A Feast of Forage – At The Orkney Science Festival!

By Bernie Bell

One of the threads weaving through this year’s Orkney International Science Festival https://oisf.org/ , is the theme of foraging.  Foraging?  According to the Cambridge English Dictionary is ………” to go from place to place searching for things that you can eat or use.”

The Neolithic feast held in Orphir Community Hall, under the joint auspices of The Science Festival and the John Rae Society https://www.johnraesociety.com/ , was gathered for and then presented to, us, by Andrew Appleby (aka The Harray Potter) and chef Sam Britten, with, as the program stated –  “a menu of Orkney fare that’s been foraged, fished, hunted and grown”.

Andrew is a practiced forager, and  has contributed a few ‘food for free’ items to the Orkney news………




He likes to encourage folk to make the most of Nature’s bounty. I’m not sure if he extends this to road kill and other – let’s say – ‘found meat’, but I know that some folk do, in which case, extreme caution needs to be exercised – our neighbor’s father once ate a fish which he found dead on the beach, and  became very ill indeed! He didn’t do that again.

So, knowing something about  what you are collecting is a vital part of foraging, then, knowing what to do with it.  Chef Sam certainly knew how to make the most of the ingredients available, and produced the following ……Starter – Orkney scallops with lentil meso, radish, turnip, elderberry, capers, and pepper dulce.  Main – Shin of beef – or was it Auroch?  With neep, onion, barley, marrow, and garlic.  (The veg was from Wheems Organic Farm, South Ronaldsay, and the meat was from Craigie’s). Pudding –  caramelized  Orkney cream with Meadowsweet vinegar (produced by the Orkney Craft Vinegar company

https://www.orkneycraftvinegar.com/ ) and oats, sprinkled on top.

You may be wondering why they all look half eaten?  I meant to take a picture of each course as they arrived, as the food was splendidly arranged, but….as each course was put in front of me, they looked so good, and smelt so good – I just started eating!  Then remembered to take a picture. So, the pictures may not do justice to how the food was presented, but the fact that I just dived in, gives some idea of how very appealing it all was.

A variation on a seafood diet – I see food, and I eat it. What my mother would call ’A Greedy Gulpen’.

There was also plenty of sourdough bread, made by Eviedale café, Evie, and…..the chefs handmade butter.  This brought back memories of my Auntie Bridie’s home–churned butter.  Strong, salty, proper butter. A completely different thing, to something from a supermarket, wrapped in plastic.  It not only tasted exceptional, it brought back so many memories of holidays in Ireland, as a child, and helping to churn the butter – a chore for Auntie Bridie, a treat for me.

All helped along their way, by Sam’s Honey Mead, made with Orkney honey, and ‘chasers’ of Highland Park’s new Valfather whisky!

And, maybe, some foraged mint when folk got home, to help digestion?

I, and one of our fellow diners, gathered some of the bones with holes, from the meat, and intend to make something with them.  I don’t know what Harris is planning, but I have a bone from Sigrid Appleby’s Auroch, and a bone from Andrew Appleby’s Auroch, and hope to make a little sculpture, to commemorate the feast.

Maybe the ancients did something similar?  A bone from the feast, taken home, and placed, as a memory and to bring good luck?

We have a friend who is a blacksmith and a Shaman.  He keeps a bone from every animal he eats, to honour that animal and to thank it for feeding him.  He has these bones, festooned around his forge – combining magics.

Another aspect of the feast, was the table-ware we ate and drank from.  The food was what might have been collected, cooked and eaten by the Neolithic folk of Orkney, and Andrew, in his pottery and through Orkney Prehistoric Pottery Research Associates (OPPRA)   http://orkneypottery.co.uk/prehistoric-pottery/

has produced replicas of what might have graced their tables, as ‘crockery’.  Did they have tables? I don’t think there is evidence of such, but, if wooden, they might have rotted away?  The ancient folk of Orkney definitely did make ceramic bowls, dishes, and beakers – did they sit around the central fire to eat and drink from these, or have some kind of table?  Eating from a table is easier, and they were inventive, creative people. Whether from a table, or from their knees, they used intricately decorated vessels, remains of which have been found at many of the archaeological sites of Orkney, and beyond.

More and more examples and types of pottery and decoration, are being discovered at the dig at the Ness of Brodgar https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/  – just over the hills from Orphir.

And back to the feast – we did sit at tables, and on chairs, and ate Sam’s lovely food from Andrew’s comfortingly chunky ‘crockery’. The feast was held in early September, and, as the year turns to Autumn, there was something comforting about using Andrew’s sturdy pieces, with their glazes of browns and muted greens.

Andrew Appleby pottery

Pic taken by the lovely Annie

Between courses, various folk who are giving talks during the Science Festival, spoke to us of foraging, and making – using the Old Ways, to survive – of Neolithic Feasts previously attended ( in present time, that is!), of how, even in the Mesolithic, humans might, sometimes, have over–used the resources available to them, and of the natural lactose intolerance of mammals. Think about it – mammals start off living off milk, then they are weaned, and yet humans continue to drink milk, and wonder why they get so much indigestion?  Do we actually develop a natural lactose intolerance, which we then ignore?  Steve Webster was presenting these ideas, and I thought, “What about cats? Who also love to drink milk?”  But, there again, there’s no accounting for the behaviour of cats.

Though, to some extent, we can only conjecture about what was consumed at the ancient feasts, increasingly advanced technologies used in archaeology, such as those employed by Dr. Jo MacKenzie  https://theorkneynews.scot/2019/07/29/jo-mckenzies-layers-of-colour/ , can identify the source of tiny grains, stains and traces in the soil – or on pottery.

There have also been many, many bones found at archaeology sites, from creatures not foraged, but maybe flavour–enhanced by the fruits of foraging?  Herbs rubbed onto and into meat or fish, or cooked into sauces, stews and soups.

A feast wouldn’t be complete without music, and the whole event was accompanied by Kate Fletcher, David Griffith, and Corwen Broch, dressed in home-spun textiles and home-sewn soft leather, playing on a variety of instruments made from …allsorts!  Cows horn, cows head, jawbones, a huge shell, scallop shells ( turn them round and rub the corrugated sides together – something like the sound of castanets.

musicians Bell

Many people in Orkney can play the fiddle, how many can play the Coo?Dave Griffiths playing the cow Bell

And finally, not forgetting the John Rae Society’s involvement in putting this event together –  to round off the evening, Mr. Hugh Halcro-Johnston proposed a toast, in Highland Park whisky, in Highland Park glasses, to the 250th anniversary of the building of the Hall of Clestrain, which was originally built by the Honeyman family. This was very fitting, as Mr. Halcro-Johnston is a descendant of the Honeyman family.

There will be an Open Day at the Hall of Clestrain on the 21st September – check the JRS website for further details.

Attending an event such as this, can encourage people to learn about, then get out and about collecting, the wild goodies which abound, then use those ingredients imaginatively to produce healthy, fresh, interesting and economical meals.

It can also take us back in time, to when that kind of foraging will have been a vital addition to the foodstuffs available to the population.  Did they also use herbs, or salt, to preserve food, for winter, or for the leaner times?

It can make you think back to before there were supermarkets in which to buy food, fridges and freezers in which  to store it to stop it going off, and cookers which provide heat at the flick of a switch.

In his ‘Skara’ books https://skarabooks.com/ ,  Andrew describes, with relish, the feasting of the ancient folk, and a feast such as the one in Orphir, can help to give a person of today’s world, a taste of those past times.

It’s September – time to collect blackberries – fresh, with cream?  In a crumble with apples? – another seasonal food from nature.

3 replies »

  1. An additional bit of yummy-ness………….

    I had my tot of Highland Park whisky, and had saved a bit, so that, when I got my pudding, I could add a little drop – what my Mum would call a dropeen – to my pudding – lovely – the whisky adds a little kick to the creamy pud – not too much, just a ‘lift’.

    A man sitting next to me, from the Western Isles, told me off for what he saw as desecration of a good whisky!

    Today, I’m still remembering that pudding, and thinking -– a short crust base, with Sam’s creamy pudding mixture with a bit of Highland Park added, placed into the pastry base. Something sprinkled on top? Maybe dark chocolate shavings – chocolate made with Highland Park added!
    Num, num, num.

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