If it kills you, don’t eat it again: that’s Evan Doyle’s humorous rule of thumb for finding your own food. The Wilds Foods co-author is hosting a masterclass on how to rummage for everything from garlic to gooseberries in the hedgerows. Surveying the apprehensive faces of the first-time foragers gathered at BrookLodge however, he acknowledges many Irish people still suffer from Snow White syndrome - a Disney-rooted fear of dangerous fruit and vegetables.
“I think Irish people are really scared of this,” admits Evan, proprietor of eco-friendly hotel set in Macreddin Village in Wicklow. “We think mushrooms grow deep in the forest and the Wicked Witch is there offering you a poisoned apple, but this isn’t the way.
“The French, Italians, Germans, Spanish and Polish all grow up foraging. We used to do it until we were told not to and until Walt Disney made Snow White.
“Then it was like, ‘Woah, no more wild food for us!’ ”
Sure enough, the only foraging I’ve ever done for food is in the back of the fridge at four o’clock in the morning. While countryside strolls have always involved avoiding nettles - not plucking them for soup.
As the crash course on how to gather, cook and preserve wild food begins, I’m not the only one surprised by the amount of incredible edibles we drive by everyday in our ditches.
“There’s 327,000 kilometres of hedgerows in Ireland,” explains Evan, whose one day masterclass costs €90 including a two-course lunch.
“We have more hedgerows than any other country in Europe. For me, it’s the best reason to go for a walk because you can walk and you can spot things.
“Unlike a farmer, you can’t predict when the crop is going to come up,” he continues. “When a crop comes up, you have to grab it when it’s happening and stock up for the winter time.
“The rule of thumb is go out with someone who’s been foraging before. Once you spot these things, it becomes ingrained to look.”
Wild rowanberries, found on the native tree of the same name from August and typically turned into jam, and wild elderflower, found on the elder tree from May and often transformed into cordial, are two of the things we’re shown how to identify before venturing into the wild.
But even the ubiquitous daisy — a superfood crammed with Vitamin C — can be used in today’s back-to-basics cuisine, according to Evan, who opened Ireland’s first fully organic restaurant, The Strawberry Tree, at BrookLodge 28 years ago.
“Wild food is something that has been on the menu here since 1988,” tells the foraging expert, who fought for a derogation from the Department of Agriculture to serve food found on the grounds of the hotel in its award-winning restaurant. “I hired my first wild food forager in 1989.
“In Ireland, we have a problem with processed foods. But I think [people are going] back to real foods.
“We’ve been doing wild foods masterclasses for twelve years now. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s become more fashionable in the last few years.” Preservation is key, warns Evan, explaining how alcohol, sugar and vinegar are traditionally used in the process from foliage to fork.
Perhaps the most idiot-proof method of drying leaves such as wild garlic though — perfect for pimping a stew — is to pop them in the hot press for a few days.
“A lot of people go out and collect a bag of wild garlic and lift up the chest freezer door and throw it in,” he says. “Then a year later, they’re looking at this frozen white plastic bag, trying to figure out what the feck is inside it.
“If you save them the same way as our grandparents and our great-grandparents did, then it makes a really good add-in for something you might be cooking at home.”
With Fraughan Sunday — when the fruit of the bilberry plant was historically harvested in Ireland — coming up this weekend, Evan urged everyone to give the self-sufficient food trend a go.
After a fistful of drunken sloe berries, our group was sold, anyway.
“It’s very easy at Christmas time to buy your friends a BT voucher,” he reckons. “It’s lovely — but it’s lastminute.com. To be able to go out in October, pick the sloes and make sloe gin is really special.
“It’s so easy: it’s a quarter sugar, up to the three-quarter mark with sloes and fill it with really good vodka or gin. Shake it once a day for seven days, once a week for seven weeks and it’s ready.
“You decant it and give them this beautiful red liqueur and you’re left with the drunken sloes for stuffing the goose or turkey and [putting] on the porridge,” adds Evan, whose insider tips can also be found on www.wildandslow.com.
“We even put a Google Earth photo of the actual bush we picked the berries from on the bottle!”
Foraging for food should be done outside, not at the back of the fridge, says