Fad or Forever: Foraging for Food in the outskirts of London
I don’t think too many people would protest if I said the London dining scene is a mutant on steroids. Restaurants have become experiences, and coffee has long been art. Somehow, we’ve managed to turn the pretty prosaic business of ingesting food into a no-holds-barred frenzy of circus tricks and bombast.
Oh, you want garlic crickets and ostrich flesh? Dive into the moody-lit exotic meat extravaganza of Archipelago. Perhaps you’d like to take a more literal journey? Have a jackfruit burger on a moored sailboat at Barge East, a wood fire pizza on a bus in Peckham, or take part in the immersive theatrical fine dining experience, The Murder Express, a concept that took place in a luxury train carriage and is catered by Masterchef finalists. Phew, what a tagline. Still, why stop there!
You can eat in fake caves, and you can eat in fake opera boxes. You can eat in the dark, served by blind or partially sighted waiters. You can even have a piddle in an enormous egg beneath a multi-coloured neon ceiling, courtesy of Sketch.
Have we reached peak novelty? Surely, it’s time for a palette cleanser?
As I boarded the train that sped me into East Sussex I felt relief. The city’s amped up offerings were being left behind. The dove grey whiteness of the landscape – a combination of light skies and clay walks – stretched as far as the eye could see. I was headed towards Shepherds Barn, the second site and fixed headquarters of HUNTER GATHER COOK, a foraging and cookery school founded by former chef Nick Weston.
Nick Weston is a hero for our times.
Nick Weston is a hero for our times. He is casual and passionate, purist and radical. Dressed in dusty jeans, beaten flatcap and often, a sturdy butcher’s apron, he’s the antithesis for much that ails modern society. When the recession hit back in 2008, he found himself out of work and deeply frustrated by the London grind. In response he decided to build and live in a treehouse for half a year. Then he wrote a book about it.
HUNTER GATHER COOK grew out of this adventure. It runs courses on everything from fire workshops to rabbit butchery and fungi foraging. He’s a fan of fly fishing and believes it’s important to eat food in the context it lives in. This means if you’ve caught a juicy trout, smoke it and eat it beside the river it came from. Nick’s classes reintroduce people into the wild… a little bit like we’re creatures born into captivity who need to be gently coached into trusting our instincts again.
Foraging – the act of rummaging around in nature for comestibles – is on the up. Interest has risen steadily over the past years, but it was the pandemic that gave the activity a real boost. Left with nothing to do and focused on our health, interacting with wildlife took on a new importance. It became popular enough for i-D to publish an article covering the influence of foraging videos on Tik Tok. As much as I am glad to see people take note of the world around them, I can’t help but wish they could do so without posting it on social media. The naturalness of nature begins to spoil as we experience it through screens rather than our senses.
The naturalness of nature begins to spoil as we experience it through screens rather than our senses.
Of course, not all of us can be Nick. Many do not really want to leave the comfort of civilisation, they just want to try something different and are willing to pay. Glossy influencers and city slickers, hungry for a taste of the fashionably rural may trek down to East Sussex, listen to Nick speak and pick some leaves. They’ll come home with bellies full of venison and iPhones full of stylish outdoorsy pictures. Will Nick succeed in passing on his food philosophy to them?
In my opinion, Nick has an advantage due to his lifelong training. Growing up in Ashdown Forest, he used to fish and hunt with his father. He was interested enough in the way we live and eat to study archaeology at university, with a focus on hunter gatherer societies. Abi Clephane, a frequent collaborator and friend of Nick’s had a similarly active childhood. She works as brand ambassador for The Botanist Islay Gin, a remarkable and exciting company. They create their signature gin by responsibly foraging herbs and plants from ‘the hills, bogs and shores of Islay’, an island at the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides. It takes 7 months to pick and dry the 22 botanicals that make up the recipe, which they do ‘petal by petal, leaf by leaf’.
Yet how wild can we really be? The Botanist Islay Gin and HGC are built on an intimate relationship with local nature, but they are businesses. The photography, marketing, and branding are perfect. Islay gin’s website is full of heart-achingly beautiful aerial shots of small Scottish isles and earthy close-ups of ingredients. The HGC’s Shepherds Barn has a lofty ceiling of wooden beams, banquet-style tables and a burning stove fire; it looks like a luxury rustic retreat. To round out the setting nicely, there’s a walled vegetable garden and Nick’s dog B, a trained truffle-hunter. Everything to satisfy our burgeoning pastoral fetish.
There is a flux of supposedly foraged items on posh London menus, and mainstream newspapers have started covering them. Can devotees like Nick and Abi manage to establish foraging beyond a fad? Behind the pageantry are those who are genuinely trying to draw us into a healthier way of eating and looking at our surroundings.
‘You’ve got to encourage people to think,’ Nick says. ‘I never respond to people who send me pictures of green things saying, “Can I eat this?” I want them to at least try and identify it. I want them to make a suggestion, like could it be part of the carrot family? I don’t want people to be lazy, I want to get them back into doing these things for themselves.’
As I was to find out, foraging is surprisingly hard and requires training your eye to recognise the differences in little plants. As Nick says, with a wry smile, ‘Everything is edible once.’
‘Everything is edible once.’
Influencers are careful to flag this in videos, warning against picking potentially poisonous shrubs or mushrooms. Such fare is hard to identify by just looking at a pic on social. In fact, Nick recommends looking at books not websites. Perhaps we finally have a conclusion. All of this may not become a diet we can reliably survive on or a lifestyle we want to adopt. But it is a step away from spending forever online, and that in itself counts for something.