Cornwall

Forage, Cook and Feast at Fat Hen, near Penzance

An early September Wednesday finds me heading past Penzance into the wilds of West Penwith, where I’m off to Fat Hen, a ‘wild’ cookery school hidden away in the countryside dedicated to founder Caroline’s two passions – food and nature. Today, I’m going to learn how to forage and then cook what we find, and I’m excited, partly because I like to cook but also because I’ve always dreamed about learning to live off the land.

Nestled away down a bumpy country lane on a working farm, Fat Hen is set amongst stunning wilderness and is a beautifully converted barn, complete with professional kitchen and long dining tables. Stepping through the door, I’m greeted by delicious smells already – Robert, our chef for the day, is busy making a hearty stock and other goodies. Having worked for the likes of Cranks, Jamie Oliver and the illustrious Gurnard’s Head just up the road, he’s a man with a fabulous CV and it’s clear we’re in safe hands. 

Fat Hen founder Caroline gives me a warm welcome as well as fresh coffee and a tasty vegan flapjack as the other participants arrive, and we all settle down for introductions and the outline for the day; prepping our meal, a two hours’ forage, then back to the kitchen to complete the meal and then feasting on our bounty.

First up, Caroline demonstrates how to make pasta with a uniquely local ingredient – nettles. Free, plentiful and delicious, Fat Hen is a fervent advocate of the stinger whose healing properties are beyond measure, so as Caroline adds cooked, blended nettles to the pasta mix we sip on nettle tea – grassy, clean and tasty.

Next, we move on to pigeons. Shot locally on a nearby estate, they’re fresh and plump. There’s no problem if you’ve a veggie or vegan, there are other options and a member of our group, a vegan, heads off to work on another dish whilst we pluck and prepare the birds for smoking. Robert shows us how, explaining the parts of the bird we can use and keeping the bones for stock. We’re all game (excuse the pun) and soon there’s feathers and laughter flying around.

Once we’ve cleaned up, it’s on with boots and coats as Caroline takes us out to forage with baskets, gloves and scissors in hand. It’s a bit mizzly (the Cornish version of a drizzle) but we’re happily delving into hedgerows seeking the well-known (blackberries, dandelions and nettles) and the lesser known (navelwort, wood sorrel and pineapple weed). 

We walk down country lanes, over fields and into woods and all the while Caroline shares her extensive knowledge with us (she has, amongst many other things, an ecological consultant). Foraging can be a dangerous business and is not for the under-prepared. She shows us how easy it is to wrongly ID plants, and how complex all the different species of mushrooms are.

Foraging is something I really want to develop but listening to Caroline makes me realise how important it is to have the proper training – something to think about for the future!

Deep in the woods we find a beautiful blanket of wood sorrel, much prized by chefs for its pretty leaves, and jelly ear (or Judas’s Ear), a strange looking fungus found only on elder trees. Where we’re looking is a real hidden-away spot, and home to lots of wildlife too – there’s a huge, fresh badger’s set and we spot footprints in the newly-dug earth.

Once our baskets are full, we make our way back to Fat Hen HQ where Robert is busy cooking. There’s sparkling elderflower, succulent strips of smoked pigeon and cloud-soft yet crunchy on the outside focaccia for us to munch on, then it’s on to our nettle soup starter – rich and unctuous, it’s offset by a zingy sorrel emulsion and toasted hazelnuts – totally delicious, and the embodiment of early autumn.

Soup bowls empty, it’s on with the aprons and we all have a go at rolling pasta then making ravioli with a smoked pigeon and carrot filling. It’s a collaborative affair, each of us helping each other create thin, silky pasta to fill with the fragrant orange filling. There’s lots of laughter, wine and original attempts to make different shapes with the pasta. 

Robert swiftly cooks the pasta and serves it with wild cabbage, beurre noisette and further strips of smoked pigeon, and we all dig in. The silence is indicative of how good it is; it’s honestly the best pasta I have eaten and everyone else agrees. Our vegan companion has a tasty plate of farinata (a chickpea pancake) with cooked veggies and a tahini sauce which he munches on enthusiastically.

Just in case we weren’t full enough, Robert unveils super-sweet, gorgeous panna cotta, flecked with vanilla and set with seaweed (it acts in a similar way to gelatin), accompanied by our foraged blackberries cooked with rose geranium and fennel biscuits, using the flowers rather than the seeds. 

Finally, Caroline brings out jelly ear fungus, soaked in sloe gin and covered in dark chocolate. Unusual yet delicious – a rich end to a fabulous meal.

It’s suddenly four o’clock and time for us to go; we’ve all had a wonderful day, and as we say our goodbyes I’m thinking if I can put another Fat Hen course on my Christmas list……

Fat Hen offers a wide selection of courses, from gourmet wild food weekends, fish and shellfish cookery, artisan bread making and just foraging. They also offer private dining experiences.

Feeling inspired? Why not combine a Fat Hen cookery course with a stay in one of our luxury cottages in the far west of Cornwall? Take a look here.

Gwenmenhir, Boscawen-noon Farm, St Buryan, Penzance TR19 6EH | 07767 792 417 | www.fathen.org 

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