Ah, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. To me it doesn’t feel like we’ve even had a proper summer, whatever that is, and then suddenly autumn is here with a vengeance. Even the harvest has come early this year.
But with autumn comes soft fruits and hedgerows laden with ripe wild goodies, so what better thing to do with them than a bit of foraging and making of cocktails!? Never mind your pies and compotes – we went out with School of the Wild to learn about what we can forage from the great outdoors to jazz up our libations.
We meet in the Queen Vic in Rottingdean, which if you haven’t been to you should. Ian and Philip bought the pub in 2012 and have done an amazing job on it, turning it into a place crammed with chic antique, a massive back bar full of alcoholic wonders, board games and dogs. I live in Shoreham and I wish this was my local. The garden alone is worth going for.
Anyway, the foraging for cocktails event is a collaboration between the Queen Vic and School of the Wild (and part of the Brighton Food Festival’s Sussex Gin Week). School of the Wild is a collective dedicated to running outdoor nature-connected classes in the woods and wild spaces of Brighton and Sussex. Their experiential and experimental classes blend practical bushcraft skills and foraging with the cooking and preparation of wild food, and aim to reconnect you with the land – and this time it’s purely for the hedonistic joy of making wild cocktails.
Our head forager, hedgewitch and wild food expert Jane takes us for a short walk up behind a church and suddenly we’re into shady woods and countryside. I have my trusty pug Alice with me, and I’m used to being outdoors for walks, but unless something really leaps out at me – ie a bush absolutely laden with elderberries – I don’t really know what I’m looking for. It was extraordinary to walk with someone who understands the wild wonders available for us all to see.
The walk really opened my eyes. Jane showed us stuff like ground elder (totally tastes like flat leaf parsley and is apparently good for gout) and nettles (I can pick one without getting stung now), which are great for making tea with, or soup, or even cocktails, and are high in iron and Vitamin C. Along the way we also found wild apples, wild pears – sadly not ripe yet – hawthorn, wild mint, blackberries and of course elderberries. It’s amazing what you can find when you know what you’re looking for. We came back from the walk happy and with a bag laden with wild stuff for cocktails.
Back to the pub and over to Lucy, who is a wild cocktail mixologist. Of all the jobs in the world, that sounds like a pretty good one, yeah?! I should also say at this point that we have Mayfield Gin to thank for the booze in this one – they kindly sent some for us to mix with the foraged ingredients. Sussex gin, Sussex ingredients, works for me.
Lucy showed us how to do stuff like muddle the fruits (but not the mint as it gets bruised – you have to smack mint hard in your palms to release the oils and mintyness). We learnt about whipping nettles gently against our hands to remove the sting and how to remove the berries from elderberry stalks.
We made three cocktails – the first of which was named a Mayfield Floral Martini and was mostly about gin and sugar and blackberries and a violet liqueur called Parfait Amour. Amazing – and we didn’t care one bit that it was 11am, trust me.
The next one I missed a bit of information about but I think it had the addition of rum and apples as part of it and was served in a teapot – the Mayfield Orchard Tea – and finally (and my favourite) was the Mayfield Wild Smash, which was just a ton of muddled apples, elderberries, blackberries etc with sugar and lime juice, smacked mint, gin and crushed ice topped with ginger ale and more mint. Heaven.
Both women are infinitely knowledgeable about wild foods, and it’s a real treat to walk on the South Downs and find such riches and use them in food or drink. But PLEASE BE CAREFUL if you’re foraging. Unless you absolutely know for sure what something is, DON’T EAT IT!
As for me – I’m on something of a food journey at the moment, as anyone who has already seen my first vegan blog will know – and this forgaging thing is both vegan and quite exciting. I loved the idea of finding treasures freely available in hedgerows and trees, and have started seeing the great outdoors with fresh eyes. I’ve since been blackberrying myself and made blackberry gin, which is steeping nicely, and some pies. Hugh Fearnley Whittingwhatsit has nowt on me.
If you’d like to know more about any of the above, here’s some useful links. Personally I’m now waiting for mushroom season to start and eyeing up what is good – and not good – to eat! Go carefully folks.