Island Diary 8: Foraging for an autumn feast

Kenneth Stevens forages for blackberries and hazelnuts in the meadows of Seil and shares his recipe for St Brendan's crumble. With photos by Kristina Hayward

19th October 2017
hazel wood meadow

It was the worst of days on Seil island. We had celebrated Harvest Thanksgiving in the local church, Kilbrandon Kirk, and I was determined to go down after the service to find brambles and hazelnuts. The place is beautiful in any season: a collection of interlacing meadows and hillocks thick with hazel trees.

sheep
The perfect location to pick brambles and nuts

From a ridge one sees the deep cut of creek where St Brendan is supposed to have landed from Ireland, in years long before St Columba came to the island of Iona (out of sight beyond the neighbouring Isle of Mull) with the Christian gospel. The meadows and the hazels lie between the creek and a round shallowness of loch. Somewhere on one side are the shadows of the remains of what might once have been Brendan’s settlement and tiny chapel, but now only imagination can see the place.

meadow with hazel wood in background
The ancient ridge of hazel wood lies in the distance

Beyond, stretching along a sharp ridge of hill that in this part of Argyll is called a knap, is reputedly the oldest hazel wood in all of Scotland. It’s dense and barely penetrable, and I’m still looking forward to finding time to walk the full length of it.

So, in my stubborn determination, I went down the track to the loch in the thick rain. But there wasn’t so much as a breath of wind, and by the time I had gone in to walk among the meadows and find hazelnut after hazelnut on the low branches of the trees, I felt warm in all my rainwear.

hazelnuts
A rich bounty of hazelnuts, ready for cooking

The loch always has a pair of faithful swans: from one of the little hills I watched their gliding, for all the world like two perfectly carved shards of ice. A few days before I had been here with a friend and we’d watched no fewer than six herons flapping in their ungainly way from the loch’s edge. Now only a robin sang; the orange throat sending out such a strength of notes. The day became beautiful; all the more lovely for being a surprise in its wetness.

We walk too seldom in rain, indoor creatures that we have become. There was something lovely about the warm stillness and the tiny pattering of the drops on the leaves of the hazels.

Reluctantly I left in the end and returned up the steep track towards the church. Here the ditches were thick and black and overhanging with brambles, glistening like dark jewels. And I brought my treasure home, happy and content, to the bright warmth of the kitchen and Kristina. 

Recipe: St Brendan's Bramble and Hazelnut Crumble
bramble crumble
A deliciously warming treat after a day's foraging
You will need

For the filling:

  • 500g brambles
  • 80g demerara sugar
  • 4 eating apples (peeled, cored and thickly sliced)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

For the crumble topping:

  • 50g white flour
  • 50g jumbo oats
  • 100g hazelnuts, ground or roughly chopped
  • 50g demerara sugar
  • 75g unsalted butter, cubed

1. Put the filling ingredients in a saucepan and stew gently until the apples are soft. Then transfer into a buttered 1.5litre ovenproof dish.

2. Prepare the crumble topping by placing the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Pour the crumble onto an oven tray lined with a non-stick sheet of baking paper. Pre-bake the crumbs at 180°c for 10 minutes. (This is so that the crumble topping doesn’t ‘sink’ into the wet fruit compote).

4. Spoon the crumble over the fruit in the ovenproof dish and bake at 180°c for 25 minutes. 

 

All images by Kristina Hayward

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