Forest Holidays: Foraging in the Forest of Dean

I’d never been foraging before, mainly because I’m the sort of clumsy oaf that would accidently pick the poisonous mushroom and end up in A&E!

But last month I was contacted by Forest Holidays and offered the opportunity to visit the Forest of Dean and go on a foraging and wild cooking experience with their forest ranger and wild cooking expert Nick Weston from Hunter:Gather:Cook.

I love discovering new things, especially when they involve food so I was hugely excited. I travelled down to the Forest of Dean site after work on a Tuesday night ahead of a busy day on Wednesday.

I got there late, but I was just in time for dinner at The Retreat where the forest shop, restaurant and reception is located. I met up with the other bloggers and got to know each other over a drink or two.

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We had all pre-ordered our meals before arrival so I was a bit disappointed that it took a very long time to get everyone’s food to them. The kitchen had my order wrong so everyone else had finished eating before I got my food, which was a shame as I was starving! But when it finally arrived, the forest pie was really tasty and ever so filling.

After dinner, we got to go on a night-vision tour of the forest with ranger Gerry and his owl The Professor! Gerry’s owl was a rescue owl born in captivity, so he can never be released into the wild, but as he’s so tame he made the perfect companion for our walk as we got the chance to hold him and give him lots of fuss. Most of us had never been that up close and personal with a bird before, so it was a lovely experience.

On our tour we got to walk through the forest in the pitch dark looking out for wildlife. I was hoping we might spot some of the forest’s famous wild boar but it wasn’t to be. We did get to spot a group of grazing fallow deer though, which was fantastic! Their huge antlers and bright eyes shone in our night vision lenses.

After that it was around 11pm so we decided to retire to our cabins. I was sharing with Erica from A Little Luxury for Me and Hannah from Zombiie Mummy. It was tempting to take a midnight dip in the hot tub when we got back, but we were so tired we opted for PJ’s and bed instead!

In the morning we got to appreciate the views from our cabin properly. The floor to ceiling windows in the living room meant that everywhere was bathed in dappled sunlight  and lush green from the trees.

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We headed off to breakfast bright and early when disaster struck and the power went out across the whole site. Heavy rain had wreaked havoc with the power lines and subsequently, our full English breakfasts! Though the team at Forest Holidays managed to forage us some pastries and cereal.

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Nick from Hunter:Gather:Cook and ranger Gerry gave us a short talk and showed us an example of a wild board hide before we headed off into the woods.

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It wasn’t long before Nick had spotted our first foraging opportunity – some sweet chestnuts and ribwort plantain

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Most of us recognised the chestnuts and knew what we could use them for, but the ribwort plantain was new for us. Nick explained how to identify it using the long ribs down the leaf, and got us each to try a bit and see if we could guess the flavour. Rather surprisingly, if you chewed it for long enough, it tasted remarkably like mushrooms!

As we continued we found puffball mushrooms, ground ivy, wild sorrel, camomile flowers, pineapple weed and some beautiful pink flowers that I’ve forgotten the name of that you can use to infuse vodka.

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Next up was a more interesting challenge – picking stinging nettles!

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Nick waded straight in, confidently picking the nettle tops with ease. For us, not so easy, but we did have a good go seeing as we were promised nettle soup and pesto.

We also found some wild garlic bulbs following a tip off from ranger Gerry and a little help from B the truffle dog!

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Finally we found some sloes and elderberries to complete our haul.

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We made our way to a clearing so Gerry could teach us some simple bushcraft skills. We were all tasked with creating a fire using some cotton wool, birch shavings and a flint and steel.

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Considering I’ve never managed to light a fire without some form of chemical help, I was charged with getting the spark to light our kindling and I think I did a pretty good job!

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We weren’t just making fire for no reason though, once we’d got it going we were sent off to forage for pine needles to make pine needle tea.

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Gerry told us how pine needle tea is actually revered for its health benefits. Outweighing green tea in the antioxidant stakes and promising to slow down or even reverse the ageing process, I was excited to try this stuff! I was a bit hesitant, expecting it to taste very piney or woody, but in actual fact the flavour was light and delicately perfumed. I thought it was delicious!

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Once we’d finished our tea break, we headed back to our cabins to freshen up and change before our afternoon of wild cooking.

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The guys had laid out a feast for us, with fresh vegetables, wild partridge, venison, cheese, black truffles dutifully found by B the truffle dog, and our foraged goodies.

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Before we got stuck in, Nick gave us a demonstration of how to butcher a venison haunch. He explained all of the different cuts you can get from the haunch and how to use them, before taking out the ‘salmon fillet’ cut to make a special recipe for us.

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Salmon fillet extracted, Nick showed us how to make his signature smoked venison ceviche. First off he blowtorched the venison, not to cook it, but just to sear the outside and give the dish some texture.

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Venison torched, Nick chopped red onion, cornichons, capers and ground ivy, then grated fresh horseradish.

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The fresh horseradish was ridiculously hot, it was burning my nose just from smelling it, so it was used sparingly! Nick then hand-minced the venison so it had a nice, chunky texture rather than mushy, before starting to construct the dish.

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Now, if you thought the blowtorch wasn’t enough drama, next Nick pulled out a mini smoke gun to finish. He placed the venison into a Kilner jar, sprinkled with the onions, cornichons, capers and horseradish, then topped with a raw quails egg before adding wood chips to the smoker and piping smoke into the jar before sealing.

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And there you have it, the finished dish, smoked wild venison ceviche! I was one of the first to dive in and try this dish and I have to say the flavour was absolutely stunning. The whole experience was made even better knowing where the deer had come from, seeing it being butchered so skilfully and then enjoying it with beautiful, complimentary flavours. Hats off to Nick!

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Then it was our turn to get creative with our ingredients. I’d never eaten partridge before so I made a beeline for the birds. Nick took us outside to show us a simple, tool-free way to prepare them.

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The partridge had only been shot the day before, so they were so fresh. Nick’s foolproof way to get at the meat without the need for laborious plucking was to lay the bird on its back and spread its wings, placing your feet on the wings and holding the legs firmly.

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Then it’s just a case of pulling the legs firmly upwards to break off the wings and head, and get into the meat.

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Then you can peel off the skin to expose the breast meat and the legs, ready for cooking!

I decided to make partridge breast stuffed with sweet chestnut, wild garlic and ribwort plantain, wrapped in parma ham and pan fried.

My kitchen partner and fellow blogger Jonny from Don’t Stop Living also decided to use partridge so he kindly took the breasts off the bird for both of us.

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While he was doing that, I toasted my chestnuts to reveal the nutty flavour, before pounding in a pestle and mortar with onion, wild garlic, ribwort plantain, sea salt and olive oil. Once I’d pulverised it as much as I could, I stuffed and rolled the partridge breast before wrapping in parma ham and tying with a stem of ground ivy to hold it all together. I pan fried the breast in olive oil over hot coals for a couple of minutes on each side. I plated it up on a bed of peppery rocket to balance the sweet, earthiness of the partridge and chestnuts and decorated with nasturtium flowers.

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The dish actually tasted delicious, although the chestnuts were a little crunchy! The partridge was such a lovely flavour.

Jonny was pretty pleased with his dish too. He also made a stuffed partridge breast but used the offal in the stuffing and paired with a blackberry sauce.

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I was so inspired by the wild cooking that at the end of the session, when Nick offered me a brace of partridges to take home I jumped at the chance. It was a shame I couldn’t convince him to let me take his beautiful dog B with me too!

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Nick was a brilliant cook and his wealth of knowledge about foraging was really inspiring. I’ll definitely be using some of his tips to go foraging at home.

A special mention also has to go to Gerry the ranger and his gorgeous owl The Professor.

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Gerry’s knowledge and love of the forest, it’s wildlife and its preservation was clear, and his warmth and energy made him so endearing to our whole group. I would definitely love to go out with Gerry again on a nature walk next time I come to the Forest of Dean.

I got one last chance to give The Professor a fuss and say my goodbyes before I left the forest that evening and headed back to the city.

The whole experience at Forest Holidays was wonderful. I learnt so much about the forest, our native wildlife and the plants and animals we can and should be eating more of, including our native wild boar. I was very sad to say goodbye to the Forest of Dean, but I can safely say I will be back again soon for the full experience, and I’ll definitely be putting Nick and Gerry’s knowledge to good use, giving foraging a go at home.

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I was invited by Forest Holidays to be one of the first people to try their foraging experience. My stay, including accommodation, activities and food were all complimentary, many thanks to Sophie from Propeller and Michelle from Forest Holidays. All opinions remain, as always, my own.

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