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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit