A Dinner of Herbs

Did you see the first in the BBC series called “Amazing Hotels” with Monica Galetti and Giles Coren?  They visited the Brando Hotel in Polynesia and Monica Galetti went out foraging with the hotel’s cultural director, a woman called Hinano, for leaves to put in a salad and other leaves for wrapping food which also keep it tender and season it.  She showed Monica edible plants and others used in medicine such as a plant whose seeds contain natural eyedrops.

This woman teaches the staff about their Polynesian heritage  –  how fabulous is that? And not just the staff, but also interested guests and schoolchildren invited to the island.  She spoke about how, if not passed on, this traditional knowledge would be lost, about how preserving the culture helped to preserve the environment.  She took Monica to the ruins of a fishing temple which had been destroyed on the orders of missionaries intent on stamping out the old culture.

By this time, bells were not only ringing but clanging for me as I remembered reading about how the Lord’s Day Observance Society had set about trying to eradicate Gaelic in Scotland’s north west in the 19th century through their missionaries and influences on local schools. *1   They might not have wholly succeeded but a lot of Gaelic speakers were made to feel very negative about their language: “Gaelic won’t get you any further than the end of the pier”, an old island woman used to say to me.  Now, I’m the grand daughter of a native Gaelic speaker  who, in her final days, reverted to speaking only Gaelic.  Her children who were her carers had no idea what she was saying as they had no Gaelic.  How sad.  However, she has a great grand daughter who will shortly qualify as a Gaelic teacher – coming out of the same house where she passed her final days linguistically alone.

Apart from pulling docken leaves to rub on nettle stings, what else did I learn about using plants which didn’t come from shops?  An uncle showed me the eyebright flower which was still in use for eye problems in his boyhood.  I’d read that sphagnum moss was used for covering wounds up until the First World War and I knew you could put young dandelion leaves in a salad, though I never have.  *2    I’ve used sorrel though, having twice bought a plant and twice it’s died on me; yes, I’ve planted it in shade but it’s not a perennial in my garden.   *3

Chirsty Hamish took me out once to dig up razor clams- or spoots as she called them – and I watched her cooking them.  However my main memory of family foraging was the annual expedition to the “bramble braes” in the October school holiday.  We had National Dried Milk tins on scratchy string round our necks as we worked our way slowly along the canal bank.  My brothers had worked out more quickly than I did that when you’d filled your tin, it had to be emptied into a bigger container and then you had to start filling your own tin all over again.  They went on go-slows.  There was a stop for a picnic at half time but at the end of the day, there was the bus journey home and the possibility of being seen by a school friend, stained with purple juice, scarred by thorns and blotched with nettle stings.  At home, as the oldest girl, I was then roped in to helping with removing any leaves, stems or beasties from the vast mound we’d accumulated before the jelly making could get started.  The juice dripped into a basin all night through a jelly bag suspended from the back of a kitchen chair.

I also seem to remember the making of rosehip syrup once or twice from gathered rose hips.  I wonder if my sister sees it more clearly.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has a recipe for nettle soup as does Catherine Brown (in “Broths to Bannocks”) who got it from F Marion McNeill.  It seems to be that spring nettles get used, the 4 to 6 leaves near the tips but don’t use them once the nettles have flowered.  A tonic full of iron and vitamin C can be made from steeping the leaves and March was the traditional time for this and for nettle kail; it was to be taken three times during the month to purify the blood, clear the complexion and ensure good health in the coming year.

From my garden I could be using fuschia and borage flowers, elderflowers and honeysuckle, lavender, lilac and roses, primroses, pulmonaria and pelargonium.

Sarah Garland’s “The Herb & Spice Book” which I’ve had for 30 years is very useful with all its drawings to help with identification, its chapters on cooking, health and cosmetics.  More recently, I’ve had the wonderful “Flora Celtica” by William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater with its opening quote from Martin Martin’s “A Late Voyage to St Kilda” in 1698: “It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place where we are born: thus men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate”.

*1  (28 Dec. 2018)  Reading today an article by Joseph Farrell in The National about Robert Louis Stevenson and Samoa:  “Stevenson savoured the parallels he found with Scottish history and culture, and his fears for the future of Samoa were reinforced by his knowledge of the Scottish Highlands and what the Highlanders had experienced in the aftermath of the ’45 … and in the times of the Clearances.  ..….. He drew on his knowledge of Scottish history, in all its gory awfulness, to issue advice and warnings to Samoa, to invite deeper reflection on courses of action they were engaged on.”


*2   I have now; three times I’ve put some in with lettuce in a salad, washed and then pulled into smaller pieces.  There’s a slightly bitter aftertaste and I think you need to use young leaves otherwise the central bit is kind of tough.  It’s not quite living off the land, but it’s a start.


*3   Yes it is; I saw some leaves this morning when I was weeding my herb bit.  A couple of leaves went into the same salad.  I know it’s the sorrel because of the lemony taste.




2 thoughts on “A Dinner of Herbs

  1. Rona M McIntosh

    I well remember the bramble picking. The thorns were vicious, the most luscious brambles always just behind them.

    I replicated the tins on the string round the neck when I took Euan bramble picking just once. He like his Uncles moaned and complained, didn’t appreciated that he could pick with both hands and did not fill his tin.

    I well remember having to drink the vile Rosehip syrup but don’t recall the making of it.


  2. Pingback: Pontificating about Gaelic – Splendid, Bella!

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