I had been looking forward to yesterday since Polly Robinson first invited me to join their Wild Food Safari at Henham a few weeks ago. Despite a pessimistic forecast the worst we had was a strong breeze and the day bowled along to go with the weather. The Henham Estate in Suffolk is a beautiful location, wide open parkland just off the A12 near Southwold in Suffolk, setting of the ‘friendly’ festival known as Latitude which happens in
mid July. Yesterday though the parkland was empty, miles of open track to drive down to the meeting point under a tree, where coffee, scrumptious flapjack and juice were being served. A small contingent of us had ‘met’ on twitter but not face-to-face so “Oh you must be @goodshoeday and @essexgourmet” was not as bizarre a conversation as it might seem anywhere else. The organisers of the day were Polly and Tim Robinson of Food Safari UK they were charming, as was Hektor Rous who is back on this side of the world managing the estate. For those into local history, or even just interested in the way that these large estates and their families have their stories to tell, the section of the Henham web site on history is well worth a read; several of us present on the day live in Dennington so the estate history has added frisson.
Our wild food expert was Jacky Sutton-Adam, to twitterers @wildfoodie1. Jacky has a marvellous way with imagery that means that she provides a full sensory description of the plants that you are investigating. This involves not just the look, taste and smell of the plants but what they feel like and the sound they make when they are snapped in just the right place. Her website is rich with additional detail and well worth a review if you are interested in eating from the wild. Jacky was also full of good advice on distinguishing one plant from another and very sensible about the warnings; only pick what you know and only pick what you need. A wide
range of salad plants were found only a few feet from the car park, with the full knowledge that you had the permission of the owners and that the risk of contamination at the site was minimal. We were introduced to nettle, cleavers aka Sticky Willy, burdock, ground elder, ground ivy and elderflower. The great thing was that even for someone who has tried these before, another person’s take on the topic or the way they use the plants adds breadth to your own knowledge; Jacky even won me round on the topic of ground elder!
After the initial foray we moved on down to the edge of the Blyth estuary, where wild samphire and sea purslane were found and eaten. There is something very special about this area, combining the drama of tidal changes and the history of Black Shuck, having seen the musical last year in the park in Halesworth you could expect to see singing scarecrows and man eating black dogs at every turn. I exaggerate as usual; in the company of 20 very affable people it was a lovely stroll by the river and the succulent little pieces of samphire just thrusting up through the sandy water’s edge were a delight.
The whole party then moved on to the Anchor at Walberswick, where our hosts Mark and Sophie Dorber and their fantastic team had created a meal based on the wild food we had been examining. Before we ate there was a quick tour round their allotment to be introduced to other common weeds that were edible, including poppy and chick weed.
Lunch started with an elderflower beer, fresh asparagus and samphire with gram flour pancakes; these were an absolute revelation, beautiful little light finger foods, we also had hop shoot tempura. This first phase of the meal was taken outside but we then transferred into a converted outbuilding, with one long table set for everyone to eat together. After the second sample beer I found myself deciding a taxi or lift would have been a good idea and will go back to collect the car later, it would have been a pity not to take advantage of Mark’s skills in selecting beers to go with each part of the meal and to appreciate his knowledge of the whole brewing process. The main course was three cousins salad, carrot, coriander seed and fat hen leaves; chicken in the woods risotto (always going to be a winner with me), stir fried sea cabbage and nettle and feta flat bread. There was also a glorious leg of lamb, sausages and crab. The flavours were marvellous and the team had worked well to balance strong flavours and enhance or compliment other more subtle flavours to produce a remarkable meal. At no point did you feel cheated on quality or quantity, these ‘weeds’ had
been given full starring roles. Jacky spoke more about the plants at stages throughout the meal and Mark expounded on the beers. Desert was a sublime elderflower panacotta made by @mikewallfish with gooseberries; this was followed by a wealth of cheeses both local to Walbersick and from Jacky’s deli, from mild fresh cheeses to seriously strong extra-matured examples. The whole polished off with coffee. We stayed way beyond the time allocated, so huge thanks to all for their patience and conviviality; I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.
WildFood Safari are arranging more days that explore the journey of food from the sea, field, vineyard or brew house to the table and it is possible to purchase vouchers, which would make a great present for any foodie friends.