Oct 242015


We have just had a facinating week visiting communities and wild places across Scotland with three Sami guests from the Far North of Sweden.

Greta and Linn Huuva, and Anders Hakansson have provided an introduction to Sami ethnobiology through conversations and shared tastings with Scottish chefs, wild food gatherers, fishermen, hunters and others involved in Scottish food. Of course we found much common ground – the flora of Norrbotten, although it lies north of the arctic circle, is broadly similar to the boreal flora of the Scottish Highlands and unsurprisingly many plants are used in the same way by Sami and Gael. However, it was the differences that proved to be of most interest.
Birch and pine are common trees in both regions but the Sami have many more uses for both trees than we know within the Scottish tradition. Greta was able to explain, for example, how she is able to make flour from the inner bark of Scots pine collected at midsummer and we tasted some of the bark bread she had made. There is no gluten in the bark flour so it is more suitable for a thin crisp bread which was good without any taste of turpentine which is removed by cooking. Monica Wilde our resident herbalist told us about the antiseptic properties of pine needles and Greta told us how she uses them to make a pine salt condiment.

Birch trees are tapped in Spring For sap in Spring on both sides of the North Sea but whereas Scottish foragers wil insert a tube into the main trunk of the tree (in the style used for tapping North American sugar maple) Greta has a less intrusive method. In my experience trying to make something approaching maple syrup from birch trees is a waste of fuel and effort because the raw sap has such low sugar content (there are technical reasons for this to do with the lack of diurnal temperature changes in our maritime climate). I agree with Greta it is better to drink the sap fresh for its refreshing taste, essential minerals and revitalising properties. To do this Greta cuts a pencil-thick side branch and then collects the free-flowing sap using a plastic bottle strung from cut end. A cup full of sap collected this way is a valuable Spring tonic.

Scottish forager, Mark Williams, and Greta Huuva shared an interest in the chaga fungus that infests birch trees. More abundant in the more continental climate of Scandinavia and Canada, in Scotland chaga is mostly found in the birch woods of the Cairngorms. We found a tree full of it in Nethy Bridge and Mark and Greta explained how they used it as an important health supplement, full of antioxidants, and Mark brewed some chaga tea flavoured with pine needles. Greta said when times were hard the Sami used chaga as a coffee-substitute – a revelation that caused the espresso-loving Italians in our party to screw up their noses!

Greta’s book Nature is My Kitchen is available from Varda. Our Highland tour was organised jointly with Scotland’s Natural Larder and supported by Think Local Scotland as part of Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink.

Mar 172015

I spent an hour today in a discussion with a group of MSc Gastronomy students from Queen Margaret University considering whether there is a distinctive Scottish cuisine. More on this later in the year as I prepare for my Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas act but meanwhile one of the things that prompted this dialogue was a splendid new book on ‘healthy Sami food culture’ by Greta Huuva. Greta is a cook, forager, herbalist, ecologist and proud tradition-bearer of the Sami people of Northern Scandinavia. A book and film, Nature is my Kitchen, in which she talks about her life, her culture, her philosophy, her restaurant business and her recipes have recently been produced by Varda, the talented publishing and film-making duo Veronica Bernacchioni and Andrea Barghi.
Italians living in the far north of Sweden, Veronica and Andrea have visited Edinburgh twice in recent years to introduce us to th

e landscape, wildlife and Sami culture of their adopted home. Now with their characteristically high production values they have created an astonishingly beautiful and truthful insight into a world that is both uncannily familiar and yet at the same time exotic. The habitat where Greta gathers herbs and edible plants, and that her family share with thousands of semi-domesticated reindeer, is similar to much of the Scottish Highlands and the midges that plague a summer foraging trip with her grandchildren are far too familiar. But the Sami goahti (a tipi-like tent), pine-bark bread baked over an open fire on a skillet, and chaga mushroom coffee are part of a Northern culture that has no parallel on our side of the North Sea.
There is a recipe section at the

back of the book, with a selection of favourite Sami dishes from Greta’s Jokkmokk café. I skipped the recipes for reindeer meat and blood dumplings and blood pancakes (I will try these I hope one day in Jokkmokk) and went straight to wild vegetables and fruit section. Cloudberry parfait, juobmo (a sauce made with wild sorrel), char cured in spruce shoots, lingonberry pudding and Greta’s summer salad sound and look delicious, and I am looking forward to experimenting with some Sami tastes in season.

Angelica Wild Angelica, Sweden

Greta describes collecting and using numerous wild plants, including alpine bistort, alpine sow thistle, Labrador tea, roseroot and ten kinds of wild berry but she appears to have a special affection for wild angelica. She utilises the whole plant ‘the root for medicine, the stalk and leaves to sour milk, and the seeds as a spice … a piece of angelica root to chew on was

an excellent defence when you met strangers… it increases the immune system’. She describes a knowledge of healing plants as once being commonplace not confined to shaman and one of the delights of the Greta’s story is the way that she is instructing her own children and grandchildren in the old ways that have so much relevance today.
To order copies of the book and DVD visit Varda’s website http://vardahb.com/bookshop/ For Year of Food and Drink events including Dining on the Wildside visit the RBGE What’s On http://www.rbge.org.uk/whats-on/event-details/3782

Oct 262014
Chestnut 'orchard'

Chestnut ‘orchard’

Archiodsso Chestunt Festival

Arcidosso Chestnut Festival

Roasting sweet chestnuts in the street, Tuscan style

Roasting sweet chestnuts in the street, Tuscan style

Ceramic in San Fiora church

Ceramic in San Fiora church

A few of the chestunut products on sale

A few of the chestunut products on sale

Where else in Europe is there a six day festival celebrating a native tree? Arcidosso in Tuscany has an annual chestnut festival each October honouring the tree which has been central to the culture and livelihood of people in this region of Italy for millennia. As well as being an important material for building, fences and baskets the tree provides all manner of useful products. The woods are managed more like orchards with owners jealously guarding the crop of chesnuts (and the beautiful porcini mushrooms that provide a valuable second crop). The streets of Archidosso come alive during the chestnut festival with rich Christmasy aroma from huge braziers roasting nuts and the local red wine flows freely. There are also ladies making pancakes, cakes, and confectionary with chestnut flower and even a locally-brewed beer flavoured with and taking one of the varietal names for chestnut, Bastarda Rossa. On market stalls traders are selling chestnut soap, chestnut liqueurs and flavoured grappa, marron jam and strong tasting chestnut-flower honey. We are told that chestnut flour was once considered a poor man’s food in Tuscany but today people are immensely proud of their ‘tree of life’ which even features in the ceramic frescos in the church in San Fiora.

Ethnobotanising in Sweden

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Jun 142013

Garden angelica which grows wild in Sweden

The Scandinavian countries, which have a similar flora to Scotland, are interesting ethnobotanically but attendance at a four day congress in Gothenburg City on science communication didn’t seem like the best opportunity to get a handle on local plant use.
However, as luck would have it I picked up a couple of nice examples of nice old birch baskets from a secondhand stall and found a small bottle of birch oil in a corner hardware store. Wild boar hunters dowse themselves with this acrid selling stuff to disguise their scent. ‘It is also very good for attracting the ladies’ I was told by the shop assistant with a wink.
Nordic cuisine inspired by Rene Redzipe of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant is making waves across the region. With its obsession with local, season and wild it is the best way to savour the landscape in a meal.

Sweden must be the most expensive place in the world to eat and most of the restaurants were way beyond my budget but the Styrso Skaret, on a small island in the archipelago, provided a taste of nuevo Nordica at a reasonable price with ling, Norway lobster, wild garlic and Swede (what else!) mash, asparagus, garnished with leaves of wild chervil, angelica, an unidentified red-leaved beet, fennel and ground elder.

Styrso dinner

Dinner at Styrso Skaret

As I sampled this delicious combination of fresh local flavours, all gathered within 500m of the restaurant, I tried not to think of what I paying to eat a pernicious weed I have devoted hours to trying to eradicate from my own garden!




The Ash Grove

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May 202013

As part of the Moving Forward from Ash Dieback project we decided to search for a poem that would help people consider the value ash has in our environment and our culture. Poetry has the potential to enrich our lives and change the way we look at the world. It can connect with us on a different level from the usual ‘interpretive text’ you may find in an exhibition. So, with the help of the Scottish Poetry Library, we sent out requests to poets across Scotland to ask them to consider ash trees, their disappearance and how we might celebrate ash woodlands. We were delighted with the response: the very high quality and the variety of work. Below is the final work chosen, written by Ken Cockburn.

The Ash Grove

a springtime ash, whose leaves emerge from black
an unlocked ash, so profligate with keys
a mourning ash, its branches heaped on pyres
a lettered ash, in the alphabet of trees
a hedgerow ash, which twists among the briars
a spreading ash, in summer’s heat a bield
a sporting ash, to take the shinty field

a warlike ash, for arrows and for spears
a lightning ash, and flame that flash provides
a hanging ash, a shade of dule and tears
a timeless ash, the horse which Odin rides
a steam-bent ash, which hoops the barrel staves
a buoyant ash, a charm against the waves
a blighted ash, whose crown is dying back

Ken Cockburn
April 2013

Thanks to Ken Cockburn, all the poets who submitted work and to the Scottish Poetry Library.