The Female Foragers
20th June 2017
In recent years there has been a growing interest in healthier and more natural diets, and many food businesses are seeing the potential for using wild foods, including leaves, herbs, and flowers to enhance their products and to bring something unique to their brand.
Words: Ruth Doris
Glendalough Distillery has recognised the benefits of botanicals and applied them to gin making! Recently the Distillery engaged wild foods expert Geraldine Kavanagh as its full-time botanical forager. Geraldine sources all of the wild ingredients to add to their gins and creates recipes for their seasonal gins.
The distillery began making seasonal gins in 2014, and earlier this year in response to demand from bartenders and customers alike it launched a Wild Botanical Gin. Using over 40 wild ingredients foraged from the Wicklow hills, including elderflower, wild roses, mint, wild blueberries, sorrel and thyme, Geraldine says the Wild Botanical Gin has a flavour profile that carries you through the four seasons.
Geraldine admits foraging is an unusual occupation. “They wouldn’t be many people employed as a full-time forager,” she says. “I was in the bank recently to apply for a loan, and they didn’t know what category to put me in.” Her love for wild foods comes from a childhood spent outdoors. “I was always interested in plants, finding out what they were. People forget that our diet was all wild up until the time we started agriculture, so at one point we lived very well from what we could find in the wild, and hunting and fishing as well.”
Our Wicklow Forager brings groups on walks in to the hills. She says some people just want to get out of the city for the day. “When we go for a walk we stop and look at the plant and taste the leaves,” she says which is a great way of reconnecting with nature.
In the County of Offaly, we meet another Forager Mary Bulfin who runs Wild Food Mary, a business which includes guided walks and workshops on foraging, and was featured on RTÉ’s Lords and Ladies. She had been making her Wild Beech Leaf Liqueur for friends and family for years when a friend encouraged her to try to sell it commercially.
The liqueur, based on an old recipe which Mary tweaked to make her own, was launched two years ago and is already “building a nice little reputation for itself” with Dublin Michelin-starred restaurants L’Ecrivain and Chapter One including the drink on their menu.
Mary grew up on a big farm and her mother and her grandmother were interested in wild food. “We grew up really healthy eating rabbit and pigeon and watercress and all sorts of things like that. I was always very interested in food, and when I went to college, it was always food, food, food for me.”
For Mary, foraging is not just about food or drink; she says “it’s about life, it’s about the connection.” When she brings parents and their children on walks, it’s that deeper connection to nature that they appreciate – “The children are really interested in the importance of biodiversity and bees and the variety we can get in nature, in our lives, and in our diets.”
A return to the traditions of living from the land is part of the beauty of foraging, Mary believes. She says she has met chefs from eastern European on her walks who “have a very strong culture of making things and preserving for the winter.”
By foraging and growing her own vegetables, Mary has returned to that self-sufficient lifestyle. “I live out of my garden mostly and what I make or barter with other people, and I love it.” “I get up in the morning, and I look at my beautiful mountains. I do work very hard physically, but the thing that feels like work is doing the accounts at the end of the month, even when they’re looking good.
“Teaching people and picking and falling in and out of ditches and getting stung by nettles and scratched by thorns is a joy. I’m alive when I do it.”
Heading up to the County of Antrim you will come across Larchfield Estate just one of many hospitality businesses that have recognised the explosion in interest in wild foods.
Later this year the venue is launching a course which incorporates foraging for its corporate clients. Sarah Mackie (pictured right) who runs the estate with her husband Gavin says the “unique foraging experience” fits well with the Larchfield brand. Local chefs will bring guests on walks through the 600-acre estate to discover edible plants, herbs, and flowers. They will also learn about the game, fruits, and honey available before returning to prepare a meal using the foraged foods.