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The Rural Courses Blog began in July 2012…to read Michael’s previous blog ‘Pearls from the Land’ click here…
Another article ….
St George and the Mushroom?
The good times have returned! Nature has flung open the larder door and suddenly we are awash with a stunning array of wild goodies. I should need to write the April edition of this article for 20 years to tell half of what this month has to offer, but on this first time round, I’ll start with a personal favourite, something which may be a little unexpected.
St George’s Day is always a date I look forward to. Not because I am unduly patriotic, or even because I get to wear my England flag boxer shorts, but rather due to it heralding the arrival of a very special fungi, the St George’s mushroom (caocybe gambosa). Obviously they care nothing for dates, but it is uncanny how often they are very close to the mark, hence of course their name. In warmer European countries they appear earlier, and in Italy for example they are known as ‘Marzolino’ – derived from the Italian word ‘marzo’ meaning March.
Mushrooms are not usually associated with spring and it is indeed the lack of numerous brethren which makes the St George’s mushroom a good species to identify and gather, along with its superb eating qualities. Keep an eye out amongst short grass in the vicinity of deciduous trees. Verges and lawns are favourite spots and if you have seen unexpected spring fungi in years past, have a look there again, because if they were St George’s mushrooms, they reappear in the same spot year-on-year. Key identification features are: a creamy white colour all over, medium-sized domed cap which flattens with age, cap margins which are slightly in- rolled towards the gills, a thick stem which often widens towards the base and perhaps the best giveaway of all, a mealy smell rather like damp flour. As always with fungi (and any wild food) it is important to be sure of a positive identification before eating. This is when a good field guide or reference to a reputable internet site can be invaluable.
Humans are not alone in prising the St George’s mushroom as food and you may need to focus on the young specimens to avoid finding them riddled with unwanted fellow diners. Happily the tiny maggots are in no way harmful and the odd one will never be noticed by your family or friends once cooked – especially if you don’t tell them!
These fungi have all the hallmarks of a superb edible – a substantial size, firm texture when cooked and the subtle delicious flavour. You’re unlikely to find them in large quantities so go for the simplest of preparations, just fried in butter and served on toast or perhaps in an omelette. Then savour the jewel in April’s wild food crown – a truly saintly mushroom.
Stinging Nettles – 26th February 2016
I write a monthly article for a local magazine and thought some of you might be interested:
This month we’re taking a look at a wild food that fights back. None of your benign fungi or wild garlic this time-it’s time to get your gloves on and get to grips with the …stinging nettle. Anti-climax? That’s the problem. The common or garden stinging nettle is so common and so garden that it is easily overlooked as a source of food. Well it is time to change all that and acknowledge this extraordinary plant for the wonder that it is.
Have you ever considered why stingers are armed to the teeth with innumerable histamine injecting spines? The answer is obvious – if they weren’t there wouldn’t be a single one left, owing to them being so exceedingly nutritious and good to eat. I am not exaggerating (much) to say that of all the wild greens on offer, nettles are among my favourite and after initial scepticism, most people on my foraging courses agree with me.
There are probably readers out there chocking in to their Sunday morning coffee at the preposterous notion that nettles are worth eating, because when they tried them they were definitely on the rank spectrum. Well this is another problem with nettles; it is very easy to have a bad experience. The nettle is so well recognised by all, that this poor old plant is often seized upon as a safe foray into foraging, grabbed mid-summer, boiled, blitzed into an approximation of soup and then unsurprisingly, despised! Nettles must be eaten in prime condition, when the growth is fresh and succulent and certainly long before they flower and set seed. To guarantee the absolute best, I only pick the very tip of these young plants (consisting of the first two leaf pairs) which is no hardship, seeing as they are so numerous. The tenacity for life possessed by this most hardy of ‘weeds’ is the bane of many a gardener’s life, but on a positive note, they make the ultimate cut and come again crop, providing fresh growth all summer.
Young nettles are available most of the year, but those which have overwintered may be a little strong tasting and stringy. Wait for the first growth to appear, light green and fleshy looking for the best results. Sheltered spot are the places to look early in the season, the lea of a hedge, against a wall or dare I say it, in your un-weeded greenhouse?
Stinging nettles are often likened to spinach as a cooked green and prime specimens live up well to that king of vegetables. The flavour is mild and the texture delicately yielding in the mouth, making it a surprisingly versatile ingredient. Part of the aim of my writing and teaching about foraging is to break down those barriers between wild and conventional food stuffs and nettles are definitely a champion of the cause. They make a quick and fantastic soup sweated down with onion and garlic, then whizzed with a good chicken stock and a dash of cream. Beyond the obvious there is nettle pesto, fresh pasta made with nettles, nettle tea or simply a plain serving as a vegetable, steamed with a knob of butter. For a real crowd pleaser though, look up a recipe for a Greek spinach and ricotta pie in filo pastry and replace the spinach with nettles. It will change your view of those nasty brutish weeds for ever.
Wattle Hurdles 22nd February 2016
It’s been far too long since I made wattle hurdles; it’s something I learnt years ago from a great coppice/green wood worker called John Waller and is uniquely satisfying skill. Left over hazel binders from a hedge laying job finally spurred me into action and as I’ve got a couple of shows coming up this Summer, I thought some rustic weaving might make admirable display fronts.
The process begins by selecting straight uprights (known as sails) and knocking them through holes in the hurdle mould, which is basically a plank (or similar) with holes drilled in it at nine inch intervals, the line of which describes a slight ark. This bow in the hurdles causes them to tighten when they are laid flat and weighted at the end of the job.
Next the hazel wands which make up the main body of the hurdle are cleaved down their length, a job which requires a great deal of practice to make it look easy! The pale, timid green of freshly split hazel contrasting with the rusty line of pith is a thing of sublime beauty and one which is reserved for those who work green wood, as it quickly fades. Well I don’t think Farrow and Ball have got it in their range yet?
Thin hazel wands known as ‘twyling rods’ are woven between the sails first, followed by the cleft hazel. Finally the whole lot is capped off with more twyling rods, which combined with the twisted round ends of the rods themselves and cleft hazel, holds the whole structure together. Back in the days when these hurdles were actually used for penning sheep strength and durability was essential.
Alexanders – 16 February 2o16
The unsettling, warm weather before Christmas has left us with this strange sudo Spring, progressing in slow motion. I’ve been seeing primroses, celandines, blackthorn blossom and pussy willow since before Christmas and it all feels a bit weird. Still opportunism goes hand in hand with foraging and with the confused season comes opportunity. Wild garlic has already been on the menu for weeks and down on the coast alexanders (which would normally only be making a tentative appearance around this time) are coming into bloom.
Those Romans knew what they were doing bringing over their ‘parsley of Alexandria’ because for those who haven’t tried it, the plant makes extremely good eating. On the foraging courses we talk a lot about what makes an exceptional foraged food plant and alexanders definitely tick the boxes. This stuff is prolific (round the S.E coast at least), easy to gather, simple to cook and gives the forager a good sized vegetable with a distinct yet delicate flavour and a texture firm, but yielding in the mouth.
For the simplest foraging and preparation cut out some of the smaller side stalks from the flowering steam just before the plant comes into bloom and steam them for five minutes. Carefully peel the skin from the tender rods and serve with butter – you won’t be disappointed!
Out With the Ferrets – 9th February 2016
Sorry to have been away so long, I’ll try not to let it happen again!
The days are drawing out slowly and it won’t be long until the jill ferrets are in season and ready to go to the hob once again. Currently I have eight females of breeding age, which gives a potential of anything up to sixty or so kits! Clearly I need to reduce my numbers a bit, so yesterday I had a session to select the keepers.
Ferrets work much better unimpeded by nets and as I wanted to asses my young jills’ natural abilities I left the usual gear behind and headed out with a box of ferrets, a 12 bore and a pocket full of cartridges. The first couple of buries were blank, but the third, a large mound riddled with holes provided a couple of shots. Two silver jills were working when suddenly, with a streak of brown, a rabbit bolted and was steaming away down the wooded shore. Taken by surprise the gun never even reached my shoulder, but in another instant the next bunny bolted and with an intuitive swing (nothing else is possible shooting bolted rabbits in woodland) I released a shot which sent it sprawling behind a clump of holly. The only thing visible through a hole in the foliage – a front paw which twitched a couple of times and then lay still.
With one in the bag I moved on, working the rest of the copse methodically, using all the ferrets in turn. By the end I had three healthy rabbits in the back of the truck and three jills in the box to find good homes for. Ferreting season is all but over – one doe was very heavily pregnant and no doubt others have already given birth.