“If you pick them with purpose, then you’ll probably not get stung.” It was the word ‘probably’ that put me off, so I decided to let Liz do the nettle picking for the day.
We set off mid-morning with the intention of picking enough wild produce to make a tasty lunch and also learn a thing or two along the way. Our guide for all things wild is Liz Knight from Forage Fine Foods and our location is the rolling Black Mountains on the English/Welsh border.
Liz forages from the hills around her home. On her doorstep is an abundance of loveliness just waiting to be picked. From the moment we leave her kitchen it’s obvious to see she is taking advantage of her surroundings; for example, opposite the front door is a set of birch trees which all have pipes coming out of them straight into bottles. Liz explains, “This is called tapping. The pipe allows some of the birch sap to drip out into the bottle and produce a lovely slightly sweet drink that I use in recipes.”
We head down a country road and move aside to let a tractor past, below the hedge Liz spots some ‘cleavers’, a small green plant that can stick to your clothes and she immediately picks a bunch. This was our first fresh taste of the day, it was very minerally and earthy, an intense version of a root vegetable and a great start.
Liz used to work in IT, but says, “Wearing a suit never really worked for me, I left my high flying job in the city and started to work with adults who needed support after illness or disease.” She worked with adults who’d been affected by dementia or strokes and her role was to lead various activities. One of the activities was cooking. She told us that, “A lot of the people I worked with had lived through rationing, so knew how to make pretty much anything and use everything they had available to them.” Liz tapped into this experience, learning skills and knowledge that had been lost over generations. While she wasn’t working, she would go foraging and always looked forward to sharing what she’d found with her patients, constantly learning new ways to use the foraged goods.
“The lovely thing about foraged goods is that two products will never taste the same, even if we use the same ingredients. There are so many variables, rainfall, sun, location that affect the flavours.”
Her knowledge and passion for foraging grew and grew and she set up ‘Forage Fine Foods’ in 2011 working from her kitchen, picking the wild produce and creating a number of products. She recalls, “`Wild Salsa Verde´ was the first product I remember getting really excited about, pairing all of those flavours correctly was a real treat.” She quickly moved into sauces, jellies, jams, herbs and spices. They were a huge hit at the local markets and it wasn’t long before Fortnum and Mason found her at Ludlow Food Festival. “All of a sudden I had lots of orders to fulfil and was out picking a lot.” The connection to Fortnum & Mason certainly helped propel the brand forward, but for Liz this was never about getting massive, losing that personal touch and churning out product. She said, “What it did do was to help focus my brand and what it stood for; I learned how to price properly and be efficient with my time having to work around my children.”
We walk for a number of hours down muddy woodland paths, through green fields fresh from the overnight rain and by flowing streams and brooks meandering down the valley. We stop every so often reaching up to to take buds from trees or crouch down to rip up leaves growing from the ground, every time tasting something new, sampling the freshest flavours that burst on your tongue. Liz smiled and says, “I love the fact that the landscape and colours are constantly changing and what I can gather depends on the season.”
The colour for this trip is definitely green. We take our pickings and head back to the house. Liz washes and prepares a salsa verde for us that contains nettles, cleavers, sorrel, hawthorn, hedge garlic and wild mustard. As she is chopping she says, “The lovely thing about foraged goods is that two products will never taste the same, even if we use the same ingredients. There are so many variables, rainfall, sun, location that affect the flavours.” Liz throws the chopped greens into a bowl and adds a dash of homemade vinaigrette flavoured with pickled wild garlic buds to finish the salsa. We sit at the table and eat it with fresh bread, local charcuterie and soft cheese; a well-earned reward for the mornings findings. The taste is amazing… there is hit after hit of flavour, lemon and earthy hints from the sorrel, pepper from the mustard, and all readily available from local hedges and fields. Liz smiles at our nodding heads as we try to remain polite and not go back for seconds, thirds and fourths. She says, “I want people to experience amazing food and understand what they are eating and where it comes from, so it’s always lovely to see people enjoying themselves.”
Had we not been there that day, the pickings would have made it into a batch for Liz to sell on her website or at the local markets. Everything she produces is small batch and handmade using recipes that she has perfected over the years. Her inspiration comes from lots of research through old cookery books, experimenting and importantly learning from other people. As well as selling her goods direct, Liz also runs foraging and cookery courses, educating people on the abundance of fresh food that we walk past on a daily basis, and of course how to make mouth-watering food from what you find outside. She says, “As well as being outside, I enjoy writing, talking to people, producing, educating; I’ve somehow managed to create a career that involves everything I love.” In a pre-packaged world, it’s lovely to experience the abundance of flavours growing wild on our doorstep. Liz opened our eyes to ingredients that are readily available and free to use, ones that can spark a conversation around the dinner table and liven up any dish.