A couple of months ago I lost my sense of smell completely. My world changed and everything tasted of cardboard. Fortunately it was only a temporary loss due to a virus, though it was a fascinating and slightly scary experience. I've always known how important my senses are to me; foraging engages my vision, touch, smell, taste and intuition. To be without two of these (smell and taste are so dependant on each other) was odd and left me functioning in a very different way. I'm the kind of person who always stops to smell flowers - I find it a life affirming way to engage with the world.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is one of my summer scents; scattered along the coast path and beaches in selected places in Cornwall and commonly on the Isles of Scilly. When the sand is hot and the air is warm it is a lovely whiff of refreshing aniseed to breathe in. It's scent also makes it easy to identify.
Indigenous to the Mediterranean, it is well known and used to aid digestion and has naturalised in many places across the world. It's been used in fish and seafood dishes, and I like to use it in bread and desserts. I think it is perfect as a dessert - an after dinner digestive which is full of soothing flavour.
In my first book - Wild Food Foraging in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly - I shared a recipe for fennel sorbet and fennel flower-head fritters, though you can use the same recipe for fennel ice lollies (images above). I also have a great Wild Fennel Bunyols recipe, which was inspired by my Catalonian friend, Marta and are perfect for Autumn or cooler days.
The sorbet and ice lollies are so full of flavour and they use the foliage of fennel - the leaves and young stems which are often over-looked. I highly recommend experimenting with these parts too.
The evenings are getting cooler and it is time for bigger, fatter, more filling food, I reckon. Being by the coast I'm lucky enough to find wild fennel, and from late summer on wards I can forage a few seeds for flavouring desserts, stews and breads.
I first tasted these sweet fried dough balls, when my Catalonian friend, Marta, made them. They are a speciality from her home town and she was staying with me at the time. Luckily for me, I walked in at the end of her cooking frenzy and got to sample these warm before they were whisked away to a dinner party. She was just debating whether to use some more fennel oil, as flavouring, when I suggested grinding some of the wild fennel seeds I'd collected, and using these, combined with icing sugar, instead.
Wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) adds a wonderful light, aniseed-like flavour, and picking your own seeds ensures you capture that wonderful fresh taste, cultivated in fresh coastal air and sunlight.
Back to the recipe... they worked a treat, and I've been badgering her ever since for the recipe. Here it is, with a few wild twists added.
Wild Fennel Seed Bunyols
Deep fried, airy buns with a sweet fennel dusting, for me, this is a mid-Winter treat, or on cooler evenings when I feel the need for extra calories. A dear Catalonian friend gave this recipe to me; I’ve adapted it a little bit.
Ingredients (Makes approx 35)
250 ml boiling water
125 g butter
180 g plain flour (could have 20% wholemeal)
4-5 eggs, beaten
500 ml sunflower oil
1 heaped tbsp unrefined sugar
1 heaped tsp fennel seeds
In a medium saucepan, add the water and simmer over a medium heat. Cut the butter into chunks and gently add into the water, leaving to melt before whisking for 2 minutes. Lower the heat a little and quickly sieve in the flour and mix well. Keep mixing for a few minutes over the heat until the mixture goes a little golden. Turn off the heat and little by little add the egg mixture, about 1 egg at a time. Using a wooden spoon, beat each egg in, until well absorbed. The mixture is ready when it becomes less slippery and more elastic when the spoon is dragged from the mixture upwards. This may not use all the egg.
Prepare a large tray with absorbable kitchen paper/towel, or use a large cooling rack. In another medium sized saucepan, heat the oil over a medium to high heat. You can check the oil is hot enough by dropping a little of the batter in the oil, if it floats to the top, it is ready. When the oil is ready, using 2 teaspoons, drop a large teaspoon size ball of the bunyol mixture into the oil and allow to fry. You can probably cook about 4 balls of mixture at a time. When the bunyols are golden brown on one side, turn over and brown all over, remove with a slotted spoon onto the kitchen paper or cooling rack. Repeat with all the mixture and leave the bunyols to cool. To make the sweet fennel dusting, grind the sugar and fennel seeds together and when the bunyols are cool, sprinkle with the sugar powder and have a little on the side for extra dipping.
Unique Island Foraging
Really, like nowhere else.
Sudi Pigott, food journalist and author compared Gourmet Foraging and Dining on Scilly to an experience at Noma - Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, which, at least twice has won best restaurant in the world awards (S. Pellegrino 50). Noma specialises in using foraged and seasonal produce and has a world renown reputation.
According to Sudi, we were on a level with Noma (Daily Express, 2011).
Travelling to the Isles of Scilly always feels magical to me. I couldn't get much closer really (well not much) and still live on the mainland. The Scillonian ferry is 10 minutes walk away from my house, and standing in the right place I could watch the boat leave and return daily, in season.
Foraging can appeal to such a wide reach of people, from foodies to wildlife enthusiasts, and Scilly really is the perfect environment for it. A series of islands, low population numbers and a priority for wildlife including birds, plants and sea life, plus a distinct lack of cars and motor vehicles is ideal for foraging to flourish in the clean air and land. Indeed, foraging has happened a-plenty in Scilly in the past, piles of empty limpet shells on (the now uninhabited island of Samson) pays testament to that.
(The Foragers: Hell Bay Gourmet Foraging and Dining Break, Isles of Scilly)
And what about now? Like elsewhere in the UK, foraging has largely been forgotten, and the Coop (the largest food shop on Scilly) is perhaps an over-used substitute for the wild stuff. Local foods are still used though, when available. Though I can't help casting my eye across all those beautiful fresh ingredients, forgotten in the hedgerow, fields and coastline.
When I first approach Hell Bay with the idea of doing gourmet foraging events, I wanted the best. The best chef, environment and eating experience that would allow the wild ingredients to really be appreciated for what they are - special. Special, abundant and worth rediscovering.
Our group of enthusiast guests, felt similarly (I hoped), and joined me for 3 days, 3 islands, 3 walks and 3, 5 course gourmet dinners - including the ingredients we'd foraged during the day. Travelling from various areas of the UK, foraging became our common ground, oh, and discussions about the hotel's enviable art collection.
We may not have looked like foragers, though looks aren't everything, and in a way, foraging was just the medium we used - the chosen lense to appreciate the islands and the natural abundance they had to offer. Indeed, both people's adventurous spirits, and the wild plants themselves came up trumps, my favourite being when we focused on the seashore...
Foraging for seaweeds is tide dependent and on the islands it is also dependent on the times of the boats. On our final day of foraging we got the boat to St Martins island. A sensitive juggling; this wasn't the first time we'd got dropped at the opposite end of the island to expected and planned for! A low tide is perfect for seaweed foraging, though not for mooring boats - oh well, we got to the island, were wellied up, well some of us, while others dared it with bare feet or trainers. Thankfully the coastline of St Martins came up with the goods.
It amazes me that pottering around just one collection of rocks enabled us to forage for a wide range of seaweeds to accompany our dinner.
I had a 'shopping list' of 7 seaweeds, which we snipped off with scissors and took, happily back to the hotel kitchen. Idyll memories of aisles of sandy beaches, rock pools, paddling expeditions and a little clambering, looking under kelp forests and getting faces up close to the splish, sploshing water around us. Those who chose to, watched from a distance, enjoying the sun while the wellied ones paddled out to find the freshest finds. We laid out are proud findings on the rocks (who ever took photos - I'd love a copy!) before revising their names and bundling them into our baskets before heading off to lunch.
The evening's menu was always greeted with satisfying ooohs and aaahs - all the excitment you would expect from a special dinner party. I love that part - although we forage together, I like to keep the evening's menu a surprise. It's like revealing a new painting - we've worked creatively behind the scenes - myself helping design the menu and advise processes, then leaving the chefs to use their talents and skills to create 5 bespoke courses with a range of colours, textures and visual arrangements. Like art, food comes down to personal taste, though the variety and skill seemded to be enough to please everyone...
Some dishes were a hit, while others had a mixed response that might be expected from more experimental cuisine. Personally, Sea Spaghetti (Spaghetti-like seaweed) with Grilled Turbot and pangretta with sea lettuce, followed by Rice Pudding with crystalised Alexander stems were hits with me. Though some disagreed! Other's loved the hogweed seed biscuits that accompanied Cornish cheeses - for me, I was completely satisfied already and had no room for anymore. All created within the style and quality you expect at Hell Bay.
Unique Scilly foraging it is.
I could list all the dishes of each evening, though just as a taster, here's the menu we enjoyed on our second evening after foraging on the Island of Tresco and an afternoon free to enjoy the Tresco Abbey Gardens.
- Sorrel & Wall Oxalis Soup
- Fennel Tempura Fillet of Hake, dressed White Crab Meat, steamed Rock Samphire,
- Pan roasted fillet of Venison, Nettle Gnoochi, Frosted Orache, Three-cornered Leek puree, Chocolate & Yarrow Jus.
- Gorse Flower Creme Brulee with Blackberry Leaf Sorbet
- Cornish Cheeses with Hogweed & Alexander Seeded Biscuits
I offer bespoke foraging experiences on the Isles of Scilly, my availability is limited, and especially limited in high-season when the chefs are exceptionally busy. Luckily, foraging is best in early spring and autumn - do bear this inmind if you'd like to experience the wild side of these beautiful islands.