The delights of foraging and the story behind Islay's native gin feature in the latest letter from our Inner Hebridean columnist, Mavis Gulliver.
Tending a garden in summer is a seemingly endless task, but rewards are many. Native water mint, along with introduced applemint, spearmint and peppermint are ready for picking so I can enjoy the subtly different flavours of fresh mint teas. Peppermint reminds me that I have cause to be thankful to this herb. As a baby I caught pneumonia. The doctor, quoting bad luck, prepared my mother for the worst. My grandmother, declaring that it wouldn’t be her bad luck, dosed me repeatedly with an infusion of dried peppermint from her garden and dried elderflowers from a hedgerow – and I survived.
Perhaps this accounts for my love of plants. As a child I ate young hawthorn leaves. I enjoyed the sharpness of sorrel and the contrasting sweetness of wild strawberries and brambles. As a teenager I tramped the dew-decked fields at dawn in search of mushrooms, headed to the hills for bilberries and to hedgerows for rose hips. I still suck nectar from the florets of clover and nibble the stems of sweet vernal grass for a taste that is reminiscent of the scent of new-mown hay.
The practice of foraging has gained in popularity to such an extent that books and courses on the subject abound. Chefs and mixologists use foraged plants in culinary creations and cocktails. Experimenting with wild plants at home can be fun too, but here is a word of caution. Laws about foraging vary. Plants shouldn’t be picked on private land without permission and there are points that responsible foragers should keep in mind. Sustainability is of prime importance. Never pick so selfishly that plants are prevented from reproducing themselves, and always leave enough for the creatures that rely on them for survival. Picking adjacent to roadsides and fields that may have been treated with herbicides or pesticides must be avoided - and never eat anything that can’t be identified with absolute certainty.
There are ample opportunities for foraging on Islay, and because of the way we manage our semi-wild garden, we can pick a variety of herbs and flowers without venturing elsewhere. Leaves of wild garlic, dandelion, sorrel and mint brightened by a few flowers of gorse, wild garlic and primrose add interest and a range of tastes to salads. A nettle patch, kept as a food source for caterpillars of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Red Admiral butterflies, provides a nutrient-rich addition to soups, fritters and mushroom risotto. Wild garlic makes a tasty pesto and, for change, walnuts can be used instead of pine nuts.
Elderflowers make excellent white wine, but we leave plenty of flowers to mature into berries for red wine and for foraging birds. Elder trees should be approached with respect. Traditionally, one should make a simple request such as - ‘Please may I have some flowers and when I am a tree you may have some of mine.’ This may seem fanciful in our more scientific age, but we take pleasure in keeping such customs alive.
It was through our shared interest in botany, in the uses of plants and the folklore associated with them that I met my husband, Dr Richard Gulliver. News of our interest and expertise spread and in 2006 Bruichladdich Distillery asked us to recommend local plants for use in a new distilled spirit. Ten years on ‘The Botanist Gin’ is a worldwide success. Richard and I collect and prepare the 22 botanicals. Chosen for flavour, abundance and sustainability they include native species together with introduced herbs that have escaped from gardens to establish themselves in the wild. We gather from woods, moors, bogs and grassland so the selection links to the landscape and reflects the varied habitats of Islay.
Collecting birch leaves when the ground is blue with bluebells puts us in touch with nature. Alert for anything of interest we examine a witches’ broom – a nest-like structure caused by the tree’s response to a fungal attack. A hole in its centre is home to a family of blue tits. Butterflies are on the wing and the air is fragrant with the scent of flowers. It is a feast for the senses and hard to imagine a more pleasurable task.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.