Foraging with Monica Wilde

Foraging has taken the UK by storm over the last five or six years. On reflection, it seems to make perfect sense that consumers, particularly from a younger age demographic, are becoming, or are already, more and more curious about where their food really comes from. We have never been more motivated, often bordering on obsession, to understand the provenance of what we eat and what we drink. It started quite simply with supermarkets wanting to reassure shoppers that their meat and fish, where possible, are sourced from within the confines of our Sceptered Isle.

This precipitated the question ‘well, what about all the stuff that isn’t procured from within the UK then, where does all that come from?’ The answer was of course, all four corners of the world. It was as if British shoppers took the red pill, as proffered by Morpheus of Matrix fame, and our staggering, wilful ignorance about where our food really came from hit us like a youthful Mike Tyson. This was the fertile soil from whence our burgeoning enthusiasm and devotion to foraging has emanated.

Foraging is the rather zen art of being able to search for, identify and ultimately, consume food or ingredients used for making drinks, from mother nature’s rather clandestine, but undeniably bountiful larder. Of course, mother nature is rather more generous during the Spring and Summer months than she is in the frost bitten, icicle decorated depths of Winter. However, don’t let that deter you, because even in bleakest recesses of Winter, there is plenty still to be enjoyed. I would like to add at this juncture, that I am writing from a position of relative strength, having delved into foraging myself… in Scotland… in February.

The charismatic and extremely knowledgeable Monica Wilde helped me to take my first, teetering, Bambi-esque steps into the foraging world, a world which was otherwise entirely new to me. Monica’s surname may be my favourite ever example of nominative determinism at its very finest, for she is Wilde by name and Wilde by profession. In fact, the proof is in the foraged pudding because Monica and her husband had recently completed the impressive feat of having lived for an entire year on nothing but foraged food, and I must say, they both looked in exceedingly good nick.

Monica’s own edict is “Reconnecting with nature through foraging is a path to health and happiness – not just our own, but the planet’s too”. Over a period of around three hours she taught me many choice morsels from the foraging expert’s playbook, showing me what plants, flowers, mushrooms, roots and even weeds could provide essential, and often rather tasty, sustenance. I learned how to recognise the potentially poisonous from the nutritious and the underripe from the perfectly in season. Monica took enormous care to answer each and every one of my questions, whilst showing me the endless foods that grow in almost any garden, that I would have looked past without a second glance, oblivious to their health-giving properties. My own fascinating experience with Monica took place in the extremely handsome grounds of Glenapp Castle, the five-star hotel in Ayrshire, Scotland, boasting remarkable views not only across the castle’s own estate, but also out to sea towards Arran and, further afield, Northern Ireland.

Having made our way through a small part of the seemingly endless grounds, we returned to Glenapp Castle to sit beside a roaring fire in the hotel’s lounge, where we tried an incredible array of food and drink from Monica’s kitchen. This included tea made from various herbs and leaves taken from her own garden, and, the ultimate saccharine delicacy, Birch sap syrup. As sweet as it is viscose, and as precious as it is healthy – the Birch tree must be ‘tapped’ for between 14 to 21 days to draw off sufficient sap to then make the tiniest amount of syrup. The experience was spellbinding from start to finish and will allow those who spend this kind of time with Monica to see the world in a rather different light, whether that is their own back garden or the great, untamed wild.

Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, Girvan KA26 0NZ