Caroline Davey was there to greet us – was she really the fat hen? Looking more like a super fit roadrunner rather than a chunky chicken I mused that a wild food diet obviously works, maybe a PB was on the cards after all.
Molly the collie led us to the superb granite barn for our welcome chat where Caroline explained what our day would include. She had worked as an ecologist for 12 years, where learning about all the wild plants had given her the idea of combining her knowledge with her love of cooking. “I now feel so much more connected to nature than before”, professed Caroline, going on to say how she had worked for the restaurant trade foraging wild foods for their chefs. Realising that this wasn’t perhaps the best approach Caroline now spends her time teaching people how to forage and cook for themselves.
Chat over, out piled eight waterproof-clad folk and one collie into a couple of vehicles, and headed off to our foraging site at Peranuthnoe.
It was windy with mizzle in the air, but nothing could dampen our enthusiastic spirits or Caroline’s boundless energy and passion as we started our two-hour coastal walk. We hadn’t even made it out of the car park before we were shown the first of a seemingly endless platter of foods – alexanders and three-cornered leek covered the verge. And as we tasted various plants from the bank at the top of the beach I smiled as I realised how many times I had walked this path, hungry after a long surf.
Caroline’s knowledge was impressive – she showed us at least 25 edible plants and explained about their nutritional and medicinal qualities and how to turn them into a tasty dish. Some tastes would need to be re-acquired explained Caroline. “Although they used to be staple to our diets, we have forgotten about most of these foods and our tastes have changed.” We were spoilt for choice with delightfully named plants such as hottentot fig (looks like and has similar medicinal qualities to Aloe Vera), rock samphire (has a lemony taste and is great frittered) and black mustard (watch out as its aftertaste has a real kick)
The fun, jokes and light hearted banter continued as we learned how to eat nettles raw without being stung, how Achilles used yarrow to staunch the bleeding of his soldiers (sticking it up your nose will also halt a nose bleed) and how the super high vitamin C content of common scurvy grass was used to cure (yes you guessed it) scurvy.
Two hours had flown by without even one complaint about the inclement weather and it was time to head back to the sanctuary of Caroline’s stunning country kitchen, the perfect location for the highlight of our day, lunch. Before we could eat however, we had to cook. To warm us up before we were set our tasks Caroline served us spicy roasted laver seaweed crisps, a hot bowl of tasty alexander, leek, potato and onion soup and chunks of homemade bread.
With our hunger pangs now on the back burner we were given our jobs – being the only vegetarian in the group I had my hands in a bowl of laver and oatmeal, squishing, dipping and rolling seaweed cakes alongside Sue who, as well as making the bacon meat-eater version, showed obvious delight at seeing husband John bent over a kitchen sink for “the first time in his life” washing mussels for the sauce.
As we sampled the smooth melt-in-the-mouth laver cakes with mussel, cider and three cornered leek sauce, washed down with homemade elderflower cordial, Caroline explained that Fat Hen is in fact an edible plant that was a staple diet 2000 years ago in Roman times and nothing to do with the chickens in her kitchen garden, although I still prefer to think of it as her ironic nickname.
The third course had to be prepared too and everyone seemed delighted to hear that they were going to re-live their childhood and create weird and wonderful shapes with the colourful homemade playdo-like pasta. Out came the dangerous looking pasta mangle and following the Fat Hen’s deft demonstration it was down to Tim and Geraldine (who already had one arm in a sling thanks to a fall and was hoping not to lose the other hand in the pasta making process) to produce the thin sheets of pasta we needed to prepare our tortellini. Linda and Gill set about filling the delicate pasta shapes with hare (we assumed caught by Molly when she disappeared for a while during our earlier forage) while John and I took care of the ricotta veggie option.
No sooner had we devoured the third course of tortellini and sea beet with hazelnuts and parmesan than Caroline presented us with the pre-made desert.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone was amazed to be told that the perfect pudding on our plates was in fact Japanese knotweed tart. It turns out that in Japan this plant is regularly eaten for its medicinal qualities and actually controlled rather than thought of as a pest and destroyed on sight. And the taste? Just like mum’s rhubarb pie.
Just in case you are wondering, I felt amazingly energised for the following two days, which included my fastest triathlon time yet: wild food equals wild energy!