There is such a thing as a free meal, as Jane Hall discovers on an expedition with master forager Martin Charlton.
IT’S 5pm on a showery April Monday. Just yards from one of Newcastle’s busiest commuter roads, I’m pushing my way David Bellamy-style through the verdant, damp undergrowth of a city centre park.
I’ve left behind the manicured lawns and gravelled paths that more sensible members of the public stick to and have gone into the human equivalent of four wheel drive as I scramble up an extremely muddy leaf strewn bank.
Ahead of me Martin Charlton is striding out, ducking and weaving with ease past stray branches and brambles, his head constantly turning as his eyes sweep the immediate area for signs of life.
It’s surprisingly tranquil. The constant drone of cars heading out of Newcastle at the end of the working day is quickly replaced by the altogether more pleasing sound of birdsong and gushing water as we head deeper into the trees.
I’m in Jesmond Dene. And I’m hunting for my supper.
As I’m faced with crawling on hands and knees under a lichen covered tree trunk that’s blocking the way ahead, not for the first time I question my sanity. The soulless strip-lighting of my local supermarket is looking very appealing as another heavy shower blows in from the west.
As I hunt for an alternative route around the trunk that won’t involve me going into limbo dancing mode, Martin gives a shout of delight and waves me over. He’s pointing excitedly at a brown blob growing on a moss covered elder tree branch. It’s only a few minutes into our foraging expedition and we’ve discovered the perfect accompaniment for pasta.
“It’s a wood ear mushroom, so called because it looks like a baby’s ear,” Martin explains, picking it and holding it out for me to look at.
It’s brown, velvety on the outside and does indeed disturbingly look like a small human ear. As such it doesn’t look very appetising. Martin takes a bite and passes it to me. I take a tentative nibble and chew. It is like no other mushroom I’ve tasted; slightly crunchy with a mild almost bland flavour.
Undeterred, Martin picks a few more. “Shred them into a creamy pasta sauce with some wild garlic and it will give the dish some real bite,” he says excitedly.
The 44-year-old from Kenton Bar, Newcastle, is a big fan of wood ear mushrooms. In fact, he’s enthusiastic about any food he doesn’t have to pay for. And nothing comes cheaper than the plethora of leaves, flowers, herbs, fungi and mushrooms there for the taking in fields, hedgerows, woods and even city centre parks.
A trained chef of 20 years standing who now lectures part-time at North Tyne Metropolitan College, he also runs his own business producing freshly baked, wholesome pizzas and flat breads in transportable wood burning ovens which he takes to food festivals and private functions.
A keen advocate of local ingredients, he is not adverse to adding some of his foraging finds to his range of healthy fast foods.
His prized wood ear mushrooms have found their way onto his pizzas, along with wild garlic, nettles and ground elder.
“It was introduced by the Romans but is now a scourge in many people’s gardens,” Martin says as he stoops to pick a bunch of ground elder leaves. “It’s everywhere. It has a strong taste, a bit like thyme, but is ideal for soups, stuffing duck breasts or torn up in a salad. And it’s free; it’s there for the taking if you know what to look for.”
The trouble is most of us don’t. But Martin is on a mission to change that, and takes his first steps on May 10 and 11 when he co-hosts the IncrEdible North East, one of the many food-related experiences open to the public at this month’s Eat! NewcastleGateshead festival which starts tomorrow.
Participants will be invited to see food in a different light while foraging for fresh produce at a surprise location before enjoying a picnic lunch.
Hence the reason why I’m slowly sinking into the mud in an out of the way corner of Jesmond Dene while Martin rushes around like a child in a sweet shop pointing out all the free ingredients to be had for those willing to look beyond the grocery store.
“Look here,” he exclaims. “Wild garlic. It’s a cross between a spring onion and the garlic we have all become accustomed to. The bulb part is very small, but you could cultivate it and it would get bigger.
“Wild garlic is very sweet but it is fantastic to use. It makes the most incredible soups or I blitz it with olive oil and make pesto which I use on pizzas. Tear the leaves up and you can add it at the last moment to a creamy pasta sauce, use it as a vegetable, in salads, as a herb for seasoning... it’s uses are endless. And it costs nothing.
“And see here,” Martin adds, taking a few steps to his left. “Nettles. They’re one of the healthiest and most versatile things you can eat. Grasp them like a man and you won’t get stung. You can blanch the leaves, squeeze the water out, liquidise them with an egg yolk and then combine with flour for the most fantastic homemade pasta.
“Or you can make the leaves into a detoxifying tea, eat the young shoots in a salad or use them for stuffing. Nettles are one of the most common and nutritious free foods available.
“Here we are just a few yards from the road and look at what we have found. In this small area alone we’ve got enough to make a tasty salad.” I mentally tick off our finds: wild garlic, dock leaves (apparently very nice sweated down with a knob of butter), dandelions, nettles, wood ear mushrooms and ground elder.
It was a friend’s passion for wild mushrooms which introduced Martin to the delights of foraging around 15 years ago. “We used to go out together looking for wild mushrooms. It all went from there. I suppose it was a bit of macho curiosity and then I became more and more interested in what we have around us and in using the natural resources we have.
“Everybody has been a bit of a hunter gatherer at some point in their lives. We have all picked brambles or wild mushrooms, we all have that interest, but it is about developing that, taking it further and about really getting to grips with what Nature has to offer us for free.”
We squelch on, emerging into a pleasant bluebell-strewn clearing hemmed in by ancient moss covered trees. It’s a side of Jesmond Dene only the adventurous get to see. As I nearly slip-slide my way down to the valley bottom while sidestepping an over-aggressive bramble that threatens to rake my face, Martin shouts back: “Don’t worry, I’ll be doing a more genteel foraging expedition for IncrEdible. We’ll be sticking to more accessible places to show how urban areas can be just as good foraging environments as the countryside. I thought you might appreciate more of an experience, though.” Thanks Martin.
Foraging has helped the father-of-two out of a few sticky financial situations. “There have been times I’ve been short of cash and getting food for free like this has kept me going, not just to eat myself but to sell. I’ve picked 20 kilos of wild mushrooms in no time at all and sold them. All it’s cost me is my time.”
Foraging has also caused a few hair-raising moments. Laughing Martin recalls: “I went down to the Dene at 6am one morning to pick wild mushrooms. Suddenly the grass parted to reveal two coppers demanding to know what I was doing. I said I was picking wild mushrooms and they replied, ‘Oh yeah.’ I showed them what I had and they said. ‘My God, you are.’
“They’d obviously been tipped off that someone was up to no good.”
Martin is understandably loathe to reveal his best foraging sites. He maintains anytime of year is good for harvesting the fruits of the wild, however, even winter. “There’s always something to be found. Even in the middle of winter you can find mushrooms like Velvet Shank, which is one of the few wild mushrooms you can find in hard frost. In fact, you often find them encased in ice. It grows on logs and fallen branches and has a rubbery flesh that needs to be slow cooked.
“My favourite time is late January. It’s really exciting when all the new shoots are coming through.”
As our journey through Jesmond Dene has proved, urban areas have just as much to offer the forager as the countryside. You can even forage in your own back garden. “Hold off on the weed killer and you will encourage plants such as bittercress, chickweed, sow thistle, elder – all of which make good fodder for the salad bowl,” Martin says.
Time to go home and hunt out some backyard borage. I understand it’s great dunked in your Pimms.
ON THE MENU
EAT! NewcastleGateshead, now in its second year, celebrates the region’s very best food and drink from May 3-22.
The finest local and fairly traded produce will be there (quite literally) on a plate. There’s an exciting programme of unique events, and it’s all about quality, excellence, diversity and sustainability.
Top treats on the menu include a secret restaurant, in town for five days only; a restaurant in total darkness that really tests your tastebuds; lively markets piled high with the best local produce to try and to buy; and a Michelin-starred feast. Plus street parties, picnics, rare foods and foraging.
For information on Eat! visit www.NewcastleGateshead.com /EAT