Wild greens worth doing

So, there I was sitting at the picnic table with a mound of burdock stems in front of me, ready to set about the tortuous job of peeling away all the stringy, indigestible outer layer, to leave the delectable, succulent inner core, which would be sauteed with butter and water for dinner.

An hour later, or thereabouts, I stopped.

The huge mound had dwindled to a tiny portion which would degenerate further on cooking. The problem is, when you take off the stringy bits, there sometimes isn’t much burdock stem left. Moreover, when it arrives on your dinner plate you find that you never got them all in any case, and only 50% of what you’ve cooked is tender. Nothing wrong with the flavour, but was it really worth the hassle? Especially the hour peeling away, while gazing longingly across the garden at my wee plantation of Sutherland Kale, whose tender green sprouts and leaves could have been gathered in 3 minutes!

So I thought, given you can grow really delicious vegetables pretty easily, how about listing my Top Ten really worthwhile wild greens – the ones whose flavour, abundance and/or ease of preparation make them worth the effort. Opinions will vary, but here’s my choices:

  1. Nettle tops. Obviously. No shortage, and the number of things you can do with them easily counterbalances the need to wear gloves.
  2. Ramsons (wild garlic). Equally obvious – easy to pick and packed with flavour and many uses, raw and cooked.
  3. Good King Henry. Anything in the spinach family is good, even better when it’s so packed with flavour.
  4. Garlic Mustard. You can’t go wrong with the attributes of both garlic and mustard, and the leaves are big and available so early in the year. The biggest ones are nice stuffed with rice and beans and things.
  5. Bistort (Pudding Dock). Easy to pick and use, and essential for Dock Pudding of course.
  6. Hogweed flower buds. Big round balls of unopened flowers, delicious fried, with or without batter. Dead easy.
  7. Comfrey. Some people say it should not be eaten. I love the young leaves as a tender, succulent vegetable or soup. Not much toxin in them at that stage, if any.
  8. Sea Beet. Another spinachy thing, and easy to find and pick if you are in the right part of the country. Wish I was! (In some ways.)sea beet
  9. Solomon’s Seal. Caution, because it’s not so common in its true wild form, though there are plenty of garden escapes. Another one to take in moderation, but as a wild asparagus substitute, the flavour is superb and it isn’t even stringy.
  10. Ground Elder. Oh I know. But I am not winding you up. The flavour is great, the abundance is legendary, and it’s always good to east your weeds.

Before anything’s ready in the veg plot, a combination of nettles, bistort, ground elder , ramsons and comfrey provide us with spring greens that are a joy to taste.

What are your favourites?

A Berber Way Of Life

Peaches

Peaches

Well where to start! I experienced a week or so of life with a berber family at  Ribat El Kheir in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. On route I passed a large commercial Apple Orchard, apparently 200 hectares or so of very closely spaced dwarf trees, all for export.  They have many deep wells to support the parched terrain and the workers are paid bonuses, so work very hard I was told.

The peaches were in flower in one of the smaller orchards around me. All the trees in this plot were headed back at about 30cm to make an upright open framework.

My week was very relaxed, looking after a few cows, many types of poultry, rabbits,  doves and pigs. And a lot of time relaxing and drinking tea with neighbours….and of course delicious tagines! All food is shared, there are no separate plates, and it is most often scooped up with bread with your right hand. The bread is flat and unleavened in Morocco and made fresh each day. We ate it a lot.The mint tea is very sweet and refreshing in the heat.

Tagine Dindons!

Tagine Dindons!

We also ate omelettes and dipped bread in olive oil, as well as a semolina in a sour milk, butter milk maybe? The daughter made it in a plastic bottle, rolling it on the floor for an hour or so. Also side dishes of sweet broad beans and a fennel paste from the buds of the wild fennel around us.

Fennel

Fennel

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The Berbers lived simply, and ate what they grew or farmed mostly. They had a bottled gas cooker and oven, but no electricity, though new pylons at the end of the farm lane forewarn of a change to come. It was very amusing to see Berber shepherds using mobile phones to communicate with each other across the hill! Samsungs are ubiquitous!

Berber Brebis

Berber Brebis

A stunning landscape was my daily view, often with these Berber sheep which are kept on the move all day to eek out the few weeds. This field will not be sown because it is too dry this year….incomes are so precarious here! The puit ( well ) is a vital element in life here; the French Colonialists in the 1920’s chose these areas to create commercial farms as they had a reliable source.

Le Source

Le Source

I saw these wooden ploughs being used behind mules and oxen in many areas. Such is the contrasting extremes easily seen in this country twixt the traditional ways and modern city life. And so to the city….

Wooden Plough

Wooden Plough

Of Coltsfoot and Liquorice

Yesterday I found the first scaly-stemmed flower of Coltsfoot pushing itself up through the disturbed ground of a plantation in Bankfoot. The plant, also called “Son-afore-the-Father” due to the fact that the flowers appear many weeks before the hoof-shaped, hairy leaves, is a spring herald. It’s particularly welcomed here because by mid-February I have always been caught by one of those coughs that cling to the tail of a winter cold and threaten to sit on your chest for months. This year is no exception.

Coltsfoot leaves and the sunny, dandelion-like flowers are equally useful for treating coughs, though personally I can’t bear to pick the brave flowers and collect and dry leaves all summer instead to see me through. They can be made into a tea, or a decoction. Of old, they have been used in herbal tobacco, too, but it beats me how smoking anything can cure a cough, so I’ll stick to tea. It doesn’t have much flavour, so I add evergreen thyme (also good for coughs!) in winter, and in summer a few leaves of mint, lemon balm or meadowsweet. Fresh coltsfoot leaves can also be used as a vegetable and even yield a yellow-green dye.

This winter, thanks to an excellent evening class in herbal medicine I have discovered another cough-soothing delight – liquorice.  I have never liked liquorice allsorts, and for all I respect the monks of Pontefract, their “cakes” and the long tradition of growing and processing liquorice in that district, NOTHING would have persuaded me to chew liquorice root if I’d known what it was. But the unprepossessing and rock-hard root is something else entirely. The flavour is sweet and delicate; I’ve been boiling chopped root for ten minutes, then adding coltsfoot leaves. On Bad Throat Days, in goes a spoonful of honey from my bees too. Liquorice has been used medicinally for over three thousand years, for constipation and stomach ulcers as well as bronchial complaints. It’s a substance called glycyrrhizin in the roots, sweeter by far than sugar, which accounts for its use in confectionery. I don’t know which bit makes foam, but it’s also used in fire extinguishers!

Coltsfoot is best gathered in the wild unless you have a large garden – it spreads most obligingly. Liquorice, a native of south-eastern Europe, is slow to germinate, the seeds are expensive, and it will take a while to produce worthwhile roots. But it has pretty foliage and pea-like flowers to enjoy while you are waiting, so is well worth growing.

Today, five inches of snow covered 2005’s first coltsfoot, and I’m still coughing, so spring had better get a move on. The hedgerow pharmacy is in demand!

© Margaret Lear, Bankfoot. Originally published in Comment, March 2005

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.

Cider for Christmas?

I am not sure if any of the cider will be ready for Christmas. Some of it should be. We racked it off this weekend, but one or two gallons are still fermenting furiously. It is astonishing that although every gallon was made on the same day, in the same conditions, and all with assorted apples, no two jars are alike. They have all been on the same windowsill, but some started late, some finished early, the colours all vary slightly and the taste – as far as we have tested – also varies from very sweet to getting dry. NONE – so far – taste sour or vinegary I’m glad to say!

Morning sun gets the cider bubbling

A slight thaw towards the end of last week – many wild birds are very glad of the food we are all putting out, and now finding more that had been covered by the snow. The blackbirds are especially fond of the apples that are not going to last in storage. Waxwings are about in the oak tree at the top of our road, and spotted woodpeckers have been seen (but not by me). Tremendous icicles formed hanging gardens and broke gutters; now it has turned icy cold again and the partially melted snow has refrozen to a skating rink. I never took to skating.

Hanging Gardens

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….

snowed under…

There is a lot of snow. Several inches over the week or two before Christmas, and a couple of massive falls in the past four days. 30cm last night. Temperatures: -11.2 the lowest so far recorded in the garden, -8.5 today. It went up to -4.2 and felt quite warm. Small birds are suffering. I have been feeding them; especially on apples. There are still two crates of random apples in the back porch and birds and possibly small mammals have helped themselves. The apples have frozen and thawed a few times, but seem still usable. Blackbirds love them, and I have had two fieldfares coming to the bird table every day, beautiful, fluffed up creatures looking for fruit and seeds. Sparkly speckly starlings come, too and a wood pigeon joins the collared doves who are resident. James over the road has had a spotted woodpecker.

There is no foraging to be done but we reap the rewards of a year spent squirreling away wild foods. At Christmas we broached the cider – it is sparkling, and not at all bad, but think will be even better in a couple more weeks. Got freshly pressed apple juice out of the freezer, too, and had plenty of rowan jelly for the turkey (yes, succumbed to a turkey even though we have home raised cockerels in the freezer), chutney for the sausage rolls, blaeberries and raspberries for the trifle and more home made wine and sloe gin that we can decently drink. Roasted hazelnuts from the copse, and a late jarring of rose hip syrup to keep up the vitamin C levels. Log foraging has sort of paid off – plenty of fuel for the stove but would be a darned sight more useful had Someone agreed with my desire to build a new log store out the back – wet logs in plastic fertiliser bags that fill with snow are limited in value.

My nursery is covered in snow. I cannot do anything about it and probably will lose a lot of plants in the extreme cold. I am going through the seed catalogues half-heartedly but not counting on an early start to production!

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.