Islay Summit (I): The Foragers

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As a few people might have realized I was invited this year (to my utmost surprise and joy) to participate in the Forager’s Summit on the Hebridean island of Islay, on the West Coast of Scotland. For five days we explored the faery coasts of the island, basing ourselves at Academy House at the Bruichladdich distillery, where The Botanist gin is refined and produced on the same site as some of the finest whisky the island has to offer. It is not easy to concentrate my writing about this experience, so I choose for now to discuss the people – not so much the plants – whom I encountered on the island.

Early on as I began to consciously study the art of plant identification (or orientation), it became apparent fairly quickly that, without a sense for plant families, it would be hard work finding my way around in the world of wild plants. It took a much longer time, exactly up until the Summit on Islay, to realize that, as a forager, I seem to have been working under unnecessarily lonely circumstances without the benefit of an extended community of any kind. I hope my time spent with these people will remedy that concern in the future.

Our group of foragers consisted of wild food experimentalists, teachers and enthusiasts whose geographical range spans three continents. Though it will probably read much like a contributor’s section of a publication, I think many people will benefit from reading into the activities of these dedicated foragers from around the world.

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Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods works closely with the Botanist Academy on Islay and has been foraging and hosting foraging events for over twenty years, ‘since [he] was an over-confident eighteen-year-old’. During our week stay, his enthusiasm for everything wild was ceaseless, and Mark is a forager who can get almost as excited about the presence of non-edible species as he can about a good crop of pepper dulse (Osmundia pinnatifida) (‘it’s not my favourite seaweed, not even my favourite wild edible; it’s more like my favourite thing, ever.’ Mark’s blog entry about this seaweed is the first of around 120,000 Google hits). His knowledge of and relationship with the flora celtica is deeply-involved, and he is both generous and unhurried in his manner of sharing what he has learned.

 

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Craig Worrall of Edible Leeds works all over the British Isles teaching and giving wild food workshops, and while he is enamoured with the West Coast of Scotland and its coastal abundance, he cares deeply about the wild spaces of West Yorkshire and its surrounding National Parks. As we foraged on Islay, Craig’s flights of recipe brain-storming were telling of his years of wild food experimentation.

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Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods works in Herefordshire where she produces her range of fine foraged products. Her understanding of scent and flavour were way beyond anything I could even detect with many of the things we encountered on Islay. She is passionate about integrating organic and wild food into our lives and is sensitive to the difficulties of doing either of these things with either economic restraints or the time restraints of running a family, or both.

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Roushanna Grey grew up in Cape Town, fell in love with the flora of coastal South Africa, and divides her life between her obsession with wild plants and seaweeds and also the cultivated plants grown at her Good Hope Gardens Nursery. She was in her element on the coastal walks on Islay, down in the rock crevices of a sheltering bay, showing us the variety of ‘sea vegetables’ to be found, some of which were native to her own Cape Point.

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Ellen Zachos has worked worldwide educating groups on wild plants and has a history of roof-top gardening in New York. Her knowledge of plants is truly encyclopaedic, and several times on Islay we nerded completely out about respective non-native species that were of special interest to us both. She is the author of several books on wild plants including Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, which includes species regularly found in the garden and even in city parks and open spaces.

As foragers are seemingly often generous with their treasures, there is a wealth of foraging literature to be had just from visiting the websites of these great people, and perhaps given the great geographic range they cover together, there will be lots of information about the flora of very specific ecosystems, especially in Roushanna and Mark’s writings.

That’s a little about the people. Coming next, some of the plants I was lucky enough to meet on Islay.