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.