Highlights from Foraging Fortnight in 2019

We had a great time with the foraging events in the 2019 Festival. They came about through the LEADER-funded initiative covering five Scottish regions, and they added a whole new dimension to the programme, and to the weekends before and after.

We were outdoors with ethnobotanical researcher Anna Canning and Orkney wildlife guide Megan Taylor, on outings on parts of the St Magnus Way, including an expedition by the shores of Scapa Flow – along the sand of Waulkmill Bay and the RSPB’s Hobbister bird reserve, by the shore of Scapa Flow. It rained but everyone was well prepared, and there was a picnic lunch of local fare – and also some wild plants to identify and sample.

There was more foraged food to enjoy at the Neolithic dinner where chef Sam Britten and his team produced an amazing meal. There is wonderfully atmospheric account of it in the Orkney News by Bernie Bell.

Starter – Orkney scallops with lentil meso, radish, turnip, elderberry, capers, and pepper dulce. Main – Shin of beef – or was it Auroch? With neep, onion, barley, marrow, and garlic. (The veg was from Wheems Organic Farm, South Ronaldsay, and the meat was from Craigie’s.) Pudding –  caramelized Orkney cream with Meadowsweet vinegar (produced by the Orkney Craft Vinegar Company) and oats, sprinkled on top.

There was also plenty of sourdough bread, made by Eviedale café, Evie, and…..the chef’s handmade butter. This brought back memories of my Auntie Bridie’s home–churned butter. Strong, salty, proper butter. A completely different thing, to something from a supermarket, wrapped in plastic. It not only tasted exceptional, it brought back so many memories of holidays in Ireland, as a child, and helping to churn the butter – a chore for Auntie Bridie, a treat for me. 

As well as plants to eat, there were plants to convert into paper. Lin Chau was joined by Shanshan Jiang, for a morning workshop as well as drop-in activities on the Family Day.

And even waste materials can be converted into the most surprising and beautiful things. There was great interest in the workshop run by Zeki Basan on tanning fish skins. It was held at Wheems Organic Farm in South Ronaldsay, and used heather as a source of tannin for the process of turning salmon skins into a soft and strong leather.

Zeki was one of a number of speakers on outdoor, wildlife and foraging themes. The programme also featured Prof. Dave Goulson of Sussex University, one of the UK’s leading conservationists who specialises in the ecology and conservation of insects, particular bumblebees. He spoke about the decline in their numbers – “part of a pattern for insects, symptomatic of broader environmental damage that threatens our future wellbeing; the fate of humans and insects is inextricably linked.”

Eva Gunnare described the plants of Swedish Lapland and the great ranges of uses they have traditionally been put to. She spoke about foraging in summer for Arctic herbs and berries and blending traditional recipes with modern creations. There were more insights and flavours from Sweden when baker Karin Jonsson joined Stronsay forager Marion Miller and chef and food writer Wendy Barrie to look at ways in which food from the wild can be used in Swedish style to enhance our baking. Ben Reade of Edinburgh Food Studio brought some wonderful tasters as he described how some of the most appetising dishes can come food we find at our feet. He described the possibilities of seaweeds, shellfish and common garden weeds, and fermented foods with simple ingredients transformed by wild microorganisms.

Martin Gray, who runs the Orkney Beachcombing page, described the wealth of treasures that wash up on an Orkney shore and the searching and foraging quest that has taken Orcadians to the shore since Neolithic times and before. A beaver-chewed timber from North America, a sea heart. from the rain forests of the southern Caribbean, a skate’s egg case, a lump of paraffin wax, a lobster creel tag from Newfoundland ….

The town of Stromness was full of marine activity on the Sunday of the Festival, with marine life activities run by Stromness Museum on its pier and the beach alongside it, and then out along the West Shore there were Shore and Seaweed Workshops run by artists Katherine Diaper, Rebecca Marr and Fiona Sanderson. You could learn to identify seaweeds and make your own seaweed artwork. You could forage for pigments and mark-making materials – and for seaweeds and plants, and build a beach fire to cook a foraged lunch. You could search for fire flints and clays, and make your own Orkney shell game.

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