FOR a woman who ventures only so far as Waitrose to bring home the bacon on a weekly basis (well, ready meals of lamb moussaka and paella, to be more precise), being invited to go foraging for a wild banquet was an opportunity I could not turn down.
The Foragers are a team of hunters and gatherers based at their wild food pub, The Verulam Arms, in St Albans. The founders are a former City high flyer turned mushroom gatherer and bear wrestler, George Fredenham, and his business partner Gerald Waldeck, a retired master baker, now Chief Hunter-Gatherer.
Upon arriving at St Albans City station from St Pancras – a surprisingly short journey of but 20 minutes – George was waiting for me in his blue Subaru and not at all who or what I expect. I imagined I’d be meeting an elderly, stooping man dressed in rustic attire, perhaps sporting a berry or two in his thick white beard. Instead, I’m greeted by a young guy in his late twenties wearing a black band hoodie, with spikey hair and a ginger beard – except there were no berries protruding from his.
I clambered into the passenger seat of the car which I was soon to learn had been affectionately dubbed the ‘foraging mobile’. “Sorry about all the rubbish in here,” he said with an absent-minded wave behind him. I turned around and was startled by the materials he’d accumulated in the back; two large bags of assorted materials, grass and leaves scattered around the floor and a machete, delicately balanced on the parcel shelf.
On the dashboard, a copy of the menu for the wild banquet tonight. After the briefest glance, I can feel my mouth starting to water slightly. This increases to Victoria Falls as George tells me about some of the prep work he’s been doing for the evening ahead.
There is no pretence with George; he enjoys hunting, brewing berry-induced liquors and spirits in his bedroom over the bar of The Verulam Arms and, of course, foraging
“Most of the ingredients you see on there have been foraged by myself and the team. Everything from the crab apple syrup on the rabbit, to the root vegetable gratin baked in an alexander seed. The game is all locally shot, too. I know exactly where all the ingredients have come from, which field the game has been shot in, and who has foraged the ingredients you see there.”
It really is refreshing to hear someone speak so assuredly about food. There is no pretence with George; he enjoys hunting, brewing berry-induced liquors and spirits in his bedroom over the bar of The Verulam Arms and, of course, foraging.
“We had a girl working for us once who didn’t tell us during the interview that she was a vegan. Can you believe that? A vegan in a game restaurant, surrounded by animal carcasses! She didn’t last long. I remember one of my friends walking in with a brace of huge, dead pheasant and she looked like she was genuinely going to faint.”
George is light-hearted and easy-going, with a very clear passion for what he does – not only the food and drink he serves, but also for the city he grew up in. He takes a detour and shows me the beautiful cathedral, completed in 1877 and the second-longest cathedral in Britain, after Westminster Abbey.
“There’s so much to see and do here. It’s right on London’s doorstep but I don’t think a lot of people in the city venture out this far. The Londoners who come on my excursions always comment on how beautiful St Albans is, though. It really makes the excursions that little bit more worthwhile.”
When we finally arrive at the pub, George pours me a hearty glass of wine and sits down with a Sierra Nevada pale ale. The Verulam Arms is tucked away off the beaten track from the city and is of a rustic, yet oddly nautical, appearance. The saloon bar swings around the centre of the room, there’s a roaring fire in the corner, stuffed stags’ heads and paintings of hunting scenes line the walls. All the furniture has been recycled then spruced up. The lights hang low from the ceiling, casting a warm glow throughout the room.
The Verulam Arms is tucked away off the beaten track from the city and is of a rustic, yet oddly nautical, appearance
“I bought this as soon as I heard that the original owner was selling up,” says George between sips of his ale. “It was after I left my job in the City. I always knew I wanted to work in food; I’d been working hard on market stalls, selling everything from chutney to sour dough, just so I could do what I love.
“I even held secret supper clubs from the kitchen of my old home whenever I got the chance. It really gave me the bug. That was before I had to rent it out, though. The jobs on the market didn’t pay well and I had to move back in with my parents.”
Before founding The Foragers with Gerald, George once worked as a management consultant. He spent most of his time jetting off to countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa and Sudan to sell products to international clients, before deciding that he wanted to pursue a career in food.
“It all got a little too much in the end. I was spending all my time travelling and totally lost interest in the job I was doing. All I really cared about was the food culture in each new city I travelled to, and I used to love leaving the office to sample all the wonderful and diverse street foods each new place had to offer.
“One evening, on a business trip to New York, I found myself with absolutely no passion left for the job I was doing and decided to hand in my notice. Before I left, my boss warned me that I would miss the money of the job and he’s right, I do. But I’m doing something I love now and am finally starting to see the rewards from all those years of hard work getting the business to where it is today.”
Taken by Taco Den Outer
As I ask what people can expect from attending one of the monthly foraging excursions with George, the door swings open and in stride two people wearing sturdy walking boots and lightweight macs. “You’re about to find out,” he says before getting up to change into his green shooting jacket.
I glance doubtfully down at my outfit and groan: I’m wearing riding boots that were clearly never intended to go anywhere near a horse, a short brown skirt and roll-neck cashmere sweater. I clearly missed the memo on appropriate clothing for foraging.
I clearly missed the memo on appropriate clothing for foraging – then again, any idiot could have figured that out
Then again, any idiot could have figured that out. Deciding that my boots weren’t actually that special to me anyway – whilst quietly dying inside – I hopped in to the car with my new-found foraging friends and headed to a local organic farm for the excursion.
Taken by Taco Dan Outer
“There’re a few health and safety announcements before we get started,” says experienced forager Richard Osmond upon arrival at the farm. A group of about twelve people are huddled together, all of them dressed in appropriate country attire – not the type we prance around in for a jaunt to Richmond Park – ready to begin the walk.
“Do not eat anything unless George and I have expressly said it’s safe. Foraging can be very dangerous if you’re not familiar with all the foods out there and you may get poisoned, perhaps fatally, if you’re not careful. Be especially wary of mushrooms. There won’t be many around at this time of season but they can very often be poisonous if not identified professionally. I once heard about a man who killed his whole family by accident when he served up mushrooms he’d foraged to make a soup.” He pauses here for dramatic effect; the group shares a morbid look with each other.
“But apart from that we’re fine! Just pay close attention to us and enjoy the walk.” We set off at a robust pace and I feel a wave of contentment pass over me as I look around and take in the gently undulating fields of the Hertfordshire countryside. Whilst not so dramatic as Yorkshire, nor so strikingly picturesque as the Cotswolds, this is perhaps the English country at its most typically enchanting.
The acres of scrub, all that remains of the wheat harvest, glow golden in the early autumn sun. We pick our way through bluebell woods and ancient hedges – hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, ash, hornbeam, holly, oak and elder, intertwined and solid as the strongest wall – as we listen to Richard’s talk.
Using a spindly branch to point at an assortment of plants, Richard darts from one field to the next, teaching us about the astonishingly huge variety of food available on our doorstep. We crowd around him, holding out our hands to try an assortment of different plants and berries on offer.
We crowd around, holding out our hands to try an assortment of different plants and berries on offer; it’s like being at school again when one of your classmates is handing out Minstrels
It’s like being at school again when one of your classmates is handing out Minstrels, something you never really cared about before, till you’re offered them for free and you figure that you want all the Minstrels in the world. Well, this was how I reacted when Richard offered me a garlic mustard leaf. Yes, a garlic mustard leaf. I was infinitely jealous of the woman next to me who was favoured by being given a lavish fistful of scrumptious leaves to munch.
Every now and again, Richard came to a halt while George furrowed round in the hedgerows to reveal his carefully concealed bottles of infused liquor, ready for the group to sample. Glass jars were passed round to each person from a wicker basket before the sumptuous shots of liquor were deposited.
Nothing could possibly be more inviting on a crisp autumn night than one of George’s fabulous concoctions. I particularly recommend Mars Silvanus: liquor infused with a secret blend of the forest’s finest wild aromatic herbs, roots and bark, which leaves you light-headed as you amble from the farm and back to the bar.
The excursion, which lasts about an hour and a half, is rounded off with a wild banquet in the pub. A crackling log fire greeted us on our return to The Verulam Arms – which is a warm welcome indeed after eating my body weight in bay leaves on a country walk.
Complimentary drinks were prepared by the superbly garrulous bar staff and brought over to the group, who sat chatting happily about chicken mushrooms, nettle soup and the much anticipated banquet ahead.
The bar boasts an original cocktail menu packed full with foraging influences; I recommend the Sloe Gin Martini which is made with the bar’s own foraged sloes, mixed with vermouth and a twist of citrus-spicy douglas fir syrup. If you’re feeling more adventurous then why not try the Sylvanian Negroni? The usual Campari is swapped with their own wild cherry and forest liquor, Mars Silvanus, which creates a sweet and aromatic aperitif.
Once we were all finally seated at the table and George had amused the congregation by showing us The Foragers’ video diaries on his iPad, the feast began.
Succulent rabbit lollipops doused in a sticky-sweet crab apple syrup were the resounding favourite
The food is crafted with a sure eye for aesthetics: elegantly presented in an array of dishes that are promptly popped in front of you by the attentive staff as soon as your plate seems in danger of emptying.
For starters we gorged on beech gin cured salmon en croute; horseradish and pickled sea purslane; nettle parcels with butterbean hummus in a wild marjoram dressing; and wood pigeon and ramson kiev in a hawthorn ketchup. Not to mention the resounding favourite amongst the guests: succulent rabbit lollipops doused in a sticky-sweet crab apple syrup.
I feel close to hibernating for the winter and the table seems seconds away from keeling under all of the weight of the starters before they are swept away and replaced with the main course. What’s that, you say? Locally shot game wellington with wild garlic potatoes? I suppose I can make room for a little more. Oh, and is that a hen of the woods puff ball and tarragon tart? And root vegetable gratin baked in an alexander seed cream? Oh, go on then, if I must. You might as well pass me some of those chantenay carrots in honey and hogweed dressing while you’re at it too. I’m getting too old for this.
When the feast was finished and rounded off with a slab of sticky toffee pudding and vanilla ice cream in rosehip syrup, it was certainly time to call it a night. I half considered calling an ambulance to take me back to Fulham, but compromised and accepted the offer to share a cab to the station with a friendly couple from the feast. I left The Verulam Arms with a very satisfied stomach and slightly compromised vision: always a good indicator of an evening well spent.
Quite simply, if you’re looking for a dining experience with a difference then make the journey to St Albans and take advantage of The Foragers. Take in the wonderful local sights and treat yourself to a night of banqueting with a difference whilst meeting a whole host of different people in the process.
Friends are made and memories created after an evening with George and his team in the wild and – if you’ve paid attention – you may be able to start serving up your own simple foraging dishes to your family once you’re home. Though I would advise you to steer clear of mushroom soup
Visit The Foragers website at http://the-foragers.com/ and follow them on Twitter @WeForagers