Food for free

  • The List
  • 13 March 2008

Weed not greed

Donald Reid meets two Edinburgh women who have discovered that the urban jungle is an unexpectedly generous larder

This is the age we live in: foraging means a trip to the local shops rather than the supermarket and the phrase ‘food for free’ is associated more with ‘buy one get one free’ than nature’s bounty. However, the green revolution may not all be about refusing a 5p poly bag. The Edinburgh-based authors of a new book would like to suggest a few alternative locations for picking up food: cycle paths, city parks, riverbanks, local woodlands and sea shores.

Seaweed and Eat It was compiled by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne as a way of creating a bit of family adventure while reinforcing a love of fresh food and cooking. A beginners’ guide combining plant identification with recipes, common-sense tips and the anecdotes behind a year of plundering wild food, it’s all set in Scotland and begins in the heart of Edinburgh.

‘We wanted to say: if we can do it, so can you,’ explains Xa Milne. ‘The idea of the book is that it leads you out of the front door. There’s a lot of suspicion when something can’t be bought over the counter. ‘

By the banks of the River Almond on a March morning last year they found organic edibles such as wild garlic (makes excellent pesto), goose grass (juice it) and the young shoots of stinging nettles (for nettle gnocchi). Spring greens such as these, picked before they flower, are packed with minerals and vitamins. ‘They’re almost designed for curing winter ailments,’ Houston points out. ‘Gathering them gives you an instant appreciation of the seasonal aspect of food.’

More than anything it was the commonplace proximity of all these interesting foods that surprised them. ‘Once you start looking for elderflowers,’ they explain ‘you’ll wonder how you ever missed them. There’s probably an elder tree growing on a street corner or back alley within walking distance of your house.’ Elderflowers are turned not just into cordial but syrups (to pour over ice-cream), sorbets and fritters.

At other times of the year they set off to plunder nature around other city landmarks: chickweed by the Water of Leith, sweet cicely on Calton Hill, sorrel on Arthur’s Seat, wood blewits in Inverleith Park.

One recipe in the book is entitled ‘Pilton Pudding’ after the suburb of Edinburgh infamous for its associations with Trainspotting. Houston, Milne and their families found the cycle path there lined with autumn brambles, elderberries, rosehips and apples. No real surprise, then, that Seaweed has been dubbed the foodie’s answer to The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Seaweed and Eat It: a family foraging and cooking adventure by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne, Virgin Books, £10.99.

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