You might remember from my interview with him last year that Mat Follas, winner of Masterchef 2009 and chef proprietor of The Wild Garlic restaurant, came to cooking only recently. His love for cooking grew out of his love for scuba diving: just a few years ago, he found himself bringing home lots of hand-dived scallops and crab but not really making the best of them. His wife booked him onto a day's course at Rick Stein's and it all grew from there. Mat's passion for delivering great food remains inextricably tied to his determination to use locally sourced produce, a fair amount of it dived and foraged for him by small-scale local providers.
I had been wanting to go on a foraging course for a couple of years and have been looking into the many courses available for a long time. Some were simply too expensive for what they offered, others had only a few dates available per year, none of which suited and another still looked fabulous but I knew that 10+ hours is simply too long a day for me – I just don't have the stamina!
So when Mat mentioned his new foraging days a few months ago I booked two places immediately, choosing a late May date just a few days before Pete's birthday, so we could make a long weekend of it.
For just £65 per person, the course provides two foraging walks (one in the countryside and one along the sea shore), coffee to start the day, elevenses refreshments and a fabulous lunch based around foraged ingredients. Having looked at so many courses I know that's a great deal, even more so given the quality of the food.
We started the day by meeting for coffee at the restaurant. The other attendees drifted in and we were introduced to Theo Langton who provides the restaurant with foraged ingredients and would be leading the course, alongside Mat.
Theo is an absolutely fascinating character. He's a passionate advocate of making use of the land - taking what is natural and available, in a sustainable way and living from the land as much as possible. During the summer, he and friends take to the road, and visit the many fairs and festivals around the country with their multimedia arts and craft workshop which is always very popular. Some of the group make healthy juices not just from the normal wheatgrass and carrots but from a wide range of edible, foraged herbs and plants. Theo is also involved in programmes to build community capability and resilience, encouraging communities to learn the skills that allow them to respond to power outages, snow ins, fires and other disasters and accidents quickly – living in rural areas can mean that the regular emergency services can take a little time to arrive.
So how did Theo become involved with Mat? Having grown up in a family with quite a food focus (his mother trained with Paul Bocuse) Theo did trained in cordon blue himself, learning skills that allowed him to travel the world, finding kitchen work as he went. In October, he walked into The Wild Garlic off the street, introduced himself, and asked Mat whether there was work for him in the kitchen during the winter months, when there are no festivals and fairs running – there was. It didn't take long for the mutual interest in using local and foraged produce to come up, and Theo now provides the restaurant with locally foraged ingredients during the spring and autumn months.
Due to a couple of late arrivals, we got off to a late start, but eventually we were on our way, following Theo and Mat out of the restaurant into local streets.
Immediately, within just a few years of the restaurant, Theo was already pointing out edible plants and he and Mat would then give us ideas on how we might prepare them. It was a beautiful sunny day and lovely to be outside. The walk was at a relaxed and leisurely pace and, for the most part, us back markers were able to catch up to Theo for his excellent explanations, stories and suggestions about each plant. Often, we would stop to taste them too.
Before too long we left the regular roads for a narrower path, passing alongside an old church graveyard and then mostly open fields. Here, there were many more plants for us to learn about.
From the narrow path we turned into a field, tromped across that, past Theo's place and into a cool, shaded lane lined with more wild garlic than I had thought existed in the whole of England! Just before boarding the coach Mat had hired to take us back to the restaurant (and down to the beach later), we took a quick meander around a stunning glade of wild garlic, tinkling stream meandering through, dappled sun and shade…
I munched delightedly on raw wild garlic flowers and stems - the stems were too intense for some, but I loved them… so pungent and juicy!
We had walked for a little over an hour before we bundled aboard the coach and headed back to the restaurant for refreshments. Teas and coffees all round plus a lovely chocolate brownie – we were soon fortified ahead of our next outing.
Back aboard the Wild Garlic bus, Mat absolutely relishing his role as bus driver (apparently it's been a long-cherished fantasy of his), we drove down to Bridport beach, where a food festival was in full swing.
For me, this second walk wasn't as successful, though I think most of the group enjoyed it. Theo strode excitedly off into the distance and I couldn't keep up. I thought it was just me, with my dodgy hips and knees but there was another couple who were further back then us. The first half of the walk didn't include any foraging so we fell some way behind, missing out on the excited chattering going on at the front. We clambered up a hill and along the coast, in front of a stunningly-situated caravan park before descending back towards sea-level.
On a few occasions, as we neared the beach, we caught up to Theo when he'd been stopped for several minutes but we'd missed the explanation of the plant and just had time to grab a taste before he headed off again. I was able to pass on Mat's message about meeting in the car park at 2 o'clock.
At this point, I made a big mistake. Somewhat fed up of not being able to keep up and thereby missing all the information and also worried about getting back to the car park on time when we did turn around, I decided to turn around and head back early so I wouldn't hold everyone else up. I didn't mention to Theo, as he was still on the move, walking down onto the beach itself, though did, of course, let Pete know as he stayed, quickly catching up to the group.
I started the walk back, taking my time, snapping some photographs, enjoying the quite spectacular views (not to mention the sweet little bunny rabbits munching grass in the sunshine). When I got back, there was still no sign of the others behind me, so I popped into the festival marquee and had a nice time chatting to some of the stall holders before enjoying the most delicious home-made lemonade ever, chilled and refreshing, for just 50p a cup. I had two!
Just as I was finishing my lemonade, Pete popped in to find me. The group had been picked up in a car park at the other end of the walk, not very much farther than where I'd left them! Oh Kavey, what a mistake you made, silly girl! Thank you so much to Mat who drove the bus back around to the original car park to collect me.
Both walks were just over an hour long. The first was really easy, all flat terrain and at a very leisurely pace, with many, many more plants and flowers to learn about.
The second was over steeper terrain, but still perfectly doable for anyone of reasonable fitness, you certainly don't need to be super fit or anything. And whilst I didn't enjoy it (which is no one's fault but my own, as I couldn't keep up) I am sure that the rest of the group had a lovely time.
So, back to The Wild Garlic for a late lunch.
A number of tables had been pushed together so the whole group could dine together. which was really nice. We sat down and helped ourselves to some lovely bottled apple juices on the table and soft fresh bread rolls.
The starter was a nettle, wild garlic and vegetable soup served in cute individual pans with bread. The soup summed up the morning's walk wonderfully.
The main dish was the star of lunch for me – chicken breast wrapped in wild garlic leaves and poached was so very tender and tasty, served with savoy cabbage, new potatoes with those flavoursome leaves again and a slow-dried tomato bursting with the essence of tomato and yet without the overwhelming nature of shop-bought sun-dried tomatoes which, for me, swamp everything else on the plate.
And for dessert, a little berry Eton mess!
After tea and coffee it was time to wrap it up, but not before Mat brought out gift bags for all of us. Not only do we now have one of these lovely mugs each but also a little packet of wild garlic seeds! Next year I shall have my own crop of this lovely plant!
Unsurprisingly, given the incredibly reasonable price, the increasing interest in foraging and Mat's own popularity amongst food lovers, most course dates for the rest of the year are fully booked, but it may be worth asking to be added to a waiting list in case of cancellations.
You can email Theo directly if you'd like to know more about his multimedia arts and craft workshop.