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31 July 2014

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Restau-RANT: what’s the point of foraging?

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restau-rant_foraging - Restaurant_graphic.jpgVegetables? Good. Weeds? Bad. Guest columnist Marina O’Loughlin has had enough of restaurants raiding the hedgerows and serving up piles of unidentifiable green sludge.

Years ago, I used to go out mushrooming with my Italian mother. We’d pack a couple of little knives and paper bags and come back with feasts of fungi for risottos and pastas, for stuffing with garlic and parmesan or baking with olive oil and rosemary. These days, she doesn’t bother so much: her favourite hunting patches have been colonised by equipment-toting men denuding the hedgerows of anything that looks even vaguely edible. Lock up your squirrels.

The world has gone foraging mad. I blame René Redzepi at Noma. No, I haven’t made it there yet (look, I did el Bulli. Twice. I’ve done my time on the eating-stuff-that-doesn’t-look-like food front), but I can only assume that Danish weeds are more delicious than ours are, if my current experiences are anything to go by. Like culinary triffids, weeds are taking over: pools of sulphuric khaki sludge are appearing on the UK’s most fashionable tables.

Recently, I was offered a pudding I hadn’t ordered. On a perfectly palatable gooseberry parfait, the chef had strewn a carpet of fibrous, foraged plant life. These unwelcome strangers added nothing to the dish from a deliciousness perspective – quite the contrary. But they weren’t there as mere garnish, oh no: they were cabbagey little semiotics, klaxoning ‘look at me, I’m BANG ON TREND’. Here’s my advice to kitchen dudes: ask yourself this question: ‘would I sprinkle cress on it?’ And if the answer is ‘ha ha ha, don’t be silly, as if’, then don’t insert [name of random weed] instead.

I get so fed up with this kind of cheffy posturing. Recently on Twitter I posted Kerstin Rodgers’ (aka supperclub supremo Ms Marmitelover) recipe for ‘Really Good Mac and Cheese’. It caused collective moans of lust, with people drifting offline to make their own versions. But if I post pictures of foraged items – most recently from innovative La Grenouillère in Montreuil-sur-Mer – people admire the plating dispassionately, or ponder what you actually do with an Alexander (one of England’s forgotten vegetables). Some know-it-all will pipe up with a factoid: Alexanders were imported by the Romans, dontcha know. But nobody – nobody – wails ‘I wanna get me some of those babies right now!’

During a recent visit to Seoul, I ate sophisticated, elaborate ‘temple cuisine’: the monks are frugal, so many of the ingredients were foraged. They also avoid any kinds of fleshly stimulation, so ‘excitable’ ingredients – garlic, ginger, chillies, all the elements that make other Korean culinary adventures a blast – are eschewed. At one point, I prodded a couple of brown misshapen items with enormous distrust, becoming ridiculously overexcited to discover they were nothing more sinister than little baked potatoes. The whole meal was a challenge. Monks sign up for a life of sacrifice and denial; that’s their lifestyle choice. Call me revoltingly decadent, but when I go to a restaurant, I want to get off on the food I’m paying for. This is a trend that’s more about chefs than punters.

My mother’s mushroom-hunting trips were all about pleasure. There’s nothing more spirit lifting than happening on a large, whiffy patch of wild garlic or secret stash of ceps. Sure, we may have had to dry the mushrooms in a low oven to evacuate the maggots and I never quite came to terms with the acrid bitterness of dandelion salad, no matter how much mellow balsamic was slung on top. But those risottos were truly luscious.

Now, foraging seems to have taken a turn for the earnest: all those ventilated rucksacks and sensible walking sandals. All those dark smears on forward-thinking restaurant plates. Recipes everywhere for nettle tea (or worse, nettletinis), or chickweed fritters, or this bobby dazzler from the functionally titled Eat Weeds website: ‘cheesy Alexanders and nipplewort pasta’. After one too many of these kind of meals, I want to grab the usually thin, wispy-bearded young chef in charge of the kitchen by the butcher’s apron strings and bellow: make me a pie or steak-frites, you compost botherer! And hold the mugwort béarnaise.

Read more from Marina O’Loughlin on Twitter (@MarinaMetro).

This feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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