Bog Myrtle: Native Flavours
Scotland is renowned for its star ingredients like game, berries, mushrooms and seafood but as foragers have shown us, and places like the Nordic food lab in Denmark, there is so much more to be had, and so many more native flavours that can be exploited to make our food more interesting and delicious. To work out what Scottish food is, or what it could be, we must first look to the land to see what grows there, as well as what could be grown there.
What about those little plants that grow in the wild and blend into the background? Are these unknown plants really good to eat or is there a reason why we don’t eat them now? It is funny to think these native plants can often sound more exotic than the herbs and spices we import from far flung places.
Sometimes looking to the past to see what our ancestors used and grew to make their lives better is an interesting and useful approach. Bog myrtle (Myrica gale) also known by its more poetic and appetising name sweet gale, is a good example. It has been used for centuries by brewers, as part of a herbal mixture called gruit to flavour ale.
Using bog myrtle is a tradition that stretches back centuries, from time immemorial, far before the widespread use of hops. This was especially true of the countries where it was too cold for hops to thrive. Bog myrtle thrives in the colder and damp climates of northern Europe, and is particularly happy in Scotland’s bogs and moors. In Scotland it has also traditionally been used as a much needed repellent against the evil wee midge.
Archeological finds have proved to be an inspiration. Analysis of Neolithic pottery found on the Isle of Rùm revealed that heather flowers were used in the process of ale making around 2000BC. The Williams Brothers brewery revived the making of heather ale in Scotland and since 1988 have been making the refreshing Froach with heather and bog myrtle gathered from the Scottish moors.
Froach – Heather Ale
The growing appreciation and the spreading of knowledge of the native flora has inspired other brewers and distillers to produce some wonderful drinks. The Botanist gin, made at the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, uses twenty two wild aromatic plants that grow on the island, making a uniquely Scottish tasting gin. Caorunn, a gin made in the highlands also exploits these wild resources. Both distilleries us bog myrtle as one of its botanicals.
But does this ‘herb’ have any interest to the cook? For one thing, bog myrtle is supposed to be an abortifacient so best to be avoided if you are pregnant. In Edible wild plants of eastern North America, Fernald and Kinsey (1943) say the nutlets of bog myrtle, with a flavour reminiscent of sage, were once used in France to flavour soups. I can’t see why people in the past wouldn’t try adding things like bog myrtle to a soup to relieve them of the mundanity of eating such a small range of ingredients every day. Of course we do this today, except we buy the herbs from a plastic packet in the supermarket.
Since bog myrtle is free and is abundant in Scotland I thought I might try a little experiment. The young leaves of bog myrtle have a sage like, almost lemony scent to them, whereas the older leaves have a resinous quality, something closer to bay. I can now say for certain their usefulness as a herb is nil. I pan fried lamb chops and added the leaves to the pan with a knob of butter towards the end of cooking, using them like sage leaves. I was expecting they would impart a herbal taste, however the taste was not strong, just a mild bitterness, which makes perfect sense as this bitter quality is why they are popular for making drinks. Either way it did nothing to enhance the flavour of the lamb chops. Sweet gale, oh not so sweet.