Birds and Berries

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

We have a liberal attitude to kleptomaniac birds. We are quite happy to share the abundance of our raspberry crop with the needy families of warring blackbirds in the hedge, and don’t begrudge the bullfinches a little bit of plum blossom (mind you, they were pushing it last year.). I don’t object to them taking every reachable holly berry from our tree, because I am happy to trek a mile or so to a far more prolific bearer for my Christmas decorations. The walk is good for me. Honestly. With much of northern Perthshire currently in the grip of permafrost, it’s comforting to lurk behind festive windows and watch the resourceful birds make the most of the berries they can find in the garden. In Autumn, blackbirds and robins cheerfully hacked away at the crab apples, but these are long gone. Rowan berries last a bit longer, and if you have a pink or white berried Rowan (Sorbus hupehensis or cashmeriana are the species to look for) the birds may leave some till winter ends. If your tree is prolific, grab your own share for delicious rowan jelly to go with Christmas dinner or game; and a decent country wine can be had from them as well. Added to which, of course, a rowan tree in your garden will provide protection against evil spirits! (Turning off the TV has a similar effect). We have a Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) in the garden. It’s not a rose of course, but a small tree or shrub also known as Cramp-bark. You will not be surprised to hear that its bark was used to appease stomach cramps, among other things. The berries, which follow the creamy flowers, are a beautiful translucent red and are borne in such abundance, some are on the tree still, despite being raided by finches, starlings, robins and the Bankfoot United Sparrow Thugs (currently running in a gang with chaffinches and siskins it seems). If the birds can spare any, Cramp-bark berries may be used in tarts and sauces (but are indigestible to us unless cooked and sweetened), and may ward off scurvy should your Christmas diet have been short on Brussels sprouts! Between us, the birds and I have polished off the elderberries long since, but it’s a shrub I would highly recommend for wildlife if you have room. In fact I am not sure how anyone can manage without it – aside from its many household uses (dyeing, firewood, cosmetics, wood stains, charming warts and so on…..), 70 illnesses were recorded in 1666 by Martin Blockwitch in his “Anatomie of the Elder” against which this much maligned “weed” is effective! Of the more “gardeny” shrubs, Pyracanthas, Berberis and most cotoneasters will still have fruit on to feed hungry birds – and, of course, nectar for bees when the flowers come again. Which they will.

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, January 2006.

Long slow spring…..

Today heard the first cuckoo, in the woods fringing Glen Garr. Was with HNC Countryside Management atudents and the last time I dragged them for a walk we saw the first swallows down on the Tay Estuary – so I think the class are my lucky spring charms. They do seem to expect

Long time no blog – winter went on and on, nothing much to report and I realise I am about to repeat everything I wrote about last year if I don’t watch out. Will try to be selective….. the apple mountain finally petered out late February, with the blackbirds getting the last of them. Andrew borrowed the Carse of Gowrie cider press and the crucial crusher and made 11 gallons of cider and perry – we are still drinking it and mist of it is truly excellent. We have added to the fruit trees in our garden about 11 apples, 3 or 4 pears including the famous Perthshire Jargonelle, and a couple of plums and a damson. They are all leafing out nicely.

Have made wild garlic pesto and earwigging to Radio 4 and the like tells me the whole world is making stuff with wild garlic these days! It’s much in demand from customers too. Bistort, nettles, ground elder, comfrey and ladies mantle have all been et – both in and out of Dock Puddings, and Solomon’s Seal has produced its delectable shoots. Magnificent!

Have not found any St. George’s mushrooms yet. We found a red Peziza type fungus the other day – Scarlet Elf Cup – which we’d not seen before. Inedible but very pretty. Nearby we found a lizard out basking, which reminds me – on a student trip to the Rhinns of Galloway a morning walk at Portpatrick yielded a BEAUTIFUL adder by the path, fulmars and nesting ravens, and a stoat.

 Well, a new season dawns, and my “pet” early potatoes called Bonnie Dundee (but labelled Claverhouse out of badness) are coming up….

Drowning in Pomes….

It’s not that we haven’t been foraging, just that Andrew KEEPS BRINGING HOME MORE APPLES AND PEARS and I think we are drowning in them, so have scarcely had time to blog. (plus lots work on at college at present).

The worst is, they are all different varieties which he’s trying to identify or photograph or just moon over and there are crates and crates of the b**gers I’m not even allowed to touch, then all of a sudden they are fermenting all over the floor and it’s all a bit mind-boggling really. I am an apple widow.

Anyway that aside I’ve foraged and made these since I last wrote: rowan jelly, rowan berry wine, hazelnuts, elderberries for freezer, brambles, elderberry wine, quince jelly (using japonica quinces) and Andrew has permitted a small selection of the apple bing to be made into cider. It is a disgusting, thick brown soup of a cider at present, emitting a sludgy foam from the top of the demijohn. It is to be regretted that before we made it I had been suffering from a gastric bug (NOT from wild food!), which has affected the way I view the cider jar. Nevertheless, I am sure the end result will be as good as it was last year, and am optimistic His Lord High Appletreeness will eventually permit the remainder of the bing to be thus processed. Maybe even some of the pears.

The biggest problem we have with cidermaking is crushing the apples. We have a lovely little press, but unless the fruit is well mashed you don’t get the juice from it and it is a long, slow process. A 10lb weight into a bucket is OK but broke the bucket; James’s mechanical chip-maker is a start but we really have to get a proper mincer. The off-putting brown colour comes from tannin, and won’t do any harm, some apples just have lots in them. Keswick Codlins made up the large amount of the apples we used, but there were others – James Grieve, Lord Derby, Grenadier, Bramley and “various Laxton type things” (quote). No real cider apples – told A he needs to develop a Scottish cider apple.

The Quince Jelly also benefitted from a dose of Bramley for setting quality – and it is an exquisite jelly. I know Japonica quinces aren’t strictly wild food but they might as well be, as so many people grow the things as ornamental shrubs with never a clue they are cultivating a valuable food source.

Not been much on the fungi front – we have had a few weeks of dry weather and haven’t found anything new or in remarkable quantity or quality for a while. A very interesting mushroom is developing on a log in the garden; yet to be identified. More later!

PS. Sloes about ready to pick….

Russula Mushrooms

My favourite fungi to eat at present are Blackish-Purple Russulas (Russula atropurpurea). They are SO tasty and have a lovely nutty texture. Be very careful not to muddle them with the poisonous scarlet red Russula emetica (The Sickener) or the Beechwood Sickener, which is also bright red but found under beech of course. R. atropurpurea is claret-coloured, with a distinctly darker, blackish centre. We are finding many on the village green at Pitcairngreen,  also there are Charcoal Burner Mushrooms (Russula cyanoxantha), Common Yellow Russla (R. ochroleuca) and R. xerampelina. All edible and very tasty.

Found other species of Russula on our latest wild food ramble, including – we think – the rare Russula obscura, which we didn’t pick of course.  Lots of Tawny Grisettes, Chanterelles and Boletus species too – some early Bay Boletus and a couple of Ceps (B. edulis) which were appallingly maggoty. Rowan berries were just about ready, but I’m holding off till the crab apples over the fence are ripe as  I like to add them to Rowan berries when making jelly to get a better set. Meanwhile Andrew is coming home regularly laden with “feral” plums, damsons and cherry-plums of differing shades (Prunus cerasifera), which I really love. They all go off quickly so have made plum and courgette chutney as well as several crumbles, and will be making some jam this week too.

At Elcho Castle we helped pick some of the first eating apples (Discovery and Beauty of Bath) and bore home a big bagful to finish ripening. Have also eaten brambles off the bushes, so it’s that season again, summer nearly over and autumn fruitfulness to enjoy!

Blaeberry Harvest

We’ve been entertained since last weekend by a huge caterpillar on the willow herb outside the kitchen window – an elephant hawk-moth. S/he is still there, on the second full stem which is being systematically stripped of leaves, but is getting fatter and slower. The cat is scared of it.

We also had visitors, Tim and Gill and their daughters Lucy and Alice, and as is customary they were pressganged into picking blaeberries (bilberries). This absorbing task yielded enough of these tasty and nutritious fruits for jam, cakes, puddings, breakfasts and the freezer…. and there’s plenty more if we are back in the right habitat, which is acid woodland. Lucy was quite revolting with her blaeberries – squashed them to a mush in their plastic bag, bit off the corner of the bag and sucked the pulp out. Ugh! Fruit Smoothies the rustic way I suppose. Tim and Andrew were sidetracked by some nice big chanterelles, and Tim and I collected honey fungus on the way back – a big show of these and more to come. They were delicious in omelettes. There are a few other mushrooms about just now – several of the Russual genus are showing their faces, but not enough to get a selection of edible species, and in the Millenium Wood Tawny Grisettes (much chewed by slugs) mix with The Blusher (Amanita rubscens). We don’t eat the Blusher. It’s said to be edible, but a. it looks a bit like the poisonous Panther Cap which is also about just now and it wouldn’t take much of a deviant Panther Cap to get mistaken and b. so many creepy crawlies have already eaten it by the time we get there anyway.

Hazelnuts are swelling and becoming obvious in our local copse.

Wet wet wet…

It has rained so much and so heavily since our return from holiday that I’ve scarcely been on a walk, and when I have I’ve got too drowned to hunt for wild food very much. Plus the weather which makes foraging tricky makes the garden grow prodigiously, so that we in the midst of a glut, of salads, courgettes, broad beans, tree spinach, spinach spinach, soft fruit, cultivated burdock, sugar pease and goodness knows what else – mammoth chutney and freezing operations, and more winemaking have been required.

Some summer fungi like the wett, of course, and there are probably more out there than we’ve managed to get to so far, but this will be remedies soon I hope. Andrew found some field mushrooms at work, unfortunately, so did some little flies who laid eggs in them. We picked an impressive bag of chanterelles yesterday, enough for a meal, and there were a couple of Yellow Russulas (Russula lutea) and Tawny Grisettes as well. There was one Cep (Boletus edulis), but it stayed where it was because again the flies and slugs were already there.

We also laid into some wild gooseberries, raspberries and a selection of cherries that hadn’t yet been blown or washed off the trees – they vary so much in sweetness and flavour Andrew decided to collect the pips of the nicest ones and grow them…. you can see how readily Homo sapiens went from a foraging lifestyle to deciding it would be easier to grow your own, and carrying out a bit of selective breeding…

PS. He managed to get to some field mushrooms today before the flies and before the man with the mower – very tasty.

First Fungi appear!

Alternating heavy rain and warm sunny days have prodded the first fungi of the season into appearing. We have a pretty ring of nondescript brown mushrooms on the lawn, but I don’t eat nondescript, because of the risk of misidentification. No such risk with the Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus) which has appeared very conveniently on the end of a log I’m using to edge the soft fruit plot. This large bracket fungus with its distinctive beige scaly top and white flesh is very good when young, meaty and substantial. We had it for breakfast; being greedy I didn’t want to waste the stem part but that was a mistake, as it’s far too tough and chewy to bother with. I’m hoping this tree fungus will continue to crop through the summer.

Dryad's Saddle

Dryad's Saddle

 

Another edible tree fungus I found last week was Sulphur Polypore (aka Chicken of the Woods), in Latin Polyporus sulphureus. I found it in the woods at Killiecrankie-oh, when my mind was more on the Jacobite trail of John Graham of Claverhouse, Bonne Dundee, than wild food. It was just starting to grow, was beautiful, and of course, I didn’t remove it. That would NOT have been sustainable foraging! But I clocked its location for future reference…

And this weekend we came upon – and ate – our first chanterelles of the year, near Dunkeld. They were at a very young stage, but plentiful and delicious. I am still using last year’s dried chanterelles and Boletus, so that’s availability 12 months of the year. Just like my spinach beet. If I could live on fungi and spinach, I’d never have to go near another shop! Well, let’s be honest, I probably could, but having gone through the Lent thing, I’m glad I can find and/or grow plenty of other things too! The Lent challenge has left me with distinct squirrel tendencies…. I am worrying myself silly that I’m growing enough beans and peas for drying, have tucked two big bottles of elderflower cordial in the freezer already for winter use, and have potatoes growing everywhere, including the compost heap. It’s a bad year for carrots though, and also we’ve noted it’s an off-year for the ash trees of Perthshire. Normally I’d have made ash-key pickle by now, but there are none…..

Elderflower Time

We are having ideal weather for wild food to grow – rain, sometimes heavy, alternating with warm sunny days. Elderflowers are out; this means elderflower fritters first of all, and drinking last year’s elderflower wine. Then it will be making cordial and wine – just as soon as the rain stops for long enough to collect some nice fresh flowers. Fritters are delicious – I make a batter with one egg, some milk, beer or cider and enough flower to make a sticky batter, plus a teaspoon or so of baking powder. Last week I tried half a can of Guinness in it, but think it was maybe a bit heavy – cheap lager is better. If the oil is hot enough, it takes less than a minute to turn each one golden and fluffy. I like to sprinkle them with lemon juice and sugar, which isn’t very self sufficient, but good.

I’m very caught up with Hogweed just now. Such a common wayside weed, but absolutely delicious. Peel the young shoots or young leaf stems and cook like asparagus, toss in butter if you like. We had our first Plants with Purpose Foragers’ Ramble last Saturday and there was plenty of hogweed, out of bravado I chewed on a raw stem (you do these things when you’re being watched) – and it was rather good! But better as a cooked vegetable.

I won’t try to list all the edible plants we found on Saturday – there were far too many. But everyone had a good munch on the immature seed pods of Sweet Cicely, and plenty of wild salads were collected and sampled. I learned a new trick – one of the youngsters on the ramble demonstrated how to eat stinging nettles – so what you might say – but  raw?? Well, you grasp the nettle and roll it up tightly into a ball (I got slightly stung finger and thumb but if you get it right this shouldn’t happen.) You place the rolled up nettle leaf precisely between your back molars and chomp, without engaging the tongue. Scary, but it works!

The high point for me was finding Monk’s Rhubarb, a garden pot-herb that has escaped and naturalised but is not too common, and I’ve never seen it before. It’s another member of the dock family, also called Alpine Dock (Rumex alpinus), which has massive, heart-shaped leaves and long, purplish, rhubarb-like stems. There were several big specimens between the rivers Almond and Tay, no doubt deposited by river alluvium during some flood. Yesterday we went back to pick some to try – it was good, quite tough and on the bitter side mind. I was expecting that as it is apparently better through spring and later in the autumn, but becomes less enticing during summer. I did the usual “cook like spinach” trick, standard procedure for many wild greens; possibly will try next lot for longer cooking.

Another find which is easy to spot just now was Pignut. This umbellifer has very delicate flowers, is about 30cm tall, and has very very fine leaves, almost hairlike. If you are more skilled and fortunate than we are, you can trace the brittle stems down to the edible tubers. Be sure you have the landowner’s permission to dig it up though because otherwise it’s illegal.

Weeding the garden at this time of year produces lots of plants of Wood Avens, or Clove Root (Geum urbanum). The roots smell strongly of cloves and can readily be dried and crumbled to use as flavouring – or use them fresh of course. I do like this plant, but it is a bit of a thug in the garden so this helps control it!

Our next Foragers’ Ramble is the second Saturday in July.

And more wild garlic…

Ramsons (Allium ursinum) is commonly called Wild Garlic, even though several other wild plants also have this name. It’s the broad-leaved, glossy plant that carpets old woods in April and May, and bears heads of starry white flowers. Both the leaves and the flowers are edible. Last night I made Ramsons pesto with a bucket of leaves.

I just liquidised the washed leaves with the water that clung from washing, together with a packet of pine nuts, a small bag of other undistinguished wild nuts that needed using up, and olive oil. I don’t know how much olive oil went in because I just slurped it in till the consistency was right, but couldn’t have been more than a couple of eggcupsful, maybe less. Then I tasted it, and decided it needed a wee bit of Maldon Sea Salt (this isn’t advertising, just supporting a local industry from way back home, being an Essex Girl). Andrew said it was too bitter and to add some honey, but I didn’t – these days I can’t stand anything to be too sweet and I thought it was perfect. He added some honey on his oatcake but still didn’t like it, so it’s all for me. Excellent! Strange how the garlic flavour comes through really strongly – individual leaves in salad are very mild, but this is good and strong. The colour is absolutely beautiful too.

What else? Lime leaves are nice now, before they start to lose that spring-green flavour. Wood sorrel remains magnificent, and ground elder has reached the point where it’s better steamed/cooked rather than raw. Flowers appear in salads – cornflowers, violets, broom buds, chives and of course ramsons. We were down at the coast in Fife last weekend and failed to collect because we forgot to go back for it lots of the seaweed Enteromorpha intestinalis, which is rather nice. However my stomach rebelled against a rich diet badly enough on Monday, so maybe it was just as well.

More St. George’s Mushrooms made their way to Saturday’s breakfast, and burdock stems onto dinner. I have only so far eaten the fleshy leaf stems of the Great Burdock (Arctium lappa), although I am assured other parts are edible too. It’s delicious. What you have to do is carefully peel away the slightly hairy outer skin on each stem – it doesn’t matter if you don’t get all of it. It’s a bit like peeling rhubarb. You’ll notice the interesting, musty but rather pleasant smell. Cut into sections and steam or lightly boil. You can serve it as a vegetable; I used to add butter but don’t feel the need to these days. My tastes really have changed!

Noticing the buds on elder bushes; the rowans are out and may (hawthorn) about to blur the distinction between late pear and early apple blossom. Eyeing up this year’s wine and cider sources. I racked off last years elderberry and sloe and blackcurrant wines this weekend – the last before bottling. As usual the elderberry tastes the more promising!

More Dock Puddings and some wild onions

Oddly enough now I don’t have to drink herbal teas, I’m really enjoying some of them! Mints are growing  now, so lots of choices – chocolate, basil, apple, eau de cologne… or shall I just have peppermint? All taste so fresh, so green and lively. Mind you I am inundated with orders for mints that are really hard to keep up with given the slow start into growth – must be the herb of the year. Bistort is everywhere just now, and I’ve been making more traditional dock puddings, using oatmeal and a little chopped bacon with the variety of wild leaves around now.

River floodplains throw up some odd edible plants at times – in an old orchard next to the River Tay at its tidal extent Andrew found not only Ramsons (Allium ursinum), but also Three cornered leek (Allium triquetrum) and what we think was Field Garlic growing wild. They went into a salad to go with the first barbecue of the year last weekend. On a field trip with my countryside students this week, we enjoyed snacking on fresh lemony-sharp leaves of Wood Sorrel – a real appetite stimulant. We harvested a few juniper berries from the wild trees near Rumbling Bridge; they add a fantastic aroma and taste to game dishes. It was nice to note the pretty, bell-shaped flowers of the blaeberry or bilberry up in the hills, promising a harvest to come. Had another taste of bracken shoots, but I remain unconvinced. I don’t like the texture and the taste is woolly and bitter. Better wayside snacks are brand-new lime leaves, hawthorn shoots and the first broom buds, tasting of new pea pods, all available now.

Blackthorn, along with cherry blossom, seems to be very floriferous this year – I have noted where to go for sloes, but must find something other than gin to make with them, as we never seem to drink it all! Andrew’s explorations of relict orchards have identified potential pears in the autumn; we are looking forward to apple blossom time – just beginning here with our James Grieve wonder-tree against the shed.

Who else is back? HIRUNDO! the first swallows were spotted in Bankfoot on Sunday……. and an orange-tip butterfly…….. the ospreys are home, to and busy breeding…… St. G’eorges Day tomorrow – look out for St George’s Mushrooms! (and the dragons who got away).