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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Beech leaves... and the rest

There's a traditional drink, similar in process but less well known (at least in this country) than sloe gin, called beech leaf noyau. I had the opportunity to try some at a festival last summer and... well, it tasted of gin. All the same, it got me thinking: Having had such success with my sloe wine, perhaps I could try the same trick with beech leaves, i.e. skip the gin and just make wine with them?

Beech leaves (Fagus sylvatica)

As I have a beech hedge, I have no shortage of leaves, and the task of picking them can be combined with tidying up the hedge. This meant I ended up with quite a lot of twigs in with my leaves, making the volume difficult to estimate. They filled my jamming kettle, which has a capacity of 15 pints/ 8½ litres. I thought it was probably about twice as much volume as the oak leaves I picked (but much quicker to pick!) I stuck to my usual simple recipe of boiling the leaves for about 45 min and then putting leaves and water together into the bucket with just shy of two kilos of sugar (I'd used a little from the bag already) and topped up to about two gallons of water, then added yeast (kept from the bay herb ale). After four or five days, it was strained into demijohns and left alone. This was in early June, so it's had about seven months to ferment and mature.

I wasn't sure it would be ready as there are still some bubbles on the surface, which is why I left it to last, but with a bit of de-fizzing it was fine. What looked in the demijohn like a light brown colour appeared in the glass more as a pinkish tinge - very pretty. And the taste - wow, this stuff is good! It's rich and smooth, slightly nutty, maybe a hint of vanilla... am I getting pretentious? I'm not very good at describing wine, you'll just have to make some and try it for yourself.

When I wrote about dandelions in the last post, I thought it was nice, at the end of the foraging challenge, to return to the beginning of my foraging journey. In a way, this one represents the challenge even better. I drew on information and brewing skills that I've learnt, tried an experiment, and the result is surprisingly good. Cheers!

Also harvesting this week
Evening primrose roots

Also eating
Crab apple jelly
Rosehip vinegar
Ceps (from dried)

Also drinking
Oak leaf wine
Hopped ale

As for the rest? Well, this is my fifty-third post in a fifty-two week challenge, and I have lots of foraged foods still to tell you about. I did wonder about continuing the series, as many of these foods are preserved, but I'd like to finish the challenge and move onto something new. As a compromise, here are some brief notes on a selection (i.e. the ones I've remembered) of foraged foods, mostly seaweeds and mushrooms.

Green laver
Thanks to a field guide that told me laver is green when young, I picked a load of this thinking it was black laver. It was only when I got home and did further research that I realised I'd picked a differnet seaweed entirely. However, this is also used in oriental cuisine, as a condiment, and that's how I've been using it. Dried and toasted (it only takes a few seconds) it can be crumbled over food and has a strong, savoury flavour. I find it goes particularly well with slightly sweet dishes, such as pumpkin soup.

Another green seaweed, this is the kind you get deep fried in Chinese restaurants (if it's not cabbage standing in). It's tricky to clean all the sand out of the fine fronds, though. I have some dried, but it's gritty so I think I'll probably throw it away.

This seaweed is distinctively pink. I dried quite a lot of this and intended to include it in the foraging series, but kept eating it, so I had none left to write about. It tastes a bit like shellfish and simply dried, it makes a very nice, crisp snack.

The last of my seaweeds, kelp isn't something I'd want to eat on its own. It's reputed to add a savoury depth to soups and stews if you put a piece in while cooking, rather like a bay leaf. I've been using it in this way, but John Wright has tested the theory in leek soup and found it makes no difference. I'd like to do my own test before I'm entirely convinced, because I think meat or beans would be a more appropriate flavour. In the meantime, I still have a tin full in the cupboard.

Fairy ring champignon
Being late summer mushrooms, these were amongst the first I learned to identify, and they're delicious.

They generally grow in grassland, but two patches came up in my terrace. Actually, I have no idea how to classify that environment for the sake of mushroom identification, so I just have to be extra careful on the other features.

Blusher mushrooms
It's important to be able to distinguish these from panther caps. As well as subtle differences in colouring, there's a key distinguishing feature in the ring: The blusher mushroom has grooves on its ring and the panther cap doesn't.

I'm pretty sure the one on the left is a blusher mushroom and the one on the right is a panther cap, but I'd want a good look at the ring before eating one.

Grooved ring of blusher mushroom.

Although I've now seen enough of both of these to recognise them by sight, if I can't find those distinguishing grooves, I won't eat it. Even then, blushers need cooking before eating, and once cooked, they're a pleasant, if unremarkable mushroom. They're common, so I picked quite a few and dried them, making a useful contribution to the winter store cupboard.

Brown birch boletes
Rated by some mushroom hunters as worthless - sludgy and 'orrible, according to Hunter Gatherer Cook, I think these are quite useful for adding a mushroomy depth to stews. It's true that they do dissolve into a dark, sludgy mush when cooked, so I wouldn't fry them to eat on their own, but in my opinion the flavour is not very different from an elderly cep, and they're so common it's a shame to let them go to waste. Like the blushers, I have a jar full dried.

Scarletina boletes
I'm really sorry I don't have photos of this one, or even better a video, because the colours are great fun. It has a dark brown cap, but the underside and stem are bright red and when you cut the flesh it's bright yellow, then quickly turns dark blue. Once cooked, it all turns a boring brown, but the flavour's good. I didn't find enough of them to preserve, so I'll just have to look out for these again next year.

Oyster mushrooms
It says something about how well this challenge went that oyster mushrooms didn't warrant an entry of their own. Not only did I find the semi-cultivated ones at my sister's, I applied my new-found knowledge of their habits to find them in the wild. I learnt that they grow on beech trees and often emerge shortly after a sharp cold spell. We had a few days of freezing weather... it warmed up... I waited a couple of days then went to a patch of beech woodland nearby... I searched, and found them! I picked about three quarters of a pound of young mushrooms, and they were delicious. I loved the feeling of competence I got from applying knowledge like this.

Garlic mustard seeds
Having read about Atomic Shrimp's experiment making a condiment out of these, I collected and dried some with a view to trying the same. In the end, I used them in pickled samphire instead, and the result was very good.

Oak moss
I was very excited to learn that this lichen is edible, as there's not much else going at this time of year, and it's also high carbohydrate, which is rare in wild food. Someone mentioned it on a forum, then when I did some research I found one other article online about eating it, which was presumably the source for the first one I saw as the cooking instructions were identical but the second one I found explained how she arrived at this technique. OK, so I've found two people on the internet who've eaten it and survived. It's not the most ringing endorsement, but it probably means it's safe to eat. (Looking again, I've just found it in a River Cottage recipe and several other place. It's amazing how much difference it can make to use slightly different wording in a google search.)

There's loads of this on the trees around here and recent storms have blown a lot down, so it's easy to gather a handful just from what's fallen. For my first attempt, I followed the cautious cooking instructions that involved boiling in two changes of water before deep frying. By the time I'd boiled it twice it was a soggy mess. I squeezed the water out and fluffed it up before frying but even so, I'd cooked the life out of it. The final crisps could have been anything. For a second attempt I tried the traditional method of steaming before frying. It certainly held its shape better but when I ate it there was an edge to the flavour - the word acrid came to mind - which put me off eating very much of it. There may be a happy medium, but I'm not sure I can be bothered to find it at the moment. On the plus side, this lichen that's mostly used for perfume left the cooking oil scented pleasantly. That's been quite nice on rice salads and suchlike.

Fir cones
This one was an impulsive forage. On the way to pick bilberries, I spotted what looked like chopped apple, scattered over the forest floor. On closer inspection, these turned out to be large, fleshy fir cones of a kind I'm not familiar with that had been taken apart by animals (presumably squirrels) to extract the kernels from the middle. Hmm, thought I, I like pine kernels... I picked one out and tasted it - wow, that resin's strong! OK, so I wouldn't eat these nuts as they are, but that fir cone resin is an interesting flavour...

I picked up a couple of cones (they're big) to take home. The first thing I did was try to identify the tree (tip: It's easier if you have more than just the fruit to go on) - I'm pretty sure it's Abies alba, the European silver fir - then tried to find out whether it's safe to eat. The only relevant information I could find was about its use in cough medicines, so I concluded that it's reasonably safe.

That done, I had to decide what to do with it. I reckoned I'd need an organic solvent to extract the flavour and chose two; vodka and vinegar. I thought that once the resin was soaked out, the kernels might be good to eat, so I separated out the cones into kernels and fleshy parts and soaked the kernels in vinegar, then divided the flesh between more vinegar and some vodka. I also added hogweed seeds to the vodka.

Bits of fir cone in solvents

Some months later, I tried a couple of the kernels. They're far too tough to be worth the effort of preparing like this. What about the liquids? They were both an encouraging shade of brown/red and smelled of the fir cone resin.

Fir cone vodka

Disappointingly, although it smells good, the vodka tastes mainly of, well, vodka. Oh well, I suppose I haven't lost anything. The vinegar - which turned dramatically black shortly after decanting - is another story. That is packed with flavour. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to use it for yet, but I have successfully extracted the fir cone flavour into a condiment.

Bilberries, and foraged Christmas pudding
Bilberries are similar to blueberries, but smaller, and very fiddly to harvest even when they grow in huge quantities, as they do around here. I quite like them, but can't get that excited about them as a fresh fruit. On the other hand, they're small enough to dry quite easily, and make a good substitute for currants. With this starting point, I decided to have a go at making a foraged Christmas pudding this year. In addition to the bilberries, I had a few dried blackcurrants and some old, dried rosehips. I felt the latter would benefit from soaking in brandy, so I did. Adapting a Delia Smith recipe, I came up with:

  • Bilberries (mostly), blackcurrants and (rosehips soaked in brandy) - together 4 oz
  • Sloe puree, from sloe wine - 3/4 jam jar
  • Tallow - 2 oz
  • Hogweed seeds - 1 tsp
  • Nutmeg - ½ tsp
  • Cinnamon - ½ tsp
  • Flour - 1 oz
  • Baking powder (this seemed an unlikely ingredient to me, but I put a bit in anyway)
  • Dark brown sugar - 2 oz
  • Bread soaked in damson jam - most of kilner jar full (I wanted dried damsons, ideally, but the closest I had was jam)
  • Breadcrumbs - sprinkle
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 tblsp dandelion and honeysuckle ale
It's not entirely foraged, but number of actual bought ingredients is quite small.

I also quite liked the idea of cooking this in a cloth, the old fashioned way, mainly because this was August and I didn't fancy having one of my pudding basins tied up until December. I found and followed instructions for doing this, but I note two things: If you boil a sugary thing wrapped in cloth, much of the sugar will end up in the water. If you hang a sugary thing up, even in a cool place with good airflow, it will go mouldy. I tried to mitigate the latter by soaking the cloth in brandy, but it was already soaked in sugar solution, so didn't absorb the spirit. After a few weeks I saw the first signs of mould, and decided another strategy would be necessary. I scraped the mould off the outside then microwaved the whole thing to kill it. I then unwrapped the by-now soft pudding, which promptly disintegrated. I packed the squishy mess into a Kilner jar as tightly as possible, added a thin layer of brandy for good measure, and sealed it up.

My intention was to eat this at the conventional time, i.e. Christmas day, but we had an unexpected invitation to join friends for Christmas dinner, so I ate their pudding instead (and very good it was too) while mine stayed in the cupboard. This week, in celebration of completing the foraging challenge (OK, it's January, I feel the need for sweet and stodgy food), it is pudding time! It was actually firm enough to hold its shape, but the jar didn't allow for turning out of the pudding, so I scooped it out, added an egg white (I'd used the yolk for mayonnaise), mixed with a little flour and sugar, which should stick it all together pretty well, packed it into a well greased pudding basin, and microwaved. In spite of all due preparations, I was quite surprised when it actually turned out of the basin.

It's nice, too. Not exactly like a traditional pudding, of course, and there's some room for improvement, but not at all bad. That, I think, rounds off the foraging year nicely. Happy New Year!

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

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