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

Baby Oysters!

No, not shellfish, oyster mushrooms! The most amazing and intriguing new additions to my household are the fruiting bodies of oyster mushrooms that are growing out of two impregnated toilet rolls on the window sill….. I got the spawn (mycelium mixed with grain) from Ann Miller’s Speciality Mushrooms of Inverurie, together with instructions. You soak a whole toilet roll and put it in a plastic bag; break up the spawn and put it into the middle of the roll. Seal up the bag. Then I had them in the airing cupboard for 4 weeks, the fridge for 5 days, and then the window sill (relatively cool) for the past week. At this point you make wee holes in the bag. And Lo! exquisite little oyster mushrooms gather up behind the holes and burst through. I should say the entire toilet roll at this stage is a mass of fungal mycelium – it is eerie and fantastical to watch it develop and form embryo mushrooms almost before your eyes.

Blooming well beats anything on television. And edible too!

You can get the spawn if you email ann@annforfungi.co.uk Loo rolls – the recycled ones from Lidl seem to work! The fungi break down the cellulose in the paper. As edible mushrooms seem thin on the ground just now in the wild, I am well impressed!

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…..

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!

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.

February 15 – 17th.. tapping trees

We went to a brilliant conference in the Scottish Borders today organised by Reforesting Scotland, mostly about wild harvests from woodlands. Inspiring! especially the lady who lived for a year as they did in 18th century – makes my Lent challenge seem very easy and tame. A forester talked about some trials he’d done tapping trees for their sap – with some success, especially from Birch, Sycamore and Norway Maple. Boiling the sap down to make a syrup apparently takes time and fuel, but we could do it on the stove while it’s heating us. We have a sycamore just full of sap, and two birches, so we are going to give it a try – this could be my Lent carbohydrate source!

In the afternoon, we got to innoculate two birch logs with fungal spawn in sawdust and bring them home. We did one of Oyster Mushrooms and one of Shiitake, and are prepared to be patient – it was two years before my last oyster log fruited – and turned out to be shiitake anyway! So long as we don’t forget what the logs are and put them in the stove…

The snow has melted and temperatures have risen. It was good to see under the snow young shoots of Cleavers (or Goosegrass), which are edible and make a nice drink, no doubt I’ll be glad of that next week. I’ve had no caffeine now for 36 hours and the headaches are gone….. would still love a cuppa tea though…

Roadkill potatoes fallingoff the back of an overloaded trailer today…..

February 2009 – been a long winter

Snow on the ground and what seems to be a very long winter. We have scraped a few winter fungi on occasion from the woods – the Winter Mushroom (Flammulina velutipes) stood us in good stead on several occasions in December and January, but there weren’t as many as last year, and mushrooms have had to be bought. Right now, we are rounding up some Jews Ear Fungi (Auricula auricularia-judae) from elder trees (which are already breaking bud despite the extreme cold). They are jelly-like, capable of freezing and thawing which is handy, and taste excellent cooked slowly in butter or milk and butter for 20 minutes or so. Make sure you put a well-fitting lid on the pan because the Ears tend to blow up else! But what’s left now are getting a bit dry and shrivelled, and most of our foraging now is about bringing home rucksacks of firewood and kindling from the forest floor.

A CHALLENGE FOR LENT

I’m not very religious at all, but it’s a sort of tradition in my family to give something up for Lent. It’s never made that much difference till last time, when I gave up supermarkets. That really made me think! This year I’ve decided to go one further and give up buying food at all……

Given the snow, the protracted winter and no sign of green shoots whatever, I shall be reliant on stored and saved wild food and frozen home grown stuff to begin with. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday (25th Feb) and finishes on Easter Sunday, 40 days later. Nearer Easter I hope for fresh greens – nettles, salads, shoots and stems. Protein won’t be a problem as I have stored hazelnuts, my chickens and ducks lay eggs, and there are bits of ex-cockerel in the freezer too. No fish – I ate them all, but maybe some rocky shores will yield some shellfish. The real challenge will be carbohydrate. We’ve eaten all last years tatties; nothing made with flour is permitted, nor rice etc, which I’ve never managed to grow in Scotland, strangely! There are Jerusalem artichokes and Sweet Cicely roots for the digging, though. No tea or coffee! I’ve already gone “cold turkey” on caffeine (nasty it was too), but will miss my cuppa anyway. No milk……

What I think will happen is I’ll become more aware of the areas where we could become more self-sufficient, and just how reliant we are on imported goods. I think I shall be even more adventurous in trying wild foods, too, maybe out of boredom with my diet! I am looking for sponsors too, and the money raised will be given to the new community church in Bankfoot who (as well as being hooked to renewable energy and full of environment – friendly features – see www.bankfootchurch.org.uk  ) are establishing gardens and a community orchard on the site – so hopefully everyone in the village will get the chance to scrump and enjoy home-grown and local produce by next year.

I’ll keep a log on my progress and what I’m eating through the course of Lent; meanwhile looking for  some warmer weather now to get those spring greens up through the permafrost!