Take a walk on the wild-side at Thyme
Claudio Bincoletto, eco-horticulturist, chef and wild-food academic, has been involved with Thyme since its inception, as chef, gardener and now with his current project - the ‘re-wilding’ of both the estate and the palates of our guests. He is larger than life, tall, flambouyant and very Italian in everything he does. Passion underlies Claudio’s approach to life, and it is infectious. I meet him in the water-meadows, they are a little frosty and still heavy with the rain of recent weeks, but the sun is shining on us and the air is fresh with the possibilities that he has come to explain to me.
‘Wild food has gone mainstream,' he tells me as we pick our way carefully along the riverbank, ‘the mention of foraged food attracts both major media & academic interest; intelligent people are interested in eating in a way that appears to be thoughtful and considers the environment - but it is essential that this does not lead to the exploitation of resources in areas of natural significance, such as our cherished woodlands and shores, these beautiful meadows and even the hedgerows. In Italy you get arrested for wild food infractions, not for tax evasion! Policing has been achieved with help from local communities, residents are free to forage for personal use. A daily, weekly, yearly pass is available for tourists and visitors, it includes an ‘identification of species’and the fees contribute to the management of the land.'
I ask him if that means that his forages are a ‘look don’t touch experience’ but he assures me otherwise. ‘The landscape around Thyme has a delicate ecosystem and we are mindful of all the areas even if they may appear to be neglected, they are left to nature and monitored. When guests travel through the countryside with me they will enjoy the clean spicy tastes of wild rocket, delicate violet or wild elderflower scents down to the woodland flavours of mushrooms or savory sorrel. Every forage is different, according to the season and this year we will be enjoying the fruits of our forages by the river.’
Originally from Fossalta di Piave near Venice, Claudio began collecting local herbs for herbalists and restaurants as a teen. While he first trained as a chef, it was during his National Service (Cacciatori Delle Alpi, the “Garibaldi Regiment”) with the Italian Army that he was selected for special training as a forager, to feed the troops in whatever terrain they found themselves. Since then he has studied agronomy and etho-botany, he has travelled the world, smiling a little ruefully he says, ‘in England and even in Italy the general public might be able to identify a quarter of local plants and less then 2% of wild fungi. In places like Indonesia it is closer to three-quarters, rural communities across Europe are losing this knowledge, whilst in Asia they are reliant upon it. In our increasingly urban lives here in England we have lost that connection to the land.'
We are looking at the mushroom dowells drilled into the fallen tree trunks by our garden team in January, grooved birch plugs, fully colonized by pure mushroom mycelium and promising a rich autumn display. An ancient technique, refined by modern scientific research. 'In the last few years I have been collecting and repopulating native fungal species to regenerate biodiversity.'
We spot a mouse weaving its way through the undergrowth, ‘wildlife needs food too,’ he adds, ‘we need to understand the dynamics of nature and become part of the “re-wilding concept” where amateur foragers partner with nature.’ The mouse has found shelter, I’m not sure our head gardener is very sympathetic to the rodent population, but the thoughtfulness that underlies his words gets to the heart of what we are trying to achieve in the management of the estate.
‘Environmental citinzenship,’ he booms out displaying the passion that ensures you hang on every word. ‘Enjoying wild edibles should be a part of the process of education, action and thought, the individual merged with the food experience. The re-wilding vision for Thyme requires a wider range of competencies, from horticulture to conservation & regeneration, health, well-being and scientific thought.’ It seems that the paths Claudio travels here at Thyme and in his academic studies are leading to a much richer understanding of foods, the wild environment of our largely cultivated countryside and our impact on world ecologies. It is an important message, born of real concern, but delivered with such excitement that it does not feel like a learning process, more a re-awakening of what we ought to have known all along.
Olwynne Goodrich was in conversation with Claudio Bincoletto