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While most of us head to the local supermarket to do our weekly grocery shop, or order everything online, a whole generation of food and drink enthusiasts are going the extra mile, foraging in parks, woodlands and hedgerows in search of unique local ingredients that will elevate their culinary game.
The field-to-table movement has gone from strength to strength in the UK, with brands like The Botanist, which infuses its gin with wild ingredients foraged from the Isle of Islay, among the front runners of this growing trend. We’ve asked foraging enthusiast and Salon restaurant co-founder Nicholas Balfe to reveal his favourite spots around the UK for discovering local plant life, and fellow co-founder Mark Gurney has also shared some of his favourite spots and recommended cocktails to match, so you can add some nature to dinner and drinks.
I’ve been foraging in and around Weymouth since way before I even knew that foraging was a ‘thing’. In fact, I was probably picking seaweed and pulling leaves and flowers off wild plants in the area since I could walk! I spent the first 10 years or so of my life in a village nearby, and we’d often go for walks to little coves on the outskirts of the town. Nowadays I make special trips to particular spots to pick the many delicious wild ingredients that can be found in the area. On the Rodwell Trail, between Weymouth and Portland, there are lots of wild fennel plants to be found. I like to catch them when they’re budding. The pollen is so sweet and aromatic; it’s perfect with local seafood.
Food: BBQ’d scallops with lardo and fennel pollen
Drink: Salon 75 – The Botanist gin, red ‘British citrus’, butter, cava, fennel
I see Brockwell Park almost as if it were the back garden of our restaurant. It’s a beautifully expansive space, with loads of foraging to be done year round. Anyone who knows me will know I’m pretty into elders – the trees, the blossoms, the berries, even the mystic connotations it holds in folklore. I adore the flavour of the flowers and challenge myself and my team to pick enough when in season to use for the remainder of the year. We often use it in savoury dishes as a vinegar, but sometimes you can’t beat a simple elderflower granita. Especially with a splash of gin and lots of fresh mint.
Food: Pea and broad-bean salad with elderflower vinaigrette
Drink: Peashooter – white wine, pea-pod-infused St Germain, herb syrup, soda with a splash of The Botanist gin
There’s nothing quite like stumbling across a patch of wild garlic on a late springtime stroll. I remember the first time I came across this spot in a wooded area beneath the Ridgeway, near where my dad lives in Dorset. The entire wood was carpeted with pungent, bright-green wild garlic, dotted with a milky way of tiny white flower buds… Quite a sight – and smell – to behold! Towards the end of the season, I like to harvest the buds after they’ve flowered. They can be salted, fermented and turned into wild garlic ‘capers’ that pack a serious umami punch.
Food: Baked river trout with wild-garlic salsa verde
Drink: The Botanist gin and tonic with a lemon twist
Nunhead Cemetery is a stunning little corner of South London, and a beautiful spot for a walk, whether you plan to go foraging or not. Aside from nettles, three-cornered leeks are probably the first wild ingredients that are available in abundance, and they always make it onto our menus at the restaurant. Perhaps the soil in Nunhead Cemetery is particularly fertile – let’s not think too much about why – but it’s one of the best spots I know for picking three-cornered leek. Look out for the snowdrop-like flowers and wispy, grassy leaves. The flavour has a gentle allium kick. Great sautéed or chopped finely in salads.
Food: Sautéed mushrooms and celeriac with wilted three-cornered leek
Drink: Red snapper/bloody mary – swap out vodka for The Botanist gin (…easy on the spice mix)
Alexanders (an edible flowering plant) are abundant all along the British coast, but it’s something I associate most closely with Brighton, Hove and the surrounding area, having discovered them at Silo, a fantastic restaurant in Brighton’s city centre. I’d never really understood how to harness their bitter, vegetal flavour before, but chef Douglas McPartland and his team seem to have found ways to tame this wild beast and use it so many glorious dishes. I love pickling the stalks to add an almost quinine-esque complexity to sauces and dressings.
Food: Baked beetroots with alexander-leaf pesto, pickled alexanders and sour cream
Drink: The Apple of My Eye – Black Apple Aperitif, The Botanist gin, pear and lemon skins, alexander-leaf cordial, amaro, an olive
Mulberry trees seem to be one of the most coveted spots in all urban foragers repertoires. The reality is that, once you spot one, you can’t quite believe how on earth you’ve been missing them for all this time. There’s a beautiful, gnarly old mulberry tree in one of my local parks in Camberwell. At the height of season – from Midsummer Day to early August – the berries are sweet, juicy and delicious. They’re a joy to eat and lots of fun to pick… If you like tree climbing, that is!
Food: Mulberry and almond tart
Drink: Mulberry Fizz – mulberry syrup, The Botanist gin, prosecco, soda
The unsung hero(ine) of the sea, seaweed plays a vital role in the biodiversity and ecosystem of the sea, and the Japanese have been using it for millennia as a food source. We have amazing varieties around the British coast with great names: sugar kelp, pepper dulse, dabberlocks and sea spaghetti. The best time to harvest is spring, when the water is colder. You’ll need scissors. Be aware of the tide and avoid beaches near towns or industry. Once dried, seaweed can be added to almost any dish as a flavour enhancer.
Food: Jersey royals, mussels, sea vegetables, egg yolk
Drink: Sea Shanty Martini – The Botanist gin infused with sugar-kelp seaweed, a splash of extra-dry vermouth, sugar-kelp seaweed to garnish
I got taken here by some friends who have a great restaurant nearby one wet Thursday morning a few years ago. Goblin Combe is a dog-walking spot with steep-sided valleys. If you climb up these slopes among the trees, you can find blewits and puffball mushrooms. But the much safer bounty is the wood sorrel just off the paths, along the verges. Wood sorrel has little clover-like leaves with a delicate red stem. Pop one in your mouth and the stem bursts with crunchy apple and citrus flavour. These are a beautiful zingy garnish for fish dishes.
Food: Stone bass crudo, monk’s beard, chilli, wood sorrel
Drink: The Botanist gin sour, wood sorrel to garnish
I learnt about scots pine from my mate Jack Adair Bevan, who used to make a wonderful vermouth called The Collector. He used to infuse scots pine in alcohol as one of the botanical elements. Jack also has a boat in Ullapool, an area where you can find the most magnificent scots pine trees with their fragrant, resinous needles. At Salon, we infuse gin and vodka with scots pine, and we also make a heady pine salt to give dishes an extra twist.
Drink: The Botanist gin, aromatic wine, a dash of scotch whisky, served in a glass with a scots pine-salt rim
Between May and June, if you are lucky enough to have a walnut tree near you, please wander up to it, grab a branch and stick your face into the leaves. Ooof! A tropical salad of mango and pineapple hits you. Come the end of June, the nuts won’t have formed their hard inner shell, and are just right for pickling or making into nocino. The latter is my favourite digestive, a rich and nutty liqueur that is beautiful over ice cream.
Food: Pickled walnuts, Keen’s Cheddar and sourdough crackers
Drink: Negroni – The Botanist gin, vermouth, amaro (negroni and hard cheese is a wonderful combo!)
Between the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley are the lush hills of Monmouthshire, a verdant and beautiful area brimming with foragable ingredients. But the single ingredient that has always stuck with me is my first wild alpine strawberry near Abergavenny. Mid-to-late summer is best for picking, when they are getting proper ripe, but before the birds and the beasts get them.
Food: Macerated strawberries with tarragon ice cream and almond crumb
Drink: Strawberry Shrub – Salon strawberry shrub, The Botanist gin, soda
A delicious coastal vegetable that is abundant on the coasts of Britain, sea purslane grows in low bushes in sand dunes and along the banks of sea-estuary inlets. Pick the tips from the low bushes, wash and blanch lightly or heat through in a sauce for a delicate salty vegetal hit.
Food: Brown shrimp ravioli with caraway, lemon and sea purslane
Drink: What’s the Dilly Yo? – The Botanist gin, lemon, dill syrup, aquafaba
This London Cocktail Week is your chance to ‘go wild’ with The Botanist. “Our gin is infused with 22 hand-picked botanicals, so foraging is embedded in our DNA,” says Abi Clephane, brand ambassador for The Botanist, which is hosting The Foragers Table at The Shoreditch Treehouse. The experience includes a three-course culinary tour of wild London, exploring the flavourful finds that can be foraged in the city, and is open from 3-5 October 2018. Tickets are available to buy here and cost £45 per person. Search #BeTheBotanist for more.