In a field in Wiltshire, the scene has been set for an almighty barbecue. Hefty cuts of pork and a huge side of beef are positioned over a monster fire pit. Beside them, a giant skewer has been threaded with six whole chickens.
But on another giant grill, pride of place is given to courgettes, asparagus, spring onions, and broad beans in their pods. On a nearby table sit bowls of green leaves and wild garlic, ready to be mixed into salads.
"Look, we might be known as the meat guys, but that doesn't mean we don't love vegetables, too," says Richard H. Turner, founder of Meatopia UK, the London arm of late food writer Josh Ozersky's New York meat festival.
Despite being part of a food event known for live butchery demonstrations and giant flame barbecues, Turner and many of the other chefs involved in Meatopia are just as big on vegetables. Today's countryside barbecue is a chance for them to hone their veg-grilling and foraging skills before the festival.
"I'm, like, 90-percent vegan now," says Andrew Clarke, head chef at South London restaurant Brunswick House, who recently had the word "kohlrabi" tattooed onto his knuckles. "There might be just one day of the week where I eat meat, but it's got to be really good quality meat, I need to know where it comes from. It's the same ethos for the restaurant as well. I'd rather serve someone a smaller, but beautiful piece of ethically sourced meat, alongside some amazing vegetables."
It's this kind of back-to-basics cooking that we'll be focusing on today. The camp's outdoor kitchen is already stocked with meat, but we need to find some green accompaniments. Nick Weston, founder of a Sussex-based foraging and cookery school, leads us into the Wiltshire countryside and guides us in what's actually edible.
"It's all about bringing these three elements together onto one plate, so we hunt the animals, we gather and forage for other ingredients, then we cook them all over the fire," he says.
The fields are bursting with leaves of every type but as a lifelong city-dweller, I'm hard pushed to be able to identify more than just a daisy.
"We often host classes with chefs as it's quite amazing the amount of them who have cooked with these sort of ingredients, but have never picked them," Weston says. "If you live in a city, you may not have been able to ever do this. In London, Battersea Park is good for foraging and I hear Hackney Marshes is really good, but it's actually illegal to forage in any of the royal parks."
Weston explains that a lot of plants will be known by both a folklore name and a Latin name. He picks a sprig off a nearby plant.
"Like this one, for example. This is 'garlic mustard' or 'hedge garlic,' or 'jack-by-the-hedge.' If you have a nibble on it, it's got a mild garlic-mustard-y, slightly bitter taste to them. Right now, it's good for bitter salad leaves."
How you use a plant also depends on what time of year it is.
"A lot of plants have different stages and parts throughout the year when you can use it. In spring, we'll use leaves and shoots," Weston explains. "Then there's the flowers, then the seeds and then in winter when it dies and all the energy goes back into the roots, you can harvest the roots."
One of the major reasons that people don't forage as much as they could is the fear of picking something lethal.
"People have a sense of caution when it comes to mushrooms, but actually, plants are more likely to be dangerous than mushrooms," warns Weston. "For example, the carrot family contains some really deadly plants like hemlock, which will kill you in about eight hours."
Of course, not all plants are quite so dangerous. Nettles may be known for their capacity to sting, but the herbaceous plant can also be cooked and used like cabbage or spinach. Picklemaker and chef Freddie Janssen—who also works with the Michelin-starred Lyle's in East London—tells us that the restaurant has recently been serving nettle soup.
"If you blanche nettles or wave them over a flame, you'll get rid of the stingers," explains Weston, throwing a few leaves onto a nearby grill. We gingerly nibble on them, waiting for the kicker of a sting, but instead, they taste earthy and toasty.
He continues: "I can never describe the taste of nettles as it's quite a bizarre taste. We were camping out in the woods on a development session once and we made nettle vodka. We put crushed nettles into a cream charger bottle and charged it up a few times to infuse. The drink tasted like it was stinging you. It was the weirdest thing—it tasted how it felt."
While we're on the subject of nettles: is the thing about using a dock leaf to relieve stings real?
"No. Rubbing a dock leaf on you after you've been stung by a nettle doesn't do anything—it's a placebo. It's just a cooling sensation."
I can't help but feel duped by my old Brownie guide leader.
Next, we look at some roots of bennet (a herb that smells like cloves) and examine the leaves of a dandelion (great in a salad, apparently.) Then it's onto a clearing carpeted with a white-flowered green plant
"This is wild garlic, which is currently in season and just amazing. Every part of the plant can be eaten," Weston says. We begin munching on flowers, roots, and leaves—all with that unmistakable garlic tang. The air around us even smells of the allium as we trample through the greenage. "One of my favourite camping tricks is to get a small bit of venison and roll it up in a wild garlic leaf. It's delicious. It's also good for making wild garlic pesto."
We pick a big bag of leaves to go with our meal tonight. There's just one more thing to remember.
"Don't believe everything you read about foraging in books," says Weston. "Quite often, we struggle with foraging books saying that a plant is edible, but when you taste it, it might be horrible. Just because it's edible doesn't mean it's nice. That's the great thing about chefs who forage, they understand everything behind it and understand how to use it."
Thankfully, that's something Turner, Clarke, Janssen and the other chefs on this trip are fluent in. As we sit down for dinner, they produce a feast of smoked chicken, broad bean and wild garlic salad, smoked salmon tacos with charred leeks and nettle mojo verde, and a whole fore rib of beef with ember-baked beets. Meat, fish, or veg, we agree, it can all be bettered by being stuck on the grill. We wash it down with sorrel martinis, made with leaves we picked earlier.
With a sore head the following morning, I haul myself from the campsite down to the neighbouring field to pick some wild garlic and sorrel to take back to London. I spot two other people from our group doing the same thing. Meat-eaters or not, we've all become converted foragers.