Where the wild things are
So long, supermarket salads and overpriced herbs. Keen to test her survival skills, our reporter heads into the wild on a seashore foraging expedition
Published 03/02/2016 | 02:30
A train-station car park might not sound like the most promising location for a spot of foraging, but this is where I begin my search for wild foods. It's three degrees out and the depths of winter, but chefs Niall O'Sullivan and Paul Quinn of the Nadur Collective assure me that there's no shortage of culinary delights to be found.
You can forage just about anywhere - in the city, in public parks, in the woods or by the sea, which is what brings me to Wicklow today.
There are many different reasons people go foraging; some are interested in the medicinal uses of the plants, others fancy themselves as a bit of a Bear Grylls and want to test their survival skills, or there are those who just want to enjoy the beauty of nature.
For the three chefs who make up the Nadur Collective - Niall, head chef of Merrion Row's Bang; Paul, co-owner of Wicklow restaurant The Three Qs; and David Gallagher, a representative for Artisan Foods - foraging offers an opportunity to seek out new ingredients and flavours for their cooking.
After a visit to Copenhagen's MAD Foods Symposium, founded by the acclaimed chef Rene Redzepi, the trio were inspired to start their own collective dedicated to all things food-related.
Since forming the collective four years ago, Nadur have held guided foraging walks, workshops and even a wild-food art installation, as well as bringing students from cookery schools out on foraging trips. This year, they're hoping to work with schools to educate children about vegetables.
"We did a workshop a couple of weeks ago where I put up 10 logos but I took the brand names out," Niall recalls. "I had McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut - and the kids knew them straight away. Then we put up pictures of celeriac, carrots, beetroot and radish, and they hardly knew any of them.
"Foraging constantly educates me. It makes me think about my kids, and what they're going to eat," adds Niall.
Niall and Paul go foraging a couple of times a week, and often it becomes a family affair. Not only are there considerable health benefits from walking, stretching and bending to gather your finds, it's also great for all ages. Paul's children are aged two, six and nine, while Niall's are six, 11 and 16 - and they take their kids out on foraging expeditions a few times a month, and regularly use foraged foods in their home cooking.
"I feed foraged food to my children because I want them to care about what they eat and where it comes from," says Paul. "They are picky eaters, but they're more inclined to eat it when they've been involved in the process of collecting it and seen the process of cooking."
As we set off walking along the coast, our photographer tentatively worries about eating something that may have been contaminated by a passing dog.
"We're way past dog pee at this stage!" Niall laughs, as Paul grabs a handful of sea beet - a relative of beetroot - which looks like spinach. Before I know it I'm munching away, without so much as a rinse, on the naturally salty plants.
When someone mentions foraging, you might imagine them brazenly relinquishing their home and attempting to survive off the land.
"It doesn't mean you go out and live in a hedge," says Niall. "Foraging is a really good way to implement a small change in your diet. You're getting exercise when you're up and out, you're getting to eat different foods, and it makes you think about eating the right things at the right time of the year. You don't have to be a chef to appreciate that."
Where others see only weeds, Niall and Paul see food, and it turns out that seemingly everyday plants you wouldn't normally think twice about are actually quite flavoursome.
Many of these are sea vegetables that I had no idea you could eat. The sprawling shrubs above the shoreline are identified as sea purslane, whose plump leaves have a sea salt taste that makes them ideal for snacking on. When cooking, the chefs find it's a natural partner for fish, and works well with lamb dishes too.
Niall and Paul have an eagle eye for spotting plants, and the next one we come across is a patch of scurvygrass, so-called because sailors used to brine the vitamin C-rich plants for long journeys to fend off scurvy. It doesn't look like much, but as I overenthusiastically shove a handful in my mouth, I discover it has an incredibly potent Wasabi-like flavour.
Thanks to Redzepi's pioneering work with wild foods at Noma, frequently ranked one of the world's best restaurants, foraging is quite fashionable. But, as we continue traipsing up the coast in search of rock samphire, Niall is quick to argue that foraging is more than just a trend - it has completely changed their relationship with food and the wild landscape.
"I hate the idea that foraging is a food trend, and I really don't believe it is," Niall protests. "It makes you respect the food more. When you're out on a February morning in the bitter cold picking wood sorrel in the woods, and you go into work with it, you make sure that every single piece is used and none of it is wasted. Foraging has definitely changed my perception of food."
Niall and Paul believe that Irish people have become disconnected from what they eat, and they see foraging as a way to rectify that.
"I think there's a huge amount of people who look at food as just fuel. They don't have a connection to it whatsoever, and that is a major problem," says Niall.
"Part of the appeal for us is that foraging is about our ability to trust our gut. When you walk into a supermarket, they take that away from you. Everything is just lined up in a row, all the same size and all uniform.
"With foraging, you get to know what all of the plants are - that's how we all used to live, and that's what we're getting further and further away from," he adds.
As well as that, there's the cheeky thrill of finding food for free, which even the most unadventurous forager cannot resist.
It's not all about the greens though. Our next find is sea buckthorn, a shrub-like tree covered in clusters of orange berries that stay on the branches until well into winter. Trying to remove the berries without them exploding and spraying you with bright orange juice turns out to be no small feat, but when I do, I'm surprised by the powerful and fantastically sour flavour. It comes from malic acid, which is used to make sour sweets.
Niall notes that people sometimes complain on their foraging walks that the foods taste bitter.
"We've sort of lost bitter in our diet," he says. "Our palates have changed, and sugar has just taken over - you ask anyone what's a treat and automatically they say sugar. But a lot of these flavours are bitter, and that's why I really enjoy cooking with them, because it's a real counterpoint to sugar. Sweet and sour is one of my favourite combinations."
Like any kind of food, it's all about what you can do with it. Luckily for me, Niall and Paul are very imaginative chefs. Back in the kitchen at Bang, they use the sea vegetables and berries they collected to rustle up a wild venison dish with sea beet, walnuts and goat's cheese mousse. The sea beet also makes an appearance in their delicious salt-marsh duck breast with sea buckthorn curd and carrot puree.
Sourcing your dinner from your nearest forest might sound like a lot of work, but introducing a little nature into your meal is sure to make for a super-fresh feast. If you're not ready to dive head first into a plate of sea vegetables, you can add a seasonal twist to a cocktail with some foraged elderflowers, blackberries or crab apples.
With prime foraging season just beginning, why not join a guided walk and learn to see the wilderness as your own personal pantry?
Take a walk on the wild side with Meadhbh's foraging video on independent.ie/life
Hunt, gather: How to find your dinner
Research how to identify plants: Nadur recommend getting a book on identifying flowers - as they are unique to each plant, it's an easy way for people to identify plants that may look similar. The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving or the River Cottage series on foraging are essential for learning to spot different plants, and Niall says Twitter is another useful point of reference.
Safety first: People are sometimes scared of foraging, but Paul says they shouldn't be worried, as foraging is not inherently dangerous. If you're worried about misidentification, they recommend going on a guided foraging walk first, which take place all over Ireland year round.
Forage in season: If you pick foods that are out of season, you could risk taking the last remaining part of a plant. To ensure you're foraging sustainably, check online and in books to find what foods are in season, and stick with foods that are in abundance. Don't pull the roots so that the plant can regrow, and always leave some of the plant for somebody else. "It's not in anybody's interest to take all of what you find," says Niall.
Vary your location: Don't forage extensively in one area. Niall and Paul visit a number of different areas around Wicklow when they forage so they don't end up harvesting too much in one place.