“Here, turn right here, this has got to be it”.
We swerve round the corner and bounce along the driveway. “Nice pond, but where’s the big house?” There’s plenty of rolling parkland and a cluster of outbuildings but no grand house to be seen.
There’s also a tall affable looking chap wearing wellies and a big chunky jumper so we slow up and roll down the window. “Here for the food foraging?” he says, “follow the track round between these buildings and you’ll see a group of parked cars and over to the right people on the lawn, that’s were you need to be.” So we drive on as instructed and sure enough there’s about 15 cars and a bunch of people standing about having coffee. I get out and amble over and my husband drives off to a day of peace and quiet.
At last, I’m at Food Safari’s first foraging event at Henham Park in the depths of rural Suffolk.
I get a coffee and Polly (half of the duo that makes up Food Safari) passes me some still warm flapjack (yum! this is a good way to start) then introduces me to the rest of the group – none of whom I’ve met before but some of whom I’ve been chatting to via twitter (yes that’s you @Farctum and @EssexGourmet). Once everyone is here Tim (the tall affable chap in wellies, he’s the other half of Food Safari) tells us the format of the day. We’re going to be foraging for wild foods here on the estate and then also down by the river Blyth (also on estate land) then we’ll be off to The Anchor at Walberswick for a lunch show-casing some of the wild foods.
Tim hands over to Jacky (aka WildFoodie) who’s our foraging expert today. She explains that we are on private land so sadly we can’t entertain any thoughts of popping back sometime to bag some more goodies; well I guess not unless we can get to be new best friends with Hektor who manages the estate, I imagine he’s probably got enough friends already though. Jacky also explains that the weather in Suffolk has been so dry recently that we probably aren’t going to find enough stuff in really good condition for us to take bagfuls home. We are going to have to be content to watch and learn, that’s the nature of foraging, it’s a real luck of the draw thing. Jacky had a scout about yesterday so she’s got lots of examples to show us and she’s been able to collect enough goodies for our meal later.
Then we move on to our first spot, I’m expecting we’re going to have to walk a good distance across the park perhaps into a wooded area, but no, there’s plenty to see only steps away from where we are. Take a look – what can you see that’s edible?
Hmmm looks like a bunch of weeds in a badly tended garden if you ask me…..but hold one we are going to find at least FOUR, yes that’s four, edible goodies in this patch.
Okay so clearly I’m in nappies on the foraging front compared to the likes of Jacky – I can’t see a thing I’d fancy eating. But with Jacky’s expert guidance we learn about ground ivy, cleavers (aka sticky willy – hmmm), nettles, ground elder, burdock and elderflower – blimey that’s six – and I don’t think Jacky was even trying hard….she tells use how to identify each of them through look, feel and even sound and also which bits to pick and even how to pick (clever scissor movement with your fingers for nettle tops). We taste as we go when things are okay to eat raw. Mostly everything we test has a fresh but quite bitter taste but there are differences between them.
Next its time to move on to the river. But before that a few of us think a comfort stop might be good so Polly takes us over to the stable block, which has been converted into a rather lovely looking B&B, and we get to use the facilities there. I also get a quick lesson in the intricacies and long running feuds of the Rous family and learn that the final version of the big grand house was knocked down (some say a fortuitous fire…) in 1953, so that’s why we couldn’t see it. There are plans afoot for a new house to be built.
Anyway down to the river – I would say bank but here the estuary is really wide and flat so it’s more like a gentle slope. The estuary systems in Suffolk and Norfolk are havens for all sorts of things and in particular marsh samphire.
If you look really hard you can see the samphire at the front of this picture
I’ve had this before, bought from local farm shops and I love it. We are a little early in the season but we can see the samphire starting to sprout like some kind of mini primeval forest. We get to test the samphire and its wonderfully juicy with a salty tang –I’m looking forward to it being available in the farm shop soon and hoping we get some at lunch. We also find sea purslane which looks a bit like a succulent version of sage although it tastes nothing like sage. Again it’s juicy and salty.
And finally we head off to The Anchor pub at Walberswick with our appetites suitable whetted. But before we get to tuck into lunch we take a quick look at the pub’s allotment where Jacky tells us about poppy leaves (nice and sweet and almost pea like in flavour), hops shoots, dead nettles and chickweed (plus other assorted things you might just throw away but can actually eat!).
At last it really is time for food. We wander over to the beautifully refurbished stable block and are served with glasses of refreshing elderflower scented beer from Lowestoft whilst nibbling on fresh asparagus, tempura hop shoots and absolutely wonderful chickpea and samphire mini pancakes. These are so divine we are nearly knocking each other out of the way to get our hands on them; I’m definitely going to be trying to recreate them at home.
Mark then guides us into the stable block itself where a huge long table awaits us and a further three courses of food with matched beers. Mark is an absolute mine of information about the beers and clearly likes to surprise his guests with things such as a Gueuze he describes as having aromas of sweaty horse saddle and horse piss – great! Hektor and I try to tell him that we are not especially familiar with either of these but to no avail. Food wise every thing was delicious but dishes and flavours that particularly stood out were the chicken of the woods in the risotto,
The chicken of the woods is the pinky/orange bits
a very meaty mushroom that might make some vegetarians shudder, the semi pickled carrots in the salad, the elderflower panacotta
and finally my favourite local cheese, Buxlow Wonmil. It makes a change to have lovely food paired with beers rather than wines and is something I might try myself. Of the beers I think my favourite was the Frambozen although the Gueuze was much nicer than Mark’s description would lead you to expect; its kind of nicely tangy and refreshing, a bit like liquid sourdough.
Its time for everyone to head their separate ways, full of new knowledge, exceptional food and plenty of beers. I have a glass of Benedictine for the road (fortunately my husband is collecting me) and we waddle off clutching our information packs, happy foragers that we now are.
You can find out more about Food Safari’s days out in Suffolk on their website, arrange gift vouchers for loved ones or simply book a treat for yourself. I’m hoping to try another one of their days soon.
To view the menu and other information about The Anchor at Walberswick click here. Go on treat yourself to some great food and beer.