The Joy of Foraging
I was born in Wicklow, so I guess I’m biased when I say it’s one of Ireland’s most beautiful counties. I’ve trekked through the barren and remote Sally Gap, scrambled up the steep peak of the big Sugarloaf and rambled through Djouce and Devil’s Glen forests.
What I’ve never done, is forage in these places for salad leaves, berries, mushrooms or edible flowers, but this is what I would be doing in the tiny hamlet of Macreddin at Brooklodge Hotel, where my sister, Aisling, and I were taking part in a Wild Food Masterclass.
I don’t know about you, but I’m used to pottering around well stocked shops for my groceries and the idea of foraging for my own food in the great outdoors seems, well, a bit daunting. Knowing my luck I’d pick the only poisonous mushroom in the forest, make a soup and kill myself and half my family.
However, as we settle down in front of glass jars filled with brightly coloured berries, liquids and baskets of vibrant green leaves, I feel a sense of excitement. Evan Doyle, Managing Director of the hotel, talks us through items easily found in Wicklow’s woodlands, hedgerows, hillsides and seashores.
As the jars and dishes of foraged goodies are passed around, I find myself tentatively sniffing dried bilberries, nibbling wild garlic, sea beet, sorrels and mushrooms. I listen in disbelief at all the ingredients they forage from the area and transform into delicious, edible treats; wild garlic pesto, bilberry jam, berry compote, chutney and my personal favourite – elderflower champag
We then head into the grounds of the hotel where we search the riverbank, woodland and hedgerows for items we’ve just sniffed and nibbled. We search, like children on a treasure hunt, for patches of wild garlic and strawberry plants, clusters of chickweed and pennyworth.
The sun is setting as we return to the hotel, confident that we could spot any of these items if left alone in a woodland or quiet country road. For tonight, however, our meal is in the trusty hands of the chefs in The Strawberry Tree, where we will get to taste some of Wicklow’s wild food. Before dinner, however, my sister and I retreat to the spa, to steam away the stresses of life.
Dinner in the dark, candlelit restaurant is a real treat. Lightly battered ling with wild garlic pesto, roast pepper and tomato soup and a perfectly cooked sirloin steak. By the time our mains are removed we sigh contentedly and announce that we could not possibly eat another thing. Until, we’re let loose in the pantry with the cheese board. In our minds we believe we’re only taking slivers of cheese, but as we walk through the dining room, we realise we’ve doled out enough cheese for the other diners. Somehow, we manage to devour it all, washed down with a port. Needless to say, we sleep like babies.
The following morning we rise early to take, what we believe to be, a short walk before breakfast. The stroll turns into an hour and half hike up a mountain (Aisling insisted it was a hill). We’re lucky Spring has arrived and the morning sun shines over the green pastures, valleys and soaring Wicklow Mountains. We sit awhile and take in the view.
The masterclass continues after breakfast and this is where we get to put our theory into practice, well, watch it being put into practice by the experts. Tim Daly, Head Chef at The Strawberry Tree, demonstrates how to make wild garlic pesto, which he then mixes to create a crust for the hake dish he whips up.
We then move over to the dessert counter and watch the chef make honeycomb and a mouth-watering elderflower Crème brûlée. The great thing is, these are all dishes I’d do at home, except perhaps the honeycomb, as I’d end up gorging on so much of it that my mouth would be full of blisters.
Everyone is content and reluctant to leave after our cookery demonstration. My sister and I sink into the comfy sofas in the bar and enjoy coffee looking out at the mountains. I find myself wishing I’d booked us in for another night, I don’t think I’ve seen Aisling this relaxed in years.
We grow our own vegetables in the summer and my friends and family are happy to ignore the odd slug in the salad, but I’m not sure they would be so forgiving of fatal foraged mushrooms. However, after the course, I feel confident I could pick the odd mushroom for a risotto, some leaves for a salad and most certainly, elderflowers for cordial and champagne. In fact, I think I’ll quite enjoy the forest and mountain walks all the more knowing that at the end of it all, I could be taking home some fresh, delicious ingredients for dinner.
Note: I stayed at Brooklodge Hotel and participated in the masterclass courtesy of Brooklodge Hotel.
Classes run throughout June, July and August and are from €155 – bookings can be made here.