Foraging with Toast’s Jessica Seaton
Long Reads 26.11.2017
Words Tamsin Blanchard
Photographs Liz Seabrook
The local landscape has always informed Jessica Seaton’s work; be it Toast, the fashion brand she co-founded with her husband Jamie, or foraging for ingredients in West Wales – which is where we found her, listening to trees…
I have my ear pressed up against the trunk of a tree. It is a birch tree near the river that runs in the valley below Jessica Seaton’s farmhouse in Llanfynydd, West Wales. I am listening, quite hard, but all I can hear is the birdsong around me and the rushing of water in the river. Seaton assures me that when the sap rises, you can hear it. But we think it might be too early. There is a very small window of sap-tapping opportunity. Last year, Seaton tried it in March but it was too late. ‘You have an electric drill… you drill a hole about a centimetre wide until you see stuff start to come out. You put a tube in and it pours into a big vessel like a demijohn. It gushes out, apparently.’
Seaton has spent the past three years immersed in writing a book about the relationship between the landscape and the food we eat. She has spent time reading, researching, foraging, cooking and experimenting, often going beyond the raw ingredients we might be familiar with and rooting around – literally – in the hedgerows and woodland around the house she lives in with her husband Jamie Seaton.
They met while at Birmingham University doing their degrees in archaeology, and moved to the sparsely populated, rugged landscape of West Wales shortly after graduating. Together, 20 years ago, they founded the fashion lifestyle brand Toast (prior to that they had a successful knitwear business). They have been on endless journeys together – many of which they have shared with their loyal band of followers who lust after the rustic honesty but aspirational world-traveller heavenliness of their brand – but her book, Gather, Cook, Feast, is Seaton’s first solo venture. It is a celebration of the connection between the food we eat and the land where we live – because that relationship is in danger of sometimes being lost.
‘Jamie and I would go for walks here and we always end up having an expansive conversation. Quite often we’d talk about if Toast were to do a book, what would it be?’ As Jamie Seaton doesn’t cook (though he is an enthusiastic tester) it made sense for Jessica to do the book on her own, with the help of culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun. ‘I have often wanted to represent an affinity with a particular place and landscape in my work, first when Jamie and I were designing and making knitwear, then more recently in our invention of the Toast brand and the associated goods and shops you may know today,’ she writes in the introduction to the beautifully designed and crafted book.
‘In the expansive final stages of many long upland walks, our tongues loosened by exercise, I have long dreamed and sketched out plans for a recipe book about place. This is a book about landscape and food, about imagining food that, in some way, both comes from and represents landscape. A plate that feels like a place.’
So that’s why I am with Seaton one monday morning in February, walking along a squelchy muddy river valley in Carmarthenshire, Wales in search of birch sap, pignuts, wild garlic and nettles. She is quite determined to get some sap. Not today. And if not this year, next will do. She knows you can’t hurry these things. If she succeeds in tapping the sap, she will drink some of the liquid and reduce it over a fire to leave the syrup. It’s the same principle used in the production of maple syrup. For Seaton it’s as much about the process and the experiment, the complete satisfaction of being in harmony with nature.
‘What I was interested in was how the sap rises ages before the tree comes into leaf – they are not even getting ready for the buds. That’s why that was so interesting because the idea is that it’s osmosis capillary action transpiration that pulls the water up the tree. But there is no transpiration because there are no leaves when that happens, so it’s still a mystery. All the things we know and there are still things we really don’t know!’
You have probably gathered by now this is no ordinary cookery book. ‘I did a lot of reading at the start to just try and get a context for what I was trying to do,’ she tells me. ‘I had a theory at the outset. I wanted it to be British, I wanted it to be landscape and I wanted the book to be about food that feels like a place, not just comes from a place but actually feels like it.’ In her blog, ‘Notes from the Lland’, Seaton has distilled some thoughts about her philosophy on our relationship with nature. ‘Albert Camus viewed nature as impartial and merciless and considered that it was only against this backdrop that man could feel his humanity,’ she wrote. ‘Each age forms its own unique view of the world and it is my regret that we often now seem to trivialise and repackage nature to suit the entertainments of our time – when in fact, each tiny cell that forms our miraculous bodies; every molecule of air that we breathe; each drop of moisture that moistens life and each crumb of food that powers life: all come from the earth. We are made from the place where we live.’
‘I did a lot of reading at the start to just try and get a context for what I was trying to do’
As we negotiate the rough ground, she tells me that she’s been re-reading The Plague – in which Camus tells the story of a plague spreading through the French Algerian city of Oran. ‘Landscape forms quite a big part of that book. It’s like a character in the book, there’s the sky and the sea, and the wind blowing off the arid land and it’s a presence throughout. And he felt it’s only against that setting of landscape we feel our humanity – and it speaks to me about how I feel about it. It’s more than just cosiness and cute cottages and countryness.’ It makes you feel quite small, I suggest. She agrees. ‘Essentially I think we maybe need to be made to feel small sometimes, often we feel ourselves too powerful.’
But ultimately, she is meditating on the earth and how we treat it and how our relationship with nature has become a little, dare I say it, fake. We Instagram a beautiful sunset, a tree against the mist. And that’s all fine. But it’s important not to become too divorced from the reality – that actually living in the countryside and off the land can be harsh – and at times brutal. Nature is not as idealised as a chocolate box lid or a tin of shortbread. I wonder if she is seeking to educate her reader with this book. ‘I don’t really want it to be a manifesto as such. I come from a place that is much more about evoking something and less about factual arguments for this or that. I’m very interested in this idea about landscape and people’s connection to it – and it appears to me that it’s very deeply embedded in our being. But more people live in cities now than live outside, and it’s what that might do to people long term. Everywhere you can still see reference to landscape – on modern packaging in supermarkets, that’s how things are sold – and people still respond to those cues, even though they are not really conscious of being aware of any connection.’
For Seaton, seasonality and locality were key to the recipes she has included in the book. She mentions damsons, Seville oranges and quinces as examples of seasonal fruit, and she revels in their fleetingness. ‘There’s a lot of thinking about what ingredients were OK and what weren’t OK in terms of locality and seasonality,’ she says. ‘In the winter, if you’re being really local, does that mean you don’t use a tomato?’ She decided that you should use one if it makes for a better dish. ‘I looked at lots of books about the history of food. There have always been foods and spices imported into Britain ever since Roman times, so it seemed rather weird to ignore that. But broadly it’s local and seasonal.’
As we are talking, Seaton is looking at the earth, in the hope of finding a pignut. It’s too early in the year and they haven’t grown leaves yet, but she has some kind of inbuilt radar and starts digging in the ground under the trees with the long trowel she has brought out with her. Amazingly, she finds one, a small tuber-like nugget that she will scrub and add to a salad. In May, they will be everywhere.
This idea of foraging for herbs, nuts, berries, clams and leaves is something Seaton has been doing all her life. She started with nettles and then moved on to mushrooms. As a child, her grandparents made wine from elderflowers picked from the wild. ‘My father’s family were steelworkers, miners, living in a two-up, two-down, but with an amazing, beautiful hill behind the house,’ she says. ‘They were very generous and there’d be lots and lots of homemade elderflower wine for visitors.’ As a child, growing up in the Leicestershire countryside, Seaton took an interest in it all. ‘My mother was a gardener and a cook – a housewife. I would cook with her. Her food was sort of adventurous, it was the late 1960s and 1970s, and food was all opening up at that point. When I was very small it was quite traditional, but she was a fan of Robert Carrier, and collected recipe cards. She went out to cookery classes and she cooked chilli con carne, coq au vin… all that stuff. It was the start of the world opening up.’ She remembers her father bringing home their first avocado. ‘It was rock hard and we had no idea what to do with it.’
We are heading towards the wild garlic. Again, it’s too early – the snowdrops are only recently out – but Seaton is hopeful we might find something. ‘It grows all along these paths, and further up on the bank. It grows in a carpet.’ She swoops on a few bright green shoots poking up above the earth and rubs the leaves on her fingers. The smell of the garlic is pungent and fresh. But it’s too young to pick. She will be back next month.
On the way back up the hill to the stone house – which is painted a warm brick red – we are tuned into the hedgerows and the shoots underfoot. In her basket is the lone pignut and some fleshy round green wall pennywort leaves which grow on the walls near the house. They taste a little like pea shoots – sweet and crunchy. They are going into a salad for lunch, along with the nettles that Seaton gathered earlier. It’s important to pick the young leaves, she says. And use rubber gloves.
Back in the vegetable garden at the back of the house, which looks out over the rolling hills and valleys beyond, Seaton continues to add to her basket. There are dandelion leaves (again, only the young ones will do), some new kale shoots, all curly and springy, and some spinach still growing in the raised beds. Foraging is more about an accent than a whole meal – a touch of rare greens, fresh from the earth – and it adds a real flavour to the book. Seasonal, local ingredients are one thing, but you can’t beat adding growing weeds and leaves to elevate your lunch or dinner to something truly worth savouring. ‘It’s just satisfying but it’s also the taste! Because most of what you get [from shops] is not fresh. It’s been in the chiller cabinet for a week. So that’s a big part of it.’
As well as the things she already foraged, like mushrooms and nettles, Seaton actively sought out some other ingredients in the name of research. ‘Collecting cockles was amazing,’ she says. ‘So exciting. Cockles are a local thing at Burry Port [on the Loughor estuary]. It was the first time I’ve done that. They were so tasty. You have to soak them in salt water to clean them and put them in a hot pan.’ Other ingredients include sea beet from Milford Haven (‘it’s the ancestor of chard and beetroot but it’s really good: a sphere-shaped leaf like sorrel, but more substance to it. Quite vigorous’), and Alexanders. The other thing she tried in her intrepid explorations was hogweed. ‘I found it delicious. It’s an enemy plant. I have to make sure it’s not been sprayed.’ Equally, she admits there are lots of things not worth bothering with – ‘too little and piddling’. Her advice is to stick to the things that are nice, like dandelion, which she loves.
After our walk, we set to work in the rustic kitchen of the house. It was formerly an outhouse but the Seatons had it transformed into a small but very functional kitchen complete with an Aga, which Jess much prefers to cook on than the electric hob back in their London flat. She prepares the soup and chops up the leaves for a salad, while I prepare some elderberries from the freezer for a batch of elderberry cider vinegar. We drink it hot and it is instantly warming. The soup doesn’t take long (sadly the recipe didn’t make it into the book, but you will find it on her website) and is rich, savoury and filled with goodness. The salad, in contrast, is crisp – and you can taste the difference between every leaf. ‘It was a lot easier to do the work for the book here than in London,’ she says. ‘I prefer cooking at home in this kitchen. I focus more time on it.’
And with that, we wash up in the great stone sink, and Jess gets ready to shut up the house and go back to London for business. For her, country and city work hand in hand. But there is no doubt, this house – in this lonely landscape – is where her heart is.
Gather, Cook, Feast: Recipes from Land and Water by Jessica Seaton and Anna Colquhoun, £26, is published by Fig Tree.