Westcott and his team regularly forage for ingredients in and around London. It’s not just the result of searching for wild food that brings satisfaction, says Westcott, but also the act: “Foraging itself is incredibly rewarding. It brings the whole team together and reminds us how much effort goes into finding great ingredients.” Among the wild foods visitors can expect on the menu this summer are gooseberries, wood sorrel, wild garlic, watercress, chickweed and yarrow. But aside from the fun of finding ingredients in the wild, what is it about this approach that appeals to Westcott? “I love to use wild ingredients as they bring different flavours and unique dimensions to a dish. Some add acidity, some provide earthiness and some give a peppery taste,” he says.
Indeed, much of the produce used in James Lowe’s restaurant, Lyle’s, is regularly picked fresh from just a stone’s throw away in east London. “Nature knows best,” is his philosophy, and despite its trendy Shoreditch location, his Michelin-starred restaurant has an understated simplicity that lets the food do the talking. The British seasonal menu includes locally sourced dishes, with ingredients that are foraged from wherever possible, such as suckling kid belly, ramson and goat’s curd. The ramson (wild garlic flowers) will have been picked that day. However, using seasonal produce isn’t a conscious decision, according to Lowe, it is just a normal part of cooking. “It would be more difficult for me to source, cook and create dishes at a restaurant that doesn’t use seasonal produce. It just makes sense to use produce that is at its peak; it’s more exciting as a chef to do so, and it results in better food,” he comments. Also inspired by what she sees growing and blossoming around her, Skye Gyngell of Spring in Somerset House finds much of her produce in the wild. With its light-filled, pastel-coloured interior, the restaurant has a feminine feel. Gyngell’s menu, which complements this aesthetic with the use of edible foraged flowers, features grilled lamb with chamomile, asparagus, wild garlic and celery leaf salsa verde or fillet of beef with courgette flowers, to name just some. This respect for beautiful ingredients runs throughout.
THE BEAUTY OF BOTANICALS
“Flowers not only add a touch of elegance to a dish, they also add a unique flavour dimension to starters, mains, desserts and cocktails as well as a bit of intrigue and colour,” says chef Tom Aikens, who, at the age of just 26, was the youngest ever chef to win two Michelin stars for his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea. Unsurprisingly, he once had Lee Westcott as his protégé. His empire has since grown to encompass four branches of Tom’s Kitchen (in Chelsea, Somerset House, Canary Wharf and St. Katharine Docks), which serve “high-end comfort food”. He also has a delicatessen and bar aboard HMS Belfast on the Thames near London Bridge. His ethos is simply to use seasonal and locally sourced ingredients of the highest quality wherever possible.
And it seems that the options for fine dining with flowers and botanicals are boundless. Aikens suggests cooking dishes with borage, which has a cucumber-like flavour that complements light food such as salmon and salads. Nasturtiums, meanwhile, have a more peppery taste, which can work well with fish or lamb. He also recommends using white clover flowers, which can be steeped in vinegar, or dried marigolds to brighten up a dish such as risotto, clear soup or fish bouillon. “Any dish, both sweet and savoury, can be enhanced by edible flowers and herbs,” says Aikens. “From nasturtium and thyme flowers to fennel pollen.” Whether these top London chefs use locally sourced, organic seasonal produce, wild food or beautiful botanicals, one thing is clear: nature does indeed know best, and what better season than summer to showcase it in all its glory?