Time to take a walk on the wild side and discover a whole world of taste
We’ve lost the appetite for wild foods such as seaweed and mushrooms, but we’re also losing the benefits, writes JOHN MCKENNA
Joe from Gorey Beekeepers says, “This one is Flowers from Wexford. This one is Forest from Wexford. The third is Rosebay. And the last is Heather and Ivy.”
Heather and Ivy? Don’t they sound like a fine pair of Wexford ladies!
Heather and Ivy – and Rosebay – were my personal favourites amongst the quartet of honeys Joe was demonstrating at the Wild Slow Festival at the Brook Lodge Inn, Macreddin, Co Wicklow. But what was extraordinary about the honeys was their diverse and different flavours: the Flowers honey light, pale and floral; the Forest honey dark and mushroomy; the Rosebay lush and attractive; the Heather and Ivy complex and feral.
One little table of tastes from one corner of the country, and it took you on a culinary grand tour in the space of minutes. But Joe wasn’t alone in offering a walk on the wild side at Macreddin. Sharon from the Wild Irish had made pontack, a recipe for elderberry sauce that dates back 300 years or more, and which is allegedly best eaten after seven years’ maturation. (Everyone agrees it never has a chance of lasting that long).
There was wild garlic champ for sale, and woodruff-infused rapeseed oil. Oisín Davis of Dublin’s Damson Diner brewed up sea buckthorn and whiskey cocktails, and Mick Healy of Wild Irish game was hanging colourful garlands of pheasant and grouse, mallard and wigeon, hare and woodcock, teal and partridge, snipe and rabbit.
Bill O’Dea talked about the Third Kingdom – the world of mushrooms – whilst Ger Talty from Spanish Point sea vegetables offered handsome carrageen and dilisk, sea salad and sea spaghetti as part of his marine harvest. And, to soften my wife’s cough, I bought her a bottle of cough syrup made from pine shoots.
All of which begs a simple question: when did you last eat something from the wild?
If you think about what you cook and consume during the week, is there anything that strays from the cultivated, the packaged and the processed? We live in a world that offers us countless varieties of food, yet we nowadays eat from an increasingly smaller and smaller selection: cod and salmon; chicken and lamb; carrots and cabbage; spuds and bacon; oranges and bananas; cheddar and milk; bread and butter.
We are all in favour of diversity but not, it seems, when it comes down to dinner. At this time of year, it could and should be pheasant or venison that is roasting in the oven on Sunday, rather than the ubiquitous chicken. We could and should be looking forward to that sloe gin that is maturing in the cupboard and which will soon be ready.
When you consider that we have 327,000km of hedgerows in Ireland, we should have a stash of jars in the larder filled with elderberry jam and penny bun mushrooms and blackberries and haws, all of it free and there for the taking.
But somehow we have lost our appetite for wildness, an appetite that would have been commonplace only two generations back. Along with the ease of prepared foods, we have bought the idea that wild foods are dangerous, and that while the countryside is grand for walking and hiking and cycling, it’s not where you go to get your dinner.
It’s true that you have to exercise caution when foraging for wild foods, but the dangers are exaggerated. There are no poisonous seaweeds, for instance, and the payback from these extraordinary products alone is huge: not only will you get 10 times as much calcium from seaweed as you will get from cow’s milk, you will also get that calcium in a much more digestible form. And poor old Popeye would be flattened: seaweeds are 50 times higher in iron than spinach.
In the spirit of public service, I suggest an easy and enjoyable way of getting us all to take a walk on the wild side when it comes to eating and drinking. Oisín Davis should be put on the public purse to train bartenders to make sea buckthorn and whiskey cocktails. We will save our pubs, and nurture our health.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide ( guides.ie)