Bright and early on a drizzly autumnal Sunday, I found myself on the 104 bus to Haddington. My mission: a day out foraging in East Lothian at Colstoun Cookery School’s Seasonal Foraging course. I first came across Colstoun’s delectable produce at Foodies Christmas Festival last year and was lucky enough to be invited to look around the beautiful estate this Summer. Set in stunning natural surroundings, Colstoun Cookery School is like nowhere else I’ve ever been and I couldn’t wait to explore as the leaves turned. As I arrived in East Lothian, the sun emerged from behind the grey clouds – definitely a sign of good things to come.
On arrival (and after a pretty smooth journey – thanks 104 bus!) I was greeted with a pot of tea, fresh scones – and Colstoun preserves of course. Having risen extra early to travel East, I was ready for a second breakfast; it certainly hit the spot. As the other students arrived, we chatted about our previous foraging experience, made our predictions for the day ahead and perused some of the enviable coffee table tomes. I left with a reading list as long as my arm! Before long we were all present and correct, so headed out to the grounds.
Colstoun Cookery School’s resident foraging expert, Alison Henderson, was our wild food guide for the day. We started our morning’s mission on one of the lawns. Hear me out! As Alison said, after all – a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place. We foraged yarrow, with frondy green leaves; ground elder, a part of the carrot family; pretty wood sorrel with its heart-shaped leaves and chickweed, often used as a herbal remedy. Each had its own distinctive flavour and would be the stars of our lunchtime salad. I will never look at a patch of grass the same again!
Next, we headed to the hedgerows, chatting all things rosehip (‘itchy coos’ – children used to use them to make homemade itching powder – make sure you wash your hands after preparing them!), bramble and elderberry. The latter is coming to the very end of its season in November, but I’ve still seen plenty of purple-black berries, drooping and ripe for the picking. Fruiting is dependent on the weather and this year hasn’t been quite as bountiful, sadly. Keep a note of where you see elderflowers in the Summer, and don’t overharvest or there will be no berries come Autumn. After picking some (cutting whole clusters off the bushes, to strip the berries from later), we took a wee pause and had a swig of some hot elderberry syrup infused with cloves, fresh ginger and zesty lemon. Alison passed on the recipe and I’ve since made the Vitamin C-rich beverage three times. Far tastier than vitamin supplements!
Next, it was time to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, or rather – purple. Blackberry-picking! I’m already sad the brambles are over for another year, but their seemingly fleeting presence is what makes them extra special I think. So much more flavour than their cultivated cousin, each hedgerow can have countless different varieties. When they give, the berries are ready but if you’re making jam then pick some under-ripe fruit too as it has more pectin and will help the set. With our basins full, stained hands (and lips), we headed back to Colstoun Cookery School collecting pineapple weed (a relation of camomile that can be used in salads or to infuse things – I tried the syrup and it was just divine!) and tufted vetch or cow vetch (similar to the pea in growing habits) en route.
On our return to the kitchen, Alison and ‘woofer’ (seasonal worker!) Leigh set about making the finishing touches to our lunch while we prepared some of our finds. Stripping elderberries is very therapeutic! Just look at those beautiful crab apples and hazelnuts from the garden too. It’s amazing to think how many different wild foods we found in a relatively small area; I think the course would have to last for weeks if you hunted round the entire estate! It has made me so much more alert to my surroundings though, and I’ve another post about city foraging coming up for those of you seeking urban inspiration.
As the pudding finished steaming we headed through to the table. Stunning space ‘the coach house’ was recently renovated by the folks at Colstoun and is available for weddings, parties, dinners… you name it. Filled with gorgeous period features and just look at the light! (Excuse the slightly blurry picture, but an unwitting forager stumbled into my next shot so this one will have to do). For our starter, Alison had prepared beetroot soup with a glut of veg from the garden. I adore beetroot and the earthy, rich soup was deliciously smooth and aromatic, served with sour cream and a sprinkling of chives. Definitely something I’ll recreate at home! The bread is probably worth a post all of its own – each slice tastier than the next. Colstoun do bread making courses and although I’ve upped my game recently (I shared a shot of my first sourdough on Instagram), I’ve got a lot to learn and I think I may have to call on Colstoun’s expertise!
Next up was a mouth-watering mushroom tart made with foraged fungi from the estate. The crust was made from hazelnut and added a touch of sweetness to balance the earthy note of the mushrooms and tang from the cheese. I’m not usually a huge mushroom fan, but as with all wild food, the real deal is so much better than the watery ‘shrooms you find in the shops. Our tart was served with the leaves we collected that morning in a delicious foraged salad, complete with petals and wild garlic dressing. Hands down the best – and most beautiful – salad I’ve ever had. The foragers were a friendly bunch and we chatted about our shared love of food and the outdoors, and learnt more about Alison’s background and time at the prestigious Ballymaloe, recent developments at Colstoun and the way the course changes with the rhythms of the year. If only we could all return every season!
Last up was the blackberry steamed pudding – the sound and smell of which had made my mouth water since I spotted it on the stove. I’ve never cooked a steamed pud and have made it my mission to rectify this after tasting this one. It gives the sponge such a gorgeous texture, and the brambles perfectly contrast with its sweetness. Served with cinnamon ice cream (another one I’d love to try my hand at) it was the ideal ending to our feast. We practically waddled to the demo kitchen, all rather ready for a nap!
The afternoon was more about demonstration – with some audience participation – and passing on ideas for what to do with all our lovely foraged finds. I tend to stick to the same set of go-to recipes, and when freshly-picked blackberries taste so good in crumble it can be easy to get stuck in a cookery rut. Alison has an encyclopaedic knowledge of recipes, techniques and flavour combinations and as she chatted through what she was making it was a pleasure to listen and soak up her wisdom.
We made another salad with foraged East Lothian samphire, pear, roast hazelnut and a gorgeous rosehip dressing – so simple, fresh but perfect for Autumn. Alison also demonstrated how to make elderberry vinegar and a crab apple jelly, which she had started making the night before. Pro tip: never squeeze the bag, no matter how tempting! The combination of rowan and crab apple was so unusual but very tasty. Alison puts her own twist on traditional ideas, something that chimes with my ethos here too. The thoughtfulness and attention to detail throughout the day was just lovely – Alison had even made a cake for one of the forager’s birthdays! We had a slice, along with a wee glass of elderflower champagne, and before I knew it I was back on the bus to Auld Reekie, Colstoun Cookery School a distant dream.
I left with a full memory card, bag full of forage-filled Colstoun produce and a head filled with inspiration; I do hope I have done the experience justice. Alison’s enthusiasm for wild food was completely infectious and the hospitality of the Brouns at Colstoun second-to-none – they make you really feel at home. I should add that if you’re in any doubt about what you are foraging, don’t eat it and always check a trustworthy source. As a novice forager, the course boosted my confidence in identifying, harvesting and prepping produce – not to mention giving me fresh ideas for what to do with it all in my own kitchen. Colstoun – I’ll be back!
Disclosure: I attended Colstoun Cookery School’s Autumn foraging course free of charge for the purposes of review, but love of wild food, cooking and bramble puddings all my own!