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.

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.

Wickedly Wild Strawberries

With so much fresh food coming out of the vegetable and fruit garden just now, there’s hardly time, let alone need, to forage for anything wild. It’s been hot and dry, so I’m not expecting much in the way of more fungi, but this week we’ve had a couple of downpours, so I must go and check out the woods soon.

I don’t have to wander far for one wild food mainstay, the wild strawberry, which starts in June and continues right through to the autumn. Andrew had one plant – one! – in his latest abortive attempt at a rock garden by the front door and from there it has smothered the alpines, flowed freely along the cracks in the paving, inserted itself at the base of the wall and marched off down the path towards the gate.

(I digress, but, much as we love alpine plants and admire them,  people like us shouldn’t be allowed to own them. Any plant so lacking in thuggish attributes doesn’t stand a prayer in our garden, given our predilection for rampant weeds like variegated ground elder and croppable monsters like Burdock and Bistort. And after all, there are some excellent botanic gardens and plant collections around here where we can visit happy alpines that are cared for as they deserve.)

So the wild strawberries hold sway, and we share them with a number of birds, for there are enough for us all. (Although I have to say the sheer greed of our resident blackbird is awe-inspiring. He pigs so many of our raspberries and blackcurrants sometimes he is seriously challenged when it comes to flying off and just squats still all day in a feathery-bothered heap under the bushes.)  I sprinkle them liberally over my breakfast cereal, make wild strawberry smoothies, muffins and any number of desserts. Gathering enough for a decent batch of jam or wine would be possible, but so far I haven’t had the patience! The fruits are small, but packed with flavour. We’re also gathering wild bilberries, or blaeberries, now – these are incomparable, messy and tasy, and make excellent jam. Maybe I’ll try a mix of the two.

I gathered the last of the elderflowers today and made another batch of cordial. Maybe it’s the recession making me act like there’s rationing and making me horde food, but, well, we gave one bottle of cordial away and there are only two more in the freezer…. Three weeks till the elderflower champagne is ready – I’m looking forward to that!

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).

Two Hours to Easter….

…but I’ll break my fast after the early morning service held up at little Glenshee, a point that geologically sits on the Highland Boudary Fault, and geographically on a ford at the start of the hills that mark the beginning of the Highland landscape. The last day has been every bit as trying as the rest;  yet taken on its own it would seem like a pretty good day’s eating: an omelette (hens eggs) with pak choi donated by Janet; 2 hard boiled eggs (ducks, just for variety!) for lunch plus a munch of some of the Bucks Horn Plantain, Chervil, Garlic Chives and Chives I was selling at the time (I was at Blairgowrie Market) washed down with a flask of luke warm herbal liquid, and for dinner a cross between a Spanish Tortilla and Scottish Stovies, made from fragments of venison recovered from boiling the deer bones from the banquet 6+ weeks ago and kept in the freezer, mashed rather small seed potatoes, half an ancient chilli, an onion from Andrew and parsley from the greenhouse – bound together with yet another egg. That was it, last challenge meal.

After market we went shopping. My children are cooking for me tomorrow and have all sorts planned (including some pizza at some point!), but I felt rather odd going round the supermarket with them. So many things no longer appealed and I certainly didn’t feel inclined to plan a binge. I am looking forward to the organic bread and hot cross buns I bought at market, and some yoghurt. Fresh mushrooms appeal, as do crisp apples (as opposed to shrivelled ones) and grapes.  Strong mugs of rooibos tea, with milk. Ah – and some real ale, and the Cairn O’Mohr Carse of Gowrie apple juice and cider that’s waiting for me in the cupboard. Nothing particularly exotic or fancy – simple foods and the choice of having them is what I crave most.

I shall be foraging for fun now, but intend to keep wild food as a large part of my diet; and go for local produce wherever I can. Where I can’t, fair trade. Can’t afford to be totally organic, but what we produce is organic enough and this year I’ll try to produce more of the foods that would get me through another fast in late winter/early spring – not that I’m intending to repeat the experiment!

Not sure how much money I’ve raised yet, but work has begun to get the gardens and orchard at Bankfoot Church off the ground, I’ve found new friends and feel it has been worthwhile. Changed my outlook on food for sure….. and there’s the small matter of rediscovering my waist and being a stone and a half lighter – an unexpected benefit! Chocolate eggs and freedom to eat notwithstanding, I don’t want to put it all back on, so some of the changes in my eating will be lasting ones.

But less eggs and a moratorium on herbal teas!

Dock Pudding – a potato recipe

Here is a recipe I used the other day for a Dock Pudding using mashed potato instead of oatmeal or barley. Oatmeal’s better, but I can’t have it at the moment because of the beeping Lent challenge, oddly enough I never grew a field of oats last year, perhaps I should try this year in case I ever have a silly idea like this again. The “docks” in question are, of course, Bistort (Polygonum bistorta).

15 Bistort leaves
8 comfrey leaves (should have been stinging nettle tops but the ducks have been grazing them)
6 Ladies Mantle leaves (Alchemilla xanthoclora)
6 ground elder leaves
1 chopped leek

Wash and cook all the above together like spinach. Drain, chop and add to mashed potato (think I had about 4 medium tatties). Beat in one egg, and seasoning to taste. Press into a pudding basin and place in a pan of water; simmer for about 25 minutes. (think you could also microwave it, but haven’t tried). Loosen in bowl and invert onto a plate. Garnish with primrose flowers or broom buds (or anything else edible I guess). It’s really nice, even if not oatmeal based.

I’m still feeling rough. Muttered to friend Janet about the odd cystitus symptoms which seem to be getting worse. “Have you been eating too much spinach” she asked. Ummmm….. yes….. It turns out spinach, rhubarb and probably most of the greens I’ve been living on cause a build up of oxalic acid, which CAN cause crystals in the bladder, which can cause infections….. looks like something I have to be careful of, if its not too late… going to see the doctor tomorrow. If I can’t eat greens, it’ll get even more boring.In the interests of my kidneys, I’ve drunk 6 pints of water today, think I actually prefer it to herbal teas!

Anyway, feasted on Solomon’s Seal shoots tonight; they’re bound to be bad for you because they are DELICIOUS. My son who’s a great cook, is home from Uni, which makes me wistful for one of his curries and envious of his dinners ( to be honest, I rarely envy my partner his meals, rice pudding straight from the tin does nothing for me!).

Reed Mace by the Tay EstuaryTried something new in the wild food line – came upon reed mace (Typha angustifolia) by the Tay and extracted some young shoots. They were nice – a bit like asparagus, but tough outer layer needs to be removed. I think I’ll collect some more when they are taller, should get more for the effort. Typha’s an invasive, suckering plant, so no risk to wild population from taking a few shoots. Apparently the root is edible too (and indeed the flowers and even the pollen later), but roots looked a bit fibrous to me.

We’ve set dates for our Plants with Purpose Wild Food Rambles and workshop this week; you can get the details from http://www.plantswithpurpose.co.uk, or you will be able to once I’ve updated the webpage.

Oh yes – first goose egg tortilla tonight…..