From crabapples and clover to dandelions and damsons, Wild Irish Foragers and Preservers are harnessing nature to bring a traditional taste of Ireland to a whole new audience, writes John Wilson.
“It’s all Emily’s fault!” laughs Sharon Greene. Emily is her fifth child, and while the family were out for a walk in the countryside, she picked up a rosehip and asked her parents what it was. “I was raised by a woman who knew all these things, so I did too. I assumed my kids knew as well. It was only when I got to child number five that I realised they didn’t.”
And so began the process of Sharon and her husband, Gordon, teaching their children about nature, a process that would lead them down a new path, to become Wild Irish Foragers and Preservers. “There was no plan. We fell into it,” Sharon explains. The couple started making rosehip and other fruit syrups on their farm in Shinrone, near Birr, Co. Offaly, and giving them to friends. “They suggested I try the farmer’s market in Nenagh. We set up a table there and sold out on our first day. Then Evan Doyle of BrookLodge in Wicklow brought me up to his wild food festival at Macreddin Village and there was huge interest. That made me realise that there might really be a business.”
Sharon is a passionate and articulate exponent of alternative agriculture. “Our son is the fifth generation to be working this farm. Conventional agriculture didn’t fit with Gordon. He is very much a caretaker and wants to pass on something in good shape to the next generation. We still have some beef cattle for land management but one-third is left fallow for a generation, another third is used for foraging. He has rewilded certain areas, grafted old trees and planted an elder grove with two hundred trees. We are trying to forage without leaving a huge human footprint. Just by leaving it, everything comes back. Apart from the gorse, which we take from the bog across the road, everything is from our own farm. Everything is done by hand here. There is no machine to de-stalk elderberries or take the flowers off gorse.”
The Secrets Revealed
Wild Irish Foragers is a philosophy as much as a business. “If you make enough to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, then why expand into a huge farm?” argues Sharon. “We are unconventional,” she laughs. “I suspect we are the enterprise board’s biggest nightmare! We believe you have to work instead of waiting for someone to hand it to you. We are a small farm surrounded by large farms; they all think we are nuts.”
When home, all of the family help with picking but Gordon is the main forager. Sharon is in charge of making the products. “We have a small one-woman kitchen – my husband was very clever about that,” she jokes. The Greenes handpick a bewildering array of fruits, herbs, grasses and flowers including rosehips, elderberries, damsons, elderflowers, gorse, rowanberries, sloes, nettles, blackberries, honeysuckle, goosegrass and clover.
From these ,they make a variety of potions including syrups, preserves, fruits cheeses, jellies, pontacks, shrubs and pots. All are traditional. “I am fascinated by our food history and heritage,” Sharon tells me. “Since the famine we have this attitude that if you ate out of the ditch, you were poor. Yet our hedgerows are a huge source of food. Pontack – an elderberry ketchup or sauce – for instance, isn’t Irish but it has an Irish connection. In 17th century London, Frenchman François-Auguste de Pontac set up the first ever gastro pub. He created his eponymous sauce to accompany game and other meats, and it became a favourite of author Jonathan Swift, who was a regular there.
Shrubs, in case you wondered, are drinks that arrived here through the ports in pre-famine times, its he name coming from an Arab word to quench. If all this seems a little daunting, take a look at the Wild Irish Foragers website. I did, and discovered a whole new world of Irish ingredients, buying a range of fascinating syrups, pots and preserves for drinking, cooking and enjoying with all sorts of foods.