After the first part of my ‘Solo Mummy Adventure’, cossetted in the luxury of the Bristol Hotel, came rather a rude awakening the following morning, as I dashed off in the pelting rain and fog to the depths of the Somerset countryside:
Nonetheless, neither the early start, nor the inclement weather, could dent this level of excitement for the day ahead:
As I was booked in on a full day foraging course at Vale House Kitchen.
My first port of call was the Carpenters Arms pub car park, where I was instructed to rendez vous with Vale House Kitchen owner, Bod Griffiths. Part of the deal that allowed them to convert part of their gorgeous listed home into the school was that they had a ‘travel plan’ in place to ensure no increase in vehicular traffic to and from the property. Rather than being irksome, it’s a win-win. The pub offers accommodation for those booked onto 2-day courses, while those on a one-day course can always pop in for a drink with fellow attendees before heading their separate ways. They’ll also rustle you up a coffee if you arrive early, too.
No need to linger however as right on cue however, Bod skidded into the car park in a very smart emblazoned Landie, bounding out to greet me like a large, enthusiastic Labrador. Charming, warm and infectiously in love with his new career as chief chauffeur, host and general ‘man Friday’ for the school (Bod and his wife Annie moved to Vale House in 2011 after 20 years in London). Bod and I nattered away for the short transfer, about making the London-Country leap, his first week in business (the school only opened in September) and the plans for our day ahead…
Dashing in out of the persistent drizzle, we snuck round the back of the ‘big house’ to the converted workmans’ cottages at the rear and into the school:
Pretty as a picture isn’t it? Bod and Annie have LAVISHED attention on this conversion that they’ve captured brilliantly in this video.
Ready and waiting for us was course tutor Chris Westgate of Heavenly Hedgrows. A connoisseur in the edible wild plants and berries of the UK, plus award-winning producer of jams, jellies and liqueurs, she had a three-hour stomp through the Somerset hills planned to gather and forage our ingredients. Then an afternoon cooking up our spoils.
After a fortifying cafetiere of coffee, a coo over Bod and Annie’s 4-month old son Michael and a natter with the other course attendees (including the lovely Bristol Blogger Kathie Auton) – wellies were donned, baskets distributed and off we toddled.
15 mins from the Bath-stone pillared drive and we were straight in – nettles (for soup), elderberries (for a perfect Vitamin C packed winter cordial), hawthorns (for steeping in brandy) and lots and lots of sloes (my love of sloe gin is well documented). Chatting away, picking our chosen edibles together, we were surprisingly productive. Filling our baskets, tubs and rucksacks in no time.
We gathered Chamomile for tea, crab apples and the plentiful blackberries laden heavy on nearly every hedgerow – interspersed with some much more unknown herbs and ‘greens’ – like the gorgeous citrusy wild sorrel. Chris also squealed with delight after spotting this ‘chicken of the wood’ fungi – while mushrooms are not part of the foraging course, she took a little piece back to HQ for further identification.
Chris was a non-stop walking resource of not only practical advice for when foraging (don’t pick nettles in flower as they will be very bitter – pick new growth that is 40% protein and packed with iron), but full of amazing folklores that added colour to our trek – such as the timely advice to pick blackberries before the 10th October else the devil will spit on them. Or the fact Yarrow is also known as Soldiers Wound Wort as it was used by Achilles to soothe his injured army, due to its astringent properties. One of my favourite finds was the pineapple weed – so named as when squeezed between your fingertips, it gives forth a gloriously tropical aroma.
There were also cautionary tales of what NOT to eat, or even touch – namely the giant hogsweed that is phototoxic and causes blister-like burns that last for SIX YEARS. It threw into stark relief how important courses like this are if you are interested in foraging for yourself. A little knowledge goes a long way to keep you safe and unblistered.
Chris had seriously done her homework. Walking the route every week since February – every field, hedge, riverside and wood bore fruits that we sensitively harvested, sampled and learnt to identify.
Before we knew it, Bod was waving cheerfully over the 5-bar gate and our carriage awaited to whisk us back to the school to dry out and fill up on Annie’s homemade chilli around their Homes & Garden-worthy kitchen table, complete with Aga and the gorgeous Lab pup, Bonnie.
Refuelled we settled in at our individual workstations (seriously high-tech kit mixed with gloriously homely, no-pretense approach).
First up, using the ingenious stacking bottles (below, top left) – we made a trio of sloe gin, blackberry and apple gin and hawthorn brandy. Whilst we got steeping, Chris whipped up a batch of Nettle Soup and the ‘foraged greens’ quiche (below, bottom right).
Nettle soup had always conjured up a vision of some prickly, watery broth that tasted like grass cuttings – HOW WRONG I WAS. Imagine a MUCH tastier spinach, with plenty of good stock, garlic and a swirl of cream… HEAVEN. I have since made half a dozen batches and it never fails to stun me that such a garden pest of a weed can be converted into this.
Before the course I had done my fair share of amateur foraging – elderflowers for cordial, sloes for gin and blackberries for crumbles – but since the course I am seeing the hedgerow anew. Not only am I inspired to make the most of the Devon countryside and its spoils, but I feel confident in my newly gained knowledge that I can forage safely and broaden my ‘wild eating’ horizons – I’m hooked!
Thank you for having me Bod and Annie – it really was the most brilliant, fun, informative and inspiring day – Chris, thank you for sharing your knowledge so generously!
Course dates run continually through the year from £135, from Christmas cake cooking to seasonal cookery, bread making, fly fishing and butchery.