Foraging the forests, hedgerows and shorelines for culinary treasure has become routine procedure for today's young chefs. But, as shown in our December issue (out now) their rural rummaging is now spilling onto farmland, with hay becoming the haul of choice.
Hay has been at play in kitchens for centuries, principally as a herbaceous wrapping for baking meats (to give its French nomenclature - 'dans le foin'), or as a fragrant smoking agent. Discovering innovative uses for it has now become a favourite culinary pastime: while Heston Blumenthal is hay-smoking his mackerel according to an 18th century recipe, Christoffer Hruskova of London's North Road hay-bakes his rabbit, and over at New York's La Fonda del Sol, lamb is cooked over hay and served with hay-infused yoghurt. Meanwhile, at East Village's Vandaag, hay has been used in many different ways, from smoking breads, to beefing up stocks and cold-smoking scallops.
Celeriac, sweetbreads, chicken, venison, veal and shrimps are all getting the treatment too and in various eateries, including Jean Georges in New York and North Road in London, it is even flavouring ice cream. We have rounded up some of the more interesting hay-infused plates from restaurants around the world and asked North Road's Hruskova to explain its allure.
Why do you cook with hay?
Christoffer Hruskova: It's an old Scandinavian tradition, dating all the way back to the Vikings. Burnt hay was used as a means of preserving food - as was throwing burnt birch into water, to cure fish and meat. The tradition was forgotten for a while. It certainly wasn't being used when I was a child.
But, recently we've started to look back at our heritage and rediscover these wonderful techniques. I began experimenting with burnt hay at my bistro, Fig, four years ago and when I opened North Road last year it was always going to be something that featured regularly on the menu.
What is so special about the hay flavour?
CH: Burnt hay can give food a slight acidity, which makes sense if you think of it as originally being a preserving technique. It also gives a charred flavour that is very deep and earthy.
You use hay for both meat and ice cream. Is it a taste that lends itself easily to both?
CH: Absolutely. With meat, the charred flavour is a very natural accompaniment, and with the sweet dishes it can be used for a much more subte nutty flavour.
How do you make hay ice cream?
CH: We make a custard base for the ice cream, eggs yolks, sugar and cream, in which we steep the hay for an hour or so. After taking the hay out, we freeze and churn the ice cream like normal. The result is very popular with our guests.