Go wild in the country

For James Burton, food miles are those spent tracking fowl or tracing wild woodland ingredients. Rosie McGlade meets one of the region’s most fascinating chefs

 James Burton, action chef, has a £300 camouflage shooting jacket and a garage full to the brim of homemade chutneys, relishes, jellies, cordials, and fruit cheeses, all made with ingredients he’s tracked down and picked, or grown. His cottage, near Hadrian’s Wall above Hexham, surrounds itself with Shakespearean-sounding herbs and a vegetable patch, its vast views interrupted by little bar buttercups and his mother’s three donkeys.

In his kitchen, dominated by an enormous extractor fan, we taste aniseed-like dried sweet cicely seeds, powdered dandelion root, which he’s pulled up and roasted; bitter, but very earthy, a triumphant addition to soups and game casseroles, as is the ground wild mushroom from secret woodland sources, gathered as early as May. Pickled nasturtium seeds are as fat and tasty as capers. Better, James says.

It’s exotic and very local at the same time. So interesting it’s almost exciting. No wonder James can charge £40 a head to come and cook in your own home.

Where else will you find a chef with a brace of wild geese he’s shot himself (sustainably, he hisses) belly-to-ground in the reeds of the rain-lashed Northumberland coast (the worse the weather, the less jumpy the bird – they call it ‘wild fowling’), his own grown veg and an unheard-of concoction of powders and sauces unleashed from timeless wild plants?

It’s a hot June day and my 11-year-old son and I aren’t at first sure what to make of this very active young man. We’re offered drinks made of elderberry vinegar, rather pungent, unlike anything I’ve tasted, but nice, we both decide, and are promptly drilled in the dos and don’ts of responsible, sustainable foraging (don’t take too much, only pick what’s over knee height in towns, where dogs can’t reach) and then trot behind as he leads us around his herb collections, bending to crumple leaves and compare fantastic smells. 

But he grows on you. James is passionate, mind body and soul, about food, about wild things, about mind-blowing recipe combinations you won’t have ever tried before, a younger, blunter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and he can take a joke, which is nice. By the time we leave, we love him, especially after the sips of home-brewed cider I’m offered, which aren’t for sale, sadly, but are gorgeous, like expensive pressed apple juice with a kick.

For sale, mostly at Hexham’s farmers’ market every second and fourth Saturday of the month, are James’s jarred goods, too many to write down during the cider taste test, but which he later emails a long list of. There are the usual cordials, chutneys and hedgerow jellies, then things like pontac catsup, a sort of elderberry Worcestershire sauce, pickled dandelion buds, wild gooseberry cheese, and a very delicious rhubarb relish we later sample, as he said it would go well with both fish and sausages at a friend’s barbeque later.

No surprise that he’s known as a forager. He’d have to kill me if he told me his best foraging sites, so sorry I can’t pass on tips. He even makes his own cider vinegar. His brother, clearly cut from the same cloth, makes a gin blended with young beech leaves – beech leaf noyau, which James says has an apple flavour, and is a great aperitif.

“One of my favourite plants is elderflower. The young shoots can be boiled up like asparagus,” he says, “or the young buds pickled, and the flower heads are gorgeous. You can make elderflower sparkling wine, cordials, or fritters. I’m not as fond of the berries, but they’re good pickled or turned into thick, dark vinegar, like a balsamic.”

There are a number of good books on wild food. James recommends Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook, which has lots of good recipes, or Richard Mabey’s Food For Free (original edition is best) or Roger Phillips’ Wild Food.

 “The Romans used ground elder in cooking where we might today use spinach or cabbage. Nettles are wonderfully versatile. Either collect them when young, or pick off the top tender shoots – they’ll keep coming back. I make nettle soup, pesto and roulade. I always think anything with nettles tastes like it’s been made with fish stock, and it’s incredibly good for you.

“All the vegetables we eat started out as wild plants, and we’ve bred them to be more productive, often at the expense of their natural nutrients. Things like nettles have more trace minerals than many cultivated greens, for example.”

But a note of caution. “The idea of foraging may have got more fashionable of late, but strictly speaking it’s a grey area, bordering on the illegal. It’s against the law, for instance, to uproot any wild plant. Last year, people were arrested in the New Forest for picking sack-fulls of mushroom. For me, that’s taking the mick. You have to pick in ways that are sustainable. It’s just being sensible, really.”

Or, if you can’t be bothered, just get James in with his ready-picked sorcerer’s cauldron of gathered, shot, home-grown and blended delights.

“I’m a trained chef,” he booms, “and have had my own vegetable garden since I was six. I’m a one man band, I don’t go out on the town, I don’t need loads of money and it’s about quality of life for me. I specialise in outside catering for weddings, shooting lodges and house parties, and like to think I’m different from what everyone else is doing.”

James’ prices start at £30 a head, where he might do something like spiced pigeon with dock pudding starter, followed by rose veal and wild garlic mash plus a few vegetables from his garden, then a mix of rhubarb, ginger and champagne jellies in a big crystal bowl with a queen of puddings. Prices go up when he adds canapés and harder-to-find ingredients.

Sounds delicious. He’ll talk to your guests, too – they’ll not forget that dinner party in a hurry.  

Contact James Burton on 01434 681 331 / 07775 926 267

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