I started off at the Loft Project. The usual site in Dalston. Miles Irving was the man of the evening. A forager in trade, Miles supplies wild, foraged herbs and veggies to top London chefs in the likes of Richard Corrigan and Mark Hix.
Today he was not trading but organising a forage soiree at the Loft. Beginning with an educational walk and ending with a meal.
We were led by him – cocktail in hands – along the extended Regent’s Canal where he had picked our dinner. It sounded like a novelty evening, but after 20 minutes or so I was… close to be mauled by many hostile cyclists. DYING to throw a bouquet of nettle at them so badly!!!
The good thing was I was also throughly informed of the foraging “Do and Don’t”. Shown (lethal) hemlocks, (mustardy) shepherd’s purse, and many other herbs that existed along the canal path. Told the carrot family can be poisonous and plants from the cabbage family is distinct in their peppery flavour. Couldn’t help thinking how fertile this neglected ground was and what it’d be like to be accompanied by Miles in the countryside.
What’s more? I was munching a bunch of leaves and elderflowers…
Seriously, I did not want to think if any of these had been peed on pooed on >_<
I ate a handful of super fresh rocket off the brick wall! To my surprise, all the herbs were very pronounced in their taste. Miles claimed the grown herbs did not usually have so much clear flavours. Nor were they as nutritious.
And, yes, having tasted those leaves, I was quite convinced.
Miles was very knowledgeable and passionate. That said, after an hour of walking and eating leaves, I became a little impatient.. less “convinced” but now convulsed with hunger. NEEDED FOOD. PERIOD.
Back to the Loft HQ, it was the same old story of one communal table and never-before-met fellow diners. Our chef of the day Dave cooked up the menu devised by Nuno Mendes. Dishes were Viajante-innovative but based very, very loosely on the herbs Miles gathered.
Started off with the second glass of gin, apple, celery, dill, etc. (looking medicinal but tasting superb!), canapes of anchovies and a nibble of globe artichoke with elderflower mayonnaise. Good mayo but the elderflower did not make itself tasted very much. That became a drawback of the evening.
Dishes were good, and Dave’s precision was commendable. But, the foraged items lost their sparkles. Became supplementary. Personally I wouldn’t have minded the meal being less innovative and more rudimentary. It’s about herbs and many vegetables you foraged from the “wild”, nonetheless.
Dishes.. (1) Razor Clam, Water Dock, Rhubarb, Yoghurt. Pleasant. Barely cooked razor clams. Organic, natural feel. Creamy acidity from yoghurt undercutting the sharp rhubarb. Gelatinous chicken (?) stock added a hint of otherworldly savouriness. (2) Wild Asparagus (Green and White), Star of Bethlehem, Sorrel, Salsify and its Cream, Hogweed, Burdock, Milk Skin. Delicate. Fresh (as many items on the plate were uncooked). Meaty and brilliantly cooked white asparagus. Overall flavours verged on being just a chilled asparagus soup but decent in the combination of textures.
(3) Lobster, Leek, Leek Ash, Crushed Peanuts, Shepherd’s Purse did not blow me away. Smoky bitterness (from the ash) was the dominant flavour reminding me of a dish at Viajante not very long ago. Lobster also barely cooked. Right after I finished I walked to the kitchen for a peek. Dave was plating (4) Cod, Confit Egg Yolk, Hogweed, Jersey Royal, Saffron Foam. Looked familiar. The taste? It was actually a dish at Viajante served with cod instead of lobster. My most favourite dish of my latest visit. And it was the same with the last of the savoury dish of (5) Lamb, Wild Garlic, Cereals (Review here). The girls next to me picked this up, too. They seemed underwhelmed. The dish was delicious but way too small.
The pre-dessert was the star Rose Granita, Candied Grapefruit, Pineapple Weed. A lovely rose ice flakes with a bite of bulb that tasted like pineapple. A delight. Like eating flavoured frost. Loved it! The last was Turnip, Turnip Puree, Beer Tapioca and Vanilla Foam with a bit of flower. At this point I forgot the evening was about foraging as 6 courses away the plants had become a lot less significant. The turnip, a dish I loved at Viajante, was here served with vanilla foam instead of vanilla ice cream. Lost a bit of omph from the freezing ice. Very lukewarm compared to the Rose Granita. Petit four of White Chocolate Truffle, Cep Mushroom was to die for. I dumped all the manner and went over to the kitchen for another one.. sorry >_<
At the end of the evening, I was let down. NOT by the food but by the way the evening was conceptualised. The menu, though kept along the line of a sort of organic cooking – barely cooked fish and meat so to achieve the near natural flavour – did not enhance the foraging experience and fell short of advocating the brilliance of foraged items. Could they not shine in their own right? They surely could, judging from our meal at Noma that glorified foraging without a telling that these things were the product of foraging. Tonight, at the Loft Project, I felt the flowers and herbs I put into my mouth were the burst of culinary enlightenment than the dishes I consumed.
For a more thorough foraging experience with Miles, check out his Forage For Your Dinner with chef Paul Foster at Tuddenham Mill, Suffolk, later in June. Miles has also published a very informative book The Forager Handbook available everywhere.