An inspiration to forage by Mark Williams
Pretty much since I started to blog and then tweet I’ve followed Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods. Many a time I’d find myself desperately trying to get a signal on a beach or a forest to ask him what some seaweed or shellfish or berry was as it looked delicious. And always getting a reply with the utmost patience. Finally earlier this year I managed to get on a forest walk with Mark and a diverse group of people. Five inspiring hours saw me eating my way through leaves from the lime tree, mushroomy ribwort plantain, purslane and reed mace, all washed down with elderflower fizz, gin and meadowsweet tonic and wild whisky sours. So I’m delighted that Mark has taken the time to answer the questions I put to him at great length.
Where and when did you start foraging?
Apart from the regulation bramble picking I didn’t have a very foragy childhood. It first hit my radar while I was home from university on the Isle of Arran doing a summer job in a seafood restaurant. The chef and I decided it might be healthier to go foraging for fungi in the woods around the restaurant between split shifts, rather than our usual couple of pints! We knew nothing (or less!) about foraging or fungi and only had one book to help. Fortunately, the book was “A Passion for Mushrooms” by Antonio Carluccio. Although it was essentially a recipe book for wild mushrooms, it did have a great wee beginner’s guide to identifying the best edible species and a few poisonous ones to watch out for. Although it was far from comprehensive, and lacked a lot of the wider science behind what mushrooms actually are, it had a tone that conveyed the thrill and excitement of “the silent hunt” and the fascination of the personalities of these weird, wonderful and often delicious organisms. I often think that had we only had a regular field guide, although it may have contained more information, I may never have connected to the romance of foraging for wild fungi. So thanks Mr C! This is why I try to convey the “personality” of plants and fungi when i’m teaching about them (rather than just botanical features); foraging is about forming intimate relationships with plants and fungi, rather than just going to a free open-air supermarket.
Our first foraging “season” was very exciting – we found lots of mushrooms but I don’t think we confidently identified a single one – and certainly didn’t dare eat any! I try really hard to remember that feeling when i’m teaching nowadays. Its important to empathise with that daunting feeling and remember that identification characteristics that seem obvious or easy to me now, weren’t then, and aren’t to the novices I teach.
Anyway, I got the fungi foraging bug and after a year or so stumbled on my first chanterelle patch. I remember it like it was yesterday and can still recall every branch and tree root around that wee spot. I bought more guide books and slowly built up the number of species I could recognise. This took years, and i’m still doing it today. A lot of people think there is a magic trick to confidently identifying fungi or any wild food for that matter. There isn’t. Every proficient forager I know has earned their knowledge over hundreds of hours in the woods and poring, often uncertainly, over ID guides, slowly but surely gaining confidence in their own powers of observation. I’m entirely self-taught, in so far as I’ve never had a mentor or gone out on any “expert”-led forays. I shouldn’t really say this, what with earning my living teaching plant/fungi ID, but you can only really teach yourself. Only you can give you confidence, and that only comes by investing time and enjoying discovery.
Perhaps the most startling thing about those early years is how quickly people started to look to me as an “expert”. 25 years later, I still don’t consider myself an expert – there is always so much more to learn! The more you see, the more you see there is to see.
I moved back to Arran full-time after university and wrote a series of articles on fungi for the local newspaper. That happened to coincide with an epic year for wild mushrooms. Fungi fever gripped the island and when I was asked to do a guided walk for The National Trust, 90 people turned up! That was pretty insane. I’d scouted the route the day before to ensure we encountered an interesting selection (as I still do for all my walks). We met under an old beech tree. Overnight, about 20 perfect bouchon ceps had sprung up. An amazing start to my first ever guided walk!
I obsessed with only foraging fungi for many years, pining for autumn. Eventually I realised I was missing out on a wealth of amazing plants, seaweeds and shellfish and set about teaching myself those. I think the fine observations required for fungi ID stand you in good stead for wider foraging. The majority of the really good “all-round” foragers I know started off with fungi. Now every month, week and even day brings new wild foods – there is never a dull moment!
Why do you think wild food has become so popular?
Some people think foraging is just a fad. Maybe it is, for people that are into fads and fashions – they kind of give away their own shallowness by making the accusation. But through any sensible eyes, foraging has to be seen as the acme of a broader move towards using seasonal, organic, locally sourced, healthier, more flavoursome, biodiverse ingredients.
Let’s not forget that humans were foragers long before we were farmers. Its in our DNA. Its in how we perceive taste. Its in how our memory works. We are fooling ourselves if we think we have evolved beyond these things in the few thousand years since we started scattering wild seeds closer to home. I think its fairer to say that, given what we know now, farming, using ingredients from half way around the world, and mass production, are the real fads, and ones that can’t go on much longer. Please don’t mistake this for being inward-looking. I gain inspiration from dishes and techniques from all over the world. But it is possible to honour them using wild Scottish ingredients. There isn’t a single spice you could name that I couldn’t suggest an equivalent for, growing wild and abundantly in Scotland.
Anyone can buy stuff. I don’t think its particularly gourmet, clever, creative or satisfying to shuffle around a supermarket, or up-market deli for that matter, looking for packets of stuff in order to make some other stuff that some guy on telly/online/in a book says tastes good. That is somebody else’s taste, ego, or more likely business plan, that you are eating. Surely a true gastronome would know that, say, this week, one particular shrub in one particular location will be producing the most amazing berries? That the “weeds” in their local park in April taste great fermented in a certain way and are good for their families health? That a week on Sunday between 6pm and 9pm the tides are right for harvesting seaweeds and spoot clams, at that particular spot?
I help everyone from michelin starred chefs to primary school children to recognise and use the wealth of wild resources that are around us all the time. The excitement, inspiration to creativity and sense of empowerment that this brings is a joy to behold, and won’t be going “out of fashion” any time soon!
On top of all this, foraging fosters a clear sense of human’s place as a part of the natural world, rather apart from it. I think this is crucial if we want to live in better harmony with our planet. I’m afraid that well-intentioned folk who campaign for conservation and battle climate change online with a ready meal on their lap aren’t joining the dots! It sounds counter-intuitive, but to protect biodiversity, we need to eat biodiversely. The cornerstones of mass agricultural production: monoculture, genetic pollution, soil degradation and broad-brush application of glyphosphates are what leads to habitat and species loss – not mindful, diverse foraging.
If you had to choose one season for foraging which one would it be and why?
Before trying to answer that, I have to say that the notion of 4 seasons isn’t really something I recognise. In southwest Scotland where I live (and most of the UK really), we have about 6 months of spring (Jan – June) and 7 months of autumn. That isn’t a miscount – June falls into both categories! Summer and winter don’t really happen, maybe the odd cold or hot week every few years.
But also, in terms of flavours, there are way, way more than 4 seasons. Its quite a roller-coaster, the forager’s year. Every week brings new joy and pain, as things come in to, and go out of, season. I can’t think of a single month that doesn’t have a distinct and unique set of highlights, all of them overlapping in great flavour combinations.
For many years that would have been an easy question to answer: autumn because of the fungi. But since getting familiar with the insane abundance and variety of our wild larder, I find it very hard to pick a favourite. I’m writing this mid-November and, though most people think foraging stops during winter, its actually one of my favourite times. Seaweeds are at their best, the first (an best) shoots start to appear in January and there are some utterly delicious mushrooms about.
At a push, I would have to say September, when (in Galloway) I can forage ceps, pepper dulse, spoot clams, cockles, sweet cicely, coastal succulents, maitake, elderflowers AND elderberries all in one walk. So I guess that is autumn. Hopefully I would have fermented enough ramsons and hogweed in April!
Which part of Scotland do you like best for wild food?
Galloway in southwest Scotland, where I live, because it has a remarkable diversity of habitats in such a small area, providing almost everything I need and love. An amazing variety of coastal habitats, masses of forest of all types, endless bountiful hedgerows and some very special swamps! Familiarity helps – I know just where to go and when. There are just a couple of plants and fungi that I make special trips out of the region for. I would expect most foragers with a decent repertoire to like their own area best – nothing beats years of intimacy with a landscape.
What tips would you give people who are interested in wild food but find the concept of it a little daunting?
The huge diversity of wild plants and fungi can be very daunting to the novice forager. The form of plants can vary greatly between seasons and even individual plants within a species can look different depending on where they are growing. Fungi can be even more bewildering as they can turn from immature buttons to festering carcasses almost overnight. Worse still, many tasty wild foods have a sinister doppleganger that is only subtly different. But don’t be disheartened! All you need is a bit of perseverance, a keen eye and a bit of luck!
Here are my top 5 tips for getting into wild foods.
1. Get a good guide book and get out there!
Food for Free by Richard Mabey is a great starter book that will give you a feel for the range of wild foods that are available. It is NOT however, suitable for identifying potentially poisonous species and you will need more specialised plant and fungi field guides for accurate identification. Carry them with you whenever there is any chance of stumbling on something interesting – you will never gain any confidence by just leafing through pages at home. You can’t come to any harm by just looking at plants and fungi – and even deadly species can’t harm you by touch! View my recommended guidebooks and online resources
But you really do need to put in some hours in the woods/coast/hedgerow – its not realistic to expect to become proficient at anything if you don’t invest some practical time.
2. Don’t be too ambitious.
Start off trying to identify just a few species that don’t have any sinister lookalikes such as wood sorrel, wild garlic, chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms and sloes. This will build up your identification skills and you will start to gain confidence with trickier species. If you only learn 3 new species per year, you will know 30 in 10 years time! Check out my wild food guide and “In Season Now” guide on my website for tips on what to look for. Don’t fool yourself into thinking there are short cuts to becoming a proficient forager – I have been doing it for 25 years and am constantly delighted by how much there is to still discover. I learn something new every time I go out.
3. Spend time getting to know your local area.
Foraging starts at home.
You may be amazed by how many edible species actually grow as weeds around your house, and that wood you have walked the dog in for years may yield all manner of tasty things if you really look! Also plants can look very different between seasons and mushrooms can spring up and rot away in a week – so it pays to be consistent. Taking an interest in all you come across, edible or not, will hone your identification skills.
4. Go out with an expert
Well I would say that wouldn’t I! As I mentioned earlier, you can only really teach yourself, but nothing gives you more confidence than to see somebody pick and eat that mushroom that you were 99% sure was a chanterelle.
Please see my pages on foraging tuition and guided forays to learn more about coming foraging with me.
5. NEVER EAT ANY WILD FOOD WITHOUT FIRST BEING 100% SURE OF ITS IDENTITY – you could kill yourself if you can’t recognise poisonous species.
What would be your ideal wild food feast if location and season wasn’t an issue? And what booze would accompany it?!
OK, here is the menu. I’ve cooked and served most of this on my gourmet foraging days. I’d quite like to cook it too, with my pals (half of whom are amazing chefs and foragers and are the inspiration/creators behind many of the dishes!). We’d eat it on my verandah from 2pm on a June afternoon, overlooking the Fleet Valley, where we’d have picked most of the ingredients over the previous day or two. There is every chance we would be smashed by the time the starters arrived. But we all have stamina…(you’ll find many of these recipes and more on Galloway Wild Food recipe page)
Filthy Dirty Martini – The Botanist Gin, wild mountain amaro, ground ivy & applemint shrub, 9 carrot bitters, bladderwrack capers. This is my go-drink, any day!
Wild Whisky Sour – Whisky, sea buckthorn juice, birch syrup, cloveroot, foraged bitters.
Raw Fleet Bay cockles, in their shells.
Native Loch Ryan Oysters with fermented ramsons
Elf cup sushi with reindeer moss and baby velvet shank mushrooms
Sea kale shoots with hollandaise
Drink: Oak leaf and elderflower champagne
Birch sap served instead of water
Scottish Thai Scallops – made with coconut milkcaps & coriander grass
Raw bouchon cep, sorrels, Loch Arthur cheddar
(Drink: Shots of chaga bomb)
Cep and dulse dashi with spoots, reedmace, fermented wild garlic, oyster plant, pepper dulse
Douglas fir focaccia
Roadkill hare, blood, blewits (cooked by Craig Grozier)
(Drink: Rupert’s 3yo Elderberry wine)
Spruce, noble fir and home made gin sorbet
(Drink: Noble fir mead)
Galloway cheeses, buckthorn and crap apple jelly, Arran oatcakes, Mo’s seaweed crackers, Galloway honey and seakale flowers
Gooseberries with elderflower, several ways
(Drink: Andy Hamilton’s 5 plum wine)
Elderberry and cloveroot ice cream
Birch syrup honeycomb
Birch syrup toffees
Jelly ear turkish delight
Fleet Valley Amaro
Very Sloe Gin
Liberty cap tea
Can I come…..??