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Foraging for food at the award winning L’Enclume restaurant

PUBLISHED: 01:17 09 January 2014 | UPDATED: 01:17 09 January 2014

Picking berries

Picking berries

Archant

The village of Cartmel has one of the world’s top restaurants and a partof its success is down to the Chief Forager, writes Sue Riley

Foraged Amethyst Deceivers Foraged Amethyst Deceivers

Welcome to the world of Amethyst Deceivers* and plants which secrete a liquid so strong it burns the skin as bad as any fire. This is the life inhabited by Kevin Tickle, the man responsible for finding all the wild and wonderful ingredients which helped L’Enclume receive the accolade of best restaurant in the UK.

As chief forager and sous chef at the two Michelin-starred restaurant in the historic Lancashire village of Cartmel, Kevin’s job is an unique one; the combination of an excellent palate, chef’s training and hours spent studying foraging and plant books means it’s one he has made his own. He knows the important distinction between Sweet Cicely, one of the hedgerow’s tastiest plants, and its look-a-like deadly Hemlock, and his arms bear the scarring of an experiment he carried out not realising that Hogweed secretes a liquid which burns when in contact with UV light.

A few hours spent with Kevin among the hedgerows, woods and coastline is a revelation. Within minutes he’s kneeling at roadside verges, picking leaves, explaining their uses, how to identify them and sharing his wonderful, esoteric knowledge.

‘I enjoy being outside, looking for things in a scratty field or a picturesque location, it’s all the same to me. In this area there’s beauty in locations you would not expect to be a beauty spot. Finding a big quantity of something is always quite exciting. It’s a lost culture but people have been into it a long time before I got into it. It takes a lot of time for people to be able to do this; I used to be the same, to look blankly at things,’ he says.

Kevin can not only spot edible items but he also has a chef’s palate so he knows how to get the best flavours from them. He talks about extracting the juice from the roots of Herb Bennet, which produces a liquid tasting of cloves; where Scarlet Elf Cup mushrooms can be found in January; that Jews Ears are usually found on old elder trees and that the red capped mushrooms Fly Agaric have hallucinatory properties (they have never appeared on L’Enclume’s menu) and were made into a tea taken by Vikings before they went into battle. Phew! Kevin is a mine of information and all his knowledge about the plants and edibles of Cumbria is completely self taught.

He only forages in here and there are some things which can only be found in this area and nowhere else in the north west. Take Dittander, for example. Kevin finally found the plant with its hot, wasabi flavour on a 25-metre patch of land in Barrow following a two-year search. Whenever he finds a new ingredient (he supplies produce to the company’s two Manchester eateries and now Rogan has announced he is opening a restaurant at Claridge’s in London this spring, perhaps there too) it usually takes about a week for Aulis – the developmental kitchen at L’Enclume – to include it on their taster menu which costs £120.

Rare treasures will often be dealt with the same day though; that was the case when Kevin came across a beefsteak fungus near Greenodd and for just one night every restaurant customer was served a piece, many experiencing the lemony/acidic flavour for the first time. The restaurant menu changes all the time but there are classic dishes which remain popular, including ‘Potatoes with burnt onion ash, shallot puree and lovage emulsion’ decorated with raw wood sorrel leaves found on the outskirts of Cartmel.

Kevin says despite spending a lot of time studying there are still plants he comes across which is unsure of and never hands anything over to the kitchen until he knows exactly what it is. Mushrooms are particularly difficult and he warns people not to pick them unless they know what they are doing. ‘There’s ceps and girolles which are easy to spot but it is the ones that are interesting, the beefsteak for example where you really have to read up.’

Born in Barrow and brought up in Kirkby-in-Furness, he worked at Sharrow Bay and Gilpin Lodge before joining chef Simon Rogan’s team at Cartmel eight years ago. He became disillusioned with the foraging produce L’Enclume was buying in and set about finding his own.

Two years ago he was given the official job title of Chief Forager and now sometimes starts at 6am, scouring the countryside in search of produce before going back to the kitchen to make wine, salts, syrups, sugars and vinegars. Although he discusses what’s in season with L’Enclume owner Simon Rogan and the team it’s mainly up to him what he picks, depending on where he goes, what he can find and what’s in season. On Walney Island, for instance, there’s 30 different types of coastal herbs and, of course, seaweed.

‘I’m not a professional forager; I am teaching myself and learning. I do not pretend to be the best but I am good at what I do,’ he says. And he is. At one point he wants to show me a Douglas Fir tree.

‘Take the needles, you can’t roll them in your fingers as the needles are flat. Turn them upside down and there’s a single stripe so it’s either a Blue Spruce and this tree isn’t blue or a Douglas Fir,’ he says, before crushing the pine needles in his hand - emitting a strong grapefruit scent - which he uses to make sugars and salts. These go well with fish and flavour gin.

‘I’m a chef so I can relate to the scent notes,’ he says. His enthusiasm is infectious and often restaurant customers and his colleagues accompany him on his daily adventures. For anyone who’s interested in food it’s a fascinating, and inspiring, experience.

*The Amethyst Deceivers are tiny mushrooms which are initially purple (this is the stage when Kevin picks them) but eventually go brown, hence the wonderful name.

Kevin has recently been appointed as Head Chef at The L’Enclume’s sister restaurant, Rogan & Company

FOOD FOR FREE

Kevin recommends a selection of books including The Forager Handbook and Food for Free by Richard Mabey.

Sweet Ciceley with its aniseed tasting leaves and seeds is one of the tastiest wild foods to be found in the North West. Be careful not to confuse it with deadly Hemlock which looks similar.

Gorse flowers can be sprinkled on dishes as a decoration and have a light coconut flavour. Kevin also made 20 litres of gorse cordial last year but says the process of cutting the prickly branches isn’t for everyone. He prefers to pick his gorse from the coast.

Wood sorrel is prolific in winter and spring and its flowers make a pretty decoration.

Hawthorn berries aren’t particularly flavourful but have high levels of pectin so if you blitz the water they can be used as the base for a jelly.

Jack by the Hedge is abundant in Cumbria. Kevin advises cooking the leaves in oil until they are crispy.

Don’t forget the simple things like blackberries, elderberries, nuts

Don’t pick too much, particularly if an item is slow growing like grey lichen which can be deep fried and has an earthy flavour.

Rosehips can be made into cordials or syrup for use with sorbets, meat sauces or sweet and savoury dishes.

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