Herbalists from Forest to Plate took Priyanka Shankar on a foraging journey to prepare the perfect plant-based gourmet meal.
by Priyanka Shankar
A bunch of fat wild chives, mustard leaves, carrots, dandelions and pine needles turned into a four-course gourmet meal after a group of food enthusiasts, nature lovers, a business consultant and a journalist transformed into wild chefs for a weekend.
Equipped with Swiss knives and white-netted bags, I spent a weekend hiking through the forests of Vireux-Molhain, on the border of France and Belgium, plucking edible plants, roots and berries which were destined for the perfect pumpkin soup, kohlrabi, pita-bread roll and chocolate cake.
With the guidance of Belgian based herbalist Ben Brumagne and Chef Pieter-Jan Lint, we sniffed around oak and acorn trees to find edible plants.
Ben has been searching for edible plants since 2014 and has foraged in the forests of several places like India, Iran and most recently Laos. In Belgium, he started ‘Forest to Plate’, an organisation aimed at making people aware of the benefits of wild edible plants.
He leads people through forests, showing them what to forage and also helps people create ‘food forests’ in their own backyards.
“Rule number one: If you don’t know it, don’t eat it,” said Ben, handing out knives to pluck out plants and berries for lunch. “Use your sense of sight and smell to recognise the roots and leaves you can eat,” he added.
It wasn’t long before our noses detected the familiar smell of garlic and carrots and our eyes spotted the lion-like persona of the dandelions.
Gently plucking out the roots and tender tips of these plants, Ben explained that most forests around the world are food forests where the leaves and roots can be eaten or have medicinal values.
“The dandelion has been used since the Egyptian civilisation began. The young leaves are eaten in spring and the roots, though very bitter, can be used as medicine. When the flower blooms they are often used to make jams and alcohol.”
Hiking through the forest for a few more miles we also collected a few pine needles and acorns, before heading back to Ben’s house to cook with Chef Pieter-Jan Lint and experiment with the flavours gathered from nature.
Chef Pieter-Jan Lint who describes food as “molecules dancing in your mouth,” enjoys cooking with natural and locally sourced ingredients. He believes the vegetable kitchen is the kitchen of the future and organises wild chef weekends with Ben, to teach people plant-based gourmet food recipes.
“Rule number one: If you don’t know it, don’t eat it! Use your sense of sight and smell to recognise the roots and leaves you can eat.”
Pieter-Jan likes to lure people in with his goofy menus, “I create dishes where I like to tickle the taste buds of people. I make my menus goofy and mention the ingredients used like pine needles or saw-tooth herbs which intrigue people who later realise it is entirely plant-based.”
“This style of cooking is rooted in the idea of sustainability and returning what is used, back to nature. It is a primitive, healthy and ecologically viable form of eating and cooking.”
According to a recent study published by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health an increase in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts and a decrease in the consumption of red meat and refined grains would not just provide health benefits but also tackle issues arising from climate change.
The study was conducted by about 30 of the world’s leading scientists, who expressed that a plant-based diet was the need of the hour to transform our planet’s future.
As we sorted through our foraged ingredients, Pieter whipped up a pumpkin soup topped with green herbal oil. Rolling up our sleeves to help, we chopped the foraged wild winter cress and mixed it with small cubes of Kohlrabi to make a salad.
Plating the salad in antique brown bowls, Pieter also added a bit of mayonnaise to the gourmet Kohlrabi.
“Mayonnaise is a classic dish in gastronomy. I am making a plant-based one without egg by using Aquafaba as the emulsifier. It is the liquid in which chickpeas have been cooked,” he explained.
Adding some of the Mayonnaise to a Pita-bread roll stuffed with kimchi, some sweet potato fries and salad and herbs, we moved on to prepare the dessert.
While we were foraging, Pieter had baked a vegan chocolate cake which we topped with some beetroot sauce, acorn flour and raspberries.
As we watched him prepare a classic gin and tonic, blended with apple juice and pine needles to relish with our meal, Ben said: “In the wild plants you eat today, you will be blessed with nutrients that can stimulate your body in a variety of ways”.
Sharing a good laugh at his words together, ‘Smakelijk’ (Dutch equivalent to Bon Appétit) we said and savoured the crunchy, tangy and fresh flavours of our plant-based gourmet meal from the forest, now on our plates.
Priyanka Shankar is a journalist currently based in Brussels. She has reported for UN Radio and Reuters among others. She lives for an adrenaline rush and enjoys reporting stories that make markets move. When not working, you will find her rambling through mountains or scuba diving.