Last week I presented my first one off show as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas in the Edinburgh Fringe. The event got a good audience and with support from the comedian Susan Morrison and the CODI team it seemed to go down well. For those who didn’t make it here are my notes on the first half of the talk (without the witty comments from Susan or the tasters).
What is Scotland’s favourite tipple? It certainly used to be whisky but an increasing number of the big Scottish distilleries are diversifying by producing a range gin, while new artisan distilleries are opening up every year. Now 70% of UK gin production is based in Scotland.
For an ethnobotanist gin is much more interesting than whisky. All gin, by definition, contains juniper berries but the additional ‘botanicals’ are incredibly diverse. It appears that almost anything can go into gin and it is still gin. 5pm recently made an ‘infographic’ about Scottish gin http://blog.5pm.co.uk/2015/08/are-the-best-gins-made-in-scotland-new-ginfographic-maps-out-scottish-gins/. 16 Scottish gins are listed and the combined list of botanicals includes over 35 plant species that are could be regarded as indigenous or widely grown in Scotland. The list includes angelica (in 9 brands), heather (3), meadowsweet (2), elderflower (2), sea buckthorn (2), bog myrtle (2), chamomile (2), rose (2) and rowan (2).
Angelica appears most often (only non-natives coriander and citrus peel are more frequent). The species is not specified but in most cases it is probably garden angelica (A. archangelica) not the native Angelica sylvestris. But the roots, stems and seeds of both are edible and strongly flavoured. A. archangelica is a native of Sweden something of a ‘cure all’ among the Sami people of Northern people of Scandinavia. So important they describe it as a sacred plant – this must have been in Linnaeus’s when he named it after the angels. Another powerful Sami plant is the ‘rose scented’ rose root (Rodiola rosea) the signature ingredient in Rock Rose gin from Sutherland.
Many of the Scottish gin brands seem to be competing for genuine indigenous flavours and heather, rowan, Scots pine, birch and bog myrtle all fall into this category. In parallel to the distillers the brewing industry has also taken on these native species – starting with the Williams Bros Heather Ale. The same company also came up with Nollaig – a Christmas spruce beer – ‘made from recycled Christmas trees’!
Sea Buckthorn Scottish Superfood
Eden Mill, in St Andrews, produce an Original Sea Buckthorn Gin cashing in on the current popularity of this ‘Scottish Superfood’ previously which is currently found in more than a dozen products from IQ chocolate to Eteaket tea. This coastal tree is an unusual poster child for the wild health food industry. It is a vicious spiny shrub, with a tendency to be invasive, the berries are sour tasting with and oily consistency and near-impossible to harvest. Added to this the juice tends to separate and have a short shelf-life.
Sea Buckthorn is very widespread covering much of Europe and Asia, its unique health properties widely appreciated elsewhere do not seem to have received recognition in Scotland until now. The oils contain vitamins, sterols, flavoids and a host of other chemicals with potential in controlling cardiovascular conditions, some mental health problems and even cancer. Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and its cousin willow-leaved sea buckthorn (H. salicifolia) are widely used in Eastern, especially Tibetan medicine, and reputedly juice was given to Russian cosmonauts to keep them alert in Space.
Strangely although the taste is definitely not ‘mainstream’, and the smell distinctly unpleasant, chefs from Tom Kitchin to Rene Redzipe seem to really rate it – devising ways to get round the tendency for the juice to separate into distinct layers and the short shelf life.
But the biggest problem is harvesting the dense clusters of berries from the spiny branches. There are two basic methods:
Method 1 don mackintosh, wellies, sou’wester and fisherman’s gloves and milk the berries into a bucket
Method 2 harvest the whole branches in convenient lengths, put in the deep freeze, then shake frozen berries onto a sheet.
Sea Buckthorn, although native, is also regarded as being invasive and some Scottish Councils, most notably East Lothian, have procedures to control its spread that involve JCBs. So probably no one should feel guilty about cutting off a few branches for their own needs.
Another under exploited marine resource is seaweed. Scotland is a small country and large number of islands with a very long shoreline. We have seaweed in abundance. Over 600 species and at least 35 of these are edible but unlike other island people (Japan, Ireland) we have not been keen to exploit the culinary value of this abundant resource.
All of the common European edible species: dulce, pepper, laver, carrageen, sweet kelp, kombu occur here. The Welsh mix laver with oatmeal to make laver bread. The Japanese make vegetable stock (dashi) and sushi. We all eat seaweed as additives, for example in vegetarian jellies, but there is really no seaweed cuisine in Scotland.
To help plug this gap one Scottish company Mara Seaweed, set up by Fiona Houston and Xa Milne who had previous pushed the ‘cause’ of Scottish wildfoods with their book Seaweed and Eat It. Their clever innovation is to process seaweed into a form that it is easy to add to foods, in the way that you would add salt, pepper or spices in a convenient shaker.
All very convenient – all very hygienic because as Danish Professor Ole Mouritsen said ‘People don’t like the idea of something washed up and smelling of the seashore’. If you can get around this natural aversion and you have a host of delicious flavours (they don’t all taste of the seashore) and nutrients. Minerals, fibre, antioxidants – seaweed is good for you – and laver (Porphyra spp.) contains 47% protein – mixed with oatmeal (another Scottiush superfood) to make laver bread and you have the perfect healthy breakfast or snack.