The Isles of Scilly are fast gaining a reputation as a foodie destination thanks to the somewhat surprising array of locally-produced food and drink on offer there. From freshly caught seafood to the jam and clotted cream on delicious home-baked scones, much of the food you can enjoy on Scilly is grown, reared or produced on one of the 5 inhabited islands.
But what about wild food? We know from archaeological finds that hunter-gatherers once roamed the Isles of Scilly, so if we look beyond today’s vineyards and fields of grazing cows, what wild food can be found? It was time to embrace my latent hunter-gatherer instincts and explore beyond the cafés…
I was on the Isles of Scilly for the Autumn Walk Scilly weekend, the sister event to the annual Walk Scilly festival (4-14 April 2018), and booked onto a “Spiced Foraging Walk” with local foraging expert Rachel Lambert. The Walk Scilly Autumn Weekend takes place in mid-October and after a few days on the islands, I had noticed that the hedgerows and plants had already started to wither towards their winter slumber. Was there going to be anything to forage on our walk? It all looked a bit brown and… err, well, dead to me. The Walk Scilly programme had promised wild food biscuits, so I figured we’d have something to nibble on if it turned out to be more walk than foraging!
The Spiced Foraging Walk was taking place on St Agnes, the most south-westerly of the 5 inhabited islands in the Scilly archipelago. It’s only a short boat ride over to St Agnes from St Mary’s (where I was staying), but as soon as I stepped onto the quay I could feel it had a wholly different character: slightly wilder, slightly more remote. It’s easy to see why when you realise that this is the most south-westerly outpost of Britain, with nothing beyond but rocky outcrops and the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Our boat load of would-be foragers was greeted on the quay by Rachel Lambert, the local foraging expert leading our walk. After a quick introduction and making sure none of us had any allergies, we set off in search of wild food treasures.
We’d only walked a couple of hundred yards when Rachel stopped to introduce us to our first wild food delight. Now, this first plant will be familiar to every single one of us that grew up in the UK as the thing you stuck on your mate’s back as you walked to school. I call it Sticky Willy, but you might have heard it called Stickyweed, Goosegrass or Cleavers. Well, who knew that this source of childhood entertainment was actually a member of the coffee family and that the fruits can be dried, roasted and brewed up as a coffee-like hot drink? Wow!
Mind blown, we walked on along a gentle path that ran alongside a stunning blue bay framed in white sand and rugged rocks. Rachel soon stopped us again, but this time alongside a bank of what I can only describe as dead-looking weeds. My inner sceptic raised an eyebrow… surely we can’t eat these?
Picking one of the tall plants, each topped with what looked like an upside-down umbrella, Rachel introduced us to Queen Anne’s Lace – also known as wild carrot. These plants have a variety of uses throughout the year, but in Autumn we were most interested in their seeds. Turning the umbrella heads upside down, we each shook free a handful of small seeds, which upon taste-testing had an altogether “unique” flavour! It provoked a rather marmite reaction in the group and although I quite liked it (a kind of soapy, spicy aniseed flavour), my Dad wasn’t quite as keen. The seeds can be dry roasted and used in cookies, salads or soups – though not if you’re pregnant or want to be (Queen Anne’s Lace can cause terminations and has long been used as a contraception). Another important foraging lesson was learnt here – Queen Anne’s Lace looks a lot like Poison Hemlock, which unsurprisingly is highly poisonous! So, only eat things you are certain of and if in doubt about a plant’s identity, then do not eat!!
Duly warned, we headed onwards to the unlikely foraging location of the island’s cricket pitch, which turned out to be home to a beautiful chamomile lawn. Chamomile, with its daisy-like flowers, grows to form lawns which can release a delicate apple scent when walked on. It used to be common across England but is now only found in a few areas in the South West. Chamomile is well known for its calming properties and the flower heads can be used to make tea. Apparently, Chamomile plants rather like cricket pitches and coastal cliff tops – so they’re onto a real winner with St Agnes’s coastal cricket pitch!
A short stroll back towards the coast proper (not that you’re ever far from the sea!) took us past a verge of more dead-looking weeds. Though this time, my inner sceptic stayed well and truly silent as Rachel introduced us to Alexanders. Also known as Horse Parsley, this edible plant is common near the coast across England and was introduced here by the Romans. With it being October, again we were looking at the seeds and stripped a few each to taste. Peppery with a slightly bitter aftertaste, Alexanders seeds can be used as a spice and are apparently nice in biscuits and bread.
With our walk coming to an end, we headed down to a small white sand beach that may in fact have been one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. We all sat down amongst the pebbles and samphire as Rachel handed around a box of pre-made biscuits flavoured with foraged hogweed and fennel – not your usual biscuit flavours, but yummy nonetheless. A very contented flock sat nibbling biscuits and asking Rachel our wild food questions as the waves lapped at the shore. I don’t think there was a nicer spot on Earth at that moment, and I surely wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
All too soon it was time for the gentle stroll towards the quay to catch the boat back to St Mary’s. Wandering along, I looked upon the hedgerows, verges and even the cricket pitch in a new light – never again will I see dead weeds, when in fact there is a larder of wild food waiting for me to discover.
Plan your own adventure
To discover more about the Isles of Scilly, go to the Visit Isles of Scilly site. Fly to St. Mary’s with Skybus year-round from Newquay and Land’s End airports, and between March and November from Exeter airport. Prices start from £140 return from Land’s End airport. From March to November, the Scillonian passenger ferry sails up to seven days a week between Penzance and St. Mary’s. Prices start from £90 return. To book your journey, visit here or phone 01736 334220.
Emily’s visit was hosted by Visit Isles of Scilly, with travel provided by Isles of Scilly Travel and accommodation provided by the Star Castle Hotel and Mincarlo B&B. Delicious food was provided by The Atlantic. All inter-island boating was through St. Mary’s Boatmen’s Association.