There may not be a massive variety, but Scottish cities offer plenty of 'food for free', to use a term popularised by Richard Mabey in his 1972 book on foraging. Foraging has become fashionable in the decades since, connecting to a desire for produce which is organic and 'locally sourced'. In some sense, it is considered a return to nature, though our ancestors relied on it as a means of survival.
In the autumn, blackberries are ubiquitous along paths and on hillsides. Hedgerows often contain blackthorn bushes (Prunus spinosa
) with their gleaming sloes. From these sloe gin can be made (within about two months). Other widely foraged foods include seaweed, mushrooms, damsons, rose hips, nettles, elderflowers and dandelions.
Spring sees an abundance of wild garlic, which prefers to grow in shady and damp conditions in woodlands. Riverbanks offer an ideal environment for it to flourish.
I have vivid childhood memories of my hands soaked in a dark crimson liquid. This was the product of lengthy trips 'brambling'. I recall that my parents were a little furtive about these trips, reluctant to share the location of particularly 'fruitful' areas with neighbours.
My sister, the youngest and lightest of the family, would often be encouraged to step towards the edge of the precipice to reach a particularly succulent bunch. We would offer verbal and physical support as she teetered on the edge, her little hands clasping the berries, though many slipped agonisingly through her fingers. The freezer would steadily fill up with punnets of the fruit, which would make its way into crumbles and coulis.
In recent years, I've discovered a number of excellent areas for blackberries along the North Edinburgh Path Network, such as around Goldenacre. I have also noted how few people seem to stop and pick them.
In the spring, areas such as the Water of Leith walkway are filled with a pungent aroma of wild garlic (Allium ursinum
), an unmistakable scent in woodlands and forests in the spring months.
This spreads vigorously in certain areas of the walkway, such as between Dean Village and Belford Bridge, and in the vicinity of the path leading to Wester Coates Gardens. Near Edinburgh Sports Club, nice crops lie, frustratingly, just out of reach on the riverside. Given the number of dogs which frequent this walkway, I'd recommend seeking out areas of garlic further up the banks or in other places where dogs are less likely to have visited.
In early spring, it can, initially, be difficult to differentiate between wild garlic, snowdrops and daffodils. The lighter, more vibrant green of the garlic should soon become obvious. More importantly, you need to make sure that you differentiate garlic from the poisonous Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis
), which also likes shaded areas. The main clue is that Lily of the Valley does not smell like garlic. Wild garlic also becomes translucent when you rub it.
For those who are unsure, plant identifier apps such as PictureThis will help. As mild weather starts, the garlic suddenly bursts into life. From a few tentative shoots in late February, it's now growing rapidly. April and May are probably the best months to eat it, as by June it starts to gently rot.
It's rather different from the cloves of artichoke and silverskin garlic we are used to. Not only in its physical form but the wild garlic has a smell with strong onion/spring onion notes. In a pesto, it can replace basil or rocket as the core green ingredient.
To pick it, I would suggest taking a pair of scissors or knife and cutting at the stem. This helps you avoid uprooting it – and bringing home large clumps of soil. Alternatively, focus on picking one leaf at a time, not great clumps, which may contain other plants intertwined with the garlic. In terms of responsible foraging, you should only pick from areas where there is a plentiful supply, and then take only a small amount for yourself. Foragers should never completely strip an area, as this could damage the species and deny others the chance to collect. In short, don't damage habitats and leave enough for wildlife.
Wild garlic pesto
Even if you manage to take home a relatively clean bunch, be sure to wash it thoroughly. You just don't know what and who has been in contact. I would recommend soaking it in the sink and washing it at least twice, perhaps finishing off in a salad spinner. You really want to focus on the leaves, though the flowers and seed pods are also edible. Before blitzing (or grinding in a pestle and mortar) I'd add a squeeze of lemon juice, parmesan/pecorino cheese and a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil. Toasted pine nuts are another excellent addition. Season with salt and pepper.
The quality of the oil is so important. Top quality extra virgin oil really raises the level of the pesto substantially, but is pricey. It is worth it. When you add in the cost of the oil and things like pine nuts, it admittedly eats away at the idea of food for free. Rather than focusing on the cost of 'free' food, perhaps we should focus on its sheer freshness.
In terms of pasta, I'd suggest linguine or spaghetti. After cooking the pasta al dente, make sure you are generous with the amount of pesto you stir into it. Serve with a final grating of cheese and another drizzle of oil. The pesto is also excellent on toast and drizzled into soups.
Last year, we had several successful foraging forays along river banks. The very best crop we came across was from the banks of the White Cart Water in Glasgow. The walkway there very much supports the idea of Glasgow as a 'dear green place', easily matching the Water of Leith walkway for bucolic charm. In particular, the area near the Snuff Mill Bridge in Cathcart and Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's charming Holmwood House. The wild garlic we found there had a greater depth of flavour. Perhaps it was just that it had sweated in a carrier bag all the way back from Glasgow's Southside to Edinburgh in a stuffy train!
From now until June, you will be able to enjoy a number of delicious bowls of pasta with wild garlic. Forage responsibly, being mindful of others who may wish to use it, and ensuring that the garlic regenerates.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics