One local restaurant I'm always happy to recommend to visitors to Edinburgh is Wedgwood the Restaurant on the Royal Mile.
Established by Paul and Lisa Wedgwood in 2007, the restaurant focuses on local, seasonal produce, and its regularly changing lunch and dinner menus often feature wild food ingredients foraged from across the local area.
And each summer Paul runs foraging courses to take visitors in search of the vast array of plants which provide a stunning variety of flavours and textures that are then incorporated into a special tasting menu. It's simply a food lover's dream!
From the restaurant in the heart of the Old Town, foragers are taken out to a location in East Lothian, a short drive from the city centre. Here, on a walk through four separate and distinct biomes - including woodland, salt marsh and tidal rock pools - Paul reveals the botanical treasures that can be found hidden in plain sight, and gives detailed descriptions of each plant's qualities, properties, flavours and potential uses in the kitchen.
Nettles, for example - everyone knows that nettles can be turned into soup, or fermented into beer. But did you know that nettles can also be used as an alternative form of rennet for making cheese, imparting a vibrant and zingy flavour to the creamy texture of the cheese itself? And did you know the weed often known in Scotland as 'sticky willy' is not just delicious infused as a refreshing drink, but also has cleansing properties for the liver?
Or that wood sorrel, sharp with acidic tanginess, pairs brilliantly with the rich texture of venison...?
Or that the young buds of greater plantain, a common plant which grows in hedgerows, lawns and on roadsides, have a robust, earthy, mushroom-like flavour?
Or that pineapple weed, one of the chamomile family, has bright yellow buds with the sweet, sharp flavour reminiscent of (the clue is in the name!) pineapple, of all things...?!
I was amazed not just with the abundance of flavours and varieties of plant that could be foraged in such relatively small area, but with how many of these plants can be found in my own back garden! Several of the plants and flowers Paul showed us were things I regularly pull out and discard as weeds, never imagining they had any kind of flavour or culinary value.
It's always a pleasure to escape into the countryside around Edinburgh, and thanks to Scotland's 'right to roam' legislation, which guarantees public access to land across the country, foragers are free to explore and to gather samples from plants above ground for personal consumption (as long as nothing is being uprooted).
Whether it's seed pods which can be dried and ground up to add flavour as a spice mix, or leaves fried in a tempura batter, or seaweed used as a wrap, or flowers utilised to bring colour and piquancy to a dish, or aromatic fronds used to create infusions.... there is so much variety available to an adventurous forager.
One of the revelations for me was samphire, something which frequently features in fine dining menus but which I had always thought of as fairly tasteless, included more as a garnish for its bright green tendrils.
Paul explained that much of the samphire that gets used in restaurants is imported from outside the UK, but on the side of the channels which run through the salt marsh coastal areas of East Lothian we could see it growing in abundance, and on picking it I was astonished to discover it has an incredible sweet and salty flavour!
Not everything in nature is a tasty treat, however, and we were shown the distinctions between (for example) sweet cicely and its highly poisonous neighbour hemlock - look for the purple spattering on the stems of the latter plant, which marks it out as something you definitely don't want to serve your guests...
After a couple of hours in nature, discovering the plants and sampling their flavours (pre-foraged selections are provided for anyone squeamish about eating straight from the ground) Paul took us back into the city where the staff at Wedgwood the Restaurant welcomed us into their relaxed and comfortable dining space.
There we sat and watched the early summer crowds passing on the Royal Mile, dodging between rain showers - we'd been fortunate to have survived the forage itself without a single drop of rain! - as we were presented with a specially crafted tasting menu showcasing the very flavours and plants that we'd spent the morning discovering.
From a gazpacho of sweet cicely and cucumber, to a sorbet of rosehip and blood orange, and from venison with the acidic wood sorrel, to salmon cured with an infusion of Douglas fir - each course was packed with flavour and presented in a way which appealed to the eye. And not a sprig of hemlock to be seen!
By the time you've spent a couple of hours at the table enjoying a succession of foraged courses, all presented with a reminder of the specific plants you've seen (and tasted) in the wild, you can stagger back out into the feverish busyness of Edinburgh's tourist heartland feeling nourished, informed, amazed and inspired to find the flavours lurking much closer to home.
Dates for Paul Wedgwood's wild foraging experience days in spring and early summer can be booked online, and the restaurant is open for fine dining all year round.
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