With wild, foraged ingredients taking centre stage at some restaurants, Neil Braidwood goes in search of some of the chefs working with nature’s bounty.
Foraging, or searching for food from the land, is as old as the human race. We started out as hunter-gatherers, picking berries, gathering nuts and trapping animals to sustain ourselves. We ate what we found, and made use of land. Nowadays, restaurants have cottoned on to wild plants’ amazing flavours, and have begun incorporating foraged items into their menus.
There isn’t a Cub Scout badge for foraging, although there probably should be. Chef Paul Wedgwood became interested in wild plants and their edible qualities when he went camping with the Cubs. He was fascinated that nettles, which do their best to sting you, are also very nutritious. “There is more protein in nettles than in grilled chicken,” he told me when I joined him on a foraging trip along the Water of Leith on the outskirts of Edinburgh. “When I pick them, I always pick the ones in the shade. They’ve had to work harder, and so taste better.”
Paul is chef patron of Wedgwood the Restaurant in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where something foraged is always on the menu. He has recently branched out into a full-blown tasting menu – 12 courses – much of it foraged locally.
Within a few metres of the road, Paul has pointed out six edible plants, none of which I knew could be eaten. He snaps off a leaf here and there and invites me to try. “This is Jack by the Hedge,” he explains, “and it has a garlicky mustard taste”. Sure enough, he’s right. I get the garlic flavour first, followed by a hit of mustard. “The shape of the leaves,” he says, “are a bit like vine leaves, so I’ll use these to make my own dolmades.”
One thing Paul steers clear of, is fungi. Although one of the most satisfying things to forage, they are also difficult to identify, unlike most plants which have distinct leaf shapes. Many mushrooms can make you ill, and can even be deadly, so Paul feels it’s safer that they are not on his menu.
Paul enjoys foraging for his own ingredients, and has his favourite spots. It can be time-consuming, though, so he does rely on professional foragers to supply him with ingredients, and this allows him to concentrate on creating new recipes.
Rupert Waites (main picture with Tom Chisolm) has been working in kitchens since he was 14. Growing up on the island of Canna in the Western Isles, his parents took him foraging, consulting the forager’s bible, Food for Free, by Richard Mabey. This book was published in 1972, and hasn’t been out of print since. He loved looking at the illustrations and got used to seeing many of the plants out in the wild. He was fascinated by the fact that beech nuts could be turned into ‘coffee’, and his earliest memories are of picking primroses to make primrose wine. “You don’t see that many primroses now,” he says.
His epiphany moment came after he felt burned out as a chef, realising that the sorrel growing in his garden could be combined with wild salmon to make a restaurant quality dish. He began Buck and Birch in 2008, with creative director and business partner, Tom Chisholm, foraging ingredients and holding pop-up dinners at hotels and restaurants for curious diners. The venture has gone from strength to strength. He will always use venison as part of the menu (the buck part of the name), and taps his own birch water too. “I never get tired of the feeling I get when I drill that hole in the tree and see the water come out. It’s magic.” He thinks the birch sap has healing qualities too, and often uses it as an ingredient.
Another drink that Rupert thinks has health giving properties is an elderberry elixir that is going down well with customers. Aelder, a jet black smooth alternative to port, is now being bottled commercially and is available in many off-licences and restaurants. The elderberries are packed with vitamin C, and when blended with smoky Scotch whisky and foraged herbs, the taste is truly unique – and good for you – at only 17% alcohol. It sits alongside another drinks brand that Rupert has developed, Amarosa, a blend of rosehips (more vitamin C) and rum, that can be enjoyed as a long drink mixed with tonic.
Rupert is always experimenting with the dishes he creates. Take the humble Wood Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) mushroom often found growing on dead elder trees. It does look like an ear, but once prepared by Rupert and dipped in chocolate, it becomes a delicacy the likes of which many diners will never experience in their lifetime. Timing, of course, is everything with a foraged meal, and Rupert works with what he can find, or what is in season – which can make the culinary process all the more exciting.
Mark Williams, from Galloway Wild Foods (pictured below), was at the vanguard of foraging about 30 years ago. Since his first experience gathering mushrooms on Arran, he has built a business training and coaching chefs and bartenders in the ways of foraging and the art of using it in food and drink. The general public, too, can join Mark on one of his famous foraging walks – which take place all over Scotland.
“I always take a stove and a frying pan to cook up some of the finds,” he says. “Today it was smoked duck with elderberries, fermented wild garlic, and some flambéed mushrooms. It helps connect people with what we’ve found – if they can eat it then they understand it better. I love the looks on people’s faces, especially children, when they taste something we have foraged – it is truly reconnecting them with nature.”
Mark goes on to tell me about how Finland has embraced foraging, with foragers gaining ‘stamps’ or accreditation for becoming an expert in certain plants. “Scotland could learn a lot from Finland,” he says.
“I have worked with Scottish Natural Heritage, RSPB Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland to help to demystify foraging and bring it to the front of people’s minds. We should be teaching it in schools for goodness’ sake.”
Maybe that Cub Scout foraging badge could become a reality soon.