Into the Woods

Geraldine Kavanagh, forager extraordinaire and owner of Wicklow Wild Foods, spent her childhood in the wilderness surrounding Glendalough. These days the forests and hills of this beautiful place are like a supermarket to her – and her incredible knowledge and talent is part of what makes the Wild Botanical Gin in January's Gin of the Month box so special.

Flowers in vase to be used as botanicals to flavour Glendalough gin

When Geraldine Kavanagh was young, her parents gave her one very important gift: freedom to wander the hills and forests of County Wicklow. She was fascinated by the wild plants and flowers she found there, and realised that she had one very particular talent.

“If I saw a plant in a book I would remember where I had seen that plant growing,” Geraldine says. “This is a helpful skill for my work now, as I know where to find all the wild botanicals we need.”

As Geraldine grew up, her interest in the flora and fauna of County Wicklow never waned. But it wasn’t until many years later, when she was snowed in for six weeks with her young family, that Geraldine decided to make foraging the focus of her working life.

“Gradually the comforts we took for granted disappeared,” she explains. “Heating, electricity, water, food supplies – it all ran very low. It was a wake-up call to me. I wanted to teach my children to be good foragers after that experience. It’s a great skill to have if you ever do find yourself in a similar situation.”

Geraldine started bringing wild foods into the farm shop and restaurant where she worked, introducing the chefs there to the bounty around them. Then she founded Wicklow Wild Foods, taking groups of curious people on foraging walks and making delicious meals with what they were able to gather. Like the wider Glendalough team that she now works with, she sees herself as reviving skills and heritage on the verge of being lost.

She says, “I wanted to share my knowledge of wild food, because I think it’s important to ensure that the lost knowledge of foraging is passed on to future generations. All of our ancestors were successful foragers and hunters; that’s why we’re here today.”

Given free rein in the forest, Geraldine can find incredible flavours in the unlikeliest of places. From the ‘orange squash’ flavour of sea buckthorn to wild plants that taste like chilli, pineapple and lemon, she can pull together delicious dishes straight from nature.

And there are other benefits: a step away from the modern world, for example. Geraldine explains: “Foraging gives you not only healthy wild food, but also the connection with nature that can get lost living in the modern world. Going for a walk as a forager is a very mindful experience – you’re naturally in the present as you observe what’s going on around you. You also get lots of exercise, so foraging contributes greatly to wellbeing.”

This is especially true, Geraldine says, in the spectacular month of May.

“The gorse is in bloom, the air smells good, the swallows are back, the hawthorn is in bloom and the hedgerows are white with May blossom. There are many Irish songs about this time of year,” she says. “But when people ask me the best time to forage I usually say, ‘Now!’ Because every time is special, bringing flavours that won’t come again for another year.”

5 Amazing Botanicals from County Wicklow

County Wicklow botanicals apples flowers berries and blackberries

Cleavers

This sticky weed grows in hedgerows, but it tastes like something altogether different: a slightly grassy cucumber.

Woodruff

An old herb that was once used widely by the perfume industry to make scents last longer, woodruff blossoms with white flowers that taste of almonds. The green leaves taste like grass and hay.

Fraughans

Also known as bilberries, fraughans are wild blueberries with an especially tart and unusually ‘wild’ flavour that you just can’t get from its shop-bought cousins.

Sweet Cicely

This ancient herb is used in Scandinavian countries to flavour akvavit, but is otherwise rarely used despite its wonderful, aniseed-like flavour. It’s a tricky one to identify, so proceed with caution!

Meadowsweet

With its beautiful white blossom and sweet scent, this flowering plant was used in the past as a bridal flower. It would be used as a bouquet or spread across the floor of churches and houses, and at other points was used as a pain reliever.

Top Tips for Beginning Foragers

Foraging for botanicals

Get a good book

You have to start somewhere, and Geraldine recommends the library (or Amazon.com). Get a good book and read up on the wonders that await you.

Go with an experienced guide

Your first time out foraging, make sure you get an expert to accompany you. Not only will it help you avoid picking something poisonous – a very important concern, indeed! – but you’ll learn from them where to find the best wild food.

Take your time

Seasons change and plants come and go. Geraldine recommends taking the time to learn and observe as the seasons pass. Also important, she says, is allowing yourself to learn at your own pace. It’s a new hobby, not a race!

Enjoy the adventure

One of the best parts of foraging, Geraldine says, is how it encourages you to get out of your day-to-day life and back into nature. Enjoy your time foraging, take your time, be mindful – and savour the physical and emotional wellbeing that comes along with your new hobby.