Otter Lodge Blog: Foraging on Skye
Martin and I both grew up in the countryside. However, we had somewhat different backgrounds when it comes to food. One of my first impressions of Martin’s family was arriving to find his diminutive mother in the process of butchering an entire deer in the family kitchen. His dad worked as a fisheries biologist and it was not unknown for a salmon that had spent a good few days hanging around for analysis to end up on the table. In contrast, as a kid growing up in Norfolk my most regular experience of wild-sourced food was picking blackberries. Not only that but I was officially vegetarian for seven years.
Despite growing up surrounded by fields of sugarbeet, I did take an early interest foraging. The attraction was stuff you could pick and eat for free, although items removed from farmers’ fields and orchards technically don’t count. I learnt that some things were prolific and worthwhile, whereas others were less common and maybe shouldn’t be plundered for food. I also learnt that a lot of things that were supposedly a ‘delicacy’ tasted anything but.
Fast-forward a few decades and we live on Skye, where it’s possible to forage for some truly delicious foods; nowhere more so than our shores, where you can find all sorts of goodies at low tide. The funny thing is that a good number have long-since ceased to be a regular feature of Scottish dinner tables. Our European cousins love them – you’ll find plates of fruits de mer on the Continent scattered with UK molluscs: cockles, whelks, razor clams, winkles, etc. But here, we’re only just starting to appreciate what was previously an intrinsic part of our food culture.
It’s still a common sight in our village to see guys in yellow and orange oilskins cycling along the main road with a bucket of winkles hanging from the handlebars. Highland crofters have always made good use of food available on the shore, as well as in the sea, and there is a long history of small-scale commercial foraging. Interestingly, wild mussels and native oysters have been the property of the Crown Estate in Scotland and so it has been technically illegal to harvest them without permission (although I sense that that there has always been a fairly relaxed attitude to this). There’s still an abundance of winkles but certain species, such as native oysters, have suffered a bit from over-enthusiastic collecting.
Skye native oysters, too scarce to collect
Regardless of legal issues, it’s always worth being conservative when it comes to foraging anything from the wild. Martin and I recently qualified as observers for the marine conservation scheme, Seasearch, and it is depressing to note how many species and habitats are under threat. Please leave those delicious oysters alone, folks.
Chanterelles are worth fiddly cleaning
On the land, there are plenty of places you can find old favourites such as brambles (blackberries) and blaeberries (blueberries). Despite the resurgence in interest in foraging and jam-making there still seems to be plenty around here. waiting to be picked by someone.
One thing that seems to grow here in abundance is sorrel (looks like spinach, has an interesting tangy flavour). We get a good crop of it in the field behind our house. The lack of trees here means that you have to be a bit more dedicated in searching out woodland species such chanterelle mushrooms. There are a few very ancient-looking hazel woods dotted around the island and archaeologists have found that the earliest foragers on Skye loved eating nuts. I’m not sure how they managed to find enough for a meal, though!
Wild food you can forage on Skye
I’ve listed the things that you’re most likely to come across. Grab a book or a local guide and you’ll find there are a lot more edible things out there to discover. It pretty much goes without saying that you should only forage things that you’re sure about. You don’t want to go eating anything that is endangered or poisonous.
Winkles – little sea snails. Find them all around our rocky coasts. People are generally put off collecting them because they’re so darn fiddly to eat.
Whelks – large sea snails. Not so fiddly, but can be awfully rubbery.
Limpets – not consumed widely in Scotland. They are generally regarded here as bait or famine food, but they are eaten locally in other parts of Europe. Opinion is divided as to whether limpets are an under-used mollusc or not worth the bother. Having tried them, I personally think the latter (although, when it comes to seafood, anything can be enhanced with some garlic butter).
Clams and cockles – they bury themselves in the sand so aren’t the easiest things to forage; you’re most likely to see just the shells. Razor clams are particularly good at disappearing if disturbed. We had a masterclass in razor clam wrestling recently when some new foraging buddies showed us the ropes on a local sandy beach. Note: do not try this if you want to keep your fingernails. Generally, the preferred method is to pour heavily salted water down a hole and wait for the irate mollusc to pop up out of it.
Other shellfish – some things like scallops can only be found by scouring the shore at a low spring tide. Try snorkeling and you suddenly have a better chance of finding them. It took a while for Martin and I to realise that scallops hide the flat tops of their shells under a layer of sand or gravel (look for a u-shaped impression in the sand, not a shell shape). There are places where brown crabs have avoided the creels and hang out in sandy ‘nests’ on the seabed. Other shellfish such as langoustines and lobsters are pretty much out of reach to the snorkeler.
Seaweeds – e.g. sea lettuce, laver, dulse. I’ve collected it, and then left it to go off in the fridge while deciding what to do with it. Hoever, some species have mind-blowing flavours: we were introduced us to amazing seaweed called pepper dulse that tastes exactly like garlic mushrooms.
Field and pasture:
Brambles (blackberries) – avoid picking them near roads (or where people walk their dogs).
Sorrel – good for salads and soup.
Nettles – abundant and widely used for broths. Pick carefully and use fresh new leaves where possible.
Hazelnuts – some years are better than others. The ones we’ve found on Skye so far are pretty small.
Chanterelles – find a secret spot and then keep it to yourself. One year we found a good place; the next year we bumped into someone heading out of the woods basketful. None left for us!
Wild garlic – easy to find by smell alone.
Uplands and woodlands:
Blaeberries (blueberries) – as with hazelnuts, some years are better than other.
This blog really only scratches the surface so check out the internet for all kinds of info and foraging sites, for example…
Looking for a guide to some of Skye’s wild food? Try the Skye Ghillie.