The emerald-lined waterways thread seams of intact flora and fauna where man’s manipulation is at a minimum. Wild plants and animals flourish more freely here than in built-up or agricultural areas, making canals ideal places to forage for edible wild plants and fungi. Searching for wild food is a skill that requires attention to detail, patience and a slow pace. It is not so dissimilar to meditation. In fact the two complement each other beautifully. All this said, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Float by Boat joined up with Craig from Edible Leeds to host a unique foraging holiday.
Everyone arrived just before lunch on Monday 1st June in the quaint canalside village of Audlem on the Shropshire Union canal. It was raining lightly and stormy winds were predicted for later on that day. It felt more like March than June but our small group of floating foragers were undeterred and eager for the adventures that lay ahead. Conversation flowed freely over lunch with lots of chuckling and banter. It was immediately apparent that this was a delightful group of folk and we would enjoy sharing the next few days together. We weren’t disappointed.
I was immediately surprised by the variety and abundance of edible wild plants. On a busy village mooring, we hadn’t even set off or moved from where we made our initial greetings, Craig announced that he could see at least 6 edible plants. And that was without actively searching for them.
Despite the weather – we’d normally hurry to avoid the wind and rain – we made slow progress up the locks in Audlem. Even on a mile stretch, there was so much to see. Craig’s passion and knowledge is enticing. He helped us to see the borders of the towpaths differently, opening our eyes to nature’s intricacy and the wealth of detail available for people who are willing to notice it. We stood beneath a Scot’s pine tree tasting its spongy flower cones that had just passed their best and started to pollinate. We learned that a Scot’s pine has irregularly placed branches, rather than concentric rings, and needles that come in pairs. Who’d have thought the needles could be used for tea or flavouring vinegar? I certainly wouldn’t.
At the end of the locks, we all dived indoors for hot chocolate. We lit the fire, enjoyed the warmth and slowly dried out. Craig had found some fairy-ring champignon mushrooms nestled in the grass by the mooring ring outside. He brought them in to give us an overview of the wonders of mushrooms. I have to admit that, even being vegetarian, mushrooms are the final frontier of food for me. I just don’t like them. Listening to Craig talk about their ability to send spores into the highest stratosphere of our planet and travel round the globe, twice even, before landing. Knowing that they’re neither plant nor animal, and reflecting on their ability to absorb and process all manner of pollutants, chemicals and heavy metals, even I became entranced and amazed by fungus.
Dinnertime was upon us and with it our first foraged meal. Normally for Float by Boat breaks, I write a menu according to guests’ likes and dislikes, shop to the menu and then cook it. It’s very simple. Not this time though, I had to prepare a menu based on unknown ingredients that we may or may not find in the wild. Fortunately, Craig gave me lots of help and we sketched out some versatile dishes that would work with a whole host of ingredients. Monday night’s tea was a Wild Spring Risotto, to which we added handfuls of foraged ingredients; including St George’s mushrooms, wild garlic leaves and seeds, bush vetch, dandelion leaves, nettles, white dead nettles, ground elder, chickweed, cow parsley (or wild chervil) and garlic mustard (or Jack by the Hedge). Incidentally, the only shop bought ingredients were rice, garlic, stock, butter and onion. I’d made a rustic loaf of spelt bread, which we doused in butter and garlic to make a delicious garlic bread accompaniment. Apart from the St George’s mushrooms, which Craig had found the previous day near his home in Leeds, all of the foraged ingredients had come from the towpath.
In meditation that night, as the storm raged outside, we tasted a tangible peace and stillness inside.
The morning came and the storm had subsided with birdsong ringing out across the tree tops, welcoming us into a new day. It was a slow start with a meditation session before a lazy breakfast as everyone emerged at their own pace. I baked a malted loaf and a Dorset pear cake as we engaged in a fascinating conversation about the ethics of what we eat, and the complexities involved in deciphering the best way for each individual. We talked about what it means to be wild and how best to care for the earth. Around the table sat omnivores, veggies and pescatarians from different cultures and backgrounds. We gently shared experiences and ideas, all talking from a common perspective of trying to have a positive impact on the world around us. It was inspiring.
Later on that day, Craig had gone ahead to prepare a lock. The wind had picked up and hounded relentlessly. Heavy rainwater had drained into the weirs catering for overflow around the locks, resulting in torrents outpouring at the entrance to each lock. It wasn’t ideal conditions for a 69ft, 25 tonne vessel with a little propeller and a 42 horse power engine. I was at the tiller chugging across the lock pound hoping that, at any second now, the gates would open. Craig was nowhere to be seen. One of the guests, Sarah, ran ahead to see what the hold-up was, only to find Craig in a tree with armfuls of elderflowers. You can’t knock the man’s dedication and commitment to delicious wild food. At the next lock, he thrust a head of dandelion leaves into my arms as I passed by. Fortunately, with Craig’s efforts, Tuesday night’s dinner was a dining experience apart from any other in my life.
Sat around the table, we each had a mat, a nori seaweed sheet and a bowl of sticky sushi rice. In the middle sat a tray laden with plants foraged throughout the day’s excursions. Craig talked us through each plant, encouraging us always to “Give it a nibble, see what you think”. What blew my mind was the amazing depth and variety of flavours. Naively I assumed that all foraged greens would merely taste green; like spinach, cabbage, kale and lettuces. Ok, they are each slightly distinct and unique but I do think there’s a kind of generic greenyness about them. The wild edibles that Craig sourced that day were nothing like this. We tasted sweet, minty watermint, and peppery large cress, and garlic mustard, which clearly tasted like both garlic and mustard. For me the best by far was sorrel with its distinctive tart cooking apple taste; it was delicious. Maybe it was because they were natural and uncultivated that the flavours were so sumptuous and striking.
Layering the nori sheet, the rice and then the foraged goodies, we topped it all off with a selection of Craig’s pickles that he’d brought along with him. These included pickled sea purslane, kelp, rock samphire and scurvy grass. Once rolled and sliced, we each engaged our creativity to dress our sushi with flowers, seeds, soy sauce and homemade raspberry vinegar. They almost looked too pretty to eat, almost.