Nettle soup with wild garlic-infused olive oil, sweet onion tart topped with foraged herbs, blue cheese cheesecake with wild poppy seed biscuits. The kind of food you would perhaps expect to find on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant – not at your local pub. As a foodie with a great love of all things local, I was intruiged when I saw the menu at one of my locals, The Verulam Arms. I was even more excited when I found out that the owners, George and Gerald (also known as The Foragers) were about to kick-off a series of guided foraging walks on a local estate. The foraging was to be followed by a ‘wild food’ banquet back at the pub. So, I quickly put my name down to attend a course, flung on my wellies and joined in with a bit of hunting and gathering. And yes, that is a deep fried squirrel’s leg on my plate. Foraging is all about taking a walk on the wild side!
The art of foraging is definitely in my blood; my Polish grandmother always told us that nettle soup and wild mushrooms helped her and her three children to survive the war. Having been sent to work on a labour camp located deep within in a forest a long way from home, just about the only food available was the wild food they could forage and cook with very limited means.
Foraging as a means of survival can be traced back to our ancestors over 80,000 years ago. As a pursuit, foraging slowly became less and less common as food became more readily available and was supplied for us. But foraging is coming back with a bang. Our interest in self-sufficiency and a desire to re-connect with nature is growing. It isn’t just a case of finding wild food either; culinary techniques particularly suited to wild food, such as salting, smoking, pickling and curing are also re-emerging. The folks at The Verulam Arms with their menus, walks and talks, are therefore both trend-setting and inspirational on a local level, in a completely laid-back and non-pretentious way.
The aim of The Foragers at The Verulam Arms is to provide good food, as well as motivate, educate and pool local knowledge and skills. The owners, Gerald (a highly-skilled forager with a passion for fishing and artisan baking) and George (an ex-city worker who now promotes his own love of foraging to the wider world) renovated the abandoned Verulam Arms together with a common goal. With help from locals, they gave the pub a fresh lease of life, exposing wooden floors and period features, decorating it with painted silhouette’s of hunters and gatherers and bringing grandad’s fishing bag and Auntie Evie’s bureau into the mix. As well as offering a foraged menu predominantly created now by the very young, but super-talented head chef Tommy, the guided foraging walks are a relatively new angle. They bring together local people with other local hunters and even urban gatherers to share locally foraged food. The guided walks are led by Kevan, a foraging and bush-craft expert Kevan from Woodland Ways, who brings a whole new level of expertise to the table.
The thing about foraging is that you absolutely have to be sure that what you are gathering and eating is safe and that is has been correctly identified. Getting it wrong can cause significant ailments, with some wild plants and berries being poisonous, toxic and even deadly. I myself admit to being completely clueless when it comes to identifying wild food (and this blog post is in no way meant to be a guide!) Hence, why anybody in my position should only ever go with an experienced professional or guided group.
I was slightly nervous in advance of the walk as I was attending alone and knew no one. It was a pretty miserable day weather-wise, but the foragers soon put me at ease and off we ventured as a group. I was astounded, to say the least, at exactly how much edible food we were shown how to identify during our walk. The path took the route of a simple woodland walk; away from the road, yet still visible as a group and able to find everything within easy reach. A whole new world of food was opened up to me, almost like putting on a pair of spectacles bringing edible wild plants, including stinging nettles, chickweed and dandelions into sharper focus, as well as finding wayside kitchen herbs, wild berries and nuts from in and around the hedgerows.
In most cases, you need the permission of the landowner to forage on private land. However, path edges can be legally foraged and flowers, leaves, fruits and fungi can also be foraged from verges and country roads. Guided walks are about the best way to ensure that what you are eating is safe and that you won’t get into any trouble for doing it.
So, after a busy afternoon finding, smelling and tasting hedge garlic, nettles (only pick the tops and not when they have started to flower), goose-grass, pig-nut, elder, three-cornered garlic and leeks, wood sorrel and chickweed, we had built up quite an appetite for a woodland feast.
Back at The Verulam Arms, we were presented with a banquet consisting of some superb treats:
Nettle Soup and Homemade Bread
Homemade Cheeses (Brie and Cheddar)
Sweet Onion and Goat’s Cheese Tart Tatin with Foraged Herbs
Southern Fried Squirrel’s Legs (actually delicious!)
Fisherman’s Pie and Sorrel Mash
Rabbit and Foraged Herb Masala (amazing!)
Game Sausage Rolls and Home Cured Meats
The banquet was delicious and all of the food had either been hunted or gathered locally. It was beautifully presented, too, with foraged herbs and flowers. The herbs had all been freshly foraged by hand, the fish caught by Gerald, the cheese impressively hand-made from locally produced milk. The Foragers also cure their own meats including wood pigeon chorizo and pigeon as well as venison and juniper salami.
For a pub in St Albans, I thought the menu and food was quite spectacular. House wines are carefully selected, George and Gerald are about to start brewing ‘wild beer’ and tipples of sloe gin all added to the experience. Even if you are not taking part in a foraging walk, the atmosphere at the pub is friendly and welcoming; just as it should be.
The dinner menu at The Verulam Arms is equally inspired. For first-time visitors, the Chicken Liver Pâté coated with wild butter sauce would be an excellent choice. A new wood-fired oven offering pizzas and slow-cooked joints at weekends surely presents a much-needed alternative to the below-par Sunday carvery and over-priced and over-packed chain eateries.
I would highly recommend joining in with a walk with The Foragers at The Verulam Arms and I hope that pub becomes a destination restaurant for visitors, as well as a place for like-minded foodies to meet. Since going on the walk, I have found wild garlic, used dandilions as a chocolate cake decoration and have started to find elderflowers, as well as learning more about nettles. I am looking forward to picking some wild fruit over the summer and have enjoyed asking my own mother about her adventures in foraging as a child and finding out more about her love of wild forest mushrooms.
You can find out more by subscribing to the We Foragers Mailing List and by finding Verulam Foragers on Facebook or @We Foragers on Twitter. Upcoming events are all listed via a link in the “Hunt and Gather with Us” section of The Foragers website leading to We Got Tickets. The next walk is on 27th June 2012 and you can book the foraging walk and banquet together or just the walk or the banquet. Prices start from £20 to take part in a banquet and discussion, £25 for the walk on it own or £40 for the walk and banquet. There are dates and tickets all the way throughout the summer.
Come to think of it, this would have made a great Father’s Day present, so if you are local and forgot the old man, quickly buy him a voucher!
If you are ever in St Albans, go and try it for yourselves. It won’t be a secret for long!
With many thanks to George, Gerald and Tommy at The Verulam Arms and Kevan at Woodland Ways for a very inspiring and educational afternoon! I paid to attend the introductory evening but was unable to attend. However, I was able to transfer my ticket to attend the first foraging walk.
What’s your view on foraging? Are you keen to venture out into the wild? Would you have eaten the squirrel?!