Foraging for wild produce
Top chefs are looking to Scotland's natural plant life for inspiration
Eating local, for some, means foraging for the wild foods that grow right on our own doorstep, writes Andrea Pearson.
Scottish consumers have just about caught up to the fact that our home-grown produce is among the best in the world, but now many food-lovers are taking ‘local’ produce a step further. In recent years foraged berries, herbs, mushrooms and edible plants have started to make an appearance in some of Scotland’s most innovative restaurants. It is now not unusual to ﬁnd seaweed on the menu, as well as sorrel, wild garlic, chanterelles and even squirrel.
This reclamation of indigenous produce is happening around the globe. Last year the food world was surprised when Noma in Copenhagen was named the world’s best restaurant, leapfrogging elBulli and The Fat Duck in the league tables. Noma eschews Mediterranean staples such as olives and tomatoes and sources food only from the northern hemisphere, including asparagus, barley and langoustines.
In Glasgow, the environmental project Urban Roots teaches people woodland skills including foraging for native food. Project co-ordinator Abi Mordin believes that people today have a desire to reconnect with the land and learn more about indigenous plants and foods. ‘There is more awareness of climate change now and people want to eat local food and have a low-impact lifestyle. Although the Scottish climate is quite harsh we do have wonderful fruits, with almost 300 varieties of apple. Native birch trees produce a sap that can be used to make wine, and then there are plants like sticky willy, which grows everywhere. People think of it as a weed but it is edible and it’s packed full of vitamins and very good for you.’
Foraging may be healthy and responsible but top chefs are turning to it more because wild foods yield stronger and more varied ﬂavours. With a tastier, fresher, raw ingredient, there is less need to add salts, fats and ﬂavouring in the kitchen. Scottish mushrooms in particular are the big draw as each variety has a distinct ﬂavour and texture. Ceps and chanterelles are meaty in texture and full of ﬂavour while puff balls can be liquidised into a smooth, creamy soup, unlike any other mushroom.
Forager and chef Paul Hollern, who cooks and serves his harvests at Tattie Mac’s in Glasgow, said: ‘Wild food is available fresh, it has cleaner taste than anything bought in a supermarket. This is not a crusade against supermarkets, that would be unrealistic, but not all food has to be convenient. And the customers like what we are doing.’
In Perthshire Tim Dover focuses entirely on Scottish produce at his restaurant, The Roost, and feels that gathering his own wild food gives him more control over quality. ‘The suppliers we rely on don’t necessarily cook themselves, they are just piling things into a box. As a chef I know exactly what I am looking for, the size, the shape, the quality and I take only what I need, there is nothing wasted. And I can pick something in the morning and serve it that night. If you get wild mushrooms from a supplier they might be ﬁve days old by the time they are on the table.’
Chanterelles and ceps cost from £15 to £35 a kilo but a good mushroom hunter can gather 30 kilos in one day, so these cost beneﬁts can be passed on to the customer. And customers, in turn, seem to be enjoying the new adventure in eating. Last year Dover experimented with alexanders – a wild vegetable that resembles hogweed, once cultivated by the Romans and found by ruins or ancient church buildings. He placed them on the menu as part of a ﬁsh dish and found that people ordered the dish speciﬁcally to sample the unusual vegetable.
Successful foragers gain their knowledge from other foragers, backed up by reference books and websites.
This vital networking and sharing continues to inspire new aﬁcionados and generates a kinship. ‘I was lucky that someone taught me what to look for,’ explains Hollern, ‘And now I want others to learn. I take my two commis chefs with me now. We go out for the day and it has the same effect on morale as a night out – minus the alcohol and the agony of the next day.’
There are many easy starting points in Scotland that do not require reference books and training courses. Blackberry-picking is straightforward, a young nettle leaf can be blanched and used in risotto, elderﬂowers can be steeped to make a delicate syrup, while nasturtiums and even dandelion leaves can be used to enliven salads.
But while the beneﬁts are many, the battle to change some eating prejudices may have some way to go, as Dover explains. ‘I have to admit I eat dandelion salad but I haven’t yet had the courage to serve it to my customers. Somehow I don’t think they would appreciate paying to eat up my weeds.’