Eating the Dead – Foraging Edinburgh’s Graveyards

Eating the Dead – Foraging Edinburgh’s Graveyards

Andy Hamilton and a gravestone with booze in hand
Andy and Grave

With its abundance of green spaces Edinburgh’s wild food larder is pretty impressive –  just a short and welcome step away from the heaving main streets, street performers and countless flyer off-loaders during the fringe, and into the hidden gardens, graveyards and hills to find all sorts of edibles fit for any table. What’s more, this food is available for everyone and at a price we can all afford (£0/$0)

To start my forage I got a train which pulled into Edinburgh Waverly Station. One thing struck me about this Southern/Northern town  (Southern for the Scots and Northern for the English): it could be renamed rosebay willow town for the amount of this herb scattered all over the city.

Rosebay willow herb’s seeds are distributed by the wind and as trains supply a regular amount of the stuff the seeds are blown from here to Penzance.  A quick trip up the Scots monument also reaffirms the notion that even without trains Edinburgh has more than its fair share of wind thus further spreading this plant’s seed.

The dried leaves of Rosebay Willow Herb can be used as a tobacco substitute, but having quit smoking a few months back it’s not one I really intend to try. I have, however, tried an infusion made from the leaves, which is supposed to help asthmatics and it is somewhat agreeable, although as with most herb ‘teas’ it’s helped with a little honey.

Wandering into one of the graveyards off the High Street I contemplated the fate of Robert Fergusson, one of the greatest but least recognised Scottish poets, as I munched into some freshly picked cherries. I also contemplated as to whether the roots of the cherry really did enter into his coffin and hoped that I could absorb at least part of his genius without ending up in the old Darien House (Mental Asylum) as he did.

Staying with a slightly morbid theme, it is certainly noteworthy that graveyards are some of the best places to forage for wild foods and generally the older the better. Unlike parks and other public areas they are often unmanaged (although I am not saying the ones in Edinburgh are), and moreover they are protected areas that not many people visit and thus a wild food haven.  However, if a grave or crypt does have something growing on it that does look managed and is less than 50 years old perhaps best to leave it alone than to munch on to save offence – how would you like to see someone munching around a loved one’s grave?

I digress. In just a brief walk around one of the more famous graveyards, I found rosemary, rosehips, clover, common plantain, marjoram, lime trees and mallow to name just a few of the more easily recognisable wild foods.

There is more to Edinburgh than eating the dead and so I headed off back to Waverly station to check out the ocean’s larder. Well, I also had an ulterior motive; I had seen the Forth rail bridge being painted on Blue Peter when I was a child and it had so impressed me that I needed no real excuse to go and see it up close.  I found a little ‘beach’ under the bridge on the North Queensferry side and started to look for food. I was amazed to find a lobster claw almost immediately, but without having a lobster pot on me or indeed having enough time to leave it there overnight, the lobster was the one that got away.

In fact, the crab that ran over my boot also got away so did the oysters, snails and mussels and rabbits that I saw whilst in North Queensferry.  I like to know how to live off some of the wild animals and marine life but it does not necessarily mean that I will go around killing and eating them. Indeed I know that if you throw a rock in the air with a bit of food around it a passing seagull will swoop down, eat it and the change in weight will bring him down for you lunch. I also know that you can eat slugs and worms if you starve them for a couple of days – who knows, it might be things like this that will save my life one day but let’s hope that it not too soon.

I prefer to stick to food without a pulse when foraging especially when I am with my vegetarian girlfriend and of course, as on any seafront, there was food aplenty, namely seaweed in which this beach was covered. Most seaweeds are edible but remember to ensure there is still some left next year: seaweed should only be cut up to twice a year leaving the roots attached to rocks. The most common you will find, and here being no exception, is Bladder Wrack which can be washed and simmered then served up with your Sunday roast. Seriously don’t knock it until you have tried it.

What amazed me more than the obvious seaweed was that around the edges of the beech I found some Good King Henry, a plant I normally associate with dung-heaps on farmyards. This bronze age staple food can be bought into the here and now by cooking it like spinach and mixing it with Chinese food as it goes really well with a little Soya sauce to take away the slightly astringent aftertaste.

I try to always have one wild food that I endeavour to discover each week. Finding this is the way to build up your knowledge of plants. This time it was to be Sea Holly, a plant that I found but won’t tell you where for reasons that are about to become obvious. It is a beautiful thistle that, just like me, has suffered for its beauty (ahem), insofar as it is picked for vases across the country before being allowed to set its seed. The wild food novice should take heed here and remember to pick responsibly so that all of Edinburgh’s bounty doesn’t go the way of what could have been such sweet road kill, the Muskrat, Pika or Artic Lemming.

I once told by a fellow writer to never delete anything, in fact this was back in the 1990’s when neither of us had a computer. On this advice I kept reams of paper, which still sit in my loft. Luckily, these days most hard drives will hold at least 1 billion words so not deleting anything is very easy. I digress, the below was orginally written for a Scottish Newspaper, it didn’t make the cut so I saved it and two years later got paid for placing it in an English Magazine. Perfect!