Saturday 16 December 2017

Forager Andrew Malcolm: 'It's the hunter-gatherer thing, going out looking for things'

Andrew Malcolm (56) is a forager, whale-watcher and guitar-maker. He gives nature walks for Cliff House Hotel. Born in Carryduff, Co Down, he lives in Lismore, Co Waterford, with his wife, Ann, along with their dogs, horses, sheep and pet hare

Andrew Malcolm - a forager, whale-watcher and guitar-maker
Andrew Malcolm - a forager, whale-watcher and guitar-maker

Ciara Dwyer

I've always been a morning person, but I've gone a bit off-piste since I got married, because my wife is not a morning person. When I was growing up, I wasn't even a proper teenager. I used to get up at 5am and go off on adventures on my own. I'd leave a little note on the table ­- 'left home at 5.13am'. Then I'd go off on 15-mile walks, and pick up stray dogs. We lived in the countryside, near Portrush, a coastal town. I used to go across the fields and then walk across the beaches. I've always been really comfortable on my own.

Now, the alarm is set for 7.15am. In my previous life, I'd be chastising myself for staying in bed so late. Now I get up and get the breakfast - we have porridge. I live with my wife, Ann. I usually get her lunch ready to take to work. She is a legal secretary. I make sure that the dogs are fed. We've got two horses, and I go down and give them their hay.

I don't really have a typical working day, but one day a week I do the foraging and collect plants for the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore. The foraging started 25 years ago. We had one of those little Observer's books on wild mushrooms. Ann, who was my girlfriend at the time, said, 'Let's go mushroom hunting', and I said, 'OK'. So, we went down to the woods below. In the Observer's book, on the first page, there was a porcini mushroom, which is the biggest one you get in the continent. And they were there, just below our house. And that was me hooked.

We cooked them, but it became terrible for a while. I was collecting them all the time, and then I'd ring Ann saying, 'Guess what's for tea tonight?' Everything had mushrooms in it, and she hates them now.

When we found the mushrooms, I knew that they were really sought-after, but when I went around restaurants, nobody was interested. It wasn't until the Cliff House Hotel opened that things changed. That was nine years ago. I met the manager, told him that I collected wild mushrooms, and asked if the chef would be interested. When I met the chef, Martin, he said, 'Brilliant. Bring as many as you can, and bring as many edible plants as you can, too'. Back then, I only knew three edible plants, including blackberries, and now I know 80. It was a steep learning curve. Also, back when I started out, there was no internet, so I was learning everything from books. It was very confusing, but still, I didn't poison anyone.

I suppose it's a unique relationship, a chef having a forager who goes out and collects things for him, but Martin is incredibly creative, and a Michelin-star chef. I find it incredibly exciting, because I'm learning something new all the time. I love it when I discover new plants. I keep a log book, but even without looking at it, I probably know 150 different places where you can find certain plants. I'll know exactly where they are. I'm good at remembering that, but my memory for other things is a different matter. Every week, I will usually phone my wife about three times asking if she has seen my car keys.

When I am out foraging, my dog, Ocho, comes with me. Apart from the companionship, she helps me. If she starts sniffing at a particular place, I pay attention to this. In the past, I didn't, and then I made a rookie mistake. In the car on the way home, I discovered that a fox had peed all over the seaweed I had just collected. No wonder she was interested in it. I learnt my lesson.

I love what I do because there is nobody over my shoulder looking at me with a time schedule. When it's nice and dry, it's lovely. I bring a packed lunch with me and stay out all day. People are surprised at how long the mushroom season lasts. I still collect winter chanterelle mushrooms in February.

Foraging is in my blood. I suppose it's the old hunter-gatherer thing, just going out and looking for things. It was like when I was a kid. My grandparents lived on the Isle of Wight, and my granddad used to go out cockling. You dug them up with your toe, because you'd see the little blue bruise-marking in the sand. That kind of thing grabbed me. I was always going looking for things.

As part of my work, I also take people out on nature walks. It's part of the package with the hotel. I show people plants and we go whale-watching. Winter is the best season to see whales. Years ago, I didn't even know that you could see whales in Ireland. You see a lot of fin whales in Ireland. They are the second largest animal on the planet. They look greyish in the distance, but if you see them in the sunshine, they have all these amazing mottled colours. You can spot a whale from 20 miles away. You spot the blow - they are coming up for breath and they are exhaling. I tell guests that they may not see anything.

It takes incredible patience waiting to see a whale, but you find that patience is almost directly proportional to whatever you are interested in. Sometimes we end up sitting on cliff-tops for a couple of hours, and the time just passes. Not seeing anything is fine, too. Some guests have come straight from London, where they are stuck in offices, so, for them, sitting on a cliff-top, looking out at that expansive sea, is very relaxing.

When I go home in the evening, I feed our animals. We have a pet hare and a sheep, who eats a rock bun every day. We got both of them when they were very small and injured. After dinner, I pursue my other interests. I buy old guitars, take them apart and put them together again with bits of copper cylinders. Before I learnt how to play the guitar, I made my own one. I've always questioned everything, and I like to see how things work. I compose music, too. The day isn't long enough for all the things that I want to do. I like reading science fiction and detective novels. I like things that I can solve. I have very vivid dreams. I once told one of my dreams to somebody and he asked me if I did acid. I said, 'No, but do you think I should?' He said, 'No, most definitely not.'

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