Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eating 100% foraged food for a year. Week 2-3: July 6-18th

Mermaids and Munchies

It's been a really difficult few weeks, what with the mermaids AND the munchies. I feel hungry quite a lot of the time especially when I cycle - which is most days. Well, it's day 18 of this year-long attempt to eat just foraged food and so far I've only felt like packing it in 18 times. That's quite good/bad - delete as appropriate. The truth is I'm not sure. Certainly it represents a heavy dose of realism that seems to inform my thought of late - friends call it negativity, but what do they know, they're not realists. Even if it was bad it would still be good or rather irrelevant because I'm taking this a day at a time. After 24 hours the day is forgotten. Lucky then that my memory is like a goldfish. I forage around all day in my bowl, go to sleep and voila, clean slate, what a fascinating goldfish bowl - never been here before.

I survived my first social occasion with flying colours - at least I think so. This was a barbecue last week. I knew that it would be possible to knock up a half descent salad by rooting about the large garden - actually, as it turns out, probably easier to do in deepest darkest February than at the height of summer - but given that it was a BBQ I didn't want to be left out with nothing to stick on the grill. I was delighted then to find a perfectly dried cluster of Pale Oyster mushrooms on a beech log. OK, perhaps fresh would have been a little better, nevertheless sometimes you can come across large fresh specimens only to discover that they're full of maggots. So, climatic elements had conspired to perfectly preserve this particular young specimen at its absolute best. Only 20 minutes of soaking in spring water was needed to reveal its full potential. What had seemed like a small quantity soon filled the bowl. BBQed till crisp on the outside but hot and succulent within, it was delicious. This was served with a salad the notes on which can be seen in the picture below. I lost the pad so will have to zoom in to see what was in it. (note: clicking on all these pictures makes them huge - that's how I could read it).

It consisted of ground elder, perennial wall rocket, sea purslane, smooth sow thistle, prickly sow thistle, crushed nettle tops, nasturtium leaf and flower, wild rose petals, immature crow garlic seeds, brine pickled cherry plums, walnuts, garlic mustard and Duke of Argyle's tea plant (goji leaf). This was served with a not entirely successful dressing - because the seaweed wasn't processed properly giving rise to off flavours, made with spring water, carragheen seaweed, wild garlic bulbs, sea water, dwarf quince juice and dittander flowers.

A typical day/meal's forage produces the following sort of medley right now: things to eat and a few items for experimentation. On a daily basis I'm pretty much just copying the menu of my trial run for this two years ago - with a few improvements.

As a thunderstorm broke outside, rather than stay in snug and warm, a friend and I decided to dash out and become imbued with a spark of that primal energy. Did that happen? Certainly it provided the opportunity to find my first Boletus mushroom of the year, an Oak Bolete (Boletus appendiculatus). True it looks somewhat decrepit but was nonetheless quite edible.
Served with a rustic acorn and wild garlic leaf curd pasta it was quite tasty - especially with a little fat hen and a few dried morels thrown in.

Breakfast itself has improved as well courtesy of the Bristol community allotments and council flowerbeds that I liberated a few excess dandelion roots from in the spring. Actually, 3 hours of digging allowed me to gather enough roots for three weeks worth of dandelion root coffee - two teaspoons per mug. At the time I air dried the roots, only getting around to roasting and grinding them the other day: 20 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius, turning over once.

At the same time I took the opportunity to try something new - roasting some of my dried breakfast chestnuts. Yet another excellent wild coffee was discovered. Of course, chestnut coffee is a very traditional wild roast but, in the past at least, I've considered that it's a bit of a waste of good, plump, sweet and nourishing chestnuts.

As for the cherry wine I started two weeks ago, I can only describe it as rampaging - the yeast that is. Of course, this is most likely down to the secret ingredient. I've decanted the infant wine once already - cooking the excess yeast with salt and wild greens. "That doesn't sound very nice", you say. You're right! After decanting I added 1 litre of genuinely wild cherries to provide additional sugar and nutrients for the yeast, but also to balance the acidity (the previous cherries supplying the wine were foraged from a hedgerow but were a cultivated variety nonetheless). On the next decanting I'll boil up a few oak leaves with some cherry juice to round the flavours off with some additional tannin.

There are several reasons for making wine. In the first place it's a good source of calories, in the second place it will allow me to drink occasionally when going out. Also, after a touch of unmentionable tweaking, I will be able to use the alcohol as a preservative for all sorts of things - fruits, roots, fungi etc. That's just a few of the positive reasons for producing some alcohol, sorry, wine. The negative and potentially dangerous side of the equation comes in its calculated use as a sedative to lesson the pain of ambiguously unrequited love. Falling head over heels, heels over head, falling, falling, falling...... in love with a mermaid is both tragic and beautiful, dangerous but wicked magic.

Above and below: Genuinely wild cherries (Prunus avium)

Genuine wild love (Amo insania)
Until my dream is realized then I must bathe alone or with watercress and pretend I'm having a good time. No need to waste good water after all.

A bath tub full of watercress combined with 15 burdock roots, some red goosefoot, oak-leaved goosefoot, spear-leaved orache, fat hen, goji leaf, a kilo of hogweed flower buds, wild garlic bulbs, dittander, spring water and sea salt makes quite a good soup - especially when served with wild seed bread. Ah, wild seed bread and, as I expected to arrive at the beginning of this journey, the first of many toxicological conundrums. Below is a picture of sea buckthorn seed collected last year. The berry is incredibly nutritious and the seed a valuable source of oil and other vitamins, minerals, amino acids etc. This was what was left over after one particular method of juice extraction. Seeds, bits of twig and very fine sand.

The problem is two-fold. First, how can one separate - on a small scale, i.e at home - the seed from the thin outer sheath to reveal the seed. Below you can see the black seeds after removing the outer sheath - one seed still enclosed within.

The second issue concerns the possible toxicity of the black seed casing itself. Information is hard to come by. Basically it's impossible to efficiently separate the two so they must be ground up together. Last week I ate 200g.

Of course, my wild bread didn't consist only of sea buckthorn seeds but, additionally, comprised escaped rye grains (infected), ribwort plantain seeds, tall fescue grass seeds and false oat grass seed (infected) - although not absolutely sure on the latter's identification. Grass seeds are something I've always steered clear of due to the risk of ergot poisoning.

False Oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) showing both seeds and ergot formations.
This year seems to be especially bad. Of course the ergot can be separated from the grain with relative ease during winnowing and sieving, Nevertheless it means that grasses with tough husks can't be rubbed to aid there removal before all the ergot is manually picked out. Also the question remains as to whether the washed grain is impregnated with the Claviceps fungal mycelium and, if so, is that toxic also? So far I've eaten about 500g grams or ergot infected wild grass seed (after separating the obvious Claviceps fruiting bodies and washing well). There have been no symptoms of poisoning.

Another area of concern is the fungi. Of course, many are both edible and distinctive such as the beautiful Dryad's Saddle (Polyporus squamosus). The one I found this week was interesting for it's ability to correct a mistaken belief on my part. No, it wasn't that 'one shouldn't eat ergot infected wild grass seeds' but, rather, that the fungus can fruit generously from the same tree more than once in the same year.

On the first occasion back in late March I cursed after coming across the mushroom when it was huge and maggot infested. There hadn't even been a small piece I could wrestle from the squirming mass for the pot. Basically I 'd thought, 'Oh well, there's always next year'. But then a few days ago there it was again. Even more splendid and magnificent than the first time. I needed a bigger basket!

I served this (cooked) with steamed sea beet and roasted burdock root. As a treat I followed this superb meal with wild grass, sedge and various-other-things seed bread with added blackberries and hot birch sap syrup! Ummmm, my first real treat. Comfort food indeed!

These blackberries, from my first real harvest of the year, set me thinking: Why don't we eat unripe blackberries? Is it because, as my mother informed me the other day, I'd most likely get a case of the .....actually, I can't remember what she called it now.....but some strange word that meant stomach ache. Anyway, that didn't put me off an experiment: unripe green and unripe pinkish blackberries treated in different ways. Below you can see them in brine. Later I'll put them in vinegar or oil - if I can get it. The second experiment involves candying them. This I've also begun. Unfortunately because I've used conventional sugar I won't be able to try them - unless I come off this 100% foraged diet.

Another experiment. The immature seeds of Tilia species (Lime trees). Richard Mabey in his classic food for free mentions that during the 19th Century a French chemist used them to created a chocolate substitute, "by grinding up a mixture of lime flowers with lime fruits, the spherical capsules that follow in July and August." Mabey goes on to say that, in fact, "the paste tastes nothing like chocolate but is an intriguing confection for all that." On the basis of this I experimented a few years ago. Nothing like chocolate indeed. Eventually I turned the paste into lime 'chocolate' biscuits which, actually, tasted very good. Nevertheless, this chocolate theme needs more exploration.........

Breakfast on a trip to London.

The stress I feel at present is so great that I really think I might have a nervous breakdown. My worries are all, ultimately, financial. I can't afford to pay the rent or do anything at all other than paint flowers with fungal spores, reedmace pollen and cherry plum tree resin and hope the problem will magically go away. It won't. That is why I feel this project is doomed to failure from the outset. No funding, not enough income to pay the rent, no time to put on extra foraging courses or write more magazine articles because foraging requires enormous commitments of time and energy.
I feel very sad but, of course, this is just the welcome of what most people call 'the real world'.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

The year-long wild food adventure begins!

1st-5th July
Bee The Change

I'll define the terms of this wild food project in a later blog. I'm too busy right now as I need to start thinking about dinner - what will it be, where will it be found, how long will it take to process the particular ingredients that may or may not be found? Is there a magical tree where I can harvest more time?

I woke on the first day of this month, the first day of my year-long endeavor feeling utterly famished at the daunting prospect of the year to come whilst gasping for a coffee - my main source of sustenance of late. My recent diet, for the past 6 month at least has, to put it bluntly, been utter crap. But love is an illness and I've suffered deeply. In short, my preparation for this challenge has been a disaster - at least emotionally and mentally. But I don't really want to say too much about that.
No coffee but, fortunately, a good supply of that headache banishing miracle plant feverfew. Caffeine withdrawal headaches can be as bad as the acutest migraine for which feverfew is renowned as an effective herbal treatment. Still, no caffeine jolt to shock me awake.......

Feverfew Tanacetum parthenium

...........but then I began blending up some sweet chestnuts from my stores to make some chestnut porridge. Fortunately or unfortunately -I'm really not sure which, because the blender was standing in a puddle of water and the usual toxic mess that invariably accompanies my cooking, after shaking it a bit I screamed and dropped it. Why? Because I received a massive electric shock! Who needs coffee!!

This put me in a good mood, hence morning playtime with the porridge's accompanying stewed cherry plums.

Actually, I discovered something very interesting about the pan scrapings that make up the eyes here. But that's another story with some exciting culinary possibilities.

No coffee but shocked into life nonetheless my mind turned to thoughts of my favourite tea: lime blossom tea or, strictly speaking - for the pedantic, tisane. I have moved to Boughton in Kent for this project and have only been here a few months. You can imagine my delight then at discovering that lime trees line the playing field just a short walk from my front door.

Tilia europaea

I picked this for hours as the blossom season is short - usually only a week or two at the end of June and begining of July. Up north, of course, it will be later. Here's the freshly gathered blossom lying on my table prior to drying. Spreading it out this way for allows the hundreds of tiny black beetles to fly off and congregate around the window to await release.

Then came something unexpected. Bees love to forage for lime blossom with its fragrant pollen as do I but the general buzz from the tree was that from large bumble bees. It became louder and disconcertingly louder but was not the bumble bees........ A huge humming, buzzing, swarming amorphous cloud had descended upon the playing field. After about an hour the swarm headed, surprisingly, not for a lime tree but for a lone sycamore. There it settled into a heaving noisy mass of bees.

I was in for an educational treat because cometh the hour cometh the man. Bee man!

......with his tools.

And he sets to work.

First he tries to bring the swam within reach by pulling down the branch. He attaches a rope to the branch to aid the process. But who will hold the other end? Finding his small audience too scared to come any closer, lateral thinking was required.

A wheelie bin from the adjacent row of council houses should do the trick although, having just been emptied perhaps that won't be heavy enough?

It isn't but there are plenty where that one came from. So he adds another to increase the weight. Who would have thought a humble bin could cause such a buzz with its amazing pulling power? But then, of course, these are no longer bins, rather they have become essential tools in the hive capturers trade.

With the swarm in reach from the top of his ladder there's no need to cut down the branch, just carefully but with vigorous intent, he shakes the congealed swarm into a temporary box of a hive........

.....brings it down and places it on a ready laid out sheet.

The open side of the box faces the ground, one side being wedged up to allow the rest of the swarm to migrate down to join the rest of the bee colony.

Job done? Bee man isn't so sure as he looks back up amongst the sycamore branches.

It seems that half the colony is still up there, perhaps including the all important queen bee?

Time to carefully cut away the branch after all.

Now most of the colony is contained the successful results of all this activity can bee displayed.

The all important wedge.

It takes several hours for most of the bees to join their boxed brothers and sisters - the perfect opportunity to sit, chat and learn from the bee man himself. Then it's time to spray the wings of the last few stragglers. That adversely effects their ability to fly so rather than buzz about they just give in and head for the box. Time to wrap things up.....


It's a wrap!

Bee man makes off with his haul after a successful day.

The temporary hive goes in the boot of the car for a short ride. I'm kindly allowed to go back to the house to follow the story.

First, the bees are left as they are overnight before being transferred to a small temporary hive.

Some days later they are placed in a bigger hive with more racks.

Far too soon to see the next stage but I was curious as to how the honey is separated from the honeycomb. One whole side of the waxy structure is carefully cut away with a sharp knife to expose the honey in the honey cells. Then, the racks are placed one or several at a time in the manual spinning contraption shown below. The honey spins out and is left at the bottom of the bucket for collection. Fascinating.

Back to the foraging. I gave the above a lot of attention because many people have asked me if, during my year eating solely wild and foraged food, I'd be eating honey? My answer has always been that if I knew how to capture a wild swarm and had somebody to instruct me in the art of bee keeping then perhaps I would. Nevertheless, I have always added, not only have I never seen a wild swarm, even if I were so lucky I would not know what to do. Well......

Not being vegan I need not address the issue of honey consumption that divides some of them. Is it or isn't it a vegan product? I mention veganism simple because for the first month of this wild year my diet will in fact be 100% vegan. To that end I will not be ravenously gorging on pots of honey a la John Lewis-Stemple (The Wild Life - A Year of Living on Wild Food) nor, again a la Lewis-Stemple, will I be roaming the land with a shot gun in an orgy of hunting and butchering. For me the predominant interest is in the utilization of plants in creative ways that can bring forth their full culinary versatility and varied sustenance.

Over the past few days I've made a couple of different soups - 15 portions of each. The first one is rose hip soup. These where rehydrated from my dried stores. I boiled 15 kg (their fresh weight).

Once cool enough to handle the cooked pulp was pushed through a sieve to leave the seeds.

The resulting liquid was quite thick as, apart from the pulped flesh of the hips, it still contained all the little hairs that can act as an irritant to the skin and throat if consumed.

Nevertheless, for the first time I decided not to further strain this as to do so in order to remove the hairs would also remove the lovely pulp. Instead I added 2 kg of wave exposed seabeet roots.

Below the root can be seen in cross-section.

These were boiled in spring water for 30 minutes. And mixed with 300g of cooked and blended wild garlic bulbs.

A large handful of Herne Bay sea salt was added. To be mixed in when serving I prepared some dittander flower seasoning.

First the flowers where stripped off the stem.

Then they where air-dried for two days on a windowsill.

Once fully dried they where ground to a powder. Half a teaspoon is quite sufficient per bowl of soup. This pungent spice is quite wasabi-like in flavour.

Last year I made spicy rose hip and beetroot soup - now one of my favourites.

The one I've just made is the nearest equivalent I could come up with but using only wild sourced ingredients. Indeed, much of what I'll be doing will involve trying to adapt more conventional recipes to 100% wild/foraged versions.

Then came my first disaster: Seaweed soup.

Seaweed soup in itself is fine but a combination of dulse, laver, kelp, carragheen and serrated wrack seaweeds proved impossible for my liquidizer to cope with. Consequently, after cooking the above seaweeds, I was forced to chuck them on the compost heap and start again. At least I did manage to squeeze out all the liquid after cooking for a few hours in spring water. This became the stock base for my second attempt. On that ocassion I gathered about one kilo of each seaweed, sun-dried them until crisp before grinding them to a powder. This I mixed with a combination of spring and sea water and cooked together with 1.5 kg of burdock root.

That's 30 portions of soup put aside. Perhaps I'll do another to keep things varied this month - nettle, fat hen and watercress maybe. For each soup though I need to find some sort of nourishing and sustaining potato substitute. Not that easy. To that end I began collecting and processing reedmace rhizomes this week. Collecting them is a messy business as they need to be prized from the most noxious smelling pond or ditch mud. A good wash was in order of both the rhizomes and myself - in the bath of course, just not at the same time.

Once scrubbed clean the starchy core needs to be extracted. Below you can see a cross-section of the rhizome showing the starchy but, nevertheless, fibrous core.

It took me about an hour to remove these from their outer casing.

The stringy cores were then pulled apart and dried in the sun.

Then ground and sieved.... give reedmace rhizome flour.

Actually, for quantity of starchy material, the height of summer is the worst time to do this. The winter is best when the starch content is higher. This flour will not be going in my watercress soup. For that, once the core has been extracted, it will be boiled and mashed in spring water then strained to leave the fibres behind. These can be discarded (actually, I've a better plan) whilst the vegetables can then be cooked in the starchy liquid. I'll do that next week. This week must be, and has been, all about gorgeous ripe cherries and their daily harvest.

The cherries shown above and below are a cultivated variety that just happen to be in the hedgerow along a footpath. Genuine wild cherries are just about ripe but I'm leaving them for a week to sweeten up.

After gathering about 20kg of mixed variety cherries from about 5 different trees I went to wash them in spring water. Not, of course, because I plan to wash everything in such a wonderful way but, rather, simply because I needed to get a few gallons of the vibrant stuff.

Viva my local spring!!!

With such a good haul of cherries there lay many possibilities, the first being simply to boil some, extract the juice and bottle it.

Without overloading the pan and letting it all boil over - honestly.

Two bottles for this month and three for my winter store cupboard.

Much more fun - unbelievably intense fun, lay in the making of my wild year's first wine, in the traditional style. First crush the cherries.....

....then bottle in a suitable sterilized container. I found three of these put out with somebody's rubbish in Brixton a few years ago. They have proved to be invaluable. Well worth the mutterings and cursing I received when trying to squeeze onto an already packed tube train with them.

But what about yeast? Should I try for a spontaneous wild fermentation or help the process on its way somehow? I think the latter will produce just marginally less unpredictable results. A few years ago I made a completely wild bullace plum wine that fermented out really well. I used the skins, which had a really nice looking yeast bloom on them, to start an initial culture. Unfortunately they aren't available right now so I had to look elsewhere. The following picture shows the fruit of what I think - but am not absolutely sure - is Berberis darwinii. Clearly though the skins reveal a promising looking bloom.

I put these together in some cherry juice sweetened boiled and cooled spring water. This was then left in a warm place for three days. As you can see the yeast had become fairly active.

Time to add to the juice. (Below; only two days after adding the starter culture fermentation appears to be going well). Fingers crossed. Later I'll introduce a little tannin and greater acidity by way of some staghorn sumac berry extract.

Some of the other cherries were boiled and squashed through a sieve to make fruit leather. This is the first time I've done this in my recently purchased food dehydrator.

The results were excellent although rather too sweet. Genuine wild cherries are much better for this as the sweetness is counter balanced a delicious acidic twang. But, hey, sugar rush here we come!
I also stoned and dried some of the fresh cherries and put them to dry with the fruit leather. Stoning these took 4 hours!

Mind you, the results are excellent

Now I have my first ingredient for my 100% wild foraged Christmas pudding. "Pucker", "happy days", as a well known chef would probably say!

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