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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Friday 31 May 2013

Coastal Foraging Course

Hedgerows, fields and railway embankments are all familiar territory to me. I grew up in the middle of England and often went for walks in the countryside, where my parents would point out various plants to me. This made a good foundation for learning about which wild plants are edible, and how to find them. The seashore, on the other hand, is somewhat more alien territory. Although I've had seaside holidays throughout my life, and have vague memories of different shellfish being pointed out, a rockpool just doesn't have the familiarity of the hedgerow. When I look at seaweed, that's all I see: Seaweed - an undifferentiated, rubbery mass.

I know seaweed can seem unappetising - I read a comment on this somewhere (sorry, lost the source): Since most people's only experience of seaweed is when it's rotting on the beach, it's hardly surprising they don't want to eat it. If the only apples we saw were the ones that had fallen from the tree and were rotting on the ground, we wouldn't be too keen on eating them, either. However, I'm aware that seaweed's edible - indeed, I've eaten some in oriental dishes - and would like to learn more about it. I felt a bit out of my depth, though, and didn't know where to start. Then I saw Wild Pickings' coastal foraging course advertised. That would be the ideal introduction!

I signed up to the course and went to meet Jade at the foot of Consitution Hill, at 1pm as arranged. Unfortunately, my timekeeping is appalling and I hadn't accounted for bank holiday weekend parking, so I ended up parking at the wrong end of the promenade, at ten past one. I tried to call Jade to let her know, but she had no phone signal. In the meantime, she didn't check her list too carefully, thought she had everyone, and set off. This was just as well, as I wouldn't have wanted to hold everyone up.

I decided to try and catch them up. I knew where we were heading, so I hurried up the hill, joined the coast path at the top, and set off at a brisk pace towards Clarach Bay. It was a beautiful day and a very pleasant walk (after I'd recovered from the hill), but no sign of Jade and her group of foraging students. As I looked down at the beach, still no sign of them, but I went down anyway and wandered about a bit, then decided to sit and eat my picnic lunch. At this point I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was only 2pm. The foraging walk was advertised as a four hour event. Somehow I must have got ahead of them, I thought, and decided to wait. After lunch I pottered about the rock pools a bit...

Rocks at Clarach Bay

... then spied a group of hippies looking purposefully into pools. I hurried over to join them and sure enough it was Jade and her students. They'd taken a detour into the woodlands on the way, which is how I'd missed them. Although it was halfway through the afternoon by the time I caught up with them, I still got to learn about seaweeds, which for me, was the whole point of the course. There was also a picnic on the beach, for which Jade had prepared several of the seaweeds (washed/dried/cooked as required) so we could taste the finished foods. She recommended not eating too much at a time, as it can disagree with the digestion, especially if you're not used to it, so most of the foods had just a little seaweed in, almost as seasoning. On the way back she showed me a few of the plants that I'd missed on the way out, which was very kind and an added bonus for me.

I realise I've just written a blog post about how rubbish I am, rather than what I learnt on the course. I'm going to leave that for now, partly because I didn't get many photos (but do look at Jade's beautiful pictures on her facebook page), but mostly because I'd like to introduce the seaweeds one at a time in my Foraged Food Fridays series. I've already written the first of these, it being Friday, so you can read about my first experiments with seaweed here.

Foraged Food Friday: Carrageen

For some time, I have harboured an ambition to make cheap ice cream. I have made various ice creams from various recipes, and they all tend to involve real cream and possibly eggs too. The result is rich, luxurious, and rather expensive. Since we quite like the cheap stuff we grew up with, I started wondering how to make that at home. What could I use to pad out the expensive ingredients? What do the commercial producers use?

A study of ingredients lists revealed something called carrageenan. What's that, then? A bit of googling gave me the answer: It's seaweed. More precisely, it's derived from seaweed, but it's possible to get an extract without any fancy processing. What I need then, is the right kind of seaweed.

I was delighted, therefore, that Saturday's foraging course included carrageen, otherwise known as Irish Moss. I was even more delighted when I went to the beach a few days later to put my learning into practice, that the first seaweed I spotted and identified was also carrageen, and there was plenty of it. I snipped a few strands into my foraging box, brought them home, and rinsed them thoroughly (always essential with seaweed, to remove sand as well as salt).

Carrageen (Chondrus crispus), also known as Irish Moss, in a rock pool

Having gathered and washed my seaweed, I needed a recipe, or at least some clues about how to use it in ice cream. Googling drew a blank. Many pages made reference to its use in ice cream, but none told me how to do it. What I did find was a traditional Irish pudding made by boiling the seaweed in milk and cooling until set - essentially a blancmange (I haven't had that for years!) or milk jelly. Maybe I could try making that and freezing it, with the usual ice cream-making trick of stirring at intervals as it freezes.

Recipes varied considerably in how much carrageen was required, from 1/8 oz to half a pound per pint of milk. To make matters worse, they mostly used dried carrageen, whereas I had fresh. I'd just have to guess, then. I used this much:

The long pod at the top is vanilla

I added about a pint of milk and heated to just simmering for about 20 min. It needed a lot of stirring to keep it from sticking, which I took to be a good sign. I should probably also mention that there was no hint of seaweed smell; all I could smell was hot milk and vanilla. After 20 min I poured the mixture through a sieve then stirred in a rounded tablespoonful of sugar. I poured a little into a ramekin to set in the fridge, just to see what the traditional pudding was like. The rest went into the freezer, and got stirred every half hour or so throughout the afternoon. That was more frequently than it needed, but I couldn't leave it alone!

First, the traditional pudding:

Carrageen pudding.
I added a little cinnamon - probably should have added it in smaller pieces

Well, it certainly set. Indeed, you could even describe the result as elastic. This wasn't the easiest pudding to get out of the bowl. On the other hand, it was delicious. I feel an investment in jelly moulds coming on.

As for the ice cream...

Seaweed ice cream

It tasted good enough when tested while it was freezing, which isn't very surprising as it was the same stuff as the pudding. It showed similar gelatinous qualities, too, and promised to be a very soft ice cream. This would be a big bonus, as home made ice cream usually needs to be taken out of the freezer some time before serving, to soften. However, the texture wasn't right: In spite of all my stirring, it formed very large ice crystals. It was soft when I served it in the evening, but by lunch time the next day (when I took the photo. I had to have more to get a photo by daylight) it had hardened, so it wasn't even that easy to serve. The large ice crystals puzzled me, as carrageenan - the commercially used extract - is an emulsifier, so I'd have thought it would prevent big crystals forming.

I was a bit disappointed, but I suppose I shouldn't be very surprised that my first experiment didn't come out quite right. This is definitely worth persevering with. The traditional pudding was delicious and the ice cream has potential. Next time I'll use a little less carrageen and maybe try adding an egg. That's still not terribly extravagant. I'll also try using carrageen in place of cornflour to thicken gravy, and perhaps other sauces if that goes well.

Also harvesting this week
Dulse (seaweed - dried for future use)
Rosebay willowherb stems (in salad)
Rosebay willowherb leaves (for ale)
Bay leaves
Wild garlic
Ground elder
Tulip petals

Also drinking
Heather ale

Also eating
Knotweed chutney (you're supposed to leave it for three months to mature, but I keep thinking of things I want chutney for)
Blackcurrant wine (in stew, so this counts as eating, not drinking)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Friday 24 May 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Rosebay willowherb

After several attempts last year, I learnt how to get the best out of rosebay willowherb: When the young plants are shooting up all over the place, as they are at the moment, lose the strong-tasting top section and the woody bottom section, and peel the middle part of the stem.

Preparing rosebay willowherb (Chamerion* angustifolium)

I'm not sure how to describe the flavour, but I quite like it. It's a fiddle to extract the tasty bit, so I wouldn't bother gathering much. I think this is best as a snack when out walking, rather than trying to collect enough for a significant contribution to a meal. I'm glad I found out how to eat it, though.

Also harvesting this week
Oak leaves for wine
Ground elder
Dandelion flowers
Tulip petals
Wild garlic

Also drinking
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

* Also known as Epilobium angustifolium.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Too many projects!

If things have seemed a bit quiet here lately, it's because they've been very busy in real life. I feel that I am not one of life's multi-taskers; I function best when I have one project at a time to throw myself into. If only I could manage to keep this state of affairs, I'd be happy as anything.

Currently, I have four major projects: Garden, solar panels, village hall consultation, and Wild West Wales. The last of these could just as well go on the list of ongoing responsibilities, which include the foraging challenge, running the philosophy group, admin for book club, getting food on the table every day, working at the falls and of course, writing blog posts (including this one!) I've also decided to go to the conference I was considering, so spent a large part of yesterday booking trains, planes and hotels. I can also add, Sort out computer as it's currently taking about half an hour to start up and runs too slowly for watching videos.

I have lots to tell you about and I'll do my best to get round to it, but bear with me while life goes a little crazy. In the meantime, check out this video of Funke and the Two Tone Baby. He played here on Saturday and he was awesome!

Friday 17 May 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Hawthorn leaves

Fresh new leaves are bursting forth on all the trees, including hawthorn.

Hawthorn leaves, slightly blurred because it was windy.

I've tried these before and found them rather tough raw, so this time I cooked them (steamed, over pasta) and added them to cheese sauce. I've heard they go well with cheese. Hmm... they didn't really taste of anything much. Considering how small and fiddly they are to harvest, and how much else is around at this time of year, I don't think these are worth bothering with.

Also harvesting this week
Wild garlic (for pesto - delicious!)
Ground elder
Japanese knotweed* (made into chutney)

Also drinking
Blackcurrant cordial
Dandelion wine (the last bottle of last year's, saved for when this year's was in the demijohns, which it is)

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

* If you pick Japanese knotweed, you must destroy any pieces that you don't eat, otherwise they will grow into new plants. This is the most invasive plant on the planet (or something like that), and propagating it, which you could do by just dropping a piece, is a criminal offence.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Home made firelighters and a rack to dry them on

After hacking back an unruly leylandii or ripping out brambles, it's nice to be able to put the bits to good use and, as it happens, both of these make excellent firelighters.

Bundles of bramble and coils of leylandii drying on the wheelbarrow

The trouble is, they take a long time to dry (which is why I make them in spring for use next winter) and they can't sit on the wheelbarrow for that long. I needed a better drying rack.

I went down to the workshop and hunted out the wire shelves that originally came from a cheap plastic greenhouse, before being used as store room shelves, which collapsed catastrophically a couple of years ago. I found three shelves - I thought there were more than that - and applied string.

Three-shelf drying rack hanging in the conservatory

So far so good, but that's almost full and I have more brambles. I found a piece of chicken wire that was last used as a bin for making leaf mould - completely ineffectively, as it was too small and all the leaves blew out. That was about twice the size of a shelf, so I cut in in half. It wasn't rigid enough for shelves, so I fetched some metal poles from the same old, cheap greenhouse, and wrapped the wire round them a bit before tying it all together with more string.

Five-shelf drying rack

That basket of dandelions doesn't really need to be on the rack, as the basket itself allows quite good air flow, but it might as well sit there until I've made more firelighters. Bundles of brambles are just as prickly as you'd expect them to be but once dry, they do go up well.

Friday 10 May 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Vetch

I've always been fond of the pretty little sweet-pea flowers of vetch.

Several varieties of vetch

More recently I've learnt that it can be used as a green manure as, in common with other legumes, it fixes nitrogen from the air and so enriches the soil. For this use, it seems to be known as tares.

However, neither of these valuable attributes are the point of this blog post. As you've probably guessed by now, vetch is also edible. I believe you can eat the immature seeds, just like peas, but they're tiny and really not worth the bother. I've tried eating the pods, but the lining is very tough and scratchy, so I wouldn't bother eating that bit either. No, the part I eat is the young leaves (which are also edible in garden peas).

Young vetch shoots.

You do have to watch out for ants when picking these.

Ants are often found in the folds of the youngest leaves, which are the most tender

I've found that the purple-flowered variety has broader, softer leaves than the other colours. Luckily, this is the kind I have most of in my garden. They can be eaten raw but I usually steam them for five minutes or so, as I would for any other leafy vegetable. They taste somewhat like peas and are definitely worth harvesting, especially as they're so abundant. So, vigorous to the point of invasive, pretty flowers, tasty leaves (and seeds if you can be bothered) and they're good for the soil. What's not to like?

Also harvesting this week
Ground elder
Tulip petals
Dandelion flowers (to dry for tea, as well as eating immediately)
Wild garlic
Rose bay willow herb stems
Mint (yay, it must be summer!)

Also drinking
Blackcurrant cordial
Heather ale

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Planting out seed-grown potatoes

Although I'm mostly very behind with the garden this year, my seed-grown potatoes have been coming on nicely.

Potato seedlings getting a bit big for that pot

I've dug over half the bed where potatoes are going, so I dug a trench, added some horse muck and garden compost, and eased the seedlings out of the pot.

Baby potatoes!

To my delight, I discovered that many of the seedlings have tiny little potatoes already growing on their roots. Some have five or six pinhead-sized tubers and others, like the one in the photo, have one or two half-inch long little spuds. This way of growing potatoes is much more fun than the usual way! I hope it works.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Foraged Food Friday: Bracken

A bit late with this one, but again, I did eat the food on Friday.

When I first heard that bracken is edible, I also learnt two things: It's carcinogenic and it's considered a delicacy in Japan. Hmm, if both those facts are true, how come the Japanese aren't dropping like flies? I did some research, the results of which I completely failed to keep (and sorry, but I don't have time right now to do it again) and found that both of these facts are indeed true. In some oriental cultures (not just Japan), large quantities are eaten around this time of year. Since Japan is the kind of place where large-scale surveys may be conducted and analysed to address questions such as links between diet and cancer risk (in common with the UK, America, and much of Europe), it has been established that eating bracken is associated with an increased risk of cancer.

If it takes that kind of scientific study to establish the risk, it can't be such a great risk that one is liable to drop dead from eating a few fronds. There are other things in my diet that increase the risk of cancer, notably red meat and alcohol, but I consider the risk to be small enough that I won't avoid these things entirely. I tried to find some estimate of how great the cancer risk is from eating bracken, relative to foods I'm more familiar with, but couldn't find any studies that put numbers on it. I've come to the conclusion that it's in the same ballpark, and not a great enough risk to put me off trying this oriental delicacy.

Bracken grows all over the place round here, and I'd really rather it didn't grow in the main part of my garden. If it turns out to be worth eating, that would be some consolation for the fact I can't get rid of it. The first fronds are starting to unfurl now.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum).
These young, half-unfurled fronds are known as fiddleheads.

I picked all of these and steamed them for ten minutes, then served with butter as a side vegetable. Wow! I'm with the Japanese on this one. Of many wild plants that get compared with asparagus, this is the first I've tried that truly bears comparison. The flavour isn't the same, but I'd say it's as good and from me, that's saying a lot. As for the cancer risk, between this, the roast beef and red wine I had with it, I'm not sure what's going to kill me first.

Edit: After eating more bracken, I've learnt that the taste is quite variable. I guess there's some tasty compound that occurs in variable amounts. Sometimes there's so little that the fronds don't taste of anything very much and sometimes there's so much that the flavour is unpleasantly strong, and somewhat bitter. It's when there's just the right amount that the flavour is something special.

Edit again: (This one does seem to be causing me some trouble). I'd noticed that there are two types of fern in my garden, but for some reason thought that they were two varieties of bracken. Chatting to my neighbour Gill recently, she said that she thought none of the ferns in her garden were actually bracken. Since we have very similar wild plants, this alarmed me somewhat so I asked her to show them to me and explain.

Looking at the hillside she said, Those ones on your side of the fence are definitely bracken; they have stalks. These ones on our side are some other fern; the leaves unroll right from the base. Ah. I've been eating both kinds. Oh well, I still seem to be alive with no obvious ill effects. From now on I'll stick to the kind with stalks, and I've replaced the photo in this post so that it actually does show bracken, not some other kind of fern. I think the actual bracken is more reliably nice to eat, too.

Also harvesting this week:
Dandelions flowers for wine
Goose grass
Ground Elder
Wild garlic

Also drinking this week:
Heather ale
Blackcurrant wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.