Getting off the road on a foraging foray in the Lake District
You might be familiar with the 13-mile slip of grey-blue water that is Lake Windermere. Even on a brisk weekend in early April, its edges are intensely studded with tourists, all kitted out in plasticky cagoules and heavy-duty walking boots – ice cream running down their wrists.
Head onwards to Grasmere though, and the traffic thins, until you're past poet William Wordsworth's former homer, Dove Cottage, and things begin to actually feel remote.
Blame the ridge of white snow still frosting the peaks in the distance, and the fact that, if you stop in at The Forest Side – a once derelict Victorian home, now luxury hotel with a swoosh of wild strawberry-spangled driveway – you'll uncover a vibe that's reassuringly quiet and utterly unhurried.
It's a feeling chef Kevin Tickle has hoped to cultivate ("I wanted a restaurant where my parents could come and not feel out of place") – and he's the reason we're here.
The hotel, alongside its one-Michelin star restaurant, has recently launched foraging sessions with Kevin as passionate guide, complete with a slick Land Rover Defender to zip about the countryside in, and a greaseproof paper-wrapped picnic in the boot.
Prior to joining The Forest Side four years ago, Kevin was head forager at chef Simon Rogan's celebrated Cartmel restaurant, L'Enclume, two hours south of Grasmere. You can even spot him wielding a blowtorch in the L'Enclume episode of BBC series The Trip. (He confirms that Steve Coogan is genuinely the funniest man alive.)
Foraging might be considered zeitgeisty and 'cool' right now, but for Kevin, "it's not a fashion trend". Growing up on the west coast of Cumbria he "never used to be in the house", was always outdoors and by a kind of natural osmosis, just knew the names of trees and plants, while his dad taught him to make wine, and "not to eat daffodils".
It was only later, as a professional chef, and on discovering the astronomical sums people pay for ingredients he knew he'd be able to find swathes of on nearby hillsides, that he started taking it seriously.
On days off, he'll take his toddler daughter out foraging, and he and his kitchen crew will go roaming, stopping the second anyone spots a frond or spray or tuft of something green – and therefore possibly edible – they could feasibly work into a dish. My shout of "grey squirrel" almost gets the same treatment.
Dinner in the hotel's muted restaurant – where tables circle the pale, tangled roots of a huge tree that doubles as a bar, and nubbly plates are imprinted with Polypody ferns collected by Kevin – starts with grey squirrel croquettes. We call our waiter back to check we've heard right. We have.
The dense, crisply-coated nuggets of squirrel meat are intensely gamey, and aren't just on the menu for effect. Come breakfast time, it's not uncommon to spot red squirrels capering about The Forest Side lawn as you sip your tea, and the Cumbria Wildlife Trust is working hard to preserve the area's native population.
Culling greys, which carry disease reds can't fight off, and decimate the natives' food sources, even stealing songbirds' eggs, is the done thing, so why not eat them, rather than waste them?
While squirrel is both sustainable and pretty damn tasty (if controversial), Kevin's honest that not everything you can forage tastes great at first bite. There's an element of knowing how to extract flavour – and you do have to factor in roadside fumes. But then, there are bits of twig or softly curling leaves that do taste and smell miraculous.
We nibble frothy, lemony oxalis leaves (like the elegant, willowy, waif-ish cousin of clover) in the kitchen garden's glasshouse, where micro herbs are grown for the restaurant, and explore the hotel's bank of veg beds, sleepy now, before the spring produce really kicks in.
We learn that the blossom of Darwin's barberry steeped in water mimics the flavours of grape skin; grey-green sea purslane could be beetroot; balsam tastes exactly like Fox's glacier mints; Douglas fir smells like grapefruit and yolk-yellow gorse of coconut, while dittander makes for a native substitute for wasabi and horseradish.
And our few hours on the road are as much a foraging excursion as a tour of the area. Kevin points out the Badger Bar where local badgers are fed by hand every evening and Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's former home, and just pulls over whenever the mood strikes. (He's been known to employ an emergency stop in the face of a plentiful spot.)
In a lay-by, he tugs off the buds of a gnarled tree, which rubbed between your hands release the sweet smell of marzipan and sugared almonds, which can be used to make a nut milk alternative for those with allergies. "You can find so much stuff just at the side of the road," he says.
From that lay-by, we can see the curved land of the farm The Forest Side gets its hogget from – year-old lamb, served with a tangle of charred leeks and kale, whimsically dubbed: 'Will And Emma's Herdwick Hogget From Three And A Half Minutes Up The Road (Four And A Half If The Traffic's Bad)'. Sourcing produce so locally is key to what they do.
We repeatedly lumber out of the truck in order to just be still, to pause by one of the area's intricately built dry-stone walls, to breathe in the view, or to balletically sift among the mossy rocks of a stream for meadowsweet (traditionally used by monks to make mead) and lady's smock (sadly, none to be found).
Occasionally Kevin hands over a posy of freshly-picked greens, and I have a leaf two-thirds to my mouth when he says dryly: "That's often mistaken for hemlock." And yes, hemlock can kill you.
Ask him if he's ever accidentally poisoned himself and he says with a laugh: "Absolutely, I've made myself sick." The trick, he explains, is to be careful and "start with learning what you can't eat". And whatever you do, "don't muck around with mushrooms".
The mushrooms in his wittily-named dish 'Those Filthy Mushrooms He Cooks In Bone Marrow' shift with the seasons, be they fleshy chanterelles, gnarly girolles or soft, meaty ceps. And, you'll be pleased to know, they soothe and fortify rather than tip you into poisoned delirium.
Driving home, every yellow flower ("Is it Colt's foot? Or just a dandelion?") on every verge makes us want to gambol out of the car and into the fields to nibble along like the lambs dotted across the landscape.
Need to know
Doubles at The Forest Side start from £229 per night (two sharing) including breakfast. The L'al 'Un' six-course set menu costs £80 per person, and The Grand 'Un' 10-course menu costs £105 per person.
Pricing for the Foraging Package is available on request. The package can be booked for Sunday-Monday.
Visit theforestside.com for more details.