Forager supplies restaurants with hunt finds

ARMED with a mushroom knife and a basket, seven-year-old Ben Robertson was enjoying another weekend with dad Derek.

• Ben supplies nutritional ingredients to Paul Wedgwood for his Royal Mile restaurant

His unusual hobby was worlds apart from his other main interest as a young boy – rugby – but as the years went by, Ben's childhood ambition of becoming a professional rugby player faded into the art of foraging.

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His passion has been the subject of much teasing from friends ever since, but almost two decades on and Ben, now 24, has had the last laugh. The nature enthusiast, who was brought up in Crieff, has now made a career out of his childhood pastime, supplying a number of the Capital's restaurants – including Wedgwood the Restaurant on the Royal Mile – with nutritional finds.

The quality of those finds has now helped Wedgwood win this year's Rmy Martin V.S.O.P Award for best-rated newcomer in the UK, by the prestigious Harden's Restaurant Guide.

Ben, who now lives in Leith and has been a full-time forager for 18 months, recalls: "Me and my dad used to roam around Perthshire at the weekend when I was younger. It started off with wild mushroom picking – chanterelles – and then learning about wild herbs.

"At primary school I remember we had to draw a picture of our favourite food. Everyone was drawing pizza and stuff and I drew a chanterelle mushroom with champagne sauce and fillet of salmon. I got properly abused for that one!"

Ben, who graduated from Edinburgh University with an honours degree in zoology in 2008, now spends six days a week foraging for berries, mushrooms and herbs.

He has travelled to natural habitats all over Scotland in his search for foraged food, including woodlands, riverbanks and fields, but remains tight-lipped on his top secret locations.

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"All the chefs are always asking me that but I never tell them," he says. "It's a bit of a trade secret. I haven't expanded the boundaries beyond Scotland, I like the idea of the foraging being local. The more people who know about wild foods and the benefits they can get from them, the more they will value these wild areas."

Ben can find up to 20 different species from various areas in a day's foraging, which he weighs, cleans and bags, and stores until delivery.

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"There are locations where I know what's growing and when, and I have developed an eye for different habitats," he says. "You can predict where certain species are going to occur, so that's how I go about finding them.

"For the actual harvesting I take a mushroom knife, a basket and a rucksack."

Among Ben's foraging foods are wild garlic, wild leeks, sweet cicely – an aniseed-tasting herb that can be added to salads – and various species of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, ceps, and saffron milk cap.

Studies are being carried out on a wild berry called sea-buckthorn, which he forages for, to determine if it contains anti-cancer properties.

Ben says: "It's unbelievably good for you, it is a super food. It contains 40 times the amount of vitamin C as oranges.

"Wild plant species are really healthy because they effectively choose where they grow so there are more optimal nutrient levels, whereas cultivated plants are forced into an area.

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"Wild plant species are super healthy and I think they are under-used in Britain generally. They can add extra dimensions to any dish."

The job isn't without its drawbacks, with Ben spending four days a week foraging from dusk until dawn, and two days delivering to restaurants.

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"It's pretty physical work – a lot of bending over and walking long miles," he explains. "I forgot my gloves one day when I was picking sea-buckthorn and I ended up with a one-and-a-half centimetre thorn embedded in my hand."

Despite only having one day off a week, Ben admits that he still finds it difficult to switch off from his foraging role while enjoying walks in the woodlands.

He explains: "It's definitely hard to resist. It is quite addictive when you're out in the countryside, you are always keeping an eye out. At the start of December I went for a walk with my girlfriend and I saw some wild mushrooms up a tree.

"I climbed up to get them and fell out the tree! It was pretty sore, I had a bit of a bruised ego and the mushrooms were a bit bruised too, but they were just for a fry-up for myself."

Wedgwood, 267 Canongate, 0131-558 8737. Contact Ben at [email protected]