Describe your life in a tweet, I say. The answer comes back without hesitation:
“Six kids, living on an island on a wing and a prayer with occasional dabs of donated Jo Malone to combat seaweed and fresh air.” This is Fi Bird, author of the new book The Forager’s Kitchen.
Forget Twitter; it’s the first line of a novel. Instead she has chosen to write a cookbook. With unreliable supplies appearing from the Scottish mainland, Fi Bird (@TheScentedForager) supplements her island existence on the Outer Hebrides with very local bounty. It would be madness to rely on a supermarket when mussels wash up on the beach and food pops up on the forest floor. “Foraging here might require a wet suit,” she says of her island life, but it’s easy to see the appeal: “I love living on a Hebridean island with its deserted, white sandy beaches and sea, which is a myriad of greens and turquoises,” she says. And she adores hunting and gathering, then putting the results to frugal use in the kitchen.
Photographs by Peter Moore.
Above: Wild garlic, easily identified in spring by its overwhelming smell. “Foraging is about savoring the moment,” says Fi. Don’t be greedy: take what you need, instead of bushels for the freezer. “Feed your family, not the village.”
Obviously identification is vital and the forager needs to be 150% sure. Take a pocket guide and then double check with a more comprehensive source at home. A useful motto is “If in doubt, leave it out.”
Above: My own foraging experience is limited to blackberries and elderflower. I’m a bit nervous about nettles and ask Fi for advice:
“All you need is a pair of washing up gloves and scissors,” says Fi. “Pick young nettles early in the season. To keep them an amazing green blanch the leaves and refresh them in icy water.”
Bright green nettle puree is easily made by adding blanched nettles to a roux and thoroughly mixing. Use it to replace spinach in egg dishes, or add to drained cooked potatoes to make a wild green mash.
Above: Wild thyme spreads like a carpet over sand dunes. Aromatherapy for the feet when walked on barefoot. In the kitchen, use it like garden thyme, though it is milder in flavor.
“Foragers get out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine,” says Fi Bird. “Some of us even enjoy the wind, rain and snow too. Foraging is about far more than getting food on the table.”
Above: Jack-in-the-Hedge. This is everywhere now, growing out of the stone walls on my lane. Should I cross the road and pick some?
“Try to avoid picking any leaves or flowers on road verges,” advises Fi. In my experience Jack-in-the-Hedge is pretty invasive so you should find plenty of it away from polluted roadsides.
“Bruise a leaf and it will release the smell of garlic, so it is easily identified. Add the leaves late in cooking for maximum flavor; try adding some finely chopped leaves to scrambled egg on toast.”
Above: Honeysuckle blossom, delicious in jellies, syrup, or with boiling water added to fresh blossoms for simple tea.
Is it better, I ask, to cook with wild honeysuckle or the one twining over the fence in your back yard? “If you cook with edible garden flowers ensure that they haven’t been sprayed,” says Fi. Of a wilder part of her own garden she says: “On one sunny wall there is a delicate wild honeysuckle intertwined with brambles amongst apple trees. This is my favorite honeysuckle to cook with. Somehow, its flavor is stronger, more aromatic than the cultivated honeysuckle in another part of the garden.” It’s a sensual thing. “I prefer the delicate yellow of the wild honeysuckle to the Barbie doll pink of the garden flower.”
Above: Sweet Cicely, a natural sweetener and traditionally partnered with rhubarb, in season at the same time. Its hollow stems can also be used as swizzle sticks for cocktails, “But do ensure you don’t confuse this sweet, aniseed-scented plant with hemlock.”
Above: Ramps, or wild garlic. “In season, I use it in any recipe that requires garlic,” says Fi. “Add it toward the end of cooking time, or it will lose its color.”
The simplest of recipe suggestions: Add shredded ramps to steamed, unpeeled new potatoes, which have had melting butter and lemon zest added. Scatter ramps flowers over the top.
“Delicious seasonality marries the cultivated and wild in a few ingredients.” The Forager’s Kitchen is $18.21 from Amazon.