Dancing with Faeries…

I am not a great enthusiast for lawns. Nothing against grass, you understand, and even when mown and edged it has its place – for picnics, sunbathing, throwing sticks for the dog, and so on. But the lawn is not exactly exciting, is it?

Faery Ring

Unless something Goes Wrong with it. To some people, the sudden appearance of circular, dark green patches on the lawn is Something Going Wrong. And it may be – the circular patch becomes a ring, and in some disturbing cases a double ring, with fungi on the outer edge for a brief time, and dead grass (soon followed by weeds) in between the rings. This is the worst scenario, and most people just see dark green rings and, often, no fungi at all.

These rings were noticed in meadows and pastures centuries ago, and largely attributed to the pattering feet of faeries dancing round in circles. Belief in “other” folk was commonplace and accepted, as was the presumption they could do some harm if crossed.

There is an old Scottish rhyme which sums it up:
“He wha tills the fairies’ green,
Nae luck agin shall hae,
And he wha spills the fairies’ ring,
Betide him want and wae,
For wierdless days and weary nights
Are his to his deein’ day!”

The more rational (or less imaginative) put the phenomenon down to lightning, the feeding of cattle or the mating rituals of moles. The fungi sometimes seen were thought to grow on the slimy trails of slugs attracted to the greener grass. In fact, as we now know, the fungi CAUSED the faery rings.

Think about it. Nearly all fungi grow outwards in a circle from a starting point. Penicillin mould on bread. The way an apple rots, with concentric rings of fungus. That fungal skin disease isn’t called RINGWORM for nothing! Below the soil, the perennial mycelium (“roots”) of the fungus grows silently outwards. Mushrooms (toadstools if you prefer) are produced on the outer edge of the ring when conditions are right – not necessarily every year. The mycelium consumes carbohydrates and proteins in the soil as it advances, and converts some of it to ammonia, which is then converted to nitrates by bacteria. Nitrates – yes, the basis of “greening up” lawn fertilisers. No wonder there’s a dark green ring! But with some species, such as the Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oreades), which is delicious but tricky to identify safely, the mycelium grows so densely in the soil it forms an impermeable layer of fibres, through which rain cannot penetrate. The grass behind the ring dies. Eventually, so does the mycelium. And as the grass and the fungal remains decompose, they in turn yield nitrogen – feeding the grass behind and forming an inner ring.

Year on year, the ring gets wider and wider, until we are scarcely aware of it. You may find Parasol Mushrooms (Lepiota), Field Mushrooms (Agaricus), Puffballs (Clavaria and Lycoperdon species) and many other edible species growing in rings – and quite a few non-edibles too! The most exciting one I ever found was as a teenager at the very start of my obsession with fungi, researching for my college project. It was a MASSIVE ring in dense woodlands, of the Giant Funnel-cap, Leucopaxillus giganteus, a species of edible mushrooms each a foot across, all glowing an eerie white in the gloom. This species can mither about below ground for half a century before producing mushrooms, so I was enthralled and very lucky.

I went home and promptly wrote a faery story…

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, September 2011

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….

Orkney, Oysters and Oysterplant

We had a ridiculously wonderful week’s holiday in Orkney.  Expecting windswept, wet and cold marginal land where nothing grows, but instead found fertile, weather-rich  (every kind in a day) and unique countryside, wrapped in glittering sea and sky, nice cheese, good beer, bere-barley bannocks, and Andrew, bless him, even found an apple tree with apples on within minutes of getting off the ferry (reported, doubtless with pictures, on his website www.appletreeman.co.uk) . There were plenty of seaweeds to choose from – bladder wrack, serrated wrack, sea lettuce, kelp (Laminaria digitata), sugarweed (Laminaria saccharina) and gutweed (Enteromorpha intestinalis) for starters! Most seaweeds are cookable when camping, even with our primitive trangia, because all they need is a wash and a rapid stir-fry. I do find the filmy ones easier, though, because you don’t need to cut them up. Wish we were nearer the coast at home, then I could experiment with different cooking methods.

Orkney is famed for its fish and seafood, and although we had to buy them, it was a wonderful near-neolithic experience picknicking on a beach by a prehistoric village on dived native oysters (Ostrea edulis) with Orkney oatcakes. Thanks to the oyster man for lending us his oyster knife!

We spent much time (between visiting prehistoric sites), botanising. Went in search of Scotland’s endemic primrose (Primula scotica) and found it, in abundance, on the spectacular cliffs at Yesnaby. We were in between flowering periods, so it was mostly seed heads, but an endemic in its native habitat is a wonderful find for a plant twitcher. However, we had the scary experience there of being dived on by bonxies, or great skuas, beastly great birds almost as aggressively territorial as Homo sapiens… Artcic skuas were about, too, and on the island of Eday (LOVELY place! LOVELY cake too, thanks Chris and Peter!) we watched red-throated divers on Mill Loch. Everywhere, the wild flowers were so abundant it was heavenly, the road verges providing the sort of floral display Perth Council pays good money to get; I can’t remember all we saw now, but three edible plants stand out:

Rose-root (Sedum roseum), clinging to the steep, deep edges of a GLOUP (basically a huge pit in the cliff due to the lower strata caving in). I have rose-root in the garden and sell it, but have never seen it in the wild before.

The same is true of Scots Lovage,, which I was thrilled to find sprouting freely on the shingle beach below the campsite. It was delicious – stronger in flavour than my garden specimen. Annoying how it obviously seeds itself merrily on a stony beach, but can I get the seeds from mine to germinate?

And on the same beach, one I’d only ever seen in books, the Oysterplant (Mertensia). With blue-grey, succulent leaves, and azure blue flowers, this member of the borage family is rare in the wild, and you wouldn’t dream of picking very much of it even though it was plentiful on this beach. It is absolutely beautiful. It is so named because the leaves are said to taste of oysters. I love oysters, as you’ve heard, and if you’ve never had one, imagine a taste that is the smell and lazy feel of dipping in rock pools on a clean coast on a warm, summer’s day. A plant that tastes like that?

Be assured, the Oysterplant really does!

The wildest thing I saw in Orkney was coming back from Eday to Kirkwall on the ferry. It was a hot, sunny evening, the sea calm and sparkling. I stood on deck and shut my eyes, just enjoying the sunshine and the peace and sea-smells. When I opened them, a minke whale surfaced and went down, up a few more times, then gone. I’d never seen a whale before. What can you say. It was magic.

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.

Cry God for Mushrooms, Scotland and St. George….

… apologies to W. Shakespeare, Henry V part something. Andrew found a good harvest of St George’s Mushrooms (Tricholoma gambosum) at work on 27th April and judging from the size and age of them I think they must have emerged on the dot of 23rd April, St. George’s Day, for which they are of course named. They are white, meaty mushrooms, with a delicious smell, and because so few other fungi come up in spring, are unlikely to be mistaken for anything poisonous. I will add a photo to this post when I find it. They were growing in amenity grassland – and the next day one of A’s colleagues mowed them – what a shame! This is what I did with them:

St. Georges Mushroom and Cannelini Bean Savoury

2 leeks, finely sliced
As many St Georges Mushrooms, sliced as poss – we had a bit over a pound

Fry these in oil or margarine until tender, add seasoning and a few herbs if you like. Add a small tin of white beans eg cannelini, haricot or butter beans (3oz dried beans, soaked and cooked). Heat thoroughly and put in the bottom of a casserole dish. Warm some tinned or frozen tomatoes or fresh ones, sliced, in season, and put a layer of these over the top.

Grate some cheese and mix with fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs, sprinkle over the top and brown under the grill.

Nice with fresh greens.

August 2008

August – Weeks 1, 2 and 3.

More chanterelles, more wild cherries. We think it’s odd that the several fairly old cherries in a hedge line from which we gather the fruits all seem to produce fruits of varying sweetness and colour when ripe. One is almost black, another, barely red. All delicious, though. Any theories, anyone?

One long walk on 10th produced in addition to a sack of chanterelles, Plums -and-Custard mushrooms (Tricholomopsis), Birch Boletes and larch Boletes, and tawny grisettes. The chanterelles from this trip we dried, by threading them onto cotton and hanging them as garlands in our warm shed. When they are nearly dry I will de-thread them and spread them on trays over the boiler to finish before putting them in tightly sealed jars for the winter.

On the 11th, I macro-foraged! In that I went sea angling from Arbroath with friends, and caught 7 big mackerel. I hadn’t been before and must admit the sea was choppy and a tad nauseous, but I got over it and would definately like to go again. As my friends were going on holiday the day after, I managed to “forage” (borrow? steal?) 5 of their fishies too to make a round dozen which I have cleaned, filleted and frozen, or eaten. The same day, Andrew brought home a bag of field mushrooms he’d found at work, which I turned into a delicious soup.

Then we went on a week’s holiday to Norfolk, and got to try out some wild foods on Andrew’s unsuspecting (or suspecting?) family. At Holkham Beach we gathered samphire, oh how I love samphire and it especially nice after being exiled from this East Anglian delicacy for a couple of decades. Steamed for 15 minutes and tossed in butter, this unprepossessing-looking product of mudflats with its fleshy, salty stems is incomparable. We didn’t gather any more, no-one seemed that enthused except us, but perhaps we shouldn’t have inflicted the seaweed Sea Lettuce on them in the same meal. Filamentous pale green sheets you’d think wouldn’t take much to cook, but in fact it was a bit chewy. Next time I would make more of a meal of it, with some flavouring, longer cooking, combined with mushrooms perhaps…. not really a side vegetable with roast pork. The apple sauce, though, was made with a combination of wilding apples from the hedgerow, “scrumped” eaters from an abandoned garden, and wild water mint, and it went very nicely. Likewise, we all enjoyed (I think that’s the word) the mind-banditing sharpness of Sea Buckthorn berries growing on the dunes near Old Hunstanton, and Andrew brought the pips home in a hankie…..

We kept a supply of fungi going through the week – puffballs, horse mushrooms, grisettes etc. – some of which were appreciated, the rest we just ate ourselves.

Horse Mushroom

Horse Mushroom

I was specially excited by the Roman mushrooms – found while exploring the site of a Roman fort at Brancaster. Resisted some big Parasol Mushrooms (Lepiota procera) at Wretham Heath – after all it was a nature reserve – look forward to finding some more before the summer’s out.

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

Back home, we realised the fridge was empty so went out after more chanterelles and found, in addition, an absolute HORDE of Boletus edulis, the Cep or King Bolete. However, most of them were coated in white and contorted or deformed in a most sinister looking way. We think – but please educate us if you know better – these specimens had been affected by the torrential rain which had obviously been plaguing Perthshire in our absence and fallen foul of some predatory fungus themselves. Luckily there were some good specimens, as well as a variety of other boletes and the first Slippery Jacks. We have cleaned, sliced and set these to dry for winter, but the Ceps are for tea tonight. While out we snacked on some lovely little wild gooseberries, and checked the progress of rowan berries in general.