Shining a light on Cornwall’s pioneers, Seasalt has always celebrated flourishing local talent. Each month in support of their creativity, we share their inspiring stories.
This month, we visited Caroline Davey, founder of Fat Hen wild food foraging and cookery school in West Penwith.
What’s the story behind Fat Hen – where did the name come from and how did you get started?
I set up Fat Hen in 2007. My former career was in ecological consultancy, where I specialised in habitat and species surveys. I learnt a lot about plant identification. I became more and more interested in the relationship between us and plants, so I set up Fat Hen so I could be self-employed and unite my two main passions – nature and food. When I was looking for a name for the business, Fat Hen stood out as one that would be easy to remember. Most people don’t know that it’s actually an edible plant – it was an important crop about 2,000 years ago, but now it’s just an agricultural weed.
I think through foraging, my relationship with the land, and particularly with West Penwith, has become a lot deeper, and I feel much more connected to nature and the seasons. When I’m outdoors, picking seaweed or foraging in the hedges I’m completely in the moment. I feel so lucky and privileged to be able to spend my time outside and feel at one with the landscape and the seascape.
What are the health benefits of eating wild foods?
There are so many incredibly nutritious wild foods. We’ve lost touch with our intuition when it comes to what we should be eating, and everyone is incredibly confused – that’s why we have this multi-billion-pound diet industry.
The stuff that’s growing outside our back doors and in the hedges that we ignore or think of as weeds, like nettles, dandelions and plantain are incredibly good for us. If you make a smoothie with nettles and dandelion you’re going to have loads of vitamins, minerals and nutrients and some protein and carbohydrate. Nettles are also a natural anti-inflammatory and an antihistamine.
Can anyone enjoy foraged foods? How do you convince fussy eaters or people who are unsure about trying something new?
I’d start by giving them things that aren’t too challenging. Everybody loves blackberry jam on their toast and elderflower cordial, and I think most people would probably enjoy wild garlic. I’ve got three children, and my youngest, who’s six, is pretty fussy, so I give them things like nettle pesto or wild garlic pesto that aren’t too different from what they would eat already.
How does foraging change with the seasons – can you find edible foods all year round?
We’re particularly lucky in Cornwall that we have such mild winters so we can forage all through the year. Springtime is the most abundant for greens, and as the greens are coming in to flower you have edible flowers: roses, elderflowers and mallow flowers. In the summer you’ll find a lot more along the seashore, including rock samphire, marsh samphire, and a variety of estuarine plants. In the height of the summer a lot of things are going to seed, but then come September everything starts to grow – all the greens as well as berries and fungi. During winter in Cornwall we have hedgerow salads and herbs. I’m happy to take people out foraging at any time of the year, but I don’t run courses in December and January because I think people don’t want to go out in that weather – although I might be wrong!
How do you make sure foraging is a sustainable activity and stay on the right side of the law as a forager – where you can forage and what you can take?
If you’ve never foraged before, the law states that you’re allowed to pick the four Fs for your own consumption: fruits, flowers, foliage and fungi. There’s an exemption in the theft act that makes wild-grown things not a theft. Obviously if it’s been planted and cultivated by someone and then you take it, that is theft. But if it’s wild-growing, and if you’re taking it just for your own consumption then it’s legal. However, if you then go and sell it, then you start getting into difficulties unless it’s your own land or you have permission from the landowner.
It’s also important to think about pollution or contamination – try and avoid picking on really busy dog walking routes, or if you do, pick a bit higher up or a bit further back in the hedge. Make sure if you’re picking from rivers that you know a bit about the water quality, and if you’re picking around arable fields, find out if they’ve been sprayed with any pesticides or herbicides. For instance, if you’re picking nettles on the edge of a field and you can see that it’s a ploughed arable field, don’t touch them unless you know that field has not been sprayed with herbicide. Plants can look okay for a couple of days after being sprayed, but they’ve got chemicals all over them.
How important are the communal cooking and feasting elements of what you do?
Communal cooking and feasting is pretty much what my business is all about. It’s part of enjoying and being part of the whole journey from soil to plate. I think wild food is only real when you sit down and eat it, so you need to know how to cook it as well as collect it. That’s what we’re trying to offer at Fat Hen.
Do you have a foraging equivalent of comfort food – what’s your go-to dish?
I’d say something like venison with blackberry sauce and nettle gnocchi would be a really good autumn meal. Green pasta, crispy seaweed and of course all the jams and jellies are also perfect for this time of year.
Who or what inspires you?
Anyone who has chosen their own path and is doing something they absolutely love. We spend a lot of time working, and if you can make your hobby into a career that’s the sort of thing that inspires me. I think Cornwall is full of those sorts of people.
What does a perfect day look like for you?
A day on the beach ending with a sunset surf and a BBQ on the beach with friends and family. There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.