Forage for your porridge

Silverweed salsa, braised hogweed shoots, dog rose petal jam, spruce tea, and pheasant and seabuckthorn stew are just a few of the recipes featured in a new guide to foraging Scotland’s wild harvests, edited by Traquair author Fiona Martynoga.

A Handbook of Scotland’s Wild Harvests is described as: “The essential guide to edible species, with recipes and plants for natural remedies, and materials to gather for fuel, gardening and craft.”

Fi may be familiar to readers of TheSouthern writing under her maiden name as Fiona Houston, author of The Garden Cottage Diaries: My Year in the Eighteenth Century, which told the story of her year re-creating the lifestyle of 1792 in a basic one-roomed cottage in Traquair, eating home-grown produce and surviving on her own resources – making household items herself and dressing in period clothing.

“Mankind evolved in the wild,” she writes in her new book. “Foraging and hunting are in our genes. So many of us in Scotland now live in cities, far removed from nature, that a return to picking anything other than brambles can present problems.

“There’s one set of anxieties about identifying species correctly and another set about trashing natural resources. The book should reassure and set you up with the information you need. It is designed to tell you what you might find, and where and when you might come across it in Scotland.”

A contributor to the book, Emma Chapman, added: “There have been a number of foraging books published over the past few years, but none quite like this one. One clue rests in the title – this book is from Scotland. What grows, and when, differs between north and south, even in a country as small as the UK. This book either sticks to species that are abundant enough to be harvested without causing harm, or, in cases where there may be some danger of overexploitation, details how to avoid it.”

“The early part of the summer in May-June is called the ‘hungry gap’,” Fi said, “when you’re running out of last year’s veg and you’re waiting on the new year’s stuff to grow, but that’s exactly when the wild is providing.”

The book explains uses for Scotland’s native and naturalised species, such as hazel, elder, heather and nettle, with recipes for nettle soup, pesto, ravioli, porridge and brose, as well as for vitamin-rich chickweed, bitter dandelion leaves, coconut-scented gorse flowers, tasty flower heads of good king henry, spicy jack-by-the-hedge leaves, sharp sorrel, and nutty silverweed roots, known in Gaelic as ‘an seachdamh aran’, or ‘seventh bread’.

There are surprising revelations too, such as the fact that the notorious weed ground elder was cooked like spinach by the Romans, and cultivated in monastery gardens as a pot herb tasting faintly of aniseed.

“I was amazed how delicious our native hogweed is,” Fi told us. “When it is just shooting, the stems and leaves make a aniseedy, citrusy vegetable, steamed with butter.”

Another of the book’s contributors, Gregory Kenicer, writes: “In Gaelic Scotland until the mid 1900s, bitter vetch was a valuable snackfood, dug up and chewed while you worked. They have a sweetish taste somewhere between fresh peas and mild liquorice, and the younger tubers have a lovely crunch. They were used as a flavouring for whiskies.”

The book was produced in collaboration with two environmental organisations: Scottish Wild Harvests Association (SWHA) and Reforesting Scotland (RS), described by Emma Chapman as “networks of people who want to change the world, and get their hands satisyingly dirty in the process”.

She added: “The writing was gathered by putting out a call among RS and SWHA member experts and asking for ‘species champions’.

“Those who responded were people who look to the woods and the wild not just for food, but also for medicines, craft products, heating, shelter and materials. They’ve written from personal knowledge about what foraged goods inspire them most.

“The split between domestic and wild is a cause, in many ways, for regret. We can easily lose sight of the world beyond our own inventions, fail to notice the passing of the seasons, forget the web of life that supports and enables everything that we are and do. In so doing, we miss out on a thousand simple pleasures.

“Foraging helps to bridge the gap a little, giving reasons to get outside, and reasons to pay attention to what is growing there. Once you’ve learned the basics, wild food greets you whenever you venture anywhere green, and materials for creating useful and beautiful things beckon from the woods, fields and hedgerows. Whether you want to learn those basics, or to add a little more to your own lifetime store of foraging experience, the handbook should provide a useful and interesting guide.”

Good hunting!