In the last decade, bales of cut and dried grass have started to roll their way into professional kitchens, with chefs around the world experimenting with the ancient technique of cooking with hay – and so started a trend.
The quintessential field accessory and a mealtime favourite among the country’s cattle has made a glorious return, after being largely forgotten following centuries of use in baking meat and as a smoking agent. Even the Vikings used burnt hay to preserve food – perhaps the inspiration for trend-setting Dane Rene Redzepi, who is a notable adherent of the skill.
Hay-smoked meats and breads, hay mayonnaise and even hay hollandaise have been seen in high-end restaurants such as Sat Bains in Nottingham and Noma in Copenhagen.
For those city mice not well versed, hay holds a warm, nostalgic smell reminiscent of old England and the countryside. Fresh, rustic and earthy, there is an acidic element to baked hay, distinctive and altogether calming.
So are we witnessing the successful rebirth of an age-old cooking fragrance? And could it move more mainstream?
Historically, hay has been used across the board in cooking. Hayboxes – or wonder ovens, as they were once known – were created in the 19th century as a way of cooking food through insulation.
The food would first be brought to a boiling point before being placed in a haybox, with the insulation provided by a hay lining allowing the food to continue cooking through its own heat.
During WW2, the use of hayboxes allowed for the preservation of rationed cooking fuel, and the method has survived in some countries to the present day.
In cooking, hay can be used in number of different ways, from infusing yoghurt to baking and curing meat. The late Paul Bocuse, in his 1976 cookbook La Cuisine du Marché, described a smoked ham with a hay infusion.
But despite the very top toques being adventurous with hay, one of the main points in terms of mainstream cooking with it is, well, that it isn’t actually all that complicated.
The aforementioned hay mayonnaise, once part of Alyn Williams’ menu at The Westbury Hotel in London, was made by infusing olive oil with oven-baked hay. This was done by sealing both ingredients in a jar for three days and then sieving out the strands.
The oil would then be blended with boiled egg, lemon and salt. Hey presto, hay mayo!
Where to hit the hay
Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and there is certainly diversity when it comes to hay.
Seasonal meadow hay is known to contain a wider assortment of native grasses than the more common seed hay. It can also contain dandelions, thistles, daisies and even cornflower, all of which help to create a bouquet of flavour for fragrant infusions.
Then you have legume hay, which classically has more nutrients and minerals than your standard grass variety, and oat hay, which is low in carbohydrates and high in fibre.
So will hay be setting the world ablaze, Sparkie?
It could be an interesting novel technique for some restaurants to play around with, especially as traditional techniques have a draw right now. The uptake in restaurants is primarily the use within smoking that dates back to World War 2, when haybox cooking was used as a method to ration fuel – not without risk, as food tends to be maintained in the bacterial growth zone for a long period and essentially cooked similar to sous vide without the water.
In terms of retail, while the flavour from hay may be unique and outstanding, making it food safe would require a small industry in itself, not to mention the quality control. I can't see retail investing without promise of great reward, as they would be able to achieve similar results through a high spec climate-controlled smoker.