Date: Sunday 16th October 2016
Sponsor: Henry Ashby
Report written by: Hazel Riggall
Prior to A Forager’s Feast, in the autumn of 2016, committee members Hazel Riggall & Christopher Firmstone were sent to forage with sponsor Henry Ashby.
Forage = search widely for food or provisions
A delightful couple of hours was spent in the company of Henry Ashby, legendary foraging expert and raconteur to boot in the shadow of the Severn Bridge. As well as the natural sounds around I was aware of the almost subterranean echo of traffic above us. The irony of this will not be lost on Henry, who spent over two decades employed as a submarine officer. This was a preparatory meeting for a forager’s dinner for The Buckland Club, an eccentric occasional dining club of 80 or so members who meet in Birmingham. I had first met Henry at the Abergavenny Food Festival last year, a perfect fit as a speaker and menu planner for our autumn dinner, not least because of his background as a chef.
The diversity of this “giant salad bowl” in which we were immersed was wondrous and several times I inadvertently stood on future valuable pickings for the local fine dining chefs! It is easy to see why becoming a forager can be lucrative but also tedious and back- breaking work. Certainly not for the fair weather amateur. Henry pointed out Hemlock, poison of choice for Socrates and as I examined the sample, the dangers of accidental ingestion of toxic plants was emphasised. Shortly afterwards, small areas of mild tingling and numbness developed on my fingers (paraesthesia) lasting over 12 hours from this fleeting contact.
I noted, photographed and tasted numerous shoots and leaves redolent of common herbs and vegetables. Our enthusiastic tutor inspiring us to go in search of perhaps the more easily identifiable samples.
A superb lunch of Carpaccio of Beef encircled by a cornucopia of wild leaves and herbs served with a rosehip dressing followed by a Cullen Skink type dish with sea spinach and a poached egg at a local pub rounded off the morning, organised as a bespoke ‘one- off.
As I cannily skedaddled across from the toll-free side of the Bridge I thought of the hidden treasure beneath. A wonderful day out ended at home with a simple supper of foraged pickings, part of a Caprese Salad accompanied with a pine infused beer called Silures. You will guess who collects vast quantities of pine needles for this unusual brew.
Everyone at The Buckland Club was shocked to read the following on the Abergavenny Food Feels website in August 2019:
We’re very sad to hear news of the passing of our dear festival friend, Henry Ashby. Henry had been taking festival guests to forage along the Severn Estuary for the best part of 20 years. His humour, stories and encyclopaedic knowledge of wild herbs and plants will be sorely missed. Travel well Sir.
Everyone at the Club sends their deepest sympathy to all of Henry’s family and friends. Those that were lucky enough to attend the Forager’s Feast, which he sponsored on 20th October 2016, will remember an extraordinary dinner and tremendous character with great fondness.
A Forager’s Feast – Dinner Minutes
20th of October 2016
The Blue Coat School, Edgbaston
On the 20th of October 2016 78 members and guests of the Buckland Club met at the Blue Coat School for a Forager’s Feast. This venue had been visited previously by the Club for a Biblical Dinner where the narrative was quite the opposite, what with stories in the Good Book of loaves and fishes, and water being turned into wine. We had been encouraged by the Secretary to dress as foragers. A few of us did. Most didn’t, including the very person who had issued the encouragement.
Before we sat down to dine, we were treated to a selection of canapés, Egg with Bitter Cress, Smoked Salmon with Pickled Laver, Muntjac with Long Pepper, Beetroot, Apple and Onion Relish on Crostini. The fourth canapé was Air-Dried Ham with Sea Radish. Rumour had it that the ham had been foraged in Northern Italy and had come to us via Sainsbury’s.
In regard to these snacks and indeed to what followed, there were inconsistencies between what was on the printed menu and what was served in that the garnishes as listed differed from those as presented. However the small print did contain a disclaimer stating that in the case of foraging, uncontrollable external circumstances take over so forecasting does not always equate with outcome, much like pronouncements from the Chancellor.
With the canapés we drank an Elderflower-flavoured Vodka with Cava and sparkling water and a Kir made with blackberry liqueur and white wine, The menu did not divulge the wine’s provenance – it turned out to be a Pinot Grigio. There was also an Elderberry Cordial with sparkling water for those eschewing alcohol.
We then repaired for dinner and for the sponsor, Henry Ashby, to be introduced. Larger than life he appeared, and by the time the evening was over, he having regaled us with observation and anecdote, we knew that this was more than flesh deep. We learnt that he had been a forager for more than 50 years, that he had spent time as the communications officer in a nuclear submarine – not much scope there for pursuing his craft, that he supplied ingredients to a Michelin-starred restaurant and that he’d been Mayor of Chepstow where, underneath the nearby Severn Bridge he and Hazel Rigall had gathered most of what we were to be eating. He described to us what foraging was about, originally bushcrafting or survivalist, the way humans held themselves together till six thousand years ago. He philosophized about the pleasures of foraging, its relaxing nature and the joy of sharing with others the fruits of one’s labours , ‘like breaking bread’, he said. The dictionary defines foraging as searching widely for food or provisions (unspecified), so we might have expected to be served Escargots Pays de Galles from the other side of the estuary, goldfish Bonne Femme from a local garden pond, Fricassée of Hedgehog, or Breast of Chicken from a Peep that had failed to cross the road, but that was not to be. It was the Plant rather than the Animal Kingdom that supplied the material on which the title of our Feast was based, a possible exception to this was the muntjac, serendipitously found by the foragers soon after it had been shot.
Hazel Rigall, committee member, co-forager and co-planner, then gave us details of the canapés as well as some idea of what was to come, starting with the fish course. This was smoked haddock with creamed spinach and potatoes, and very good it was. This was followed by beautifully presented Pork Belly Roll, seasoned with mugwort, sitting on a nest of creamed potato. The plate was elegantly decorated with wild mushroom, carrot, arrowroot and soured crab apple. The meat was succulent but overall some found it too fatty.
On the table for the diners themselves to pour was an Elderberry wine from Perthshire, Carin O’Mohr , and a jug of India Pale Ale, brewed by the Chairman. With yet more elderberry, following that which had been served in the pre-prandial drinks. one wondered whether we might have been at risk from an overdose. We lost a monarch who overindulged on a surfeit of lampreys. Could this happen with elderberries? The wine itself was sweet and cloying, reminiscent of a Kir made with too much crème de cassis. The beer was the outstanding drink of the evening, full and hoppy. Should the life of a dominie ever prove too much for the brewer, our Chairman, there is always a new career awaiting him. Microbreweries are all the rage, but first class nano ones are a rarity.
Presentation of the minutes of the last meeting of the Club, a Lamb Dinner, by the locum Minutes Secretary, Roger Hale, came next.
We then had a dessert of pears poached in woodruff and muscatel with vanilla ice cream followed by either coffee or tea. The coffee infused with fennel was excellent but the tea, not so. The intention had been for the latter to have been an infusion of Linden or Yarrow but neither could be foraged, so PG tips were used instead. How are the mighty fallen! What has happened to an organization that in the past has prided itself on meeting every challenge when it comes to sourcing ingredients, be they from Peru, Mongolia or Tsarist cellars? Milk and honey, not from the Land of, were also available. The beverages were accompanied by Fennel cake. The digestif was a Rose Hip Brandy, très folklorique, most appropriate as the final serving of a très folklorique gastronomic experience
Once the coffee and tea were on the table the Chairman invited the catering and serving staff into the room to thank them for contributing to an outstanding culinary experience. First of all were Mark Gladwin, the chef, and his kitchen brigade, and those who had waited on us. They had risen to the occasion magnificently, preparing a delicious meal containing ingredients many of which they would never have seen before and of which most of us would never have heard, truly Buckland.
Also thanked were Christopher Firmstone for coming up with the idea, Hazel Rigall for her part in preparing the dishes, liasing with the sponsor and assisting with the foraging, Roger Hale whose menus never fail to delight, this time with a design in the Richard Scarry tradition, and Matt Brunning, a lawyer but a member of the Club, so no fee charged, for legal advice, just in case Lucrezia Borgia might have had a hand in planning the menu, a wise precaution in view of what we were to hear later. Possibly he also advised on the menu disclaimer. The list would not have been complete without the Chairman thanking himself for being the First Aid Officer on duty. The medics in the room gave thanks of a different kind, being mightily relieved that at no time in the evening had he been required to demonstrate his prowess.
Then followed a Question and Answer session. It may have been that the School had some idea of possible risks associated with foraging, when it sought a legal opinion before giving permission for the dinner to be prepared in its kitchens and held on its premises, for now we were to be warned about plants to be avoided and why. Way out in front was Amanita phalloides, the Death Cap Mushroom, if eaten fatal in 90% of cases. Remarkably, among the diners was one of the lucky 10%. Following close behind also potently poisonous, was hemlock, brushed against by Hazel Rigall, while foraging. Fortunately for us – and her – her fate was non-Socratic, but she did develop pins and needles in her limbs, just the sort of symptom that recently a post-Socratic offender encountered before matters got decidedly worse. On a less dramatic note, at least for the majority of us, we were told that Ragwort was only a problem for equestrians, not that they would eat it, but, as it looked like hay, they might feed it unsuspectingly to their horses, who would unsuspectingly drop down dead.
Away from the toxicology we were informed that the effects of climate change had affected the foraging season and hence the choice of menu, and that the Vine Blackberry was the best of the twelve varieties of the fruit.
The Q & A session and the evening were then brought to a close by the Chairman, thanking the sponsor who, with Hazel Rigall, chose the menu and foraged for it and then entertained us with wise saws and modern instances. Our hands then gave voice to what we thought of it all, an event in the best Buckland tradition.