Saturday, 28 February 2015

Tastier than Bear's 3: Wild garlic

I bet you thought I wasn't going to do my tastier than Bear's challenge this week. Well I did too.

It has been a busy week because I have been able to get to the allotment and crack on with the many jobs I need to catch up on. For instance I re-felted my shed roof in the bitter cold wind, and discovered that it was leaking because someone had screwed a baton down the centre of it. It's lovely and dry, if very untidy inside now. (Next job is shelves and hooks!)

The plan was to dig/weed a patch and plant some fruit bushes and trees and collect a bucket full of weeds for dinner at the same time. In the end it was quite hard work and poor weather, I was hailed on twice, so I was too busy to sort through any potentially tasty weeds.

The next day I walked the dog past my hazel patch and decided to see if there were still any fallen nuts lying around. There were loads, because the squirrels still haven't found this patch. They looked a bit damp and muddy, but I took a dozen home for inspection.

I also saw this lovely plant growing on the bank. It turns out it is Lesser Celandine, and I keep seeing it everywhere now. It isn't edible as such but is used as an herbal remedy for piles. The roots give you a clue! (Wild Drugs: A Foragers Guide to Healing Plants, by Zoe Hawes)

You never know, there may come a day when that knowledge is useful, although I sincerely hope not ;-)

The first cobnut I cracked open had a perfect little nut inside, and a small nibble confirmed that it wasn't bad but perfectly edible. Dinner was looking positive..........but then the next 11 shells were empty!

Maybe I would give up for this week, as February is such a lean unfriendly month for the forager. If I was hungry, then worms may possibly be on the menu at this point.

What a shame that the lovely looking jelly ears I see when I am walking are so unpalatable. There was no way I was picking them....unless I had something flavourful to cook them with.

Then to my rescue I found the small and muddy shoots of some wild garlic (ramsons) whilst walking the dog. The amazing garlic smell is the sure-fire way to identify them. I only took a few shoots as the aroma was so strong, although the roots are edible too.

There is a fallen tree blocking the path at this point and it is so muddy that climbing over it is slippery and treacherous. So I decided to try and find a route round, going through the brambles instead.

I am so glad I did, because growing on the inside of the remaining tree stump were some clusters of velvet shanks. Visions of a garlicky mushroom medley were swimming through my head.

I collected some white and red deadnettles on my way home to provide the 'spinach' and picked the jelly ears. Close to home I decided to investigate these leaves again.

I had brought a few leaves home to identify previously, but without a flower they could have been anything. However this time as I picked the leaves I found little purple flowers hiding underneath.

Sweet violets - the smell confirmed it. Even the leaves seemed to bear the scent. 'Wild Drugs: a forager's guide to healing plants' by Zoe Hawes says that the dried leaves and flowers in an infusion are good for coughs and sore throats. I tasted a leaf, but it didn't have the taste of violet, so I made a cup of fresh violet tea. It was fine, not violet flavour, but very smooth and pleasant.

This was another very tasty meal, the wild garlic making all the difference.

I chopped up the jelly ears very small, in the hope of improving the texture, and fried them with the velvet shanks and garlic, throwing in the deadnettles at the end.

The taste was lovely, even the jelly ears just took on a garlicky flavour. They still had that crunchy slimy texture, but were much more edible in small pieces. If I had more velvet shanks I would have just left out the jelly ears though. There must be a better way of cooking them to tenderise them, and no doubt I will try again because they are so abundant!

I am looking forward to more wild garlic through March and have planted some cultivated garlic at the allotment as a more reliable garlic source. I wouldn't say growing garlic is a dead cert, mainly because of my dodgy gardening skills, but certainly less of a haphazard business than foraging for food is.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Greed stinks

"Greed is the desire to have more of something, such as food or money, than is necessary or fair."

I like this definition from the Collins Dictionary. For me the word greed is not used enough. There is so much about our society that has been motivated by greed, but we don't call it out. Why?

Is it because we all harbour greed, this desire for more? Faced with the opportunity to double our salary, wouldn't we all choose to? Isn't that why so many people play the lottery, because they want to have more money?

I disagree. For me greed is when you have a good salary, such as MPs Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and yet you are willing to do almost anything to get even more money. Having the desire for a payrise, so that you can make ends meet is not greed. Buying a lottery ticket in the hope that it will solve all your financial worries, is not greed. Lottery tickets are bought by some of the poorest people, because they see no other hope of a way out of debilitating poverty. And of course it is a trick, because it makes them that little bit poorer with very little prospect of winning a jackpot.

Greed is not just a desire for more, it is the desire for more than is necessary or fair. Has anyone told Bill Gates and the other rich people on Oxfam's bus, who have as much wealth between them as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world, that they are greedy? Don't let anyone ever tell you again that it is population growth that has led to extreme poverty, as there aren't enough resources to go round. The poor aren't the ones burning through our fossil fuels and exploiting natural resources for money. It is the domination and greed of the rich that is responsible for poverty. If we want to solve poverty we need to tackle greed.

How do we allow the life of just one person to be valued as worth more than 41 million other lives? Who is responsible for this disparity? Of course, the people on the bus who have pursued excessive wealth above everything else, but also I am responsible, for not looking them in the eye and saying 'Shame on you for being so greedy!' (Yes a few Shame-on-you's should do the trick ;-) )

I was watching this report by the BBC on Gaza today about how the human toll continues. They interviewed a lady whose baby son had frozen to death. Not died of an incurable illness, just died because their house was destroyed last summer, along with all the infrastructure like electricity and water supplies, and they had received no help to rebuild. The Israeli government tightly controls the supplies and equipment to Gaza, to prevent any help getting through.

It reminded me of this presentation I watched last year by an ex-Israeli soldier and he talked about the Holocaust and how he wanted to be on the right side, not the side that was persecuting innocent people. Looking from the outside, it really does seem like the Israeli government are trying to eliminate the Palestinians and take their land. Why would a group of people that suffered extreme persecution at the hands of Nazis, not recognise how they are now persecuting the Palestinians?

For me it seems that it isn't about religion, it is about greed and wanting more than is necessary or fair. The majority of people don't want to be rich at the expense of impoverishing their neighbours, they just want a fair share. Yet we have a society that enables the greedy to have the biggest share of wealth and power and influence, and to use that influence to demonise the powerless poor.

Jo at All The Blue Day has been blogging about Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird and her words are worth reading because they are much more moving than mine. She explains her realisation that she doesn't have to change the world. How could she with her small actions alone? It doesn't make it any less important to fight to do the right thing anyway, even if like Atticus Finch she might not win. Doing the right thing, however difficult and impossible it may seem, paves the way for others, so just do it anyway. Just do it for yourself, so you can face your children knowing you stood on the right side.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Tastier than Bear's 2: Beacon Hill

I am trying to cook a foraged meal each week that is tastier than the ones that Bear Grylls cooks up for the celebrities he takes into the wilderness with him. Last week's jelly ear mushroom, dandelion root and nettle soup was edible, and probably nutritious, but unfortunately rather tasteless - the main flavour being soil :-( Was it tastier than Bear's wormy omelette though? Not the best start, but now at least I know that jelly ear mushrooms don't taste like mushrooms and are better for absorbing the flavours of the other components.

Photo of second group of Oyster Mushroom, looking down - Pleurotus ostreatus

This week I decided to look for some really flavourful mushrooms - oyster mushrooms. I set off to Beacon Hill for a long walk and to scout around. I really don't know very many mushrooms, but all of the tasty ones I have spotted before at Beacon Hill. Apart from oyster mushrooms, I have seen ceps, bay boletes and chicken-of-the-woods...none of which are in season. Well you never know, I might get lucky.

Beacon Hill in Charnwood Forest, is the 2nd highest peak in Leicestershire, though only 248m (814ft). It still whips up a fair wind at the summit and gives spectacular views in all directions.

It was the site of a bronze age hill fort, and during the summer the upper part is grazed by rare breed sheep, pigs and cattle (and alpaca to protect the sheep from dogs), to maintain the natural heathland habitat.

Lower down the slope is covered with woodland, and more recently some natural play areas and a labyrinth have been added for kids. There is even a woodcutters shed where there was some chainsaw carving in progress.

Beacon Hill is the site for the National Forest's Woodfair which is held on the August bank holiday. It is an opportunity to see the woodcarving and other woodland skills in action and buy some locally crafted natural products (like the chopping board I bought last year).

Below is the 'Old Man of Beacon Hill'.

This theme has been introduced in many of the carvings around the hill. There are also carvings of little fairy houses in the labyrinth, but I can't go in there with my dog.

Instead we walked through the woods and admired some of the shelters that have been built by visitors. The one below was the best.

There is only one thing that irritates me about Beacon Hill and that is the strawbale shelter that has been built.

It looks lovely with it's stone base, thick curvy walls and green roof, but as a demonstration of the benefits of building with strawbale it is a bit rubbish.

The main benefit of strawbale is the super-insulating properties, but anyone visiting this shelter wouldn't notice those because it is an open shelter and even has large gaps in the walls.

Secondly, on the wall inside is the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf who blows down the house of straw. This re-enforces a message of a weak and vulnerable building, because a clever pig would build his house of bricks!

If you continue reading it explains why this strawbale structure is strong and how it is built, but I don't feel this is the best way to get this across. I need to do a post on some real strawbale buildings soon.

The ground under the beech trees was covered in leaves and empty beech nut cases. When I was a kid at primary school, my friend and I used to walk past a big beech tree each day. We would collect handfuls of the tiny little triangular nuts to take to school, and sit at our desks picking the shells off and munching on the tiny but tasty morsels. Really beech nuts are small and fiddly and other than showing them to my kids, I have never bothered with them since.

But the prospect of having just a few tasty nuts for my foraged meal was worth a bit of a hunt through the carpet of leaves. I knew that there were still some nuts about, because every flat stone or tree stump had the remnants of a squirrels dinner on it (The beech nut is top right in photo below). But every little triangular nut I picked up was empty and could be squashed flat between my fingers. It is only the fat ones that have a nut inside.

I soon gave up and focused on mushrooms, but really there were very few to be seen. Plenty of hoof fungus which isn't edible.

However I found a small cluster of oyster mushrooms. I wasn't sure they would taste great fried without butter, and didn't want to waste them, so I just picked two smallish ones. I also gathered the tops of some sticky weed, with a plan to make a salad. For the rest of the ingredients I decided to use the weeds from my garden. Apart from the fact that it is illegal to dig up the roots of plants without permission, it just makes sense to combine a bit of weeding with dinner.

My back garden is very shady and home to plenty of wood avens, The roots smell and taste mildly of cloves. Given how flavourless last weeks meal was, I wanted to find flavourful ingredients this week. I had a munch on a wood aven root and it was really rather pleasant and made my mouth feel very fresh. I might try making the recipe for mouthwash in one of the books, but for today I decided to make tea, as the roots are tiny, so won't be filling. I found a couple of small dandelions too. The roots don't taste too bad raw, but I decided to fry them with the mushroom for added flavour. The leaves went in the salad.

My front garden is sunny and the weeds are mainly red valerian (above) and my most hated weed, ground elder. It turns out that the leaves of both of these are edible too. What luck! So I weeded harvested a bucket of them. It is a shame that the ground elder roots aren't edible as it would have looked like a bowl of noodles.

The red valerian and a really lovely texture, but for me it tasted vile, so that was taken off the menu. The ground elder was great though with a mild parsley flavour. According to John Wright, in 'River Cottage Handbook No. 7: Hedgerow', ground elder was introduced to the UK as a popular vegetable, but then despite growing out of fashion it continued to grow regardless. The flavour should help mask the bitterness of the dandelion leaves, as I have no dressing to add.

I started chopping the oyster mushrooms and out crawled some little white maggots. Now Bear Grylls may think 'Great - extra protein', but for me it was not what I had planned for the menu! So I ended up discarding one of the mushrooms and finely chopping and inspecting the other.

In the photo above clockwise from the top right there are wood aven roots, sticky weed tips, oyster mushrooms, dandelion root, ground elder, dandelion leaves and more dandelion in the centre. Once the mushroom hit the frying pan the smell was divine. Frying with water worked, except that it evaporates very quickly, so you have to keep adding more. I decided to add a little extra liquid to give a bit of mushroomy sauce for the salad, and a sprinkle of salt.

Ok so it may be a small portion this week, but actually it tastes great. I could really eat this. The dandelion roots were thinner and straighter, so easier to clean and took on the mushroom flavour. The salad had flavour too because of the ground elder, although the bitterness of the dandelion wasn't completely masked. Obviously frying in butter or adding a dressing would really make this, but I am sufficiently happy :-) What do you guys think? Better than Bear's?

Thursday, 12 February 2015


Being on the edge of Charnwood Forest, means that Loughborough has some wonderful places to explore. Charnwood Forest is an area where you can find the oldest rocks in England, and it is this mix of woodlands and rocky outcrops which is so brilliant for adventures. Apparently, hundreds of years ago, Charnwood was designated as a chase rather than a forest, meaning it was an area for the gentry to hunt deer. This may explain why it is more forest by name than by nature. It has plenty of woodlands, though not the large dense forested areas that the name implies.

The week after Christmas we had a sprinkling of snow and visited one of the kids favourite spots for a walk. Although really it is not the walking but the rock climbing that the kids love. They would climb over all the rocky outcrops on the way up the hill and then have a race down the parallel grassy slope all the way back to the car. Cademan woods is near Whitwick, about 7 miles from Loughborough, and other than the odd mountain biker, or dog walker it is very quiet (at least until we arrive).

The rocks give it such a dramatic landscape, but the best part for me is 'Twentysteps'. Almost hidden from the path, there are cut stone steps leading to the summit of one of the outcrops. The top photo shows the view from the path. There is a large stone hiding the 'entrance' to the peak, which is now overgrown.

It is enchanting, like the hidden stairway to a magical castle and I am grateful to have found it and enjoyed so many happy hours there with my kids and their friends. I would love to know the history behind the steps. Who carved them, when and why? They feel hundreds of years old to me.

I can imagine that maybe it was a hidden lookout post, to keep watch for marauding armies, or the location of a warning beacon. It may even have been a hideout, or is there a secret cave full of treasure hidden within ;-) For children it is a place filled with opportunities for imaginative play, from storming the 'castle' to hiding from attackers or just climbing over all the rocks. It could be Rapunzel's tower, Sleeping Beauty's overgrown castle or the mountain the Pied Piper leads the children to, How amazing to have this as your den?

There are so many enchanting places, but you won't discover them if you walk the same path each time and stick to the main routes. It might mean overcoming some of those excuses that we put in the way like.....I don't know where this path is going, I might get lost, it may be trespassing, it will be muddy, I need someone to guide me. As with many things in life, just do it and it will be fun.

I really wanted to find a wise quote to express how I feel about this, but then I came across Jodi Ettenberg's wonderful blog Legal Nomads and an inspirational presentation from 2011. Although Jodi's experience is with travelling to exotic places, her message relates just as well to exploring your local surroundings or just life in general. Be grateful and open to opportunities.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Tastier than Bear's

It is quite fun watching Bear Gryll's torturing teaching celebrities on an adventure in the wilderness. But really for someone so experienced in the great outdoors, the food he provides looks really disgusting! Take a look at the crunchy worm omelette he prepared for Zac Efron in his "Running Wild with Bear Grylls" series. (it is at 22 mins in)

Apart from the fact that the birds eggs could have been old and rotten, just the thought of eating wriggling worms is vile, (Remember wormy spaghetti in 'The Twits' by Roald Dahl?). Surely an adventurer with Bear's experience could provide a better meal from the wild than that?

Anyway, as I walk my dog through our little woods and muddy fields, I see all kinds of edible goodies, so I am convinced I can do much better than Bear does at eating from the wild. And so the challenge begins......

I am going to cook myself a meal each week that comes solely from food I have foraged that day and the challenge is to make it tastier than Bear's. I have a few books to guide me on what is edible or not. All I need is for you guys to be the judges and luckily for you I won't be asking you to taste mine or Bear's dishes! You can base your judgement on how appealing each meal looks and which you would rather eat...... if you had to.

Please feel free to join in with ideas, foraging tips or try the challenge too and send me descriptions of your meals to share, or post them on your own blog and I will re-blog them here.

It is tempting to use nuts foraged back in autumn or frozen fruit picked last summer, but it wouldn't be a fair comparison as Bear won't have those to hand. If I were Bear I would carry a few emergency sachets of salt with me, so I am going to allow myself salt and water to cook with, but other than that it is just what you can find on the day. Bear's wilderness probably has a lot more wild stuff available than my semi-urban locality, so I am probably at a disadvantage.
Being February, winter in the Northern hemisphere, this is going to be challenging. That is why this weeks challenge is up against wormy birds egg omelette. I think it would be fairly tough finding anything more disgusting than this, so I am hoping for an early win.

So yesterday I headed out into the little woods behind our house to see what I could find. Jelly Ear mushrooms was an obvious first choice because they are really abundant. They grow on the dead wood, and are very difficult to mistake looking and feeling like a human ear. I have picked them before, but never got round to cooking them. The texture is really very odd, and it is difficult to know what to cook them with. But any mushrooms should add some flavour and substance....I am hoping.

There were also plenty of stinging nettles starting to grow, so I carefully snipped off a few of the young heads, as a healthy spinach alternative. I was hoping to find something else, but our woods is not very old which means there is not a great variety of species. Apart from loads of poisonous Lords and Ladies springing up and seeing a few snowdrops, it was a dead loss.

The field next to it did have some dandelions around the margins, so I dug up 3 or 4 big ones, so that I could use the roots and the leaves. Even the young flowers are edible apparently. There were also daisies, their dark green rosette of leaves are edible according to my books, and looked quite tasty.

I headed down to the brook hoping for something to add some flavour growing on the embankment. I found some yarrow, which is supposed to be good for tea, some rather discouraging looking plantain, some young white deadnettles and finally some common sorrel.

Thoughts of a lovely green salad were circulating in my mind by now. But I still wanted some more substantial roots. Silverweed roots are reported to be tasty, so I checked out a few spots that are packed with them in summer, but there was no sign at all. The roots must still be there, but without the plant to guide me, I wouldn't know what I was eating.

It took a fair while to sort through my haul and wash all the mud from them. The greens looked quite delicious....... until I tasted them! Below clockwise from the left are white deadnettle, daisy, yarrow, common sorrel and young tips of cleavers.

The daisy leaves were vile and went straight in the compost bin. The dandelion leaves weren't great either, but then the leaves looked old. The common sorrel did have an interesting acidic taste, and might act like a squeeze of lemon. The young cleavers tips or sticky weed as we call it, was actually quite a nice fresh taste, and the deadnettle was a fair spinach like taste. It made me wonder why I didn't just pick the deadnettles instead of bothering with the stingers?

First I made a pot of yarrow tea. It was quite a nice flavour, although a bit weak - I need to pick more next time.

I started a soup by adding the chopped dandelion roots and jelly ears to some boiling water.

After 20 mins simmering, in went the nettles, sorrel and dead nettles for 10 mins. Then at the end I threw in the sticky weed and seasoned with salt. Ta dah!

It really didn't look too bad, and the first few tastes of nettle didn't taste too bad either. The dandelion is not a great flavour, but it did add some texture and felt filling.

But the jelly ear was definitely not the texture I was hoping for. It was still very firm and didn't seem to have softened much at all. Maybe I should have cooked it longer, but John Wright describes in the River Cottage Handbook on Mushrooms, how he boiled it for 8 hours and it still had the same texture! Ignoring the texture, it just had no taste whatsoever. So much for imparting a nice mushroomy flavour!

After all my careful washing of leaves and roots, the soup was still a bit gritty and earthy. Adding salt and more salt made no improvement to the taste. I tried to imagine it with a dash of soy sauce and some egg swirled in and managed to eat a third of the bowl, but it tasted worse with every mouthful so I gave up and had peanut butter toast instead. It was very nutritious and if I was starving I probably could have eaten more. But then maybe worms would look tasty if I was starving.

Ok...eating from the wild is not so easy, or at least not in winter. Part of me thinks this was a stupid idea, but then I am already planning how I can do better next week! What do you think?