Ten things I loved about The Blackstairs Eco Trail’s Summer School
Autumn has always been my favourite season, with that golden sun that burrows beneath the skin to leave enough glow to last the winter – the same sun that ripens the fruits of the hedgerows and jolts those enigmatic mushrooms into springing forth. Although I have savoured Autumn’s sun-tingedplentiness since I was a boy, I barely knew the names of more than a few berries, and less of the edible greens of the fieldsor the leaves and nuts of the woodland. It was to educate myself a little, so that I could engage with Autumn more fully, that I attended the first twoofBlackstairs Eco Trails’ very first Foraging Summer School, run by the inspirational Mary and Robert White, at The Old Rectory, Kilredmond, in August.
For the purposes of this guest-blog I decided to pick ten highlights from two days of foraging, watching cookery demonstrations and listening to educational, challenging and highly entertaining talks.
THE GREEN BUILDING.Originally built in 1830, this light-filled space used to be a‘cluster-building’, consisting of a donkey shed, a duck and hen house, a garage, and a woodshed. Now it’s an eco-friendly work of art with walls and floors made of ‘green’ cement, insulated with eco-friendly insulation and painted with organic paint.
Designed by the architect, Keith Graham, The Green Building has light pouring into it through double doors and sliding doors leadingwhich open onto rose and water gardens, a courtyard, and wild meadows. The main, ground-floor, space has a great, modern, but tastefully-designed kitchen,while upstairs is a stunning, wood-floored mezzanine overlooking The Blackstairs.
The Green Building is the perfect place for a Wild Food Summer School, but Mary tells me it has also been booked for yoga, teacher-training and art courses. She also hopes it’s not too long before she and Robert host their first ‘green’ wedding (followed no doubt by a stompin’ ‘green’ party!).
FORAGING IN THE RAIN. After a fascinating introductory talk on wild foods and foraging by Mary and Robert,we proceeded to the rain-soaked great outdoors. Huddled beneath umberellas, we heard about the golden rule of sustainable foraging – take no more than one third for personal use, leaving one third for wildlife and one third for sustainability. We identified, and nibbled, dandelion, sorrel, haws, sloes and hazelnuts, cloudberries and elderberries. Though mushrooms were scarce that day, we were shown a ‘magical’ place by the garden pondwhere, just a year ago, treasured ceps (tasty and valuable mushrooms) had appeared by the bucket load and were sold by the pound to a nearby dining house of note. ‘It could be another 20 years before they appear again,’ said Mary, ruefully, ‘They’ll be worth a lot more, then!’
WILD SORREL TABOULEH.Using wild sheep sorrel from the garden, this was the first wild dish madeduring the afternoon’s cookery sessions. It was a mainly raw, tangy, tasty, green delight made with bulgur wheat, scallions, sorrel, parsley, wild mint, home-grown tomatoes and lemon. Basically, you pour enough boiling water over the bulgur wheat to cover it, plus a little extra, then allow it to cool. Then you mix the bulgur with the chopped scallions, sorrel, parsley, mint and oil, and season with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice to taste, and top with a few little tomatoes. It was one of the healthiest things I had eaten for years, and also one of the tastiest.
BIDDY WHITE LENNON’S TALK. I love it when peoples second life overtakes their first, and I must have heard at least five people say that, no, she is not the Biddy White Lennon who played Maggie from the Riordan’s, she is the Irish food guru who wrote that great book on Wild Food. The fact is she is both, plus being an active member of Slow Food Ireland.
Biddydrew us all in with her chat about blossoms and flowers used for making cordials and syrups. She told tales of collecting refuse-sacks full bags of wild garlic for preserving and making into pesto. She enthused about using sea-beet instead of spinach, and told us how the seed of the alexander plant can be used as a substitute for pepper. Sheloves the summer, with its wild strawberries and raspberries, frockens, rowanberries and elderberries. She spoke of heather and wild strawberry herbal tea and the St. George mushroom which she finds on Hook Head every year, at just a certain time in the spring, in just a certain, secret, place. Her enthusiasm was infectious, her knowledge of the world of foraging immense, and her humour wasdelightful.
A WALK ALONG THE BARROW. They don’t always jump out at you, those wild edibles. You have to adjust your focus a little, you have to slow down, and you have to LOOK. Then, there they are – cloudberries and elderberries, yarrow and rosehips, crab apples and plantain, beech nuts, alexander, angelika, comfrey, watercress and water mint. Once you see ONE you soon glimpse them all. They’re EVERYWHERE.
PEOPLE FROM ALL OVER.There was Lucy from Edinburgh, Josette from Malta, Danae from the north and Ros from Dublin, joining the rest of us from Carlow, Kilkenny and the surrounding counties,plus many of Mary and Robert’s lovely neighbours. Conversations were had and connections were made.
THE HARSH REALITY THAT THE PLANET IS F****D. This wasn’t the title of John Gibbons’ talk, but it could have been. The fact is, according to John, food production is the biggest single problem facing humanity. We ‘mine’ food, turn the soils of the earth into dead soil and fail to adequately address the big issue that the largest source of habitat loss in the world is through the clearing of ground for dairy and beef production. John also reminded us that there has been a 43% decline in insect life since 1970.
Producing food properly, John reminded us, bringing an up-note into the equation,is good for you, good for food business and essential for the future of the planet. He suggested that if gatherings like this could mushroom into substantial movements that, in turn, couldcreate change on a global level, then there is a slight change we may not be f*****d afterall!
THE IMPORTANCE OF RE-PLANTING WILD FLOWERS. I lovedthe simplicity of ‘celebrity bee-keeper,’ Philip Mc Cabe’s‘call to arms’. We need more wild flowers for the bees. He also, somewhat controversially, suggested that GMO crops should be considered if it meant a reduction in the use of fungicides being used by farmers. He ended on a very positive note as he told us how Ireland is leading the way in bee-keeping education, with the Gormanstown week-long bee-keeping course being hailed as one of the best in the world.
MORE UPLIFTING STUFF. Mary Mulvey of Eco Tourism Ireland highlighted the Burren Trail as one of the many positive, tourist-attracting, initiatives that exploit Ireland’s natural food riches. Food writer/publisher,Gerogina Campbell praised small food businesses driven by a passion for excellence, in the production of locally-sourced good food, and gave a big thumbs-up to the Mooney Goes Wild Radio programme for keeping the masses connected to nature. Journalist, Paddy Woodworth tried not to scare us too much while discussing his new book, Our Once and Future Planet, and Manchan Mc Gann chaired the talks with the humour and erudidity of a well-travelled, food-loving, and hugely environmentally-aware man.
THE ALMOST UN-NOTICEABLE SLEIGHT-OF- HAND OF THE HOSTS.Mary and Robert White both seem like straight-up people, but any couple who can turn a wild food weekend into something that felt like a world summit, while ostensibly teaching us how to make meadowsweet cordial and rose petal syrup, are not to be trusted, except, perhaps, when it comes to making the world a better, and tastier place.