Raiding the larder

Martin Mitchell heads out to the Islay coastline to forage for food
By Martin Mitchell
Ulva intestinalis is hardly likely to stimulate the appetite if you were to come across those words on a menu. But once Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage team - head chef Gill Meller and top forager John Wright - get their hands on it, gutweed as it is better known and a variety of other seaweeds and sea-life that are plentiful on our islands' shorelines, become tasty accompaniments to a variety of dishes. Most surprisingly chocolate and seaweed panacotta with Bowmore shortbread!

To forage in what Gill calls the 'wild food larder' has now gone way beyond the best reported searches for mushrooms and truffles and has arguably reached its apotheosis in the form of the New Nordic Food Movement and its ultimate champion, the world's finest restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen.

The River Cottage team have been pioneers in bringing the wild food larder to the attention of the wider public. Whisky has now joined in the forage.

The Forage

In what can truthfully be described as an inspired collaboration, Morrison Bowmore invited Gill and John to Islay to conduct a forage on the land and the seashore for food that would be prepared alfresco and paired with some high quality single malts. The results were extraordinary when you consider that the foraging team was composed of a handful of hacks who generally are better aware of the whereabouts of a good cocktail bar in Glasgow than a live mussel in Loch Gruinart.

The ebullient John Wright starts the forage from below the Bowmore distillery reminding us at the outset that we are in dog walking territory! But we still manage to forage a significant amount of spear leaf orache before we are out of the town. By the time the team reach Loch Gruinart they are now evidently being led by the goddess Gaia as well as the endlessly enthusiastic John who is on an ultimately unfulfilled personal mission for razor clams. He does turn up three wild oysters though which he speculates might have bred as escapees from an oyster farm. Contemplating oysters “legging it” from a farm was enough to add a surreal essence to our beach-side picnic of smoked trout sandwiches and our host’s 12 Years Old Islay single malt in perfect synthesis with the sea.

What's cooking

Baskets laden with seaweeds, clams and mussels we head back to Bowmore mid-afternoon, en route making a swerve off the road to pick up some wild sorrel and get a quick lesson on edible pignut and a somewhat similar plant which would lay us out in minutes and see us off within the hour. Useful information for the crime novelist and a cautionary tale for the hapless forager. But for us, a true feast awaited.

Chef Gill Meller, who has used many natural alcoholic ingredients during his eight year tenure as head chef at River Cottage, believes that whisky sits naturally with their ethos and while he and John Wright had some menu ideas before they arrived, a more visceral approach to whisky pairing -whether as a drink accompaniment or ingredient -occurred following a short session with Ian McCallum, master of malts at Bowmore.

Gill said: “I was impressed with the way the whisky worked with the recipes and was definitely inspired by the whole whisky maturation process”. The latter he seemed to replicate in the curing and cooking of the main course of beef sirloin, which was hot smoked over peat and oak shavings. The sirloin, rosti, normally a quite humdrum dish, was exotically transformed with clams and oysters into a downright delight. Gutweed, a rather slimy soft green plant when on the beach, finally lit up the plate
as small deep fried delicate mesh discs.

Beef, clams, mussels, oysters, lobsters, crab and a whole variety of seaweed and natural plants, all foraged or sourced on Islay, became a six course, joyful distillation of aromas and flavours. I had personally been very actively involved, I had seen two champions of natural food at work at close quarters and had eaten what was one of the greatest dining experiences of my life.

No more evidence is needed to prove to me that great whisky and great food naturally live together and I no longer need to get on a waiting list for that restaurant out in Copenhagen.

The curtain came down as Islay’s 11.00 pm sunset illuminated John Wright’s dram and pointing to a bottle of Bowmore 12 he declared with a twinkle in his professorial eye: “If the whole world economy were to collapse tomorrow, head for the coast, and grab the bottle as you go”. Financial markets may be tottering but the wild food larder is not empty.

On the menu

The six course meal which was quite literally prepared before our eyes was sumptuous and this member of the foraging team has to own up to the fact that not all the components were foraged by us. The Islay sirloin was a point in question! Were we to wrestle a Highland cow and bring it to slaughter? Not likely. Crab, oysters and lobster were a little beyond us too but all were live and ethically and humanely despatched.

The menu

Devilled dressed brown crab on toast with Bowmore 12

The whisky ingredient in this was marvellous. The crab as fresh as could be possible. Served in oyster shells as well.

Pine fired mussels with spear leaf orache

Mussels dramatically cooked on a bed of malted barley covered with burning pine needles.

Bowmore dry cured oak and peat smoked sirloin with crispy gutweed and sea lettuce clam and oyster rosti

Islay sirloin cured in whisky and hot smoked over peat and oak.

Wood roasted lobster and scallops with wild sorrel sauce

Here’s one for the beach –a good log fire for the lobster is really all you need to be honest.

Chocolate and seaweed pannacotta with Bowmore butter shortbread

Particularly interesting for the use of carragheen in the sauce. Beautiful whisky flavoured shortbread.

Chocolate and Bowmore soaked prune fondant

Rich, decadent and designed to be drunk with Bowmore’s Darkest 15 Years Old.