The wild foods and foraging to be found in Scotland's woods
Wild foods, once a common means of seasonal sustenance, are enjoying a renaissance in Scotland
Wild foods, once a common – and very cheap – means of seasonal sustenance, are enjoying a renaissance in restaurants and homes. Andrea Pearson looks into the rich pickings of Highland gathering
Expansive views and dramatic, panoramic vistas of the snowy hills are usually what the tourists come to the Cairngorms National Park to see. ‘If you suggest they go for a walk in the woods, they say, “Why would I do that?” They see trees as an obstruction,’ says Rebecca Field at Scotmountain Holidays in Boat of Garten.
But locals know that it’s the forests that contain a mouthwatering array of wild foods, all there for the taking, if you know where to look. ‘Because we are so far from supermarkets, a lot of people use wild food. We harvest garlic, we know the good spots for berries and almost everyone knows about the chanterelle mushrooms,’ she adds.
Field runs ‘fruits of the forest’ walking weekends which include the chance to gather food found in the woodland. The trips are sold mainly as walks, with foraging as a bonus – walkers don’t set off with huge wicker baskets and tramp into the back of beyond to find the biggest chanterelles or the sweetest raspberries. Rather, the route is planned to pass through picking areas, to scoop up a few handfuls of mushrooms, berries or herbs for the evening meal.
Yet when it comes to customers, pickings are slim. The experience appeals predominantly to European travellers – Swedes, Poles and Finns all understand and enjoy the wild smorgasbord. It is normal to them. Field concludes: ‘I think our urban population is disconnected from the countryside.’
This is a view shared by Rebecca Ferrand at Muckrach Lodge in Dulnain Bridge near Grantown-on-Spey. ‘We have forgotten how to eat according to the season. We are not tasting the joys that seasonality can bring. I look forward to each season, it is a great passion for me,’ she says.
Ferrand, who took over the hotel in 2007, has amassed a vast knowledge of the wild food at her disposal. She regularly picks garlic, lemon balm, mint, bright purple borage flowers and yellow gorse to add colour and excitement to her guests’ food.
There are about 10 different edible types of berries in the woods. Wild cherries, blaeberries, sloes, rowan and juniper berries all make their way into the restaurant’s puddings, or are boiled up for the jam store in the cellar. Bog myrtle is a real favourite: ‘Boar and deer feed on bog myrtle in the wild. It is what gives them their flavour. If cooked with bog myrtle they’re delicious.’ But it is the chanterelles that are the stars. ‘The ones here are fat and beautiful. A chanterelle with a bit of cream and parmesan cheese – it’s just amazing,’ says Ferrand.
Sharing Ferrand’s foraging passion is Chris McCall, head chef at the Old Bridge Inn in Aviemore. ‘We spend a lot of time foraging in late summer and autumn for wild mushrooms, berries, juniper, etc, which we pickle or dry. Pickled chanterelles and dried blueberries reconstituted in sweet vinegar are some of my favourite accompaniments.’
The products of the forest may be free, but there is no doubt that harvesting them requires knowledge and patience. And it is easy to get carried away with the romance of foraging. ‘There is a myth that you can live comfortably off the land. You can’t,’ says Neil Foote who teaches foraging skills as part of an all-day bushcraft course at Backcountry Survival.
Foote teaches participants how to identify and prepare food. His location in the Park is ideal. During the Second World War, the area was used to train Norwegian troops in survival – they managed to survive four months on a high Norwegian plateau on just cladonia lichen. ‘Most wild foods have a very low calorific value. This lichen is the only thing that can sustain life beyond a few days,’ says Foote.
Whether it is a matter of survival, or for a sweet burst of gourmet flavour, there is no doubt that there is a rich reward awaiting those who cast their eyes down from the hills and choose to venture into the wild woods of the Cairngorms National Park.
Scottish Wild Mushroom pickers’ Code
• Wildlife, especially insects, need mush-rooms too, so only pick what you will use.
• Only collect what you know and take a field guide with you.
• Do not pick mushrooms until the cap has opened out.
• The main part of the mushroom is below the surface; take care not to trample or disturb its surroundings.
• In a nature reserve seek advice first.
See forestharvest.org.uk for a full version