Foraging - forget empty shelves in supermarkets - there is food all around you

Geraldine Kavanagh

Geraldine Kavanagh, Professional Forager

Geraldine has always been interested in nature, even as a child she rarely watched television and spent most of her time out of doors. She was lucky enough to live on the edge of the Avondale estate and so had some 5000 acres of forest in which to play. Those were the days too that children were expected to play out of doors all day and only return for dinner.

“As a child I was always fascinated with plants and as I got older I started to find out their names and uses. Later on I became interested in organic farming and my interest just grew. In fact, I got my first book on plants 26 years ago and I still have it. So my hobby became my passion. Everywhere I look I see plants.”

One year, after a harsh winter, Geraldine noted that while the vegetable garden had yet to start growing, the hedgerows were lush with food. So she invited a few friends to come for a foraging walk. She said she would show them the edible plants. They finished the day off with a picnic and that’s how her foraging walks began.

At the same time she was preparing wild foods and selling them at the local farmers’ markets. She had a full range of simple wild foods, things like nettle soup, wild garlic soup, fresh porcini mushrooms, and scones and seaweeds and then syrups and vinegars.

“Selling at farmers’ markets is a great way to meet your customers and get direct feedback. It’s really very real to watch your customers taste your foods and enjoy them. I loved their reactions”. Geraldine feels it is very important to reconnect with nature and points out people often lose their connection if they only buy food from a supermarket. Then there is medicinal aspect to plants.

“To be honest pretty much every wild plant is medicinal which is not to say that all plants are edible, some plants are pretty poisonous even in small quantities.” Geraldine can not only teach her foraging walkers which plants are safe to eat, she will often explain the different properties of each plant. Some may be good for the skin, others for sunburn, for easing hay fever, reducing pain, even tempering emotions.

“Every single plant has a special gift.”

Plants are of course also seasonal. Spring time brings forth a lot of new growth and green leaves. Geraldine might pick between 20 and 30 different greens which can be used in salads or drinks. With summer comes more flowers and fruit. As August approaches the berries and mushrooms are available. Later on in the year the focus changes to greens, fruit and roots.

Living and foraging in Wicklow has more benefits due to its varied landscapes. Wicklow offers both seashores and mountains offering varied food based on location as well as season. An article in the weekend magazine in the Irish Times changed Geraldine’s life. The journalist attended a foraging walk which she really enjoyed and reported with photographs in the paper. As chance might have it, one of the founders of Glendalough Distillery happened to read the article.

At that time, the distillery had invested in a new still and wanted to make gin, but they wanted it to be special. When the co-founder Gary McLoughlin read about Geraldine he knew he wanted to incorporate the flavour of wild plants from Wicklow into his gin.
In France the concept of using local plants to flavour wines is well known. Called terroir it refers to concepts like Champagne or parma ham, where the food is specific to the region. Geraldine was tasked to pick plants that would encapsulate the smell of Glendalough in each season.

“Working with alcohol is easy as the flavour can be captured and then distilled into the gin. The other working title is botanicals which have become very popular in recent years.”
Geraldine hand picks the plants every day. It is quite easy for her as she just has to think what can I smell now on a summer’s day and go and pick it. In all, she may pick around 50 different botanicals over the year. Large amounts are not needed so she might pick a basket for one 500 litre still.

Looking around her garden from where Geraldine is speaking to me, she points out blackcurrant leaves and elderflower which are great to use. And she spots a crab apple tree which she says she will use later on.Every evening she drops off the foraged fresh plants into the still where they are used to infuse the gin. She is now a full time forager for the distillery.
As COVID is easing a bit, she has begun her foraging walks again at the weekend which she really enjoys. It is a like a treasure hunt which can be different depending on the time of the year. The food is also naturally grown without chemicals. Geraldine encourages people to have a go.
“You don’t have to make like 500 jars of something, just something for your dinner that night is cool.”

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