Would you like an all expenses paid trip to a beautiful and remote Scottish island, to forage, cook and generally just hanging out as the guest of a whisky distillery? Oh, and there will be a group of like-minded people, foragers, chefs and booze people with you, you’ll have to spend your time visiting some stunning wild spots, picking amazing and delicious foods, cooking, eating and drinking! No strings attached, no promising to endorse our products, just come, hang out, enjoy. Unheard of in this day and age and this, I can assure you, is not the type of offer I get every day, in fact more often than not I get asked if I’d like to take hen party on a foraging piss up in their local London park……so for obvious reasons my answer was a massive YES! The legendary whisky making island of Islay, is somewhere I have never imagined myself visiting, and to be honest, despite the beautiful description not just of the island, but the opportunity that lay ahead, I really hadn’t considered what an amazing experience this would be. Just to slap a delicious pre-trip icing on this already tempting cake, Emma who works for the distillery, arranged and paid for all my travel…… I felt like the first forager to have his own Personal Assistant. At Glasgow airport, my fellow forager and Scottish counterpart, Mark Williams, was there to meet me, driving a big green camper van, already rammed to the gills with delicious wild foods. Also with Mark were Glaswegian super chef Craig Grozier and wild booze maestro Andy Mcfarlane, so off we set, driving across Argyll, exploring the banks of beautiful sea lochs, foraging as we went to meet our ferry about three hours further west. En route we took in a couple of local breweries and I was reminded of how pathetic and low my alcohol tolerance had become since the birth of my son three years ago. Basically, after the first pint, I was pissed……Get a grip of yourself John, I thought, otherwise you are really going to shame yourself in front of these people! Fortunately, and through necessity, my ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, mostly whisky, until 5 AM whilst swearing my underlying love for a group of relative strangers, came back to me with startling success by the third night of our trip.
Our plans to take the ferry over that night were thwarted by bad weather and rough seas but as that old and slightly confusing expression goes, “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” and we ended up staying the night at a lovely old farmhouse cooking, eating, drinking and generally getting to know each other. Already there were the other two members of our group, forager and owner of Napier’s Herbalist, Monica Wilde, and wild cocktail expert and author of the fabulous Booze For Free, Andy Hamilton. Weird and wonderful ingredients appeared from everyone’s bags, Mark knocked up a delicious Japanese style Dashi broth with wild mushrooms, seaweed and fermented wild garlic leaves, while I prepared some tempura from a selection of wild greens, Monica created a heavenly dressing for the wild salad she’d picked earlier and the two Andys plied us with all manner of wicked and wild booze concoctions. Our host, Bumble, topped it all off by producing portions of her home-made sticky ginger cake and as I fell into bed about 1 PM I honestly thought we had all peaked too early! Getting up just four hours later to get the ferry, I knew we had and waited until an hour into the two-hour crossing before being brave enough to face the fried breakfast on offer.
On arrival, our hosts were waiting to meet us off the boat; Emma and Lynton both work for The Bruichladdich Whisky Distillery, famous not only for producing some extraordinarily delicious whiskey, but more importantly, at least in this case, The Botanist Gin, a delicious and fiendish brew containing 22 foraged ingredients, all found on Islay. After introductions and some strong coffee to stave of the effects of sleep deprivation and general over indulgence, we headed up to a local woodland to see what we could find, by now we had photographer Alfredo and camera man Carney with us. Another thing I hadn’t quite planned for was the booze “bent” this trip was going to take and before long were all plotted up in a stunning conifer woods, drinking Botanist Gin, infusing Spruce tips into it, mixing the erupting sap from Noble Fir trees with it (aka Noble Fir Puss), crushing Juniper needles and young Rowan shoots into it and generally using it as a base for all manner of wild plant meets wild booze type experiments. It was fascinating and simultaneously unsettling to be bombarded by so much enthusiasm, the exchange of so much knowledge and the effects of so much gin, all so soon after our arrival. Thank god someone had brought a lump of cheese and Monica had made some delicious seaweed and wild herb crackers. The day continued in a similar manner and when we reached our accommodation, a perfect little lighthouse keeper’s cottage, everyone needed a bit of a lie down….
Soon it was time to cook dinner, a relatively simple affair consisting of some amazing smoked brown trout that appeared from somewhere (I think Craig had prepared them earlier but parts of this day are a bit hazy), steamed wild garlic from a huge patch we’d hit earlier, another of Monica’s extraordinary wild salads (the dressing was 1 part soy, 1 part lemon, 2 parts olive oil, herbs and a crushed garlic clove….I have been making this almost every day since I returned), wild garlic pesto and some local bread, all washed down with a few of the Andy’s wild booze experiments, mead, cocktails, flower champagnes etc. In bed, face down and out for the count around 1pm, the last thing I can remember is the comfortingly booming voice of Mark Williams (he’s quite a big lad) reverberating from the kitchen below me, and this would be the first noise I heard the following morning as I peeled my face off the pillow…how does he do it, I wondered?
It’s amazing how restorative a good sleep and the excitement of a day spent with ones peers and friends can be. So many treats were in store for us and everyone was on top form as Lynton arrived to take us out in the ginmobile, a ten seater mini bus with pictures of wild plants and gin bottles plastered all over it. Let’s drive up the coast a few miles and see what we can find on the shore he suggested, but before doing so, we walked the hundred yards or so to the sea in front of our house to check what the tide was up to. Now as anyone who has ever been on one of my walks, in fact probably any foraging walk, will tell you, often we don’t get very far, there is always too much to see and sometimes I don’t even make it out of the carpark…And so it was, the tiny walk to the sea took probably half an hour with numerous seashore plants picked, nibbled and discussed, my first taste of Scots Lovage and once we actually reached the waters edge, a frenzy of seaweed gathering erupted and lasted probably another 90 minutes. Foragers are nothing if not enthusiastic and with at least a dozen delicious varieties growing quite literally, a stones throw, from our house, we were a very happy bunch indeed… with lovely names like Sea Lettuce, Gutweed, Dabberlocks (another first for me, also called Badderlocks), Tubular Weed, Red Dulse, Kelp, Sugar Kelp and Bladder Wrack, bits were nibbled, ideas and recipes discussed and bucketfuls gathered for drying and cooking later. Star of the show, as always, was an unassuming little fella called Pepper Dulse, who’s tiny fronds pack the most incredible Umami taste and have earned it the title “truffle of the sea”…it’s hard to describe a flavour properly but trust me, this is eye rollingly delicious stuff.
So, our one minute tide check lasted two hours before Lynton shouted excitedly that we had to be off if we wanted to fish for sea trout! Somehow the seaweed got hung up to dry and another round of drinks got consumed (somebody always had something they’d made and they were eager to share) before we got going and a twenty minute drive later we were in a breathtaking bay, attempting to catch our dinner, or at least a small part of it. Just the one fish was landed but as with all things hunter gatherer, there is always something else to find…across the water from us we could see numerous cockles so one group splintered off to gather them while the rest headed up the beach to pick some shore plants, wild spinaches etc and Monica and I collected some massive, 5 metre long sugar kelp to deep fry later. Picnic lunch, drinks, my version of a traditional Basque Pacharan was gratefully received (think wild fruit, sloes and elderberries, infused into Ouzo with coffee beans and vanilla) and then it was time to collect some wild/feral oysters…oh happy day! I have never done this before, the idea of foraging oysters in London is pretty unlikely in modern times and I’d assumed we’d be lucky to find half a dozen…twenty minutes and 40 huge pacific oysters later, we had two bucketfuls and masses of cockles from earlier….the local coastal rangers even endorsed our activities telling us that the invasive pacific oyster is a “problem” species and we should collect as many as we could! (Over use of exclamation marks during this blog is unavoidable I’m afraid).
Back at base, Andy H created an outdoor bar while I headed off with Lynton and Craig, insisting we had to find the perfect size and shape of stinging nettle leaf to tempura and make into edible plates for the Japanese seaweed salad I had in mind. Three grown men excitedly shouting at each other as they compared stinging nettles, then back at the cottage I found out that prep’ing and assembling nettle tempura, seaweed salad with steamed sea sandwort and pickled chillies for 12 people, is a tricky and time consuming task. Carl arrived from the distillery, miraculously “shucked” about 20 of our oysters and they were gone in second, heaven in a shell, more like double cream than seafood….I missed out on all the drinks (probably a blessing in disguise) but was very pleased with how my foraged starter turned out, sharing the tiny kitchen with Mark who effortlessly produced some stunning wild sushi from the fish we’d caught earlier and a selection of foraged herbs, with a ferocious scurvy grass wasabi, while Monica cut and deep fried the seaweed to create some incredible seaweed crisps.
With so much creativity and excitement coming out of such a small space I thought we had peaked until Craig appear with his “turbo charged” Umami clam and cockle soup, by which time my taste buds were literally weeping with joy…although I’m describing something of an orgy of eating here, none of the things we ate, were really more than a few mouthfuls of each, but so extraordinarily flavoursome, I wondered if I’d ever be able to eat “normal” food again. More food, more drink, whisky galore and somehow it was 5am and getting light, Andy, Mark and I appeared to be the last men standing, just, and I headed off to bed. As my head hit the pillow I vaguely remembered Emma agreeing to put my flight back a day so I could stay til Friday rather than having to leave hideously hungover and on little to no sleep, that morning.
When I did eventually surface, I felt surprisingly OK, still thoroughly drunk but none the less, pretty good…then I remembered what the morning had in store for us….SCALLOP DIVING!! Hmmm, the thought of spending hours out at sea on a small rocking boat while dissecting and eating raw seafood, didn’t sound quite as appealing as it had the night before. Much faffing and coffee drinking later, a bit green around the gills, we were welcomed on board by our skipper and begun chugging out to sea. Put a brave face on it John, I thought, everyone else looks as bad as you do. But the sea did not get rough, the boat did not rock and we found ourselves, in a wide channel between two big rocky outcrops, watched over by about twenty huge, beautiful, seals and with the Laphroaig distillery a mile or so away in the distance; an idyllic spot if ever there was one. Better still, our skipper was the only one suiting up and going diving in the freezing looking water..twenty minutes later, he was back on the boat and his catch of scallops and sea urchins was on the deck. Craig gave us all a lesson in shelling and cleaning before we got to try what must be the freshest, finest sashimi in the world…I ‘d run out of appropriate adjectives the night before, but if there was a single moment on this trip, that I really did go to wild food heaven, this was it….looking at everyone’s faces I knew they felt the same.
Back on land, surprise surprise, more foraging, a trip to find some Bog Myrtle (an aromatic heathland plant) turned into a wild cocktail making session and a trip to the local pub ended with us being given a basket of langoustines and a lobster. Well, that’s dinner sorted, I thought, but Craig said we still needed to pick up the rook breasts…ROOK BREASTS!?!? That night we ate like kings, Monica had already left, and with her went any chance of any salad getting onto the table, besides there really was no room for it. Pretty much everything from the day went straight into the smoker that Craig had set up in the shed, bar the rook breasts which he pan fried with garlic…No, I didn’t know you could eat rook either but they were fantastic and all that was left for my breakfast the following morning. I retired about midnight, leaving the others pounding spruce tips in gin or some other such wild man vs wild cocktail activities. I was shattered, truly broken on the wheel of my own indulgence…what a way to go.
In the morning, I found myself aboard The Marie Celeste, a deserted wreck of a vessel, debris everywhere and not a sole in site…early flights and early ferries had been met and although I knew Mark and Lynton were coming later to help with the house cleaning, fuelled by sleep, recharged by coffee and boosted by eating three leftover, garlicky rook breasts for breakfast, I set about the task on my own and went into a strange but rewarding, almost meditative, cleaning frenzy….two hours later, the house was gleaming and even the swathes of seaweed I had been drying over the banisters, were all packed up and ready to go. The lads arrived, did some packing, drunk some more coffee and we headed off for one last foray, more a recon visit for Mark’s return trip in the autumn (lucky, lucky bastard). He headed off in his camper van and I stopped at the distillery shop to buy my friend and house sitter, Gav, a bottle of whisky, knowing how fond he was of niche items, I found him a single malt, single vintage, single farm, single field (honestly) barley whiskey, an Islay Rock Farm 2007 to be precise. On the way to the tiny airport Lynton pointed out the exact field where the barley in my whiskey was grown; I reached the airport in something of a daze and soon was flying away from this wonderful island, already trying to think of a way to get an invite back.
Since getting home to London, my thoughts, ideas and approach to wild food and wild food cookery, have most definitely been expanded and enhanced, with so may things to try and such a huge wave of enthusiasm to ride, how could they not. As Andy Hamilton, who by his own admission, can be a touch cynical, told me a couple of weeks after, I actually think I came back a better person. As a footnote, I do realise that this blog is rather more self indulgent and rather less informative than usual, but some things you just have to get down on paper and if the only people who read it are the six new friends I made and my mum, then that’s probably six more than usual.