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© BRUICHLADDICH DISTILLERY, ISLAY.
© BRUICHLADDICH DISTILLERY, ISLAY.
Rupert Waites is half of respected wild food outfit ‘Buck and Birch’, based in Scotland’s East Lothian. An experienced chef, and busy forager-supplier, he is also an ideas man, who with business partner Tom Chisholm has created several original libations using ingredients like Japanese knotweed, dandelion, and birch sap. If you are remotely appetite-orientated, a brief exploration of the pair’s past menus could give you some serious mental pleasure.
“My most formative experiences were definitely in my childhood,” says Rupert. “I was lucky enough to have parents swap West Granton Terrace (Trainspotting country) for the glorious North West Highlands of Scotland. My father was a fisherman and diver so we spent a lot of time on the pier fishing or in the markets poking fish. He took home shark heads or herring and he and my mother would take us on the railway line picking primroses or brambles for jam and wine.”
Rupert has vivid memories of living on the island of Canna when he was eight, where the population has been twenty or less since the 1980s. “I vividly remember the proximity to nature. We grew our own veg and hunted rabbits after school. Fed the chickens (and watched them eaten by Scotland’s first new Sea Eagles). I remember going fishing on Sanday, catching nothing at all but coming home with two rabbits and some mushrooms. The Saturday morning ferry was at 6am and my brother and I would go to the MacKinnon house to meet it. There in the dark we would tuck into big plates of lobster, Nora’s soda scones and loads of tea. I can still taste the combination now.”
He cites Richard Mabey’s Food for Free as an influence. At around twelve years old he became, “intrigued that there was a hidden world of flavour in the ditches and forests.” These days, when his livelihood depends on it, foraging is, for him, “a good antidote to business. It requires focus but is fairly mundane; your mind is occupied but free to wander.” He goes on, “In a world where it’s easy to order anything anytime from anywhere, foraging keeps things real and makes you see the environment close up. Each new discovery, be it Hogweed, spoots, Pepper dulse, or a new edible mushroom, is exhilarating. Birch sap is still mystical and magical even though I’ve read a fair bit about how it happens. No doubt, foraging influences the way we do things and make our decisions. It will never pay to just look at it as figures. It’s not what it’s about.”
Rupert’s most recent venture is scaled-up production of one of the hit liquers from the menus of evenings at the Buck and Birch – Aelder elderberry elixir. It’s a hand-made, whisky-based, botanical-infused, enigmatic treat in a stoneware bottle, made using the berries from the elder tree Sambucus nigra.
Elderberries are on the accessible end of the foraging spectrum, though they are mildly poisonous in their raw state. “They are massively abundant, easy to pick and really tasty,” says Rupert. “You can make jam, shrub, vinegar, pies and puddings, jelly, wine… They grow easily in poor soils and are quick to crop. There is something about elderberries too where everyone either has a granny or great grandfather who used to make elderberry wine. In that way we are part of the wave of people who are getting into all that again.
“The ethos of the Buck and Birch was to go back to the source. To start looking again using a walkable radius, and hand harvesting etc. Just like the old days.”
So in more ways than one, Rupert Waites reveals himself to be something of a Renaissance man.