Foraged Food at Vale House Kitchen
If you’re looking to get out of the city for the day and experience a bit of the beautiful Somerset countryside, then you really can’t beat a fabulous foraging course at Vale House Kitchen. The lovely Chris from Heavenly Hedgerows will take you on a ramble through green lanes and meadows, opening your eyes to the delicious goodies all around you (with a generous pinch of history & folklore – did you know that you have to pick your blackberries before the 10th of October, when the devil spits on them?), followed by a fabulous lunch and an afternoon cooking with the fruits of your foraging. What could be more perfect?
Bod and Annie Griffiths started Vale House Kitchen just four years ago, in 2011. It’s now immensely popular, and it’s not hard to see why – the combination of carefully selected expert tutors, a warm and welcoming atmosphere, and a beautiful kitchen tucked under the eaves of a restored outbuilding make for a whole range of brilliant courses. I was first converted last year when I attended a Jams, Jellies & Cordials class at the school, so when I had the opportunity to go back I just couldn’t resist.
After a mug of hot coffee, we donned our wellies and waterproofs and headed out for a foraging walk, the first part of the course. It was a rather wild and windy day – we were thoroughly braced and cobwebs comprehensively blown away – but it was gloriously refreshing. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, so when we stopped at an unassuming grassy verge, I was amazed as Chris unearthed all sorts of goodies – peppery wild sorrel, the delicate pea-like shoots of vetch, cow parsley (did you know that’s from the carrot family?), and the lacy white flowers of Lady’s Smock. We also gathered nettles (with an appreciative gasp as Chris uprooted them firmly, with bare hands, as if to show them who was boss) and learnt that if you’re not so lucky, plantain is better at treating your stings than dock leaves.
Next, we headed out across the fields, where we tried the ‘bread and cheese’ of hawthorn leaves and flowers, and down to the fringes of the woodland for lush beds of wild garlic (stopping en-route for a breather and some nettle tea to warm up). Our final lesson was on the topic of what not to eat – the veined leaves of Lords and Ladies that pretend to be wild garlic, and the delicate fronds of hemlock, incredibly similar to cow parsley and yet deadly enough to send you to meet your maker with a single sprig.
Following that, it was back to the kitchen in Bod’s big four-wheel drive, where Chris served us a fabulous three course foraged lunch – creamy nettle soup to start, with wild garlic pesto, followed by a delicate salad of fresh greens, lilac flowers, dandelion jelly and ripe goat cheese. We finished with the most wonderful gorse jelly, pale golden and served with edible flowers.
In the afternoon we scrubbed up and donned our aprons, ready to turn our foraged finds into goodies to take home.First of all, we learnt a simple recipe for homemade goat cheese, which we rolled in dried nettle leaves, garlic flowers and red clover petals. Next, we used more dried nettles to make some quick and easy crackers, topped with coarse sea salt and sesame seeds – the perfect partner to the cheese. Finally, we made up glorious jewel-green jars of wild garlic pesto, which filled the room with the most wonderful aroma. Throughout, Chris was on hand to offer tips and advice, and to ply us with treats – her homemade sloe gin with rose lemonade, hogweed buds fried in butter, nettle crisps and cups of tea garnished with daisies (fun trick – if you gather closed daisy buds, they magically unfurl when you add them to a hot liquid).
I had an utterly fabulous day and was completely inspired by Chris’s enthusiasm for her subject – I’m already evangelising to others on the incredible health benefits of nettles and the joys of gathering your own garlic, and scoping out places I can forage a few ingredients for my own recipes. Whether you’re a native or a visitor to our green & pleasant land, this is the perfect way to experience the peerless English countryside and learn a bit more about it.
Images Copyright Sal Godfrey / Sal’s Kitchen