Born to be wild

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th February 2013

Lee Williams speaks on behalf of The Staff Canteen to a professional forager, nutritionist and survival expert, Fraser Christian, who lives and works in West Dorset. Fraser has worked with River Cottage and provides wild ingredients to 2 and 3 star restaurants.

You were a professional chef before you got into foraging. How was that and why did you change careers? I’d worked in a kitchen since I was 15 then I went to Brunel Technical College in Bristol where I graduated with 99% in my practical exam, the highest exam result of any student ever in the college. By the age of 19 I was already second chef at a four star hotel with three rosettes, but in the end the repetition of using the same ingredients and the long hours – sometimes 97 to 100 hours a week – began to put me off. I decided I wanted more quality of life and being quite individually minded, I wasn’t afraid to change careers. What attracted you to foraging? I grew up in the country and I’ve been in the woods ever since I was a kid. It’s in my blood. My great-grandfather was one of the most famous gypsy horse doctors. He used to treat all the gypsies’ horses with anything a vet couldn’t cure using herb and hedgerow remedies. I grew up shooting shotguns and poaching so I guess the gypsy blood has always influenced me! And how did you get into foraging as a career? When I first left cheffing, I bought a camper van and went off travelling around Europe. I lived in India for three months where I helped an Indian family with running their cafe. When I came back to the UK, I worked for River Cottage. I was the lead host and chief instructor on all their fish-based events for three years. After River Cottage I qualified as a chartered skipper and started to run my own fishing trips. It really took off for me after the tsunami in 2004. A group contacted me that had done the post-tsunami relief work in Thailand. They wanted someone to create a post-apocalypse beach survival course to help teach the skills that they wished they’d known when they were out working in Thailand. After that I set up my own Coastal Survival School here in west Dorset and a separate foraging website called wildforage.co.uk. From there I got into supplying wild ingredients to restaurants. How is that side of business going and what are the most in-demand ingredients? It’s going really well I’ve supplied over half a dozen Michelin starred restaurants. This year I’ve already got a couple of two-star restaurants on the books, L’Enclume and Whatley Manor. Most demand is for sea vegetables – things like samphire obviously; sea beet is very popular at the moment and various kinds of seaweed. Do you often forage for yourself? I won’t lie and say that’s all I live off. Like everybody, I’ll have the occasional frozen pizza when I’ve been working till nine or ten in the evening, but yes I’ll often pick up a few wild bits and bobs when I’m out in the van and throw them in a stew or use them to supplement what I’m eating. Do you have a favourite ingredient? Yes dulse, it’s a red seaweed with a slightly unusual but well-balanced flavour, not too salty. It’s traditionally put into bread in Ireland. And a favourite meal with that? I do a really nice three-seaweed risotto with red seaweed, green seaweed and brown seaweed. I’ll use something like sea lettuce as the green one, dulse as the red one and then kelp as the brown. You get a great balance and between all of them they’re a complete super food with every single nutrient the body needs except vitamin D. Sounds lovely! Foraging is going through a boom in popularity in professional kitchens at the moment, why do you think that is? A chef can get 20, 30 maybe 50 different kinds of vegetable from a greengrocer but you can get more than a hundred different kinds of wild plants that nobody’s used before. So it’s exciting for chefs because a chef is like a painter, there are only so many different combinations of colours you can come up with so using wild food is like having a larger palette of colours to paint with. What’s the future of foraging both for chefs and the public at large? In terms of restaurants hopefully, when the cost comes down, it will filter down from just the high-end places and everyone will start using it. At the moment I sell wild spinach at between £30-£60 per kilo, which only top-end restaurants can afford. In the end it will filter down and get cheaper but it might take time. In terms of the public I’d like to see more and more people getting into it just as a nice healthy activity. It’s all about getting outdoors and reconnecting with lost knowledge and for me it’s part of the cure of our modern health problems. We’ve got an obesity problem. There’s on average two and half grams of salt and two and a half grams of sugar in every ready meal plus all the chemicals. Modern food is poisoning us. Anything that we can offer that provides an alternative has to be worth it. If you go and buy a ready meal you won’t digest hardly any of it because there’s no connection with it. If you want to get the most from your food, you need to go out and touch your food, pick you food, prepare and cook your food; you build up a connection with it and it builds up your digestive juices. By doing that plus the fresh air and exercise that comes with foraging, you only need a tenth of the food and you’ll get a hundred times more nutrition than something that’s mass produced from the shop.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th February 2013

Born to be wild