That’s it. We’re starting a feud. We’re starting a beef. Except we prefer wild game meat, so let’s call it a venison. We’re starting a venison with Pret A Manger.
So what happened? Because we are The Foragers, and because we run a wild food pub, and organise foraging workshops, experiences, feasts and away days, many of our friends and customers have sent us this link to Pret a Manger’s branding for their new Spring menu:
As you can see, this campaign treads very heavily on the toes of what we do as actual Foragers. Not least because it looks very much like a piece of branding we created for one of our wild salt blends a few years ago…
But that’s not the point. Copyright infringement aside, we have to call Pret out on this whole “Eat like a bear, Go forage” marketing angle in general. Pret do not use foraged ingredients, do not put in the extra time, effort and respect for nature required to forage, and do not even particularly favour indigenous or naturally-growing ingredients in their new menu. The following post will show how Pret are being misleading, dishonest and lazy by cashing in on the fashionable imagery and ethos of foraging, without doing any of the actual hard working, learning or thinking.
The image makes a big deal of how bears like to forage. Go forage, it says. The bear is made of a mushroom – something people famously like to forage. It has a frond of leaves in its mouth. Leaves grow wild in the ground. Sounds legit right? No, it’s not. Since this branding is all about foraging, one could be forgiven for expecting the fungus and plant shown to be wild. You know, because that’s what foraging is. However, the mushroom used is the Agaricus bisporus. Colloquially known as the “cultivated” mushroom. This species of mushroom was bred in captivity – grown in factories on carefully-treated piles of straw and chicken poop. Perhaps surprisingly, almost every mushroom you can find in the supermarket – button mushrooms, closed caps, chestnut mushrooms, “portabella” mushrooms, whether white or brown, big or small, open or closed – are all this same species – Agaricus bisporus. Producers love it because it’s so easy to cultivate, whereas almost all of the tastiest wild species are not. If you want to taste a penny bun, or a beefsteak fungus, or chicken of the woods, or chanterelles, or the gelatinous beauty of a fresh jelly ear, you have to come into the woods with us.
So: to anyone who knows their mushrooms, Pret’s mushroom-bear DOES NOT represent all that’s great, natural, exciting and various about the weird world of wild mushrooms, and of foraging in general. It represents the supermarket: a mere illusion of diversity and earthiness in a place where all food is sterile, uniform and unimaginative.
The Thing in its Mouth
Even the herby-looking plant in its mouth isn’t wild. It looks to me like a sprig of coriander. Seriously? How hard would it have been to pick a sprig of one of the many other Apiaceae or umbellifers (the broad family to which coriander belongs) which do grow naturally in the UK. They could have used common hogweed. Or cow parsley. Or wild carrot. Or herb alexander. Or fennel. Or incredibly poisonous hemlock water dropwort. Maybe not that last one. But no, they grabbed a farmed, probably imported sprig of coriander from its plastic packet and used it for the photo. All of the many umbellifers of the British hedgerow have their own unique flavours and fascinating properties and stories. Being a forager means discovering, resourcefully utilising and relishing all these flavours and stories in the wild. Pret haven’t done any of that, so why should they get to cash in on the concept of foraging?
There is nothing forage-y about Pret’s menu. There do seem to be more accommodations made for vegan and vegetarians, which is great but totally different from foraging. Unlike Pret, we are real foragers, and I’d like to take a moment to show you how much wilder our menu is. At our wild food pub in St Albans, The Verulam Arms, we spend a lot of time trying to make every dish as wild as possible.
So that it will work in a busy commercial kitchen, our regular menu has to balance exciting wildness with boring issues of availability and supply, so each dish is partly made up of foraged food and partly bought-in ingredients. That said, we try to keep every dish at least 30% wild, sometimes more. Take a signature dish of ours – pigeon with wild mushrooms, pickled blackberries, Jerusalem artichokes and smoked parsnip puree. The pigeon is wild, shot in Shenley by hunters Neil and Ian (who you will often find propping up the bar at The Verulam with their adorable gun dogs). The blackberries are wild, picked down by the river just over the road from the pub, and their vinegar pickling solution is flavoured with wild herbs too – vanilla-y sweet woodruff from the forest and floral honey-ish meadowsweet from the local water meadow. The Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips are not wild – we buy them – but we do often season the artichokes with wild Jack-by-the-hedge root and smoke the parsnips over a fire of local oak and cherry twigs. So, huge parts of our dishes are wild, and when we buy ingredients we try our best to infuse them with as much wild flavour as possible. Even a more conventional dish like pork belly and mash is wilded-up:
We rub the pork belly with hogweed seeds (pun intended) for a subtle spicy tang reminiscent of cardamom. The meat is then served with a saucy puree of windfall apples from a local abandoned orchard, as well as sourer, wilder crab apples. The mash is bought, farmed potato, but it comes with a green tinge because of the addition of hedge garlic and wild garlic leaves. It’s a simple, standard dish but when The Foragers get their hands on it it’s full to the brim with the taste of the wild. Add to this our weekly chef’s specials, which are designed to be sold in small quantities whenever we forage something extra special. These specials are often 100% foraged and allow us to forefront the best of the wild. Here’s us testing out a recent special in the woods – pigeon and jelly ear stir fry with wild greens and wild seaweed dashi.
We also try very hard not to include overbearing foreign, exotic or imported spices and ingredients. It would be very easy to lean on strong flavours like chili, Asian curry spices, tropical fruits etc when designing dishes, but we purposely steer away from these because we are FORAGERS. We find British alternatives. Wood Avens root tastes surprisingly like nutmeg and cloves, for example. Several times we have made a full South-East-Asian-inspired curry using only spices and aromatics hand-foraged from the British hedgerow: lemony sorrel, fragrant elderflower, hot water pepper, spicy fennel and alexander seeds. This means that our dishes are wildly different, exciting and hyper-local – using British spices drastically reduces air miles, obviously. All this takes extra work, extra training for chefs, long man-hours gathering and processing the wild ingredients, intensive training for staff who have to be able to explain all these bizarre ingredients to our customers! Again, this is work Pret have not done.
To drive the point home, here’s their “Eat like a bear” spring menu, which appears directly below their mushroom-bear on the website. I have helpfully annotated it to show how un-foragey it is. Colour coding: Yellow circle is an ingredient that is almost certainly commercially farmed / produced rather than foraged or hunted. Red circle is an ingredient that has almost certainly been commercially farmed / produced overseas and flown a great distance into the UK, contrary to the ethos of real foragers. Green circle is an ingredient which has almost certainly been foraged from the wild. SPOILER ALERT, there are no green circles here. Yeah, technically there’s a chance they could have foraged some rocket, or gone down to the river and picked some mint. But if they really do have a minty rocket forager working to supply their hundreds of stores I’ll eat my straw hat. I’ve also added question marks to a number of conveniently unspecific things like “herby” and “green”. What does that even mean? I’m eager to hear.
That says it all really. I think I’ve ranted enough, but let me just sum up. Foraging has a lot of benefits to offer consumers, in terms of health, flavour and ethical responsibility, and Pret are using their large marketing budget and wide exposure to imply that their food offers such benefits when it doesn’t. Foraging is exciting and cool, and Pret are using the concept of foraging to pretend they’re exciting and cool when they’re not. They’re using the word “forage” in a meaningless way, deceitfully to evoke a mood of healthiness and naturalness they don’t deserve.
Oh, and Pret already got in trouble for saying their food was natural when it wasn’t. We’re going to be making a similar complaint. In fact, this is that complaint. We’ll be linking the ASA to this page.