As I have previously confessed, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an outdoorsy person (unless you count the occasional spot of gentle beer gardening); even less so during times of inclement weather. No-one was more surprised than I, then, to find myself foraging near Rochdale in torrential rain back in September 2014 - if gin had not been involved, then I count it highly unlikely that I would have bestirred myself for such an event. Thing is, though, I really enjoyed it, and have stayed in touch with our genial foraging guide, Dave from Discover the Wild, ever since, full of well-meaning intentions about booking onto one of his other events.
I still hold these well-meaning intentions but have hit upon an altogether more satisfying sort of arrangement: I stay warm and dry at home, and Dave pops round with some stuff he has already foraged on my behalf, and made into a range of enticingly-flavoured syrups. There are currently eight in total (some of which are still prototypes), made from all natural ingredients which Dave has foraged locally (blackcurrant leaf and nettle, rose, linden blossom, dandelion and burdock, spearmint), found in his garden (lavender, lemon verbena) or got a mate to source the plants for him (hibiscus); they are all handmade by Dave in his kitchen and are pretty much organic (although he can't say so as it would involve him getting every spot of land he's foraged on organically certified).
All of this worthiness is pretty meaningless unless they taste good too; fortunately, they really do. I haven't tried them all yet as once opened they don't have an indefinite shelf life (although the ones I opened a few weeks ago and have kept in the fridge since are still going strong), but so far, so good. The first ones I tried were the rose and the lavender, aided by a gin-loving friend - we simply added a dash to a gin and tonic. The rose was my slight favourite and the lavender just edged it for the gin-loving friend, who confessed afterwards that she doesn't normally like floral flavours but loved this due to its natural rather than synthetic taste. I have since tried the hibiscus in a g&t and can pronounce it just as good, and am thinking of trying the spearmint in a Mojito-type concoction next.
The other one I've tried is the dandelion and burdock - with some trepidation, I must confess, as even the smell of a can of d&b is enough to make me queasy. Turns out, of course, that real dandelion and burdock tastes nothing like this commercial imposter but is in fact delicious - far more intensely savoury, with strong notes of ginger and star anise augmented by the judicious addition of a little black treacle. I treated this one like a cordial and just added some hot water - it was utterly wonderful and is one of my new favourite things. All of the syrups can be used with water, lemonade or in cocktails; Dave also suggests pouring this one over some ice cream (and confesses to having tested this particular combination extensively, all in the name of professionalism). I can imagine that next time I'm poorly, a hot drink made with one of these would be particularly comforting, and am saving the linden blossom for this very purpose at Dave's recommendation - apparently it can be used to treat colds, runny noses, sore throats, headaches and to relieve anxiety. This is a man who really knows his stuff.
The botanical syrups are obviously small batch produce that also, in some cases, rely upon seasonable availability, but are already available in select local bars (including the Lawn Club in Spinningfields, which uses some of the syrups in their cocktails). The Discover the Wild website is currently being revamped so that individual customers (me! me!) will be able to order through the site from next month; businesses can already order through the "shop" link if they would like to use or stock the products. Each syrup is priced at £5 for a 250ml bottle - I think this is a bargain, as they last for ages. And what could be nicer than an afternoon's foraging in the fridge and emerging triumphant with a well-earned cocktail? This is my kind of outdoorsiness.
- as well as beavering away in his kitchen, Dave has announced a number of foraging events for 2016 that are also listed on the website (including a foraged drinks one where you will take home your own bottle of syrup, and some mushroom ones that I'm very interested in, not least for the opportunities for fungi jokes that such an occasion affords). Most of these are priced at £35 and can be booked via the site. Dave gave me the range of syrups for feedback purposes but I will genuinely be purchasing again (and be paying good money to wander round a field in the rain looking for mushrooms).