Elder in Leaf
We are going to start off this blog with a note about the nutritous, inconspicuous, and ubiquitous hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuta.
Head of Laddie communications Carl Reavey loves this over-looked winter green with an oatcake when he's been out for a typically galeforce lunchtime walk with his wife Jan, another member of the team.
A super-abundant brassica that grows in rosettes and quickly colonises newly broken ground, hairy bittercress makes a tasty addition to any salad, and is good with potatoes. Here's an iPhone video to help with recognition.
It looks like there is nothing going on here, the branches / cupboards are bare, but actually the tree is in rude health and there is a lot of energy being concentrated into the new buds. This energy translates as flavour, which can be extracted by chewing over a few velvety tips or by infusing it in alcohol (see advice on tinctures here >>): we get a tannic marzipan, hazelnut, strawberry, tobacco, Christmas cake.
Scarlet Elf Cups
Described by our foraging friend Mark Williams as having a "subtle, earthy flavour with perhaps a hint of beetroot", it's the visual thrill that these small edible mushrooms represent that is so lovely in the midst of a dripping winter wood. Sarcoscypha coccinea or Sarcoscypha austriaca, closely related variants, float on top of a broth beautifully (miso / dashi / chicken / porcini as you please), or with a little garlic salt add something elfish to scrambled eggs.
Mint Coming Through
The applemint's coming up in Islay! You can see from its furry leaves and stem why it is also commonly called "woolly mint". The texture at this stage is very oily, the flavour sweet and subtle, having not yet developed the pungent mintyness of the established summer plants. The young leaves give a simple yet tasty twist to a late winter Botanist and tonic.
Apex of the snowdrops
The snowdrops have been amazing this year, and this may be the peak. The snap is from Bridgend on Valentines day.
Gorse Has Well-Begun
Bloom coverage is at, what, 15%, and the early blossoms of this member of the pea family have a flavour from the leguminous end of the spectrum, rather than the tropical swoons they will reach in full Spring. With some blue-sky days, some rainbow days, and some absolute wild-wash-out days, it definitely feels like we're on the threshold of a change in the seasons now.
There are signs of the nascent season amoung the grassy humps on the shore. These waxy succulent leaves of the natural flavour-bomb "scurvy grass" (Cochlearia), a brassica related to horseradish and wasabi, will eventually be three or four times the size with a powerful taste to match. Stick that in your red snapper and rage against the rain...
Got to take off your hat to the bramble. Strong, flexible, disrespectful to the point of arrogance, a survivor - and the flavour of the fruit is outstanding when you think about it, having a tea-like complexity and sweet-sharp poignancy. Does anything sum up a British season quite like the bramble sums up Autumn?
In the Spring, the buds can be eaten too and taste extremely nutty with some coconut up front, and a long tropical finish - buttered pineapple, cumquat, marmalade. Note to selves: must experiment with the leaves when they come in, there may be something else we're missing...
The snowdrops are making way for the season of pale yellow - is it because the sunlight is getting stronger? Anyway, great to see this sign of Spring blooming on a south-facing bank on the track into the hill from the back of the distillery. The flowers are edible of course; in salads, cake decorations, jelly, G and Ts, they are somehow touching.
The first wild garlic is up! Might be our favourite alium, followed closely by wild leeks... Carl snapped this on the way to work, but looking at the largest leaf, it looks like he wasn't the first to it... It's great grazed raw, fine to freeze then add to soups or pies (I confess to wrapping my pickings in a towel to freeze because the leaves are delicate; but I've known others to wash and roll it, then just cut off however much is needed from the brittle end).
The forager and chef boys that we work with regularly are fans of fermenting it, with 2 or 3% of its weight in salt, packed down into an airtight jar. [More about How to Ferment Wild Greens here >> ]
This plant is abundant in parts of Islay. It originates from both North America and Siberia but was introduced into the UK during the 18th century since when it has become widespread. Its rosettes of glossy pale green leaves form quite dense mats on the shady banks of the burn that runs through Port Charlotte, which is where this photos was taken. The leaves are quite distinctly veined – and these are often reddish in colour. The "ace of spades" shape makes them a stylish garnish.
It is fleshy and succulent and tastes rather like mild unpickled beetroot. A very pleasant constituent of an early Spring salad. The pretty pale pink flowers have five deeply notched petals and are also edible, but will not be appearing for another month or so. Check out the always informative Galloway Wild Foods website for more details.
Other signs of Spring - crazy for catkins
The alder catkins season is apparently early spring, and it will put out both male (long danglers) and female forms (more bulb-like pinecones) at the same time - here we are, photographed at the start of March on Islay. The male ones are like so many green caterpillars hanging off the branches, so it's a happy coincidence that catkins are a food source for many species of moth and butterfly. We don't endorse this, but some humans have attempted to eat them too [eating alder catkins article on forager 101 >>]. Alder is in the family Betulaceae, along with Birch, which is meaningful for us, because we use dried birch leaves in making The Botanist.
Bog myrtle catkins, small and perfecty formed. Intensely bitter, you may not guess that in time the leaves will turn out beautifully aromatic.
Hazel is also in the Betulaceae family. It has male and female catkins on the same tree, but the male ones appear first, in small clusters like these snapped in the Islay Community garden, also known as "lamb's tails." Read more about hazel on the woodland trust website here >>
It seems the season is nearly through for these delightful fungi, a month and a bit after the earlier photograph of a small coin-sized colony. The sides of the "cup" seemingly unfurl as they age - wikipedia even states that they are spherical initially; we found a late-stages palm-sized whopper this morning, in Bridgend Woods.
As far as we're concerned, seeing new season nettles Urtica dioica is a cause for celebration. Not only are they freely, widely available, they are sweet and delicious, and quantifiably rich in nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, magnesium, and fibre. Try this recipe for nettles tempura from John Renston, author of The Edible City. To Sharon, our international communications manager, their appearance means the corncrakes aren't far behind; she grows nettle-belts on her farm as cover for the protected species that migrate from South Africa to spend summers in Islay.
Rowan Buds - 6 weeks on...
Buds about bursting on our pet rowan on the Conisby road, Sorbus aucuparia. It's in the rose family, as is Hawthorn, and Blackthorn, and almond, which is actually the same subgenus as peach. Rosaceae connects rowan with all the stone fruits come to mention it... Fascinating to think of the plant world in this way; see Craig Grozier's piece Rose-tinted (Martini) Glasses >>