Scilly Isles: The flavours at your feet: fresh, wild and free

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

On a foraging break in the Isles of Scilly, Andy Lynes learns that the coastal vegetation that defines the archipelago tastes even better than it looks

Travelling from London to the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles west-south-west of Land's End, takes me 10 hours by train, plane, taxi and boat. But once I arrive at Hell Bay hotel on Bryher, the smallest of the archipelago's five inhabited islands (there are a further 51 smaller uninhabited islands), I know it has been worth the effort. With virtually no transport (the hotel has a minibus to get us to and from the quay), no industry and a total population of 85, Bryher's wild, unspoilt environment makes it ideal for a weekend of foraging. But I'm no expert – happily that's where Cornwall-based wild food guide Rachel Lambert comes in. As she leads our small group to the brackish lagoon, the Great Pool, a few yards from the hotel grounds, she enthuses about the mixture of heathland, seashore, fields and hedgerows on the islands that makes for a diverse abundance of edible plants and seaweeds.

Lying in the path of the Gulf Stream, the warm, temperate climate has helped make the islands an Important Plant Area (as defined by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife) with unique flora and fauna including dwarf pansy and orange birdsfoot that are not seen on the mainland.

"Foraging brings together walking, nature, plants and food," says Lambert, who has been foraging (identifying and picking wild edible plants and flowers) since the mid-Nineties and teaching it for the past five years. She points out a patch of rock samphire growing at the pool's edge. "It's a coastal plant that grows in rocky areas above sea level, as opposed to marsh samphire which grows in salty marshes in water," she explains as we chew on the juicy and sea-salty leaves and stalks that have a stronger citrus flavour than any samphire I've tasted before.

On nearby Gweal Hill, we stop by a crop of dark, glossy-green, spear-shaped leaves sprouting from the rocky landscape that on any other day I might have trampled on. Scurvy grass, it turns out, has a pronounced English mustard flavour with a bitter finish. "Captain Cook first sang its praises. It is rich in vitamin C and was taken on ships either in dried form or distilled in liquid to stave off scurvy," Lambert explains. We pick some of the fleshiest leaves and drop them in Lambert's wicker basket which she'll take back to chef Richard Kearsley at the hotel. He'll incorporate them in one of the special menus that make up our nightly five-course foraged feast during the three-night break.

It's a beautiful clear spring day and only an insistent, chilly wind blowing in off the Atlantic reminds us we're not in some tropical paradise. At a rock pool, we stop and gather some unpromising-sounding gutweed. When deep fried, the hollow, intestinal looking-plant tastes just like the crispy seaweed (that's actually made from finely sliced cabbage) served in many Chinese restaurants. "One of the great things about seaweeds is that they can extract toxins from the body," Lambert tells me. However, some varieties can absorb the toxins from poor quality sea water. "I'm not worried about that here," she reassures me, as we try the raw, lettuce-like plant straight from the water.

We descend the other side of the hill and follow the coastline to Great Porth, where we discover bushy clumps of sea spinach growing at the edge of the sandy beach. The leaves are beautifully fresh and glossy. Also known as sea beet, this is the wild ancestor of numerous cultivated plants including chard, sugar beet and beetroot. We pick the leaves, making sure not to pull out the plant's roots. To do so would be illegal without the permission of the landowner, and none of us happens to have the Prince of Wales's phone number on us: the Isles of Scilly have been part of the Duchy of Cornwall since the estate's foundation in the 14th century.

As we continue our two-and-a-half-hour walk around Bryher, we come across the delicately flavoured hairy bittercress and common nettles. We carefully pick just the four freshest and best leaves at the top of each stem with gloved hands. Lambert points out some ribwort plantain growing nearby and tells us that if we get stung by the nettles, rubbing the long thin, tongue-like leaves on our skin can help ease the pain, just like dock leaves; it works on bee stings and insect bites too. Getting into the wild food spirit, I take a bite out of the bitter, aromatic leaf, but it's so furry I feel like a cat chewing on a mouse. Far more pleasurable is wild sorrel, which has a bright lemon sherbet taste from the oxalic acid contained in the plant. We're warned that the spear-like shape, with two thin tails, one hanging down either side of the stem, makes it easy to confuse with a poisonous plant commonly called lords and ladies.

After working up an appetite, that night we get to enjoy not only some top-class cooking, but also the sense of satisfaction of having harvested our food, or at least some of it. Chef Richard Kearsley has transformed the nettles into a teacup of delicious creamy soup; the gutweed has been fried and served with lemon sole tempura that also comes with aïoli given a citric kick by the wild sorrel. Sea spinach and scurvy grass accompany a pancetta-wrapped fillet of beef and some of the bright yellow gorse flowers we'd also spotted on our walk have been dried and infused into a stunningly original crème brûlée.

The ingredients we've collected might have been used in supporting roles by the chef, but for me, they are the star of the show, and it's fascinating to see how much flavour and texture they contribute to each dish.

The next morning we take the boat over to neighbouring Tresco to continue foraging. At barely two miles by one, the island is roughly one and half times the size of Bryher and has nearly twice the population, with 150 inhabitants. It's also more developed, with an art gallery, a shop and a pub, and the landscape less untamed than Bryher. Yet there's still plenty of free food to be found. With Lambert's help we hunt down the naturalised Bermuda buttercup, not actually from Bermuda (it's originally from South Africa) and not actually a buttercup but a member of the sorrel family. It will form part of a salad to be served that night along with the pennywort, sea sandwort and chickweed that we also pick. After collecting some three-corned leek, a type of wild garlic growing by the roadside, we meet up with horticulturist and editor of the Tresco Times Alasdair Moore for lunch at the Flying Boat Club, a restaurant built on the site of the Royal Navy Air Service base where seaplanes countered the German U-boat threat during the First World War.

After our meal, Moore drives us in a golf buggy (the only motorised transport on the island, apart from the odd farm vehicle) to Abbey Garden. Although we collect a few sprigs of mint from the herb garden for dinner, we're not here to forage but to learn a bit about the extraordinary collection of tropical plants gathered by Victorian-era founder Augustus Smith from as far afield as Brazil, New Zealand, Burma and South Africa. Moore, who worked at Abbey Garden for five years, is a fascinating guide and explains that the maritime climate and south-westerly position means the garden can support an enormous variety of plants. He is particularly enthused by the colourful protea species he spent time researching in South Africa and which includes a variety with soft, parrot feather-like petals. There's just time to view the garden's haunting collection of ships' figureheads, salvaged from wrecks off the coast of the islands, before getting the boat back to Bryher before the tide turns.

After four days of fascinating insight into the delicacies that so often lay at our feet, I'm compelled not to waste a minute of my journey back to the mainland. After a boat ride to the main island, St Mary's, I headed to Town Beach for a spot of last-minute foraging before my flight. I collect sea spinach as an edible souvenir. Even though I've been on the islands only a few days and spent a matter of hours foraging, with Lambert's guidance, I've been able to take a close, concentrated look at the landscape. Where I might otherwise have strolled blithely past, I've stopped, looked, smelled, touched and tasted. I've been amazed by the variety and intensity of flavours available free of charge to those with enough knowledge of what's safe to take back to the kitchen or enjoy there and then on the spot. Any trip to the Isles of Scilly would be unforgettable, but this one will live on in my taste memory too.

Travel essentials

Getting there

First Great Western (08457 000 125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk) and Cross-Country (0844 811 0124; crosscountrytrains.co.uk) serve the Cornish stations of Par and Penzance.

At Par you can take a train to Newquay, whose airport is served by Skybus (0845 710 5555; ios-travel.co.uk) to and from St Mary's in Scilly. At Penzance – which is also served by the Night Riviera sleeper train from London Paddington – you can take a British International (01935 389425; brit-int.com) helicopter to St Mary's or Tresco. Skybus also flies to St Mary's from Southampton, Bristol, Exeter and Land's End.

By sea, Scillonian III departs from Penzance for St Mary's, from £45.

 

Staying and foraging there

Hell Bay (01720 422947; hellbay.co.uk) is offering wild food breaks with Rachel Lambert from 21-24 April and 21-24 September, costing £705pp, including three nights' half-board accommodation in a suite, return helicopter flights from Penzance and connecting boat, wild food walks, entry to Abbey Garden and boat excursions.

 

More information

Isles of Scilly Tourist Board: simplyscilly.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit