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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.


St. George’s Mushroom

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 in perfect condition for picking

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.

Rustic Weave

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.

Sails in the Hurdle Mould

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?

Cleft Hazel

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.

Half made Hurdle

Twyling Rods First

The Finished Article – Coming to a Show Near You!

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.

Alexanders coming into flower

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.

Ready for the table – yum!

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.

Three for the Pot

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.

New Potatoes – 25 June 2013

Out on the land seasons aren’t dictated by the official looking statements printed below numbers in the diary, ‘mid summer’s day’ etc. The sky and the growing grass, the bird song and the smell of the woods, the veg in the garden and the food on the plate –  this is the stuff of the countryman’s calender, for knowing is as nothing to feeling.

New Potatoes and Summer Cabbage


Another chapter in the year’s story has opened with the first digging of new potatoes. It almost seems cheating  for such a leave alone crop to taste so fantastic, but we’re not adverse to a bit of that and it was with a deep pleasure I raised the golden tubers from the warm earth, anticipating them nestled round a roast leg of lamb.

Fat Hen and Chickweed


It’s not before time that the garden produced something substantial –  we’ve eaten more ‘weeds’ than crops in the last month, though in fairness Fat Hen and Chickweed are so good that they’d be worth growing in their own right if they didn’t just appear of their own accord.

Hen and Chick braised with Indian Spices


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18th June 2013 – Chequer Returns

Chequer, the impish jackdaw which I raised from a fledgling last summer, has returned to Foxridge. Having not seem him for six months, I was convinced that he had succumbed to a sparrow hawk or a shot gun or simply moved away, but all the same I would always call out wistfully to passing jackdaws. Last Saturday one replied with the immature ‘feed me cry’ and I knew immediately that my old fried was back. He left as bold as brass in the Autumn, but the intervening months have taught him reserve and it took a few minutes of calling for him to come down. Despite being confident with me again, he’s still wary of Em and Gabriel and I wonder what befell him in his absence? Although jackdaws can be taught to speak, he’ll ever reveal his adventures and I will be left to wonder.

'A Bird in the Hand'


As I write Chequer is tapping at the window for breakfast and doing a fine job of clearing the spiders from around the frame as he waits.

Breakfast Please Dad


The oil seed rape is all but over now and as predicted the pitiful honey crop was already starting to crystallize in the cells. Rape honey is notorious for this and if left unextracted goes rock hard and has to be chopped from the frames and melted, resulting in many destroyed combs and a load of second rate honey. I have tarried before to my detriment, so yesterday I spun out (a honey extractor uses centrifugal force to draw the honey from the combs) what little honey there was, so little infact I haven’t even weighed it. I hope for warm weather to come, or I face another disastrous year for honey.

Emptying the Extractor

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14th June 2013 – Feeding the Ferrets

The official tally of young ferrets this year is thirty-one from four jills –  one litter numbered thirteen which is probably one of the largest I’ve seen. As the kits grow, the appetite of their milk producing mothers becomes insatiable and at the point when the kits start eating solids as well, it is a job to keep up with the demand for meat. Not everyone feeds flesh, but that’s what ferrets are designed to eat and if you want healthy well grown young, feeding them on whole animals, in fur and feather is essential.

Soon each ferret family will be eating a whole rabbit, or the equivalent daily and regular early morning excursions with the gun have become a necessity. Friends help out as well from time to time and there can’t be many people who are left dead creatures hanging from their door handle and are actually grateful!

Ferret Food!

Most of the veg is planted out now and we enter the satisfying season of hoeing and watching the plants romp away.

Little Gem Letuce

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10th June 2013 – More New Arrivals

High pitched squeaking, like a choir of impatient mice, announced the first litter of ferret kits a couple of weeks back and now four of my  jills have given birth. The fifth, ‘Honey’ didn’t come into season and I’m not sorry, she is a grandmother with more greats proceeding than I can easily remember and deserves a rest. Most jills are brilliant mothers and given the right conditions and food get on with the job entirely unaided. It’s  fascinating to watch their behavior and I particularly enjoy seeing the mothers gently carrying the blind kits back to the nest when they stray, or when they are dragged across the hutch still attached to a nipple if feeding time’s disturbed. This maternal instinct can last for years and adult jills kept with their mothers can still expect to be dragged in by the scruff when it’s time for bed!

Ferret Kits in Well Feathered Nest


Week by week the silent vigils of hens dotted around in various boxes and hutches are ending, as fluffy chicks bubble out from beneath them. You can always tell when a hen has hatched chicks because her tone changes when disturbed, the indignant muted squawk which is often accompanied by a peck, replaced by a guttural purr, usually accompanied by an even harder peck.

Broody With Indian Game Cross Chick

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4th June 2013 – Roe-d Kill!

The otherwise monotonous act of driving has one large benefit, save for simply arriving at one’s intended location – road kill. No other mode of transport allows long distances to be traversed, whilst still having the ability to stop and the space to deposit a dead creature. I must have picked up literally tonnes of free meat in my life, most of which has been fed to ferrets, or used in my ‘protein hopper’, the sanitized name I use for a hanging barrel with small holes in the bottom and a large one at the top. Unwanted meat goes in, nature takes its course, high protein chicken food comes out in the form of maggots, egg production goes up and we are all happy – except Em when the wind blows towards the house! Quality finds however, are too good for the livestock and are are gathered for the cooking pot. Pheasants, ducks (domestic and wild), hedgehogs, thrushes and finches have all found there way to my plate via the tarmac, but the prince of all pre-tenderized meats has to be venison.

Anything up to the size of a fox can be snatched up virtually on the move by opening the drivers door and leaning out, but a deer is a quite different matter. Picking up Bambi takes fortitude of character, a strong arm and sometimes a taste for danger (as well as good meat). Your average Jo doesn’t care much for the sight of a bloody carcass being hauled up the road and I recall a few months back the array of looks, bewilderment and disgust amongst them, as I struggled the knee buckling weight of a fallow buck across a busy A road during rush hour. I had been looking for a gap in the traffic,but one car stopped and before I knew it I had a twenty strong audience gawping at me from both directions. The riskiest retrieval was from the central reservation of a motorway section of the A21 near Tonbridge when Em and I dragged another large buck across three lanes of motorway traffic to reach our old Kia Pride, (a car which provokes anything but) on the hard shoulder.

Road Kill Roe Buck in Chiller Room


I have been thrown in to road kill yarn telling because a couple of days back we found a roe buck freshly killed whilst on our way back from visiting family. It was a fine beast and now resides in the freezer.

After Skinning


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1st June 2013 – Wild Stem Artichoke

A modest bit of re-branding would I’m sure lead to many people enjoying foraged food much more. Hand someone a  hairy bitter cress leaf and (understandably) they look at you with the horror of one expected to gulp back a rotund fury caterpillar. Give them the same leaf, referring to it as ‘wild cress’ and it’s straight in the mouth with no questions asked! Thistles are the same.  No one wants to eat them because they are associated with pain and sore bums on childhood picnics, but it’s a shame as creeping thistle stem tastes exactly like the related globe artichoke and is common beyond belief. However, were it put on a restaurant menu as ‘wild stem artichoke’ , I have no doubt that people would rave about it.

Creeping Thistle


Creeping thistles are in peak condition for harvesting now, their flower heads just beginning to form. Gabriel and I gathered a few stems whilst out checking cattle for my good friend S, whose father and farming partner is unable to work for a while, owing to fracturing his neck! Having de-leafed, peeled and steamed them Em and I devoured the delicate morsels for lunch, dipped in a simple vinaigrette.

'Wild Stem Artichoke'!

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28th May 2013 – Bee-hind

After the difficult conditions for bees last year I was hoping for something better this summer, but again things are not looking promising. Like the hawthorn (which is out now), my colonies are a month behind and despite being healthy, simply haven’ t built the worker numbers to capitalise on the abundant blossom and flowers. The icy Spring past is to blame for that and once again the weather is not good and thousands of bees or not, there won’t be a drop of honey until the sun shines!

On the up side, there is little sign of varroa in the hives. Despite being told at a lecture on these parasitic mites, that without treatment a honey bee colony with varroa will die within 4 years, I am now entering my 9th year chemical free! I may be an apiarist  in a fools paradise, but it appears that my bees have developed some resistance to varroa, or at least the pathagens the mites carry. This is not entirely surprising, as when I resumed beekeeping many years back I collected wild swarms to put in my hives rather than buying from another beekeeper. Admittedly there was a cost factor, but more over I had noticed  wild bee colony reestablishing themselves, after having been all but wiped out when varroa arrived. That to me suggested a level of resistance in the wild/feral stock.

This year more than ever I am reminded of the old saying ‘ Ne’er cast a clout till may is out’. Assuming that it is a reference to ploughing and sowing when hawthorn is in bloom, it seems to make some sense. This season has provided an extreme example of how hawthorn reacts to a cold spring. Whilst other trees and flowers seem to have been able to accelerate the onset of blooming in response to the onset of warm weather, the hawthorn seems never to have made up the ‘lost’ time. Soil temperature takes a long time to rise, even when the weather turns hot and perhaps the flowering of hawthorn, though not necessarily linked directly,  coincides with its attaining a reasonable temperature for germination. Seth has only just sown his maize for example and Rodger has held off planting kale until now as well.

Hawthorn or May Blossom


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24th May 2013 – Fairy Ring Champignon

After the a poor showing of St George’s Mushrooms a few Fairy Ring Champignon brought on by the rain are a very welcome addition to the larder. Their drying qualities are fabled and a few hours left in a warm car was all that was needed.

Dried Fairy Ring Champignon


The rain showers and sun created something else of fairy tale enchantment today –  a rainbow arching from the white cowled oasts over to the lush pasture opposite.


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22nd May 2013 – Bull Finches

The front lawn has been left to grow wild for the sake of the bulbs and is now dotted with the downy spheres of dandelion seed heads. Gold finches are the usual birds seen harvesting the tiny umbrella seeds, but for a week now a pair of bull finches have been visiting to feed. The cock bird is exquisite. He sits on the old green house frame (still lying were it blew two months back) and stretching up to the towering clocks, reveals fully the warm salmon pink of his breast. My spirits leap whenever I notice the pair and I often watch transfixed for many minutes until they are gone, white rumps bobbing into the distance.

Dandelion Clock


When I was a boy bull finches were still considered vermin, thanks to their  habit of de-budding fruit trees and the little creatures were  hunted with zeal on the Boxing Day shoot. The call would go up ‘bull finch’ and the heavily armed beating line would erupt simultaneously, like the broad side from a man of war, a pound or two of lead sent to destroy the daintiest of prey. Despite the barrages, few actually fell, for there are many finch sized holes in a shotgun pattern and I never recall more than two or three amongst the day’s bag, laid out with care before the old farm house.

May wears on but where’s the may? Hawthorn is still not fully out and it will come a full month later than usual. Yesterday evening the unmistakably heavy thud of a may-bug striking the window pane spoke of a mild night to come and I was glad of it, having recently planted out all my bean plants.

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20th May 2013 – Turkey Chicks

Although most years I endeavour to do most of my incubation under broody birds of various sorts (hens, turkeys or geese), this year has been so dismal for fertility and hatching that I have had to resort to filling up a couple of incubators.

The first turkey chicks hatched over night and as I write I can hear them bumping around in the incubator. As soon as they dry off they’ll be put in the brooder where they can start feeding and drinking. Chicken eggs in the neighbouring incubator are also starting to pip, so I have my fingers crossed for a decent hatching this time.

Newly Hatched Turkey Chicks

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