Rachel relishes a taste of the wild

LOOK at a hedgerow and what do you see? Rachel Lambert sees a feast – or a satisfying meal, at any rate.

Nettles and elderflower, dandelions and heather tea, gorse and seaweed – no wild flower is too much of a challenge for Rachel to rustle up a hearty meal, it seems, and the recipes all look frankly delicious…

From pink elderflower and rose cordial to gorse flower ice cream, wild moorland tea and home-made blackberry jam, this is all about harnessing the extraordinary colours and unique flavours of nature, and Rachel’s prolific foraging has seen her featuring as a guest on morning TV and her recipes popping up in every food magazine from Sainsbury’s to Waitrose.

Her wild food journey started many years ago by a crumbling Devonshire stone wall where friends introduced her to edible pennywort. “It quenched my thirst and tasted as fresh as peas – and my world changed forever,” she recalls.

“To me, foraging is a fun and enlivening way to appreciate the environment and access to fresh, seasonal food. It’s also an excuse for outdoor adventures, as well as quirky and labour of love investigations in the kitchen.”

It was back in 2007 that she started teaching other people about foraging, with that early discovery of pennywort building up into an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to harness the best of more than 100 other edible wild plants and weeds.

“Foraging is the glue that brings together the things that I love; nature, good food and people,” she says.

On hand to capture something of the atmosphere of her unusual lifestyle was Rick Davy, a photographer also based in Cornwall who has produced an extraordinary visual documentary of the lives of dozens of local people from different walks on life, featured on his A Day In The Life Of website.

His pictures – some of which are reproduced here – capture Rachel on a couple of foraging expeditions, including one to pick gorse flowers.

She recalls: “Last winter I went crazy about these flowers. I even made a little video about Foraging Gorse in Winter – such was my love affair with them.

“In my first foraging book I share a Gorse Flower Rice Pudding recipe, and I’ve made so much more with them since then. That day I was trying to perfect gorse flower truffles, and also wanted to dry some flowers for future syrups and cocktails. La, la, laaaa, the joys of foraging for gorgeous drinks and food.

“Those days that I shared partly with Rick are the good days – the outdoor days. As a forager I manage to get outdoors everyday, into nature. The rest of my time is spent cooking, preparing, writing, doing administration and contemplating new ideas and adventures.”

She published her first foraging book in 2015 and it sold out withing six months. She promptly created a second a year later focusing on edible seaweeds.

Having learned from many skilled nature teachers and previously worked within the arts, health and environmental education and community food projects, she was well placed to lead group foraging expeditions with adults and children from all walks of life – some even laced with the odd song or two.

“You may also find me singing my heart out (if no one’s listening) on clifftops and beaches and occasionally sharing one of those foraging songs on courses. It is a new love; that makes me, the plants and others smile (or so I’m told!).

“Joy and pleasure are key to my teaching style and life as a forager. With a self-confessed sweet-tooth, wild desserts and sweet treats made from foraged ingredients feature regularly in my courses and blog posts, as well as savoury delights!”

Rick didn’t need much convincing about the merits of foraging. “I’d be the first to admit that I do love a bit of foraging,” he writes in his photo-essay about Rachel. “Foraging for Rachel has brought together many different things she loves, walking, nature, plants, food, the senses and creative cooking.

“I joined Rachel foraging one early spring morning. She started picking stuff from the hedgerow and to you and I it might pass off as nothing other than weeds.”

Back in her kitchen the wild alexanders were transformed into sweet filo tarts, while she uses bright yellow gorse flowers in jewelled savoury rice, sugar syrups for ice creams and rice pudding, powdered sugar for truffles and cocktails.

“I enjoyed furthering the art of foraging and discovered some new recipes and food along the way,” says Rick, who has lost count of the number of “lives” he has featured on his site, from a beekeeper to a wildlife artist.

“The project will continue to evolve – it has no end,” he says. “I’ve shot and documented the coastal lives project for the love of it. I love what I do for a living.”

Rick Davy is a creative commercial and lifestyle photographer based in Cornwall. All the photographs in this feature are reproduced with his kind permission from his website documenting the lives of individuals living and working by the Cornish coast.

Rachel Lambert is an author and forager based in Penzance who runs wild food foraging courses for groups, families and couples.

Five go down to the farm shop

TWO large eggs for breakfast. For lunch, farmhouse ham and fresh tomatoes on sourdough bread…

If it’s starting to sound like the sort of food that the Famous Five would tuck into on one of their adventures, that’s not so far from the truth – but actually it’s just the day after a visit to Peterley Manor Farm Shop.

If Enid Blyton were alive today, the NFU would be signing her up to handle their publicity. No one ever spread so much goodwill about farm-fresh food than the prolific children’s author, whose 750 books are awash with imagery about ice-cold creamy milk, crusty loaves and hot scones.

But then dropping in to a modern farm shop is like stepping into the pages of one of Blyton’s books – everything from red radishes and new potatoes to huge eggs and home-cooked cakes smacks of Famous Five territory.

No one worries about calories or cholesterol in Blyton books: “A large ham sat on the table, and there were crusty loaves of new bread. Crisp lettuces, dewy and cool, and red radishes were side by side in a big glass dish. On the sideboard was an enormous cake, and beside it a dish of scones. Great slabs of butter and jugs of creamy milk were there, too, with honey and home-made jam.”

“Hot scones,” said George, lifting the lid off a dish. “I never thought I’d like hot scones on a summer’s day, but these look heavenly. Running with butter! Just how I like them!”

Millions of children around the world have sat enraptured listening to these feasts, from India to rural America, marvelling at the vivid descriptions of ripe plums and huge hams, cherry tart and fruit cake.

Blyton’s descriptions have spawned a number of recipe books too, but to children on the other side of the world there was something magical about these feasts, however bemusing the taste combinations, a mix of wartime food restrictions and almost glorious excess.

Diya Kohli recalls: “To a child growing up in Kolkata of the 1980s and 1990s, tongue sandwiches, potted meat, anchovy paste and kippers and clotted cream were all part of an alien food lexicon. All I knew was that they sounded wonderful.”

Coookery writer Jane Brocket included Famous Five picnics in her top ten evocative food moments from the past: “It’s amazing how she manages to make hard-boiled eggs sound ultra-exciting and appealing; maybe it’s the addition of the inevitable “screw of salt” which does it? Or maybe it’s something to do with fresh air, freedom and the adventures that invariably follow any Famous Five picnic?

“Tomato sandwiches, lemonade, tinned sardines, melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, lettuces, radishes, Nestlé milk, ginger beer, tins of pineapple chunks, squares of chocolate. The Famous Five set a standard in picnics that has never been equalled.”

More culinary meanderings can be found on the World Of Blyton blog for the author’s many enthusiasts, but back at Peterley Manor there may just be time for a bacon sandwich at the Strawberry Shack before a happy homecoming laden with fresh vegetables, crusty bread and other treats.

What’s for tea? We don’t know yet. But George, Anne, Julian, Dick and of course Timmy the dog would definitely approve.

Sandy Lane’s secret is in the soil

AN ORGANIC farm between Oxford and Thame has become one of the latest to be featured on the Soil Association’s website.

Sandy Lane Farm is a 40-hectare family farm selling produce via veg boxes, markets and to local restaurants.

ANIMAL MAGIC: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

The Soil Association, formed in 1946, is a campaigning charity which believes human health, environment and animal welfare issues cannot be tackled in isolation. It lobbies against harmful food and farming laws, runs a certification scheme for organic farmers and researches ways of improving existing farming systems.

The association believes that healthy soils hold the answer to growing better food: “They produce healthy crops that nourish people and animals. But when chemicals are used and lands are intensively farmed, soil is damaged. Keeping it healthy is essential if we are to feed a growing population, and protect our environment.

“All farms, big and small, organic and non-organic, have a part to play in making farming more rewarding for all. It’s a challenge, along with the stark financial and environmental changes farming faces. But the solutions to these challenges are coming from farmers who are finding new ways to grow better food, and protect our land for future generations.”

At Sandy Lane, the family partnership is managed by George Bennett who returned to the family farm eight years ago after working in IT.

FAMILY BUSINESS: George Bennett returned to the farm eight years ago PICTURE: Mark Lord

The farm has grown organic vegetables for nearly 30 years and runs a produce market in their barn selling organic eggs and fresh vegetables, as well as rearing free-range, traditional breed pigs and lambs.

Sandy Lane has also hosted various ‘pop-up’ seasonal suppers, weddings and open days showcasing their produce, and maintained a click-and-collect service during the coronavirus crisis before reopening their barn to browsing visitors.

Certified organic for growing vegetables for more than 30 years, the farm has about 10 hectares for vegetable production and also grows arable crops, as well as rearing pigs, sheep and chickens.

In the Soil Association feature, George speaks about soil types, crop rotation and pests, as well as the need for biodiversity.

PERSONAL TOUCH: visitors enjoy an open day at the farm before the coronavirus crisis

As he explains: “By far the most important pest control is biodiversity. If you try and artificially create an imbalance somewhere down the line, it’s going to come back and bite you.”

When George returned to the farm, the focus was on wholesale vegetables, but he flipped the model to direct sales. He says: “Wholesale had been flat, so by selling direct we have kept the volume the same, but the value is much greater.”

There has been a growing demand for more provenance, flavour, freshness and organic, he says, which has offered huge opportunities. Now 80 per cent of their business is veg boxes – more than 200 a week – and the farm works with a local company Ten Mile Menu, that has a slick online ordering system and delivers the boxes.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY: visitors meet the lambs at a farm open day

The farm shop in their barn provides an outlet for other local businesses selling bread, milk, cheese and honey in what he describes as “a small, humble operation, that’s not at all glossy and loved by locals”.

It has created a sense of community for locals of all ages to come along for a coffee and chat, and to buy great food.  

George says it’s important to be entrepreneurial: “If your budget and acreage is small, go for high value crops, such as salads, unusual veg and edible flowers.”

Among his specialities are a range of unusual oriental vegetables, not to mention 29 different varieties of pumpkins and squash which have proved a great hit in the autumn.

Looking to the future, he is continuing to think about ways of adding value to his produce, maybe through high-value organic ready meals. There’s no magic secret for business success in such difficult times, but expect more of the approach that has already put Sandy Lane on the map. As he advises: “Be different, interesting and connect with your customers.”

True taste of the Chilterns

THE distinctive Chilterns landscape has been shaped by centuries of agriculture – and food and drink remain an essential feature of our local heritage.

From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a working countryside home to quintessentially English pubs, ancient woodlands and picturesque chalk streams, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to countless episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

It many no longer boast “bodgers” in the woods, or as many watercress farms and cherry orchards as it once did, but the landscape known as London’s larder is still home to many artisan food and drink producers, as well as the historic coaching inns, upmarket restaurants, farmers’ markets and food festivals.

On the doorstep of the nation’s capital, an hour from central London, this is a haven for flourishing wildlife populations boasting a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

From fine dining, famous chefs and Michelin stars in Bray, Chinnor, Cookham or Marlow to ancient inns like the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, this is a world where you can take your pick from heartwarming soups to signature dishes.

Smart gastropubs jostle for your attention with sleepy village locals with carved beams, sunny beer gardens and 12th-century churches when you fully expect to bump into Inspector Barnaby.

This is a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and morris men, but without the tourist hordes of the Cotswolds or West Country.

Farm open days across the region allow visitors to come face to face with the local livestock, with cattle and sheep the most widespread and visible farm animal, with pigs and poultry also present in large numbers – not to mention goats and some more unusual livestock like red deer, alpacas and even European bison.

From Sandy Lane Farm near Thame to the Crazy Bear farm shop at Stadhampton, there may the chance to get close to some of the animals, especially during lambing season.

Many of the larger farm shops also have their own cafes or dining areas, offering everything from snacks to cream teas.

Why not explore the wood-lined dining area at the Crazy Bear (above) or the welcoming yurt at the Wild Strawberry Cafe at Peterlea Manor Farm (below).

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards particularly those growing cherries and during the 19th century parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Take a look at one of the local tourism websites for more details about fruit farms offering pick-your-own opportunities.

The Romans were the first to grow vines on the thin chalky soils of the Chiltern slopes and vineyards and breweries still thrive here, now including a gin distillery, all producing a range of award-winning wines, liqueurs, gin and ales. Visitors can sample home-grown brews in local pubs and restaurants or try them and buy them on the spot.

Most local vineyards offer tours and tastings, often hosted by the winemaker, giving you the chance to share in their passion and knowledge of wine. Check out individual websites for more detail, like Daws Hill at Radnage, the Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Henley-on-Thames, Brightwell Vineyard outside Wallingford, the Harrow and Hope Vineyard near Marlow and, for gin lovers, there’s the Puddingstone Distillery just outside Tring.

And if you enjoy a pint of craft beer brewed with passion and skill by real-ale enthusiasts rooted in their local communities, the Chilterns boasts 10 breweries listed in this online guide.

From the watercress beds of the Chess Valley to the footpaths around Buckmoorend Farm, part of the Chequers Estate, a 16th century Elizabethan country house and the official country residence of the serving Prime Minister, local food tastes at its best when bought direct from farmers markets or just at the farm gate.

There’s also a chance to meet many local food producers at the Love Food festivals in Great Missenden in April and August.

For more information about local food and drink, check out Visit Buckinghamshire and Choose the Chilterns. There’s even a video on Youtube you can watch. The fascinating story of the history of the Chilterns landscape can be found on the Chilterns AONB website and in a guide downloadable here.

Kate goes back to the land

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SEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

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RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.