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  • Writer's pictureGregory Besterman

Foraging in West Cork

Something about West Cork is incredibly grounding. No matter how far afield we travel or how many beautiful places we discover, we can’t quite replicate the feeling you get when you’re standing in Gortadrohid’s wildflower meadows, looking across the bay, or walking along the shoreline, the water lapping at your feet, not quite cold enough to send you running for the grass. 

Being in nature quickly makes you feel a part of it again, and soon enough the natural world that stretches between Skibbereen and Baltimore, Inish Beg and Roaringwater Bay will start to pull on your attention. 

This world is so important to life here in West Cork. For thousands of years, local households and merchants have depended on the natural bounty produced in the area’s fields, hedgerows, woodland – along the shoreline and beneath the waters. Foraging means retracing so many footprints buried beneath the mulch and the sand, and it’s a beautiful experience for anyone looking to reconnect with a part of the world that is intrinsically tied to their bloodline. 

Here's what you need to know.

Foraging in the Hedgerows

Nettles are a common plant in West Cork. It’s understandable why so many of us overlook or avoid this seemingly run-of-the-mill weed, not least of all because of childhood memories of running for bitter dock to soothe those white-hot stings. But nettles are incredibly nutritious – high in Vitamin C, excellent for hay fever, and thought to reduce inflammation and blood pressure, nettles have a refreshingly green taste (like other salad greens). Just don’t make the mistake of eating them raw – those stings still pack a punch even after they’ve been picked. Bring them back to your holiday home for (careful) trimming, then either steam or boil.

Culinary arts have long known the power and beauty of foraging. One of the herbs top chefs in West Cork use in their kitchens is meadowsweet. Growing among the hedgerows in damp conditions – sometimes as tall as three-to-four feet – their distinctly sweet scent, which has been likened to honey and almond, and dense, creamy-white flowers should attract your nose and eyes. Meadowsweet can flavour liquids – simply tea, for instance – and be infused in cream for desserts. Think of meadowsweet like you would elderflower.

Other hedgerow staples in West Cork include the blackberry, wood sorrel, sloe, hawthorn, and wild garlic, although it all depends on the season. West Cork’s quieter roads and lanes are perfect for foraging, and getting up close and personal with the hedgerows will feel like stepping into a new, unchartered world that was always right under your nose. 

Foraging in the Woodland

The wild woods are a great place for any forager to find themselves in. The darker, damper corners of these woods represent the ideal conditions for mushrooms, so fungi enthusiasts ought to prepare themselves for a long stay under the leaves. Obviously, West Cork is like any other wild mushroom source in one sense: experience is essential, not just for foraging but for knowing how to prepare and cook, too. 

Walking with a knowledgeable guide (more on that below) will keep you safe from the less friendly species, which is so important. But, from more familiar species like Chanterelles and Porcini to the less-familiar types like Shaggy Ink Cap, Hedgehog, and Wood Blewit, there are friendly, edible options that, with the right timing, you’ll be able to pick and take home.

Foraging Along the Shoreline

The Wild Atlantic Way creates and deposits its own treasures on West Cork’s shorelines. Marsh samphire, also known as sea asparagus, is a common find – and particularly popular in the summer, with the tradition being to leave it alone until the summer solstice. Bring a small blade or scissors to trim the lush, green part of the marsh samphire and leave the hardier stem behind – that way, it can regrow in a matter of weeks. Like most coastal plants, marsh samphire has a salty taste, making it a flavourful addition to a fresh, seasonal salad. 

Clinging to the rocks, you will be sure to find sea lettuce and rock samphire. Of the many seaweeds that wash up on West Cork’s shores, laver, bladderwrack, and dulse are among the most popular in local kitchens. 

Courses and Guides to Foraging in West Cork

Foraging is a beautiful and ancient practice, but it should never be something that anyone launches into without foundational knowledge of the area and its native produce. From inedible plants and fungi that put amateur foragers’ bellies at risk, to locations that have been tainted by pesticides or other nasties, knowing where to look, what to avoid, and what to bring home with you (and when) is essential. 

Fortunately, this area is one of the best for gaining that foundational knowledge – knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation.

Local singer song scribbler Samuel Arnold Keane (Samyel) has flooded the pages of recycled paper with his foraging knowledge, from the urban to the wild. His 500-print-run of Where the Seaweed Dances makes for essential reading (and re-reading) for anyone travelling into the area. Beautiful, pocket-sized, and wise, this is the ultimate starting point for newcomers. He also runs foraging courses of his own throughout the year, so keep a close eye on his socials for details. 

Author of Ireland’s Hidden Medicine, Dr Rosari Kingston, offers online courses for anyone who really wants to hit the books before they arrive. 

But that’s not all. When you arrive in West Cork, there are many more courses and guided tours you can sign up for that will complement your theoretical knowledge with practical experience. The local centre for sustainability, The Hollies, regularly runs introductory foraging courses – in their 2024 calendar, their Wild Food Foraging course runs from April to June.

Goleen Harbour Farm is the site of a seaweed foraging course, with a particular emphasis on coastal medicine and the health-giving properties of this fascinating family of algae. April Danann and Madeline McKeever also offer a Wild Foraging Walk and Talk guided by their shared passion for the healing properties of local plants, berries, and leaves, alongside courses in wild fermentation and beekeeping. 

There is so much knowledge to be learned from foraging in West Cork, from the names of the plants to the best practices for mindful, sustainable foraging. Every tour and course guide will offer their own wisdom and learned lessons, so don’t be shy of signing up for more than your fair share while you’re here. While West Cork’s ecosystem is a world of its own, there are plenty of lessons to learn that will apply to your own corner of the globe on your return. 

Nourishment, healing, and joy are all to be found in every hedgerow, inlet, and mossy stump you find in West Cork. 


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