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Looking for places to eat in St Albans? Read our review of The Foragers at The Verulam Arms in St Albans, one of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
The Foragers at The Verulam Arms in a nutshell
Wood sorrel, sweet cicely, hogweed, mugwort… these are the kind of unusual ingredients that we love to see on a menu. Especially when they’ve been foraged within a three-mile radius of the kitchen. Picking wild fruits, herbs, plants, nuts and fungi, and then transforming them into inspirational food (and booze) is what The Foragers is all about.
Founder and local lad George Fredenham designs the dishes and, alongside head forager and poet Richard Osmond (who has published a book of verses about wild plants), sifts through Hertfordshire’s hedgerows, woodlands and wetlands in search of the edible treasure so crucial to his menu. It’s chef Paul Butler, previously of The Holly Bush in Hampstead, who does the cooking.
What’s the vibe like?
The Verulam Arms, a red-brick Victorian building with welcoming lanterns either side of the doorway, has been serving locals for more than 150 years and sits in a pretty St Albans conservation area in the shadow of the city’s Norman Cathedral. The pub buzzes most evenings (a flattering review in The Good Pub Guide 2018 made it all the more popular), though you can usually find a free table for two in a candlelit corner.
Inside, sage green walls and canvas prints of George and the team out foraging reflects the pub’s wild food ethos. A central, curved bar dotted with brass beer pumps is the focal point; scrubbed wooden dining tables and chairs surround it, with the kitchen discreetly tucked away at the back. There’s also a microbrewery on site, and hops and grapes grow under heated awning in a gravelled garden.
How does the menu work at The Foragers, The Verulam Arms?
Seasonality is key – if Hertfordshire isn’t growing it, The Foragers won’t cook it – and freshly shot local game ties the menu together, appearing in everything from ‘deer spheres’ (a kind of muntjac arancini) to a stew made with braised venison neck, prunes and red wine. It’s a sustainable, thoughtful way of eating meat. Muntjac, for example, is actually considered a pest: ‘They breed uncontrollably and are great at destroying vegetation,’ says George. ‘By serving muntjac on the menu, we’re helping to safeguard local woodland.’
George is just as devoted to vegetables as he is to meat. The vegan oyster mushroom ‘frumenty’ (a medieval pearl barley stew recipe that Richard discovered) comes flavoured with foraged mulberries and wood avens, a forest flower with a clove-like spice to it. Tap your nose conspiratorially and ask for your frumenty ‘extra purple’, and they’ll bring it to you with a shot of homemade blackberry brandy; stir it through like honey in porridge to add warming depth.
Which dishes should we order at The Foragers, The Verulam Arms?
The deer spheres starter is a wonderful way to begin your foraged food journey. Made from blue cheese, risotto rice and shredded muntjac that melts as softly as pulled pork, they’re little balls of comfort that we could happily snaffle like crisps. An intensely fruity hedgerow berry syrup cuts through the cheesy richness, and the accompanying wild garlic mayonnaise is the kind of fancy condiment this plate deserves.
When meat can’t be shot locally, The Foragers obtains it from nearby butchers, Franklins of Thorncote. That includes free-range hog belly, which is patiently slow-roasted to make juicy, fall-apart pork with a thick, crispy shield of salty crackling on top. It comes with mash, sweet apple sauce made from The Foragers’ own scrumpy, and rich, silky smooth game gravy that takes seven days to make (it involves roasting off the muntjac carcass used to make deer spheres). Magically, it’s a gravy that also changes with the season – it could be flavoured with pheasant and partridge, or pigeon and rabbit, depending on what’s roaming the woods.
What’s dessert like at The Foragers at The Verulam Arms?
Even pudding showcases the bevvy of wild ingredients that Hertfordshire has to offer. Try cheesecake topped with wild berries and woodruff (a sweet-fragranced plant with tiny white flowers that taste like vanilla), served with a cobnut crumb (similar to hazelnuts, but with a coconutty aftertaste); or a dark chocolate cake that’s made with wild walnuts and comes with bulbous blackberries spiked with blackberry brandy. The sticky toffee pudding, though unusually straightforward for The Foragers, is also good… just as teeth-achingly sweet as it should be.
What are the drinks like at The Foragers at The Verulam Arms?
This is no ordinary bar menu. Vodka, for example, comes flavoured either with citrusy sea buckthorn and rosemary; fresh horseradish; woodruff; or a ‘medieval forest’ mix of herbs with mystical names like mugwort and ale-hoof. There’s even homemade absinthe for the brave, made from fennel, sweet cicely and powerfully bitter grand wormwood.
Try one of five wild cocktails before dinner – our favourite is the woodland negroni, a short, warming pick-me-up with a minty aroma. Made from martini rosso blended with bitter forest barks, hedgerow berry gin and goodness knows what else, it’s syrupy and creamy at first, with a clean, dry finish. Happily for non-drinkers, there’s a great selection of alcohol-free cocktails too; or simply have one of their homemade syrups (douglas fir tastes exactly as it sounds) with soda water.
The beer selection is just as exciting. All the cask ales served on hand pumps are brewed on site, and the core range includes Slingshot (a British tribute to American beer, flavoured with Douglas fir needles); Saint Cloak (a light, delicate oatmeal stout); and Grindcobbe (a cloudy wheat beer named after a St Albanian rebel who helped lead the Peasants Revolt of 1381). Every time the beers are brewed, the team uses a different wild ingredient for flavouring – so, as George explains, ‘you could order a stout in spring flavoured with wild mint, then come back in autumn and find the same beer flavoured with toasted hazelnuts.’ There are 20 taps to choose from in total, including beers from all over the world, and a wine list that showcases smaller European producers.
What else should we know?
George and the team also run foraging days out for wannabe wild chefs. Learn how to identify the best edible goodies, gather your ingredients in the fresh air, take them back to the kitchen, and turn them into something delicious. For more information, visit foragewell.com
The Foragers at The Verulam Arms, St Albans (the-foragers.com)
Words by Charlotte Morgan, March 2018
Photographs by The Foragers at The Verulam Arms