Where the wild food is

Why foodies are getting excited about foraging

Standing in the howling wind on the beach at Lyme Regis, looking at a nondescript clump of greenery, I realise I would never have cut it as a hunter-gatherer.

Aside from a few forays into pick-your-own, I've never been in the position of having to find my own dinner. And luckily that isn't the case here - instead, I'm being shown the fundamentals of foraging by Mark Hix, of the oyster and chop houses, who is bounding round the Jurassic Coast plucking things from the ground, followed by a comet-tail of soggy but inquistive food journalists.

The British seashore is a surprisingly fertile place: here was a clump of sea-kale, over there were the tender leaves of sea purslane, perfect with lobster. Sea rocket, sea peas and sea aster - the naming conventions leave a little to be desired - are also relatively easy to find. Perhaps the jewel in the forager's crown is sea-buckthorn, which the Cornish chef Nathan Outlaw used in a meringue in last year's Great British Menu. These vibrant orange berries grow all around our island, particularly in Sussex, where they have been planted to ward off coastal erosion.

Bucking the trend

Their citrus bitterness is an acquired taste, but one way to get the hang of it is a sea-buckthorn hot toddy: strip the berries off the thorny branches by throwing them in the freezer, then bang them on a hard surface. Blitz them in a blender, sieve, then add an equal quantity of sugar, some lemon juice and cloves, a dash of honey, a good slug of whisky (we used Talisker, a nicely smoky single malt from the Isle of Skye) and enough hot water to assuage your conscience about the alcohol content.

If you're more virtuous, sea-buckthorn juice can fill in for lemon in any recipe: 10ml of juice for each lemon. "It's especially good in ice creams, jellies and sorbets," says Outlaw, adding ominously: "The juice smells strange but this goes away once it's cooled."

Foraging is now such a trend that a web search for courses turns up dozens of results, costing from £20 to the low hundreds. There's also a how-to book called The Thrifty Forager by Alys Fowler. When I call her, she sounds a note of caution about getting stuck in at the seaside. "It's largely protected and it's a sensitive area," she says. "You can overpick areas like that." Luckily, Fowler says that urban foraging is just as satisfying and less legally problematic (because cities have more public land, whereas most of the countryside is privately owned and it's harder to seek permission to gather food there). "This autumn I found an almond tree in the centre of Birmingham," she says. "And everyone is near a free apple tree - every time someone throws away a pip and it lands in a favourable place, there's one." Even in the dead of winter, there's food out there - nettles and winter greens.

That said, there are hazards. Two pieces of rock samphire from opposite ends of the beach tasted very different, making me suspect that one had been spritzed with eau de chien. Perhaps you're better off buying that in Waitrose, which stocks it in summer.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.