Should I wear flip-flops today? This was my 1st thought at 4.30am, early on a Saturday in September. I’m not really sure if Ray Mears has ever asked himself that question when he sets off on a day’s foraging for wild herbs in the forest. Somehow I doubt it, but you never really know I guess.
Sometimes in life I think it’s nice not to have any idea what you’re about to do, or where exactly you’re going. I spent the majority of my twenties in that general state of mind, but have been doing it a little differently for the last few years, and feel that I have some idea about who I am, and where I’m going.
Today was going to be one of those moments when I could certainly claim to have not a clue about what was to come, that’s for sure. So, with those thoughts very much in mind, I left my house at the ridiculous time of 5 am with a slightly bleary eyed anticipation, to embark on a 700 mile round trip to Pembrokeshire, in far west Wales. I was to spend the day picking wild herbs and vegetables with Mr Mountain Food, aka Yun Hider.
The hot tip came from Jay and Liam at ‘the Pheasant’, the scene of my 1st blog post. Liam said that they had been out with Yun in Cambridgeshire, and he was a really interesting and top bloke with loads of passion for all things wild and green. He supplies them with some fantastic herbs and sea vegetables, and suggested I give him a call and go to spend the day with him.
Without these small producers such as Yun doing what they do, we really wouldn’t be where we are today, with a healthy and vibrant British food culture gathering momentum all the time. I was really hoping to learn a little about all the free food that we have on our doorstep, and also how Yun has managed to keep from starving for the last fifteen years.
We had arranged to meet at 9am in a lovely town called Narberth a few miles from the coast, very near to his house. When I arrived, my first impression of Yun was that he has the look of someone who has spent much of his life outdoors. He had a really healthy colour and distinctive salt and pepper short-cropped hair with a few days beard growth. He was pretty tall and well-built with a nice relaxed manner from the off. He wasn’t wearing flip-flops though.
As soon as he started to tell me a little about what we would be doing, I knew it was going to be a great day. Yun is one of those special people who manage to generate such positivity just from the enthusiasm that they have when they’re speaking.
“Even here in the middle of a town, we are so close to so many different wild herbs and vegetables, and they’re right under people’s noses. I love showing people where they can find things, and what they should be looking out for”
It’s time to jump in the car and follow Yun to Amroth Beach, a few miles away for the first part of the day. Yun’s driving is very much in keeping with the overall wild theme; I am doing all that I can to keep up with him on narrow country roads. If I didn’t think that he was a genuinely nice guy who loves nature, I’d swear he was trying to lose me.
We arrived at a windswept and drizzly beach, with a rugged backdrop of ancient rocks. It was deserted except for one man and his dog. Yun opened the boot and I was immediately introduced to his two trusty ‘long-legged Jack Russell’s’. George is 7 and his mum Bo is 9. They jumped out and bolted off down the beach as soon as they could.
“They go everywhere with me and absolutely love the outdoors, including my new sailing boat which I have just spent 3 months doing up. She’s an absolutely beauty”
As we head off down the beach, there’s still not a flip-flop in sight, and we suddenly find ourselves all on our own and in amongst the rock pools and thousands of tiny wild mussels, all attached to the sea wall. This is a first for me, and it really brings home the importance of opening your eyes to the bounty of free food, right on our doorstep.
Yun tells me that it’s no shame to look past all the great stuff that you can find in every part of the UK.
“I have only started to pick the mussels in the last couple of years myself. I was doing a programme, ‘Eating Welsh for a Week’ for BBC Wales and saw all of them here and figured I would include them. I met some old boy who told me that all of the shellfish and seaweeds are edible, so I just started from there, though purely for personal use. I surprised myself as I’d been foraging for 15 years and had never even thought about wild mussels, which are natures real food. The vegetables are all very well, but there really isn’t a great living to be had by picking them as the chef is only using them as a garnish. The fish or meat is the main event the majority of the time. You are only going to spend as much on vegetables”.
These tiny mussels are part of the plan and we spend ten minutes picking them into plastic bags for a nice ‘moules mariniere’ a little later. I have never seen or cooked a mussel this small, as we have all become so accustomed to rope grown mussels that are much bigger.
As we sit down on the beach to begin the boring process of cleaning the barnacles and the beards from the mussels, I ask Yun how he started doing this for a living.
“I started foraging as a profession back in 1995 by picking wild garlic leaves on Golders Green, because a friend of mine asked me to. My mum was always really in touch with nature and natural health, long before it became popular and was really into wild foods, so I had a pretty good basic knowledge from childhood. It was after picking the garlic that I figured that there must be other stuff out there that people would be interested in, so I started to look into it. I just added a plant at a time and did a quick assessment of the number of edible wild products that I could find in Wales. I found that there was 110 different edible wild foods, including wild mushrooms, so I just took the list around to a few chefs and it all grew from there”.
I ask Yun if he still gets excited by what he does after all this time though I think that I already know the answer.
“The great thing about what I do, is that over the last 15 years or so, I have been supplying some of the top restaurants in the UK from Marcus Wareing to Richard Corrigan, even supplying the wood sorrel and sea beets for the Queen’s lunch on ‘Great British Menu’ a couple of years back. This has earned me the right to walk into any kitchen, and chefs will at least listen to what I have to say and ask for a few samples. If you can get a face to face meeting with a chef, then you can have a fantastic relationship that can go on for years. You have a bond then that is very strong. You may never meet that chef in person again, but he knows that you are reliable and won’t let him down. The greatest endorsement for me is to maintain customers year after year. If your product is good and you do a good job, the chef will stick with you”.
“I love working with passionate chefs and how into things they get. I recently dropped some stuff off to Brett Graham, head chef at ‘The Ledbury’ (newly promoted 2 Star Michelin) and when I arrived it was 7pm. Service was just starting and he was at the pass directing things, only to then turn around at me and smile and say “you gotta try this”. He then produced a 5 course meal for me, show-casing all the foraged herbs that I bring to him. I was standing at the pass eating this food while all of this controlled mayhem was going on around me. It is just so satisfying to see my efforts being put to such good use. It is important to have positive feed-back, that what you are doing is appreciated by these top guys. It really helps on those days when things are not going so well. Without that feed-back, you will eventually start to question why you are actually doing it”.
We put the scraped mussels into a cool-bag for later and head off back up the beach for a look along the edge of the beach for some wild vegetables, in particular some Alexanders, a form of wild celery to go with the mussels. To my untrained eyes, there are just weeds all over the place. I am sure that hardly anyone that walks past these areas would have any idea of the amount of free and tasty vegetables available right under their noses. Yun waste’s no time and dives straight in and starts to talk me through what everything is. He shows me sea beets, a variety of sea spinach which are very popular amongst chefs nowadays. There is also a plant called Valerian, although he won’t pick this at the moment as he can’t see the pink flowers. These tell-tale signs are key to a correct identification as many leaves look very similar, and it is Yun’s responsibility to ensure that everything is absolutely safe to eat.
We continue to scour the hedges for some sorrel for the mussels, though when I say we, I really mean Yun. I am still very much out of tune that much of this is both edible and tasty. Yun is in his element now and has such knowledge of this particular area that I am happy to just step back and watch and taste. We find the sorrel and it is an ingredient that is under-used in cooking in my opinion. It has a lovely kick of lemony citrus and will enhance any dish whether some steamed spinach, to finish a risotto or at the last-minute into a fish sauce.
Many of the wild herbs and vegetables depend on being picked in order to flourish, and Yun will pick away any of the yellow or dead leaves to help clear the way for the young and small leaves to make their entrance.
The rain is really coming down now, so with the mussels, alexanders, sorrel and sea beets organised, we jump back into our very 21st century cars to head off to a different spot. All that I need to do is to keep up with Yun and I won’t go hungry.