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
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable