Scotland has a fantastic offering of wild foods all year round – from edible plants and flowers, to berries, seaweed and mushrooms. Here’s a couple of the things that I have become confident enough in identifying to put on my plate… but I’ll begin by saying that I would not call myself a forager, but rather more of an ‘opportunist rambler’. I love cooking, and eating, and walking – so it makes me super happy to be able to incorporate all of these things into one.
After some years of working in restaurants that specialised in local seasonal produce, I had a growing knowledge of Scotland’s larder. I knew what a lot of the ingredients looked like when they arrived cleaned and ready for cooking, but how and where would I find them in the wild?
Some 7/8 years ago, when living in Edinburgh, I decided to give foraging a go and try my hand at hunting for some wild garlic. I had eaten it in bread and in pesto and the smell of it cooking in the restaurant was just incredible (I’m a big garlic fan). After a quick bit of research I set-off on my first venture to try and source some free wild food and after a walk across the city, I found a large patch of what looked potentially like wild garlic. It was green, and leafy, and smelled like chives… and there was loads of it! I moved a little further away from the footpath to find some virgin territory (the main path was popular with dog-walkers), and the trees provided some welcome privacy because I was a little nervous of the thought of someone stopping me and asking me what I was doing, when I really didn’t have a clue. I brought a carrier bag full home, washed it up and blended it into a pesto – it was tasty and I was super proud of having made something so simple as a pesto from foraged goods. Years later, I discovered that this wasn’t actually wild garlic I had found, instead it was three-cornered leek, another allium hence the chive smell, but apparently quite rare to find compared to wild garlic, and I’ve never found that anywhere else again since.
Wild garlic is something I look forward to finding every spring now, and when you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to identify it without any doubts (plus the smells helps too!). On a warm spring day you’ll likely smell it before you see it. The leaves are broad and darker green (compared to the longer, slimmer leaves of the three-cornered leek), and it flowers with dainty star-burst white flowers (which are also very tasty). I missed the wild garlic season last year due to moving house and job but on one of my many lock-down walks of spring 2020, I scoured my surroundings each day to find some wild garlic by our new home in Inverness. Another day, another walk – no sign of it. Does it grow this far north, I wondered? Maybe the terrain here is too acidic, too alpine for something so delicate to grow in the usual places. I had all but given up on finding any wild garlic in the Highlands this year until one day, when I was walking home from town, I spotted it – in all it’s leafy, stinky, garlicky glory – a huge patch of it. Bingo. We ate wild garlic with everything, and I mean everything, for about two months. Wild garlic pesto in pasta, gnocchi, risotto, on toast, wild garlic leaves with eggs, in potato salad, soups, cheese scones… We gave jars of pesto away to friends and colleagues and put some in the freezer for when mushroom season came back around…
Chanterelles, probably the most abundant and widely known of edible wild mushrooms, can be found from summer through to autumn nestled in mossy, sloping woods underneath a mixture of broad-leaf deciduous trees. Once you find the real thing, they are pretty unmistakable – fleshy, egg-yolk yellow and trumpet shaped with an apricot like scent – but I had found myself unknowingly picking a whole bunch of ‘false chanterelles’ the year previous to last. It’s hard to determine by descriptions alone exactly what characteristics to look for when you don’t have anything to compare it to visually. As far as foraging goes – mushrooms aren’t one to experiment with if you have any doubts whatsoever. Not certain about the ones I had picked the first time, my partner and I cross examined the orange/yellow stems when we arrived home only to discover after some extensive online researching that they were indeed fake, and poisonous, and although we didn’t eat them in the end, we’ll never make the mistake of picking these ones again. The best piece of advice I would give to anyone else new to this is if you’re not 100% sure – don’t eat it!
After that year I invested in a pocket-sized mushroom book to pop in our bag for future walks and last autumn, on a rainy Sunday afternoon cycle somewhere in the far north of the Cairngorms was where we first struck ‘gold’. We had been looking out for chanterelles (also known as girolles) on our woodland adventures for a while now and were so stoked when we found a plentiful supply in a location that I won’t name. Hidden deep in the moss under the trees the chanterelles shone like little golden nuggets against the forest floor. Feeling much more confident after having researched it so thoroughly we picked a good couple of handfuls each and popped them in my rucksack to clean up at home.
Lucky for me, my other half is a dab hand in the kitchen and put together a cracking dish featuring our wild garlic pesto and the freshly foraged mushrooms (with a tasty glass of wine to wash it all down too). I’ve also cooked them up really simply in butter and garlic and had them on toast which was also delicious. Cooking with foraged food brings a huge sense of achievement, and massive respect for the ingredients knowing exactly where they have come from. I haven’t mustered the patience to pick enough wild blueberries to make any kind of cake or dessert with them yet – but I just enjoy them as a wee snack while out walking.
We really are spoiled for choice for produce on our doorstep, and to make sure there’s plenty to go around for us and our forest friends for now and in the future we need to forage carefully and responsibly. Have a closer look the next time you find yourself out for a walk and see what you can find. The Woodland Trust have some great tips and guidelines on foraging on their website for anyone keen to learn more.
Laura Murray is a Scottish Highland based traveller, outdoor adventurer, food fan and opportunist rambler.