Forager Profile – Mark Williams

IN

We are very glad to have Mark Williams, Scotland’s only full-time foraging tutor, with us regularly on Islay, sharing some of his knowledge of native plants with our associate chefs and bartenders from around the world.

Well-known for his level of experience with mushrooms, and for his central role in starting the Association of Foragers, Mark’s own website is a valuable and extensive resource about foraged finds and what to do with them – “I guess my blog is like my diary,” he says.

It was originally funghi on the Isle of Arran where he grew up that gave him “the foraging bug” supported by Antonio Carluccio’s A Passion for Mushrooms, which, Mark says, “Gave it a bit of pazzazz rather than just these dry textbooks that sometimes people look at.”  Applying himself to learning about wild edibles prior to the advent of the internet, and before what Mark calls “the resurgence of foraging” whereby wild ingredients have become popular in culinary circles, “in a way was good. You need to look at books and spend that time with the books I think.”

He well remembers how daunting it is trying to work out what’s what in the wild, and his own feelings of ‘Just complete fear!” when he started out, but says, “Teaching yourself stuff is easy if you’re into it, you know?”

The process continues for him to this day, “You have things on your radar, when you see something in a book that sounds really delicious and you spend a few years trying to work out where it is in the wild. So I’ve still got things on a hit list, like ‘Oh God, it’d be nice to find some of that.’

“I get lots of inspiration from lots of different foragers. There’s a guy called Fergus Drennan down in England who does some pretty crazy stuff, and he’s always quite cutting edge and doing stuff that nobody else is doing with wild plants, so he’s a lot of fun to read and follow.”

Some people keep sketchbooks of their discoveries in the field, though Mark says, “I don’t think you need to be an artist. Just do little stick drawings of plants, like a line where the leaves are along the stem, or something like that, or the shape of a leaf – it’s not really hard.”

Mark Cooking a foraged meal

Similarly, he says that to enjoy these wild edibles you don’t need to be a cook

Similarly, he says that to enjoy these wild edibles you don’t need to be a cook, although he describes himself as having had “lots of jobs around the food industry” in his career. “I think way too much is made of recipes nowadays, and not enough of just simple basic cooking skills. All you need to know with cooking is to put things in the pan in roughly the right order.

“I just try to encourage people to just taste things, taste them in the raw, make something with it –  especially in the drinks world, there’s loads of simple ways you can extract flavour into a vinegar, into a spirit, into a syrup. Or ferment something. And it’s… Just use your instincts, you know.”

For Mark, in his chosen vocation, “The only tough thing is it’s hard to switch it off. So it’s like I’m always foraging! When you’re moving through the landscape, you’re just constantly aware of all these things, ‘Oh there might be some Clitocybes up that hill; I’ve got to go and see that bit because I got something good there before…’

“It’s just a walk in the woods or a walk on a beach and then seeing what’s there. Foraging full-time hasn’t really changed my relationship with it, you just can’t help seeing the world in a different way, and seeing what’s there. It actually feels like a privilege and a pleasure to share that information.”

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