea flavour.

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