By: Jo Keeling, Pretty Nostalgic on 15/08/2012
"If you just taste one fo these flowers here," D'Arcy said handing my husband and I the flower of a blackthorn (or sloe). We started to chew. "You'll notice almost an almondy taste?" We nodded. "That's the cyanide," he laughed. "You shouldn't eat too many, but they really jazz up a salad."
We had started our wild food foray with Wild Guernsey - a sustainable projct in the Channel Islands run by husband and wife D'Arcy and Tara - with a rather more tame, palate cleansing nettle tea. "Nettles are a foraging staple, so good for you its almost like a tonic," D'Arcy told us, as we gingerly stepped closer to a clump of stinging nettles. He explained that he prefers the ungloved approach: "There's an old rhyme: tender handed stroke a nettle and it stings you for your pains, grasp it like a man of mettle and it soft as silk remains."
Each needle on a nettle has a sack of formic acid on the end and it's this that stings, he told us. If you grasp confidently, you break the needles and don't get stung. We pinched the tips, squished them between our fingers and rolled them into our mouths.
Guests are supplied with a nettle foraging kit, including a recipe book, gloves and leg protectors, for those who prefer to go in armed. Nettle tea is a classic, but it also cooks just like spinach as a tasty, harmless side dish.
Next, we rooted around for wild sorrel, gingerly niting the leaves and noting its lemony tang. "It works well in soup or in a fish sauce," D'Arcy said, then showed us how to recognise fennel, which grows wild almost anywhere.
FORAGERS AND SEAFARERS
Tara and D'Arcy have been cultivating this plot of land, overlooking Lihou Island (where they got married), for five years: "We started off with a smallholding and a pregnant pig. Then we decided, rather than trying to keep people out, to throw open the doors and start inviting people in to share what we had," Tara told us. "Our theory is that if you start your project slowly then you'll get strong roots and you won't fall down in five year's time."
Last year they opened two tipis to guests over the summer. Nestled amid blackthorn and old vines, the Forager encourages guests to gelve into wild food, with their own foraging area, a gatherer's basket and plant ID books. The seafarer boasts viewsover the wild west coast and comes complete with fishing net, seashore guides and wood burner for cosy nights by the sea. Tipi guests share a kitchen in an old horsebox, decked out with reclaimed items: stoneware jars and hooks made out of spoons.
We popped our heads into the main kitchen, where Tara makes her hedgeveg hampers. A spiral staircase made from 100-year-old church pews wound up to a mezzanine, foraging guides piled on each step. Enamel buckets and coils of fishing rope hung from the rafters over a row of old chemistry sinks, all reclaimed. My jaw nearly hit the floor when D'Arcy said: "In England, I've heard you pay for things at reclamation yards?" Apparently in Guernsey, you can take things for free. D'Arcy has recently picked up two old snooker tables, cutting off the felt and using the original slate under the wood burning stoves in the tipis.
We walked down to the beach via an overgrown path, lined with edible goodies: three-cornered leek, which has a mild garlicky taste, and alexanders: a large, glossy-leaved plant with umbels of yellow flowers. Every part of this plant is edible: the flowers and leaves go well in salads, you can cook the stems like asparagus, and the root as you parsnip. You can even dry the seed heads and use these as you would a peppercorn. "You don't have to dish up a whole plate full of wild food," D'Arcy told us, "just crack this over some baked potatoes instead of pepper."
"So many things on the seashore are edible," D'Arcy said, "when the tide is out the table is set." We foraged for sea beet - with its shiny dark green leaves, it melts down just like spinach and has roots like sweet potatoe - and rock samphire, a freshly green vegetable that's high in Omega-3 oils and is served up in fancy seafood restaurants. Tara then introduced us to sugar kelp: "Some call it dragon's tail becuase kids used to shove it down their trousers and run around the beach with it." Dried in the oven then fried as crisps, it makes a moreish snack.
Tara's been winkle picking with her pop for years. "People can be snobby when it comes to limpets and periwinkles, the poorer cousins to mussles and oysters, but in parts of Europe they're a delicacy and they live abundantly on our coastline," she told us.
Periwinkles, the little grey guys that look similar to garden snails, are delicious dipped in shallot vinegar or mayonnaise, apparently. Ray Mears puts limpets, the clingy fellows with lopsided conical shells, on a stone by the fire, then eats them when the shells lift off. The key is to graze the rocks, not gathering too many from one spot, and never to pick a winkle that's under 13mm.
That evening, we served up wild food tapas beside the fire: creamed sea beet bruschetta, rock samphire, three-cornered leak garlic bread and winklies in wild fennel, while Tara taught us the knack of winkle picking.