Top chefs around the UK turn to Alysia Vasey for advice on ingredients. Bernice Saltzer discovers why.
Alysia Vasey’s little black book reads like the who’s who of English cookery.
Michelin-star chefs from across the country are her everyday contacts and she’s in the enviable position of being sought out by those who want to become part of her elite band of customers.
It’s not a bad position for someone whose career path took her from helicopter engineer to the law, from a destination researcher for cruise ships to teaching before finding herself in her current position – as one of the country’s top professional foragers.
Alysia is the driving force behind Yorkshire Foragers, and spends the vast majority of the year scouring the countryside and beaches for their rich bounty, which can then be used by top chefs.
Mark Birchall at Moor Hall, Michael Widnall at Gidleigh Park, Nigel Haworth at Northcote Manor, Andrew Pern at the Star at Harome, Adam Reid at The French – the list of Alysia’s customers reads like a who’s who of the culinary great and the good.
“This would never have been what I’d have thought of for myself as a career,” admits Alysia.
“I joined the Navy at 19 but decided to leave after five years because I’d just spent too much time at sea and then I decided to go to university to study law and politics.”
Alysia won a competition in The Times for the “Lawyer of the Future” which she admits opened a number of doors but felt like “a square peg in a round hole” and so decided it was not for her.
She then made the decision after working as destination researcher for P&O Cruises to return back to Yorkshire. “They kept sending me to Norway,” she jokes.
“There’s nothing about where to go and what to see in Norway I don’t know.”
While deciding on her next career move, Alysia came up with the bright idea of planting truffle trees.
“I was obsessed with truffles and I had this idea to make my Labrador into a truffle hound,” she revealed.
“I went out and planted some rogue truffle trees and while I was doing that I spotted some giant puffball mushrooms, so I put the information on this nerdy mushroom spotters website that I had joined.”
The posting led to a response from a man that Alysia affectionately refers to as “Mushroom Martin”, a forager who supplied a number of Michelin-star restaurants in London and was also interested when she revealed she could also get her hands on supplies of wild garlic.
“Foraging was second nature to me, we’d grown up around it,” she said. “We used to go out and hunt for bilberries when we were kids, I just thought it was something everyone did.”
The history of why Alysia’s family were so knowledgeable about foraging unearths a story that is, quite simply, remarkable.
In 1939 her then-14-year-old grandfather and his brother joined their father who was a train driver in Poland. They witnessed the Nazis delivering the cattle cars of Jews to concentration camps and when they could they would not only give the prisoners water but would also unlock the carriages to give them the chance to escape.
Eventually, they were caught by the Germans and it looked as if death would also await her grandfather and great uncle. Fate intervened and when a fight broke out while they were being driven to a camp, they took the chance when the guards were distracted to escape and run into the forest.
The men lived there for an astonishing eight months, surviving by foraging and living on berries, plants, fruit and nuts – anything that they could find.
Eventually, they joined the Polish army and spent the rest of the war fighting the Germans, before moving to Yorkshire and the Calder Valley.
Amazingly, Alysia’s grandfather is still alive and can see how the skills that saved his life have been passed down through the generations.
In honour of her grandfather, Alysia has also just produced the UK’s first sustainable foraged gin, named Defiance, which is also now proving hugely popular with many leading restaurants.
“It’s early days for the gin but we’re delighted it’s being so well received,” she said.
Although introducing the spirit to a wider audience is now a priority, the daily business of foraging still has to continue.
Through “Mushroom Martin” Alysia was introduced to a number of chefs who were extremely interested in the items she could supply.
“It was a really steep learning curve at first and I really had to expand my knowledge,” she revealed.
What angers her is some of the bad press foragers have had in the past for supposedly decimating the countryside. “For every mushroom we pick, we leave ten behind,” she said. “It’s really important that our sources are sustainable so of course we treat everything with respect.” Her hunting ground, surprisingly, is in and around her Doncaster hometown.
“There are a huge number of heathlands and ancient woodlands near Doncaster and because there’s not much development taking place, they are unspoilt,” said Alysia.
“At the same time as the coal industry closed down, the mineshafts were capped off and covered with soil that was brought in from all over, which were full of mushroom spores, so that’s why we can get amazing wild mushrooms.
“It’s a phenomenal area, full of produce. During the 1950s, Doncaster Council for some reason decided to plant lots of fruit and nut trees so we’ve got Morello cherry trees and almond trees all over.”
Alysia’s list of foraged items is truly remarkable – think tangerine root, wet walnuts, blue spruce, stonecrops – dozens upon dozens of ingredients that grow wild around the shore and countryside. But it’s not just a matter of delivering a box of natural goodies and leaving them.
“There are many foraged items which have to be used in a particular way. It’s not just taste, some can be dangerous,” said Alysia. “For example there’s a trend at the moment to use sweet woodruff but it contains a compound which is used in the blood thinning treatment, warfarin, so it shouldn’t be given to pregnant women.”
Ingredients such as tonka beans and bison grass can also be perilous if not treated correctly, as can some kinds of heather – while sometimes it is where the items grow that can cause a problem.
“Chicken in the woods mushrooms for example are fine but not if they grow on yew trees,” said Alysia. “And there are a lot of poisonous plants that grow around wild garlic where the leaves look very similar. It’s really important to have that knowledge.”
Other natural ingredients need to be processed in the correct manner – dried out under heat or made into an infusion before they are best used.
December to February is a quiet time for foraging, and it only when the spring equinox takes place does the year begin.
For Alysia, every new season is an adventure; nature’s game of hide and seek where she can find new and exciting ingredients.
“Chefs know they can trust me, not only to supply them with what they want but to introduce them to new things and also give them the knowledge on how to use them,” she said.