Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness, - to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hallow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially at night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this. I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organisations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp' - tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood!
- extract from Walden; or, Life in The Woods by Henry David Thoreau (1854).
No tortoises or toads on the menu as of late; and yet, after not seeing any serviceable roadkill for months - since 25th Dec 08 to be precise, last week I broke my vegan wild food challenge - a month that became 40 days, in a veritable torrent and macabre freshet of roadside flesh and blood.
Recipes for success, for disaster, for life and death. What will be the recipe of the day today, tomorrow, next week?
Reflecting on my current situation, as well as on other peoples situations, I often wonder what comes as given and what is created or, rather, what is the scope for manoeuvre, the scope for creating outcomes different from those that existing conditions, perhaps conceived as limitations, would seem to render inevitable? There are many ingredients contributing to the arising of this present moment and the way it is experienced: Individual psychology, level of emotional and spiritual maturity, physical and mental health, diet, immediate surroundings - including both its sentient and non-sentient aspects, underlying geology, climate, plus an almost infinite number of other contributing factors. How do they interact this instant and over time? Right now, is one factor the defining contributor to the current situation in which I find myself? For the past 33 days I've eaten nothing but wild vegan fare. How do I feel? Different, yes; good, no. For the past 16 months I've felt the joys but mostly pains and sorrows of unrequited love. How do I feel? Perturbed and contracted as opposed to feeling expansive and joyous, miserable, stuck in an emotional quagmire, wanting to move on but spell bound, drugged and weak? In July 2007 I carried out a trial run for this year living entirely on foraged wild food. That month was also vegan. Both vegan and, more to the point, a great success. After that month alone the effect on my mental state was profound. Not deep, just profound. 'Deep' would imply long-lasting effects of which, unfortunately, there were few. The profundity resided in the degree of change, the qualitative change to vibrant mental clarity, emotional stability and general joy and positivity. In part I think I gained some insight as to why such changes were so short-lived. The reasons involve long-standing habits of mind and behaviour. Bad habits indeed; habits so ingrained to the very core of my being that they lurk unseen, colouring every thought, action, dream and desire with the blackest shade of personal bondage. Can they be undone and if so does the answer lie in extreme behaviour; after all, eating nothing but wild foraged food for an entire year is certainly somewhat extreme? Indeed, whilst believing that extreme situations require extreme solutions, I could, nonetheless, simply be believing this according to the dictates of underlying and dysfunctional patterns. In that case, I live merely to dig a deeper and darker hole from which there is truly no escape. Conundrums! Sisyphus here we come.
This fascination with uncovering the most significant contributing factors to the experience of the present moment lies, in part, due to what I consider to be the influence of two factors that, on the face of it, are both extreme and both happening right now: 100 % vegan wild food diet with its unique challenges, stresses and strains, and love in its cruelly unrequited aspect, again with its own unique sorrows , stresses and strains. Everyday now I burst into tears at random moments and am unable to function effectively if at all - in spite of taking even further extreme measures, about which I'll probably write in a later blog. Today it was Alexander Pope's poetic Essay on Man that set the tears flowing, touching as it does on themes that have always struck me deeply.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast,
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
Between heaven and earth we reside in the absurdity of being, so wonderfully described here, yet also given astute philosophical expression by Thomas Nagel in one of my favourite books - that offers very little in the way of answers: The View from Nowhere. And yet one (absurd) escape from the absurd 'between' is to live at the extremes ? Today's recipe then is an extreme one taken, perhaps, from an imaginary cook book entitled Last Supper Recipes of the Sorrowful Young Werther: Yew Berry Tart.
If you know anything about the toxicology of yew, you might consider this recipe as being the plant-based wild food foragers version of the notorious Japanese Fugu or blow fish dish. Hence, careful preparation is everything.
Makes two individual tarts
Ingredients For the pastry: 5 oz (150g) arum flour 1 1/2 oz (50g) sweet chestnut flour 1 1/2 oz (50g) wild oat flour 1 1/2 oz (50g) mixed wild grass seed flour 3 ½ oz (100g) walnut oil or badger fat (or a mixture) 1 tbsp 3x concentrated yew berry juice
1 tbsp of garden-wall-overhang verjuice or stag's horn sumac extract
a little water if necessary
For the crème Patisserie: 1pt (570ml) cherry plum kernel milk 3 pt (1.8 L) water 1 large handful dried sun blanched carragheen seaweed 3 ½ oz (100g) 5 x concentrated wild pear juice 2 oz (60g) arum flour For the fruit topping 10 ½ oz (300g) fully ripened yew berries 5 sweet wild apples a cup of wild apple juice a heaped teaspoon of hedgerow jam and a tablespoon of water to make a glaze
Pastry: Thoroughly sift the flour into a bowl. Add in the fat/oil and work it all in with your fingertips until you are left with a crumb-like consistency. Make a well in the centre and pour in the sumac/verjuice and yew berry syrup. Gradually mix with the flour to form a smooth dough – but don’t over work it. Add the some chilled spring water if necessary. Roll into a ball, wrap in cling film or put in a plastic bag and cool in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Crème patisserie: Boil the seaweed in the water for 30 minutes, allow to cool slightly then stain through muslin. Simmer gently until you are left with about1/2 pt. Set aside to cool. Grind 2 large handfuls of prewashed and dried cherry plum stones. Transfer to a bowl with 2 pt hot water. Stir for a minute and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Strain off the liquid and boil down to reduce by half, mix in the pair juice concentrate then leave to cool. Once cooled whisk together with the seaweed extract and chill.
Take the pastry and form into two separate balls. Roll each one out in turn by first slightly squashing down on a lightly arum floured work surface. Roll out until it’s about 2 mil thick and large enough to line a 4”/10cm greased flan case; I use the ones with detachable bottoms – much easier to remove when cooked. It’s also just under an inch (2.5cm) deep. Line each case leaving about a 1/2cm overlap. Then line the other case. Press the index finger and thumb of one hand together. Squash the overlap into this with the index finger of the other hand, working around the top of the tarts to create a regular pattern. Allow the bases to rest for an hour in the fridge or even freezer. Then, prick the bases several times with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes at 180 deg.C until they are just very slightly coloured. In the meantime, juice 3 sweet wild apples. Peel and core another two and cut lengthways into thin slices. Stew these in the apple juice for a couple of minutes. Then remove from the juice, set aside and allow to cool. Rewhisk the chilled crème patisserie and spoon into the tart bases, leveling it out to leave enough room for the fruit.
Fruit topping: Remove the seed from each yew berry using a pair of tweezers without damaging it in any way. Working in from the outside place individual berries on top of the crème patisserie forming ever smaller concentric circles of berries. Keep doing this until you are left with a 1 ½ “ (4cm) circle of exposed crème patisserie in the centre. Peel and core the apples and cut thin slices approx 2 mm thick. Boil these in apple juice for 15 seconds, remove from juice and set aside . Once cooled arrange the apple slices in an over lapping and circular fan pattern. Heat the jam with the juice in a small saucepan reducing it to thicken. Use this to glaze the top of each tart using a pastry brush or carefully dripping on with a spoon.
It is easiest to collect yew berries by laying a sheet or blanket under a fruit laden tree and then giving the branches a good shake. ALL parts of the yew are extremely poisonous EXCEPT the flesh of the berry - so they say. This, then, includes the seed, which must be very carefully removed. Also, when making the yew berry syrup, remove the seeds this way first rather than crushing the whole fruit first. This tart also works very well with bilberries and wild strawberries in particular, but also with many other fruit.
Although this recipe is both somewhat extreme and absurd it does serve to illustrate some important points. Firstly, trying to mimic more conventional dishes using entirely wild ingredients is extremely challenging, time consuming and prone to failure. Perhaps more importantly, the more determined one is to utilize the full range of food plants potentially available, the greater the chance of poisoning. This point is quite obvious; in the case of yew berries and other such foods (cherry plum kernels) though the problem lies in their toxicologically ambiguous status.
.I have never seen conclusive scientific proof that the flesh of the fruit is 100% safe to eat in quantity. Information in the literature is often contradictory and confusing on this specific point - and often poorly referenced. The toxic substance taxine found in the leaves bark and seeds, but reportedly absent from the red flesh of the fruit (aril) may, for all I know, still be present in trace amounts in the fruit. If that is the case then making concentrated yew syrup would be problematic as would consuming a large quantity of fruit. I like to dry them to concentrate the sweetness so would dearly love clarification on this point. About 10 years ago after making my first batch of yew berry syrup I contacted Kew gardens in London to get clarification on this issue. After a month with no response - and somewhat frustrated, I imagined what response I'd get if I wrote again telling a rather twisted porker. Would it elicit immediate clarification? Describing myself as a cook working at an old people’s home, I'd mentioned that it was a lady there called Grace's 100th birthday. The staff and residents, I'd explain, knew of my home wine making and were keen for me to bring some in to celebrate the occasion. Only having a few bottles of elderberry wine and yew berry wine, I'd explain that I was planning to take in both, although I wanted to know for absolute certainly if the yew wine was safe to consume. Of course, I didn't do this! Nevertheless, I have just written to the relevant department so will hopefully have an answer within not too long a time?
Wild food wise, what else have I been up to apart from picking lots of fairy ring mushrooms?
Of course, the main thing has been trying to eat 3 wild food vegan meals a day. It's difficult. The challenges are made clear by nutritionist Simone Food (no joke, real name) who has been helping me recently. Read her comments and analysis here.
A typical dinner at the moment might be something like the following.
Roasted burdock root, apple and chestnut stuffing, fairy ring mushrooms, sea beet and a mixed seed/grain roti. The roti consists of chestnut and wild oat flour, mixed grass seed flour, ground walnuts, and the seeds of the following plants: love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides) and sharp rush (Juncus acutus).
Inspecting hard rush and wild asparagus after jogging 5 miles - hence the tracksuit bottoms
Hard rush seeds (tiny seeds within the individual small seed pods shown here) - edibility unknown.
Sea sandwort with seeds
Love-in-a-mist seed pods and seeds
Apart from this I've set myself a new goal: to make 150 fruit leather rolls by 1st November. There is a very good reason for this that I will explain later. So far I've made 12.
Fruit leather rolls
Cherry plum fruit leather composition No.1 (click on picture for surface of Mars effect)
Finally, and importantly, I've been admiring the local wild life. The deductive method can be most satisfying when the conclusion deriving from fairly basic knowledge proves to be correct.
What is this beautiful caterpillar, I thought? It has a 'tail' so must belong to the hawk moth family? It's feeding on some sort of spurge. We're by the sea so perhaps it's sea spurge. Perhaps then this hawk moth caterpillar feeding on spurge is a spurge hawk moth larvae (Hyles euphorbiae)? All correct I think! OK, I didn't deduce the Latin!