Q&A: Fiona Bird

“The worst bit about foraging?” says Fiona Bird. “I regret to mention the inclement Scottish weather.”

When are you happiest? When swimming in crystal, clear Hebridean sea whilst foraging seaweed, ideally with Stephen, the doctor for the Isle of South Uist, and Coco the dog. The only downside is I don’t like seals, which are all too often swimming only metres away. They are far too inquisitive for my liking.

Describe your typical day Our six children return for holidays but in term time, the doctor and I breakfast on porridge and homemade wild syrups (sweet cicely is my favourite). If it’s blowing a gale, which it often is I struggle to multi peg washing on the line and feel a real sense of achievement, if it doesn’t blow into the field with the sheep. I make dulse (seaweed) bread daily and usually aim to do this while listening to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Kneading provides a perfect excuse not to sit at my desk and gaze across to the Isle of Barra.

Weather and tide times influence my day hugely. At the moment, I am writing a book about seaweed, so my daily dog walk/cycle to the Machair and beach is planned to coincide with low tide. If it’s an exceptional spring tide, I’m likely to be on the beach for longer. Spring tides occur when the moon is new or full – the low tides are so low that I can walk out to rocks, which aren’t visible at a neap low tide. During a neap tide, there is a smaller difference between high and low tides.

I try to sit down to a light lunch with Stephen. Tides usually permit this but patients occasionally get in the way. Hebridean winter afternoons are short and so, sometimes my coastal foraging is limited by darkness, as well as low tide time.

The rest of my day is divided unequally between writing (a book about seaweed), answering the on-call telephone (out of hours), chatting to children on mobiles or Skype (I do a lot of this) and on a Sunday, turning up late for the Kirk. I’ve given my car away, so any shopping is by cycle and usually involves fighting the Outer Hebridean wind, which is invariably against me. In the summer lots of friends and family come to stay, fortunately the Hebridean daylight hours are long and so we can squeeze a lot in. I don’t have a typical summer’s day.

What inspired you to become a forager? My paternal grandmother, who taught me about wild flowers, as well as food for free countryside nibbles. ‘Twigging’ sourced the kindling wood for her sitting room fire. This involved filling an old fashioned basket with dryish sticks. She taught me to open my eyes, to ‘look up’ for broken branches which had caught in the tree, rather than down to the ground, where twigs – especially heavier ones – are usually damp.

What is the best part of foraging? I’m not a believer in quality foraging time, whenever I think that conditions guarantee a glut, I’m often wrong. Foraging is an adventure, no two expeditions are the same and the experience is enhanced hugely by the folk I forage with – although a noisy dog isn’t always helpful when searching for spoots (razor clams).

And the worst? It is with regret that I have to mention inclement Scottish weather and as a result, I loathe being soaked to the skin with numb hands and feet. If I’m allowed another foraging gripe: foraging samphire in muddy estuaries can be back breaking.

What is your favourite food to forage and why?
Please may I have three? Spoots because the conditions (moon and tide) have to be spot on and spoots are sensitive shellfish – noisy foragers haven’t got a harvesting chance. I love paddling in shallow, clear sea with the sun on my back, as I look for tell-tale spoot keyholes in the sand – a perfect day. My younger children would probably mention cockling too. Some of them set off with a garden rake (a tad greedy) but a plastic rake (bucket and spade style) works well for very little people.

I also love wading out to a large rock, which I call my seaweed Isle, where I pick carrageen and anything else that takes my seaweedy fancy.

Tell us one thing you can’t live without South Uist’s doctor and my bicycle that has a bell, which is useful for moving sheep on, when I’m on the Machair (sadly, the cows don’t respond) and a basket to fill with the bounties of coast, loch and hill.

Who is your hero (and why?) George Macleod who was the founder of The Iona Community. I love the ethos of The Iona Community, which seeks to bridge the gap between work and mission, fostering community economical social justice with respect for the environment and an end to racism. I cherish the thought of building communities through work and Christianity.

You’re holding a fantasy dinner party – who’s coming? When we have six children at home, we have a daily, noisy supper party. We invite folk for supper not dinner. Formality stifles me and when I do say yes to a dinner party invitation (my kids know that I do my utmost to have an excuse to send my regrets); I detest school and fishing ‘n’ hunting chat. I’m well practiced in both areas and increasingly I have to avoid thespian types because I live on an island (with only an occasional visiting cinema). The other day I declared myself a philistine, much to the chagrin of my husband. I do however enjoy spontaneity, so a quick forage and beach barbecue could include in addition to my immediate family: The First Minister, Alex Salmond, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the author Dorothy Hartley and the composer Mendelssohn.

Complete the sentence: “The meaning of food is…” The enjoyment of sharing food with others, whilst leaving enough for the birds and bees, as well as the next generation.

Fiona Bird’s book, “The Forager’s Kitchen” is available now.

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