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Heather - one of the 22

20th December 2016
by Andy Hamilton in Thinking Wild, Know Your Plants, Recipes, Our Foraging.

Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where the burnie
bonie Dearie.
Hark the mavis'
e'ening sang,..

Rabbie Burns

Take a walk out on any heath across the UK and you'll be sure to find an abundance of heather. It loves the infertile acid rich soil and the cool climate. This is why heather is often synonymous with Scotland and perhaps why Scottish poets and wordsmiths are always blethering on about it.

One of the most famous Scottish wordsmiths is a fellow called Robert Burns -- or Rabbie Burns in Scots dialect -- a man who saw the strength in identifying yourself using your native tongue. He bravely wrote in the Scots language at a time when it was rather subversive to do so. Burns was influenced by other less famous poets who proceeded him such asm Fergusson and Ramsay both of whom wrote chiefly in Scots.

Moorland Tea

Burns didn't just write in Scots and about Scots he also drank Scotland (in a manner of speaking). Burns favoured moorland tea a drink made with heather. It's an earthy drink, due to the ground ivy, yet it is lifted by the sweet blossom of the heather and it's most refreshing all year round.


Heather Blossom (Calluna vulgaris)
Bilberry leaf (Vaccinum myrtillus)
Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus)
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)

Place a pinch of each of the ingredients into a teapot and pour over hot water. Leave to infuse for 5-8 mins, strain and serve in a china tea cup. Perhaps with some toast smothered with heather blossom honey on the side.

Other Heather blossom drinks

Had Rabbie Burns lived a thousand or so years earlier he may have favoured some more potent brews made with heather blossom. The below recipe is one that was given to me my good friend Alex Hughes and it appeared in my book Booze for Free.  

Heather mead

1.5kg runny delicately flavoured honey
Half a cup dried heather flowers
1.5 litres of boiling water
Sweet mead yeast
1 tsp yeast nutrient

Put the jars of honey into a bowl of hot water so that they are easier to pour. Put honey into fermentation bin, pour boiling water over the top and stir.

Place the heather into the bottom of a demijohn and pour over the honey mixture. If needs be, top up with cold water to one gallon. Add yeast and yeast nutrient, attach solid rubber bung and shake demijohn. Remove bung and attach airlock.

After two months, remove heather and syphon the liquid off the sediment into another demijohn – a process known as racking. Repeat the process again after about six months. Allow to fully ferment before bottling.

Mead will vastly improve if left to condition in the bottle for at least a year.

Heather beer

Traditionally, British ale was made with herbs, various different herbs and herb mixes were used to bitter the sweet wort such as rosemary, yarrow and bog myrtle. Williams Brothers a brewery up in Alloa claim to be the only brewery in the world to still make beer made with heather and what more it is more than just a very clever marketing gimmick the beer is floral, earthy and herbal and well worth a taste. It would seem that they follow a very old tradition as archaeologists have found what appears to be an 3000 year old pottery drinking vessel up on the Isle of Rum complete with traces of yeast and heather flowers.

The claim by the Williams brothers may be true for a commercial brewery, but they certainly aren't the only brewers who are brewing beer with heather. A few years ago veteran brewer John Wright reported on another brewer who was brewing heather ale at home. You can find the recipe here.

Foraging For Heather flowers/tops

Heather blooms in the late summer to early autumn. It's an evergreen shrub with narrow and scaly leaves, low-lying never reaching a height of above 60cm. It likes the wilderness, bogs, heathland and according to foraging author John Lewis-Stempel, the misty mountains. When picking be sure to pause for a moment and think about Rabbie Burns collecting the flowers, the simple act of picking can sometimes turn on that part of the brain that needs downtime to function - The rhythmic action of leaning forward, picking and placing the flowers in a shoulder bag sets relaxed thoughts going and creates a fertile mindset for poetry and I'm sure Rabbie Burns would have been a forager.


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