Foragers Summit 2018

IN

A self-confessed ‘reluctant forager’, our intern Hannah Carmichael shares her thoughts with us on our recent foragers summit. 

The first week after Feis Ile is usually the unofficial recovery period for Islay’s distilleries, taking time to catch their breath and make plans for the approaching summer. Not so much the case for the Botanist team at Bruichladdich!

For the last four years, this has been the time when the distillery is taken over by a team of invited guests from the world of chefs, bartenders and foragers. This year, I was very fortunate to be here to capture the goings on of the week. I’ve written on here before about my own previous lack of interest in nature and wildlife, and scant awareness of the foraging capabilities that surround me. While there was a good attempt to introduce me to the lifestyle last summer, my return to studying in Glasgow for another year unfortunately appears to have slightly undone those efforts and thus I have reverted back to being the resident “Reluctant Forager”. So, a few days touring around the island with the team to refresh my knowledge was just what was needed.

Each guest has a background in foraging and its uses; whether that be drinks creation or cooking Michelin star recipes. This year was no exception: Magnus Ek from Oaxen, John Horne from Canoe and James Forrest joined Craig Grozier to make up the chefs. Alexander Smith and Vijay Mudaliar helped our Brand Ambassador Abigail Clephane in drinks preparation, while Daniel Muelli, Jesper Launder, Lucia Stuart, Fergus Drennan and Nick Weston along with Mark Williams made up the foragers. We ask nothing of them, but invite them to the island to allow them to share their passions and maybe teach us a thing or two along the way.

Bridgend Woods

Five minutes in, and there was a round of audible gasps as everyone rushed around a log covered in some sort of fungi.

I met the group on their first full day, having arrived the evening before. Despite it being before 10am, everyone was already deep into scouring the woodland area in Bridgend for a variety of edible plants, the idea being that these would contribute towards a barbecue later that evening. Five minutes in, and there was a round of audible gasps as everyone rushed around a log covered in some sort of fungi. Or at least, that’s how it appeared to me at first; the reactions hinted that there was a bit more to it. I learned that this fungi was in fact an abundance of “perfect condition” Polyporus squamosus, or pheasant’s back – so called due to its appearance resembling that of the pattern of colours on the back of a pheasant. Unfortunately, one thing I cannot be taught is the ability to willingly eat anything mushroom-like, and so I refrained from the offer of taste-testing. However, I was told that it had a flavour that resembles watermelon.

This was followed by a visit to the island’s community gardens, where the group split up and explored the wide variety of plants situated there. This was where everyone really started to converse and share their different experiences in cooking and serving with different foraged ingredients, presenting each other with new smells and flavours from fruits to herbs. Interestingly, it was fair to say that there was perhaps more excitement over the assortment of weeds that grew there than the actual plants – things that I wouldn’t usually go out of my way to avoid stepping on were being added to the evening’s menu.

Next up was a trip down to Portnahaven, where the group scoured the rocks along the coast. Being a little bit braver this time round, I was encouraged to try a selection of algae. As an admittedly big fan of salted foods (sorry Jamie Oliver), I was really surprised at how much I actually enjoyed something I would never have normally even paid attention to let alone picked up and eaten. Something I also found particularly interesting was the natural occurrence of salt on the rocks where gutweed had dried out – this was, of course, collected to use as seasoning.

With the days pickings all selected and collected, the group headed back to the distillery to prepare their ingredients for our barbecue that night. Prep done, we headed down to a little beach northwest of the island called Saligo. Everyone soon set to work – well, I say everyone. I just sat in wonder at them all knowing exactly where they and their different ingredients slotted into the cooking process. Plants and all sorts of concoctions were swapped about, and soon we had an oyster bar, barbecued short-rib beef, cabbage with rendered beef fat and homemade yoghurt and curly allium from the community garden, as well as some flatbread and the pheasant’s back from earlier. Accompanied by a fantastic foraged Negroni created by our UK brand ambassador Abi, to say I was impressed by all of the efforts is a total understatement.

Port Ellen

This time, we enjoyed a range of seafood, including some lobster, the scallops, and the pollock that was caught on the boats.

Day 2 saw us heading off for Port Ellen to check out the flora and fauna of the other side of the island. Opting to join them later, I was met at the pier, where I was escorted onto a small boat. Bad islander klaxon yet again, as boats and I do not get on. Nevertheless, I was interested in experiencing some sea foraging (can you forage fish?), and the group were super eager to get stuck in with some scallop diving and fishing. As an added bonus, we got a tour of the island’s southern coast in the process – as the sun came out to join us, this made for some amazing views.

After rejecting the previous day’s mushroom offer I felt that I had to redeem myself in the area of adventurous eating, and so I can now say that I have had the opportunity to try raw sea urchin… I can’t say that the experience was overwhelmingly positive, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it!

Heading for a small inlet, we disembarked and set up another barbecue (we like our barbecues) and the group settled down to start cooking their findings. Once again, little bottles and jars of homemade dressings and marinades appeared and were added to the food. This time, we enjoyed a range of seafood, including some lobster, the scallops, and the pollock that was caught on the boats.

It has to be said that this dining experience was slightly more surreal for me; I’m not entirely used to watching the full preparation of my food from swimming around to being served up, so that was quite something. I also learned that there are surprising parts of a fish that can be eaten, which was demonstrated when they were cleaned out for cooking and the chefs set about using as much of it as they could. As taken aback as I was at first, it was fascinating to see everyone swapping tips and tricks on how they use different approaches in their area of expertise.

Day 3 started with a morning walk over the Kilchoman area guided by Donald James McPhee of Islay Outdoors. By now the group were all settled in each other’s company, and overheard snippets of conversation conveyed the delight that they all had in sharing their discoveries. The morning was a last chance for ingredient picking, as that evening the group were to create a combined dinner for their last night.

Saligo Beach

It has to be said that this dining experience was slightly more surreal for me

The afternoon saw much activity in the kitchen as world class chefs cooked in tandem with expert foragers. An impromptu spit roast was set up on the shore and a loin of locally-sourced venison from Dunlossit estate was cooked over a smoking fire.  Magnus Ek from Oaxen restaurant in Stockholm took over the duties, and the end result did not disappoint.

The decision was made to eat outside on the shore in the front of the distillery. A beautiful table was hastily laid, the evening was stunning and the group were keen to soak up the Islay atmosphere for one last time.  Even the ever-present Islay midges didn’t dampen the spirits!

Dish after dish appeared from the kitchen: a scallop salad with a seafood dressing made by John Horne from Canoe, foraged salads by Lucia Stuart, blue cheese and egg battered leaves by Daniel Muelli… the list goes on, and the range of food all sourced from the hills and shores of Islay was amazing. No meal would be complete without drinks, and this task fell to Abi Clephane, Alexander Smith and Vijay Mudaliar who kept us all topped up throughout the night. The foraged ingredients were the star of the show, and it goes to show that with a little imagination and creativity, a menu fit for any top restaurant can be created using the simplest of ingredients.

Before embarking on the washing up, a small group of us gathered around the fire and chatted over the week’s event. It had been a fantastic experience and all agreed that the group had arrived as strangers to each other, but were leaving as friends. Talks of collaborations and trips to visit one another went on long into the night. But all good things must end and those dishes do not wash themselves.

I think it’s fair to say that my week spent with the group has definitely changed my attitude towards foraging. The idea of being able to turn an assortment of randomly picked items into a full meal really intrigued me, and I learned a lot about the benefits of being so resourceful. Do I want to learn more?  Most definitely. In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself paying more attention to the things growing around me and have been trying to recognise anything that was used during the summit. Of course, I’ll probably need a little bit more experience before I can recreate full dishes, but the main thing is that I am willing to give it a go – and if I can do it, anyone can!

Foraging courses are happening all around you; if you are interested in learning more, then check out our website for more details.

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