January 21 2011
The buzziest of buzzwords in restaurants these days is foraging: scouring woodlands and beaches in search of free food. The concept is now so entrenched in chefs’ minds that I worry for the future of chickweed and wood sorrel, while the insatiable demand for sea buckthorn may provoke coastal violence unknown since Mod last squared up to Rocker.
The fashion for foraging owes something to recession chic, but more to the new cooking of Scandinavia, exemplified by René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen. Of course, foraging of one sort or another has been around forever, which is rather the point of it, but there are few menus in the trendiest restaurants that do not feature something wild. Another Dane – Christoffer Hruskova, chef/proprietor of the new North Road restaurant on St John Street – cooks with Douglas fir, birch bark and pickled green elderberries, to startlingly fine effect.
Even so, I was a little surprised to discover hedgehogs on a menu. Freddy Bird, chef at the Lido, in Bristol, is a resourceful chap, and I knew before my visit of his penchant not just for foraging but for dispatching his own game and tending his own kitchen garden. Hedgehogs, though? I dimly recalled an old Romany recipe for baking them in clay, but I also recalled them being a protected species.
The impressive Lido is the rejuvenated Clifton Victoria Baths, with a heated outdoor pool and lots of fancy treatments on offer. There is a certain joy, for me at least, in watching swimmers plough up and down the pool from the glass-encased luxury of the first-floor dining room; watching others exercise always sharpens the appetite.
I need not have worried about the hedgehogs. They turned out to be chanterelle-like mushrooms, sautéed with wood blewits and wild onion, and used to adorn a splendid chunk of seared venison. As the main course of a heroically wild dinner, also featuring excellent fresh crab on toast with wood sorrel, salmon with wild spinach and a gentle, cinnamon-tinged sauce, and wild boar ravioli dressed with a cornucopia of horns of plenty, it was a reminder of how – in the right hands – wild foods can add a frisson of excitement to the more familiar flavours of our national larder.
Not least, the dinner at Lido Bristol restored my faith in the city’s cuisine. My Bristolian grandmother’s idea of foraging was to stock up on tinned rice pudding from the Co-op when it was on special offer. She was a plucky but hopeless cook, prone to overcooking lamb chops in a frying pan, until she learned that grilling was a healthier form of cremation. Her habit of pouring the fat from the grill pan over the mashed potatoes, however, rather missed the point: goodness knows what she would have done to a hedgehog.