Wild foods are on-trend in an increasing number of gastropubs. Alison Daniels goes foraging for more information
Consumers often get their first experience of wild foods in pubs and restaurants, since Britain lacks a traditional foraging culture. While game meat has long been an old favourite on the menu of traditional British pubs and restaurants, it is now being joined by a host of other wild foods on the menu.
In part the trend is driven by a rash of TV programmes, such as Ray Mears's Wild Food and Thomasina Miers' The Wild Gourmets, which feature presenters rustling up something appetising from a few leaves and berries. The growing consumer popularity of wild foods is underpinned by a deeper consumer trend for reconnecting with food, through a desire for authenticity and a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
Fergus Drennan, TV's Roadkill Chef and professional forager, explains the attraction of wild foods: "As a trained chef myself, I would say the greatest attractions are the creative potential and culinary challenge that the unique flavours, textures, and aromas offer.
"Speaking as a forager, it is always lovely to see what inspired ideas chefs come up with. For the diner, there is the delightful revelation that plants passed by on a country walk not only add a unique seasonal twist to a meal but can carry the main flavour and hold their own in relation to more conventional ingredients."
Fergus elaborates: "The winter is still surprisingly good for wild food. I would recommend items that can be found in substantial amounts: sea purslane, winter cress, hairy bittercress, Alexanders, chickweed, enteromorpha seaweed, jelly ears, velvet shanks, field blewits, trumpet chanterelles, rose hips and sea buckthorn."
Christopher Bentley, head chef at the Old Inn in Gairloch, the north-west Highlands, believes the trend is linked to a desire to eat local food that is as fresh as possible and free from industrial processing.
"We have everything here on our doorstep. Our fish comes directly from the boats in the harbour, our venison, pheasant, partridge and mountain hare are taken from the hill; we gather mushrooms locally, and produce our own elderberry cordial and sloe gin for sauces," he says.
"We're concerned about food miles, so for us it's about making the most of what nature provides here, rather than importing tasteless out-of-season produce from abroad. It also means we're supporting our local suppliers."
Rachel Cox, owner of Cwtch Bar and Restaurant in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, concurs: "Using wild foods is certainly becoming ever more trendy. We're fortunate in that we have a wealth of local knowledge in St Davids because a lot of people eat off the land here, and we even have an annual wild-food festival.
"Matt Cox, our head chef, has an outstanding grasp of flavours and has pulled together special wild-food menus for past festivals. His dishes really come from the head and the heart."
Although overall market research into wild foods is impossible to gather, Mintel reports that game achieved total sales of £61m in 2006, roughly 50% more than in 2004 - growth largely fuelled by demand for venison and pheasant.
Most game and exotic meats are low in fat (especially saturated fats) and high in minerals - these attributes fit well with consumers' search for new healthier meats.
As game meat is both healthy and tasty, it appeals to "foodies" as a welcome alternative to poultry meat. While a growing number of gourmet consumers will experiment with game and wild foods on at least an occasional basis, Mintel reports a small but growing proportion of consumers who eat game on a regular basis. The research highlights that the principal difference between regular and occasional users is that regular consumers are more likely to
recognise the health attributes of these meats.
Andy Whiteman, from the Harris Arms in Devon, agrees with the research. "Our customers love game and other wild foods. It's great quality and value for money," he says. "It's perceived as healthy and tastes great. It's also a green food - it's shot and sold locally. We are members of the Slow Food movement and have built up a reputation for game over the years, so suppliers will come to us.
"We buy directly from licensed game dealers, licensed game hunters, from local shoots, local fishermen, local mushroom foragers."
Miles Irving has been a professional forager since 2003, and currently supplies four pubs. He stresses the ethical aspect of offering wild foods on the menu.
"We don't harvest anything unless there is plenty of it and it can tolerate being harvested without harm," he says. "Some plants can't take regular harvesting from the same site, such as sea purslane, so we have to rotate where we pick from to give the plants a chance to grow."
Miles advises pub chefs interested in wild foods to order from professional foragers or learn to forage by going on a course.
"We can arrange to take groups of chefs out and provide follow-up support, so you can be sure that you're foraging in a sustainable, safe and ethical fashion."
As well as featuring on the tables in many gastropubs, wild foods have also found their way behind the bar.
Bruce Williams produces the Heatherdale range of historic ales which make use of hand-gathered wild ingredients such as pine and spruce shoots, heather flowers, bog myrtle, meadowsweet and bladder wrack seaweed.
Bruce's enthusiasm for wild ingredients is apparent: "Using wild ingredients gives a unique product with a real connection to the land and the seasons, as well as a great taste."
Feeding a taste for foraged foods
Before Bek Misich and Paul Hutchison took over a run down pub in Hove, East Sussex, and transformed it into a successful gastropub called the Forager, much of the most interesting flora and fauna was to be found on the pub's sticky green carpet.
That the pair have turned this around in just over a year, and now have one of the most innovative and popular menus on the south coast, is testament to their faith in their customers' willingness to try wild foods.
"We'd always been keen on offering organic food, so using wild meats and foraged greens and vegetables was a natural move for us," explains Paul.
"People are interested in re-connecting with nature and eating food that has been raised naturally. Bek spends a lot of time learning about herbs and plants and our forager makes suggestions as to their possible use, but we do a lot of experimentation before a dish goes on the menu.
"At the moment, the wild rabbit is flying out the door, and our venison and wild sea bream are both doing really well. We don't have a set menu, it changes daily according to what the forager has come up with, and what game and fish are fresh. A lot of chefs come to try the place out, and the new flavours and ingredients on the menu always excite them."
He adds: "I think we surprised people a bit at first. They were expecting regular pub grub, but now more and more of our customers are asking for the foraged menu.
"Our customers like to know about the ingredients and where the food comes from. Maybe it ties in to people being interested in food programmes and being more eco-friendly.
"People are reacting really well to trying wild foods, about 85% absolutely love it, but there are always a few who are not comfortable with strange vegetables. We do get a few bits left on plates, and that can be frustrating, but it happens with peas and broccoli too."