Fruits of the forage

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall loves to forage by the seashore. ‘Beaches, cliffs and marshes are simply lovely places to be, often starkly beautiful and genuinely unspoilt. It’s not difficult to find wild food here, both animal and vegetable.’ It may not always be obvious – you may need to clamber over boulders, fish in rockpools or dig into the sand – but, says Hugh, ‘That only adds to the satisfaction when you find it.’

The River Cottage Edible Seashore day course is an amazing introduction to the food you can find by the sea. It is one of more than 20 inspiring events offered at Hugh’s headquarters, run by 30 staff in its third and most permanent incarnation at Park Farm in the Axe Valley on the Dorset/Devon border. On the day I went, we visited four coastal locations nearby and came back with a haul of marsh and rock samphire, sea kale, sea purslane, sea beets (Hugh’s favourite vegetable), sea lettuce, wild rocket, wild chives, limpets, cockles, razor clams and sea campion.

Going wild for wild food
You munch en route – not always successfully, although sea kale was a pleasant, nutty surprise – and then learn how to cook it all back at base. ‘Wild food equals strong taste,’ explains John Wright, the expert botanist who leads the hunt, ‘which doesn’t always mean it will taste good.’ John looks the archetypal eccentric forager with his wet suit, wide-brimmed hat and basket. He clambers over rockpools, stopping every few feet to pick something and have a little nibble. He is a big fan of seaweed and loves frying it up at home to make kelp crisps. There are two types of forager on these hunts, says John: the ones who want to re-live their childhood and have a paddle (that’ll be me, then) and the Ray Mears types who want to scale a bare rock face and pick up survival tips. It’s also foodie heaven: after the beach, you get a masterclass from the River Cottage chefs who specialise in working with hand-reared animals as well as wild and seasonal produce.

I’m amazed at how easy it is to find real food for the taking once you know what you’re looking for: John’s basket is soon overflowing with sea vegetables from Chesil Beach, near Lyme Regis. Shellfish is an even more exciting prospect. I adored scouring rockpools as a child but never found anything I actually wanted to eat. It turns out you just need to know how to look and when to pick your moment. Razor clams prove satisfyingly easy to catch so long as you are not squeamish about grabbing a slimy creature popping its head out of its shell. We manage to half-fill a bucket with cockles and razor clams. Luckily, the kitchen at River Cottage has ordered in more for our lunch.
It’s a stunning location, nestled in a valley completely hidden from the road, which is almost impossible to find (you get the message that they only want expected guests). This is River Cottage’s first real home. The
initial two locations where the television series was filmed were rented, then last year Hugh bought this 17th-century farmhouse set in 60 acres. It’s a long-term project and still under renovation but the main part of the enterprise – courses on home-grown and seasonal food – is already expanding.
The farm aims to act as a centre of excellence for ‘real food’: it has a huge space for entertaining next to a restaurant-standard kitchen. Courses include All About Chickens, A Day of Meat Curing and Smoking, Pig in a Day, Bread Making and Mushroom Foraging (John is even more excited about fungi than marine vegetation, if that’s possible). They all end in a slap-up meal after a cooking demonstration.

For more information about Park Farm (River Cottage HQ) and to book courses see www.rivercottage.net or call 01297 630300.

WORDS Viv Groskop PHOTOGRAPHS Jason Ingram

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