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A Tale of Tinctures

Tinctures were first introduced to me in my travelling years in northern England. A fellow man of the roads named Pete had a reputation for working effectively with plant medicines and treating people who lived on the sites where we lived when they went down with coughs, colds and tummy bugs. Pete introduced me to his passion for making simple tinctures and 25 years on I make and use them all the time.



Preparing a batch of fresh herb for tincturing

Tinctures need not be a mystery, in fact in this blog I am going to tell you all about what they are, why they are useful and I'm generally going to de-mystify them for you, as one of the things that I often get asked is 'what is a tincture'. Well... tinctures are useful things, I reply!

All living things, including plants, are absolutely jam-packed full of organic chemicals, many of which our amazing body is capable of using in different ways; there are essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, enzymes that catalyse chemical reactions in our bodies, materials that provide food for the healthy bacteria and fungi that live inside us, compounds that block certain chemical reactions and provide relief from processes such as inflammation, substances that tone up mucous membranes and toughen up tissue, the list goes on and on and on and is in fact huge! Aside from the minerals, all of these compounds are known as 'organic compounds' because they contain the basic carbon building blocks of organic life - so the term 'organic compounds' has nothing to do with organic agriculture, or the notion that 'organic things are good'. In this case, organic simply refers to the chemistry of carbon and molecules with a carbon backbone (think 'carbon based life-forms').

 Herbal pharmacy
 
Tinctures - potent herbal medicines in a compact form

A herbal tincture is a preparation where some of the organic compounds in herbs are 'extracted' in a solvent which is usually alcohol in the form of ethanol (brandy, vodka, etc.) but it can also be glycerol (called a 'glycerite'), or even vinegar, which is a source of the organic solvent ethanoic acid or 'acetic acid'. What matters here is that we are using various organic solvents to dissolve the organic compounds present and get them into a solution. Depending on the solvent used, as well as its strength or concentration and how much water is also present, different strengths of tinctures with different ranges of medicinal actions can be obtained. Some of the compounds present in plants do not dissolve very well at all in alcohol, so for example if you were keen to create a medicine that used the soothing mucilaginous ingredients found in mallows there would be little point in making a tincture of your mallow roots or leaves in spirit - the soothing slippery substance known as mucilage has a low solubility in ethanol. Once in a solution the dissolved compounds in a tincture become very available to the various chemical processes that happen when we ingest them. 

Angelica

Angelica, Angelica archangelica
used as an anti-microbial / anti-viral,
keep the acrid sap off of the skin when preparing

There is less in the way of organic compounds in a few drops of plant tincture than there was in the amount of herb that was used to make it, yet some tinctures behave in ways when we take them that point to their active principles being very readily available to the body. Some tinctures can be quite powerful in their actions; very often with tinctures a little plant goes a long way! 

To traditional folk herbalists a tincture is also much more than a chemical based medicine. In European folk belief, it is as if the very souls of the plants come to reside in the tinctures. Tinctures are seen as potions brimming with life forces and even consciousness rather than as the dead chemical medicines that we have come to expect, but that is a whole different story.

There are many methods that can be employed to make tinctures and each of them has its merits and its complications. Tinctures can be made by the slow passage of solvent through a large batch of herb material in the filtration method, and probably the most common method, the 'weight to volume method', requires that a given volume of solvent be used to extract the vital ingredients from a given weight of dried herbal material, providing a certain amount of standardisation as regards the process.

However it should be remembered that plants are not standard things. 
Depending on the weather patterns that year, the strains used, the soil type they are grown in, how many viral and insect attacks they have had to endure already and probably a whole load of other things we aren't even aware of, plants are not easily standardised.

The most simple tincturing methods use chopped up fresh plant material rather than dried and here I am going to give you the most basic method, often known as 'The Simplers' Method'. It is more than adequate for most home use in that it provides very effective tinctures at a low cost and for the minimum amount of effort. Really it is perfect for the kitchen herbalist making remedies at home.

Filtering Rose Tincture
 
Beautiful, delicately perfumed rose-flower tincture
used by the most famous of European plague doctors, Nostrodamus


The Simplers' Method

Firstly, by way of explanation, historically a 'simpler' was a person who created medicines from plants, and perhaps minerals too, employing a very small number of plants (often just one) in each medicine. This approach is great for making mild remedies that deal effectively with the symptoms of common ailments and is a thread of tradition within folk herbalism. In contrast, modern holistic practitioners look deeply into the whole life patterns of their patients and prescribe complex regimens of herbs to address deep seated patterns and imbalances. 

At their simplest, most basic level, the 'herbal simples' include the tinctures made by the simplers' method and a range of other 'simple' pills and potions that are perhaps most effectively used in a similar way to over-the-counter medicines. A fundamental difference that cannot be over-emphasized is that even a single plant may contain hundreds of organic compounds in a state of dynamic electrochemical balance. By contrast most over the counter pharmaceuticals contain one single isolated active ingredient - so in other words there is nothing simple at all about a simple!

Making a Specific Tincture

A simple tincture that uses fresh (non-dried) plant material in a ratio of 1 part by volume of herb to 1 part by volume of solvent (typically brandy) is known as a 'specific tincture'. I use the abbreviation 'sp. tinc.' on my labels to denote this. In practice this produces a tincture that is weaker than 1 part herb to 1 part solvent due to the air spaces in between the chopped plants and the water content of the plants, but for our purposes these tinctures are generally plenty strong enough for use.

Plants that are useful for tincturing using this method include those with a lot of essential oils and other volatile (typically 'smelly') compounds as well as a range of other ethanol soluble compounds such as alkaloids and organic acids. It is also suitable for herbs with some water soluble components as brandy or vodka for sale in the UK typically contains 40% alcohol by volume, the remaining 60% being comprised of water. 

In the days when alchemical methods dominated the preparation of herbal medicines, the 'spirit of vine' (brandy) was highly regarded. Because all fermented plant material eventually produces alcohol, which when fully distilled yields ethanol regardless of which plant you started with, ethanol or 'pure spirit' was regarded as the spirit held in common by all plants, in contrast to their soul or essence which bore the characteristics of the individual species and even the individual plant concerned. Using this alchemical terminology the process of tincturing is one of dissolving the soul of the plant concerned in a sea of plant spirit - known as the menstruum. Just as the metal mercury was regarded as the spiritual principle of all metals by the alchemist, so spirit of wine was regarded as the equivalent - a vital source of the spirit of all living plants, also metaphorically described in some mediaeval texts as 'mercury'.

I digress... for those of you who have followed thus far, here is my version of the simplers' method, laid bare for you I hope in terms that are simple to understand.

Recipe - Ingredients and some equipment that you need:
  • Herb material containing alcohol and water soluble compounds suitable for tincturing. In practice many but certainly not all herbs.
  • Spirit in the form of brandy, vodka or stronger spirit ('spyritus' / 'everclear') so long as it is fit for human consumption. Do NOT use rubbing alcohol / isopropyl alcohol as this is poisonous. The spirit should contain at least 40% ethanol by volume (abv) or be at least 80 proof. Stronger alcohol will extract more components but less of the water soluble components producing different characteristics.
  • A clean, sterilised bottle and lid
  • A funnel
  • A clean, thoroughly rinsed tea-towel or muslin cloth
  • An unbleached coffee filter or similar
  • Labels

Step 1) Take a herb that contains useful ethanol soluble and / or water soluble components. Typical herbs that fit the bill are rose flowers, lemon balm, angelica, skullcap, meadowsweet, etc. Avoid herbs that have very strong actions and carry a risk of toxicity like some of the nightshades for example. This method does not give a very clinically accurate dose and you wouldn't want to run the risk of taking too much of these stronger herbs. According to folk tradition the herb should not be cut down with an iron blade and should not be allowed to touch the ground unless it is a root - make of that what you will - I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if it has any importance themselves. It is most definitely important however that you use plant material cut at the time of the year when that plant is at its most potent (research) and that the material that you use is not diseased or damaged in any way by pollution.

Step 2) Chop, shred, bruise and dismember the herb using whatever means are available. Stone pestles and mortars can be useful as can rolling pins and perhaps a blender! The purpose of this is to rupture cell walls as well as dramatically increasing the surface area that will be exposed to the solvent. BEWARE though - once cell walls are ruptured, enzymes will be set loose that may catalyse the rapid degradation of your plant material. You will need to work quickly to get this stage complete and to get the plant material (known as the 'marc') into the solvent (stage 3) to counteract this as much as possible.

Step 3) Place the chopped, bruised herb material into a washed and sterilised jar so that when pressed down it three-quarter fills the jar. Pour in your spirit a little at a time, whilst stirring the herb about with a small stick or the handle of a wooden spoon, to release any trapped air. This will ensure maximum contact between the spirit and the herb, preventing any of the material from spoiling as ethanol is a very good preservative. Once you cannot fit any more spirit in, 'podge' (technical term) the herbs down with your stick / spoon handle so that they fit into the jar in a nice compact way and then top up the fluid so that it covers the herbs by around one centimetre. A little less is ok, this is not a precise science. The objective is to prevent the herbs in the jar from sticking out of the spirit for long periods of time as this could cause them to oxidise and spoil. Place on the lid and tighten.

Elderflowers tincturing in vodka
 
Elderflowers tincturing in vodka

Step 4) Place the jar somewhere where you will see it a lot. You will need to shake the jar once daily and podge the herbs back down below the spirit each time. If you put the jar on the shelf that is directly in front of you when you eat your breakfast you will remember to do this most days! You will need to allow the tincture to sit, shaking and podging once daily, for one month or roughly one lunar cycle. Leathery or waxy leaved herbs don't give up their vital compounds so easily and you may need to leave them for longer, perhaps 6 weeks. The same applies to the tougher mushrooms such as the bracket fungi. The tincturing phase works best if you put the jar somewhere at ambient room temperature and with diffuse light. The UV light in daylight will encourage many compounds to dissolve by supplying a little extra energy to the mixture. Too much heat may cause some of the delicate aromatic compounds to be lost or to degrade, so when tincturing, extra heat is not recommended. Equally a cold room may slow down the process too far.

Step 5) After the allotted time has elapsed you will need to 'press out' and coarse filter your tincture, prior to bottling. The initial pressing out step involves passing the tincture - marc and menstruum together - into a coarse filter such as a very well rinsed clean tea-towel. The tea towel or similar is used to line a funnel and the tincture material poured slowly through it into a bowl. Once it has finished dripping, the solids can be wrapped in the tea-towel and the whole squeezed and wrung out to remove the rest of the remaining liquid. It will be cloudy and contains lots of small particles so will require further filtering if it is to be stored for long periods.

Filtering off the marc

Filtering off the marc - the solids left in the filter paper

Step 6) The cloudy tincture can now be passed through a second filter to remove the fine particulates. An unbleached coffee filter works very well for this, as does a kitchen towel at a push. For maximum shelf life the resulting tincture should be completely clear. 

Step 7) Tinctures, once made and filtered, should be stored in tightly stoppered bottes in a cool and dark place. Stored carefully in this way they should remain effective for at least 2 years, perhaps longer, with one or two exceptions. 

BE SURE TO LABEL YOUR BOTTLES CORRECTLY! Species of plant, parts of plant used, date started and date bottles, Name and strength of solvent and the ratio used must all be included. There is nothing worse than discovering things in the back of a cupboard much later and not remembering how old they are and what they are for, it is such a waste!


How to Use a Tincture

Tinctures of the gentler herbs that are commonly used for many complaints can be taken several times per day in doses of betwen 5 and 30 drops per dose depending on the strength of the tincture and what it is being used to treat. The tincture should always be taken in a little water so as to reduce the alcohol by volume to below 20%. Anything above this tends to be evacuated from the stomach very quickly, hence the need for dilution. Some tinctures, for example tincture of Arnica montana, are traditionally used on the skin rather than internally. If you are doing this it would be a good idea to do a little spot test somewhere first to make sure that you are not allergic to the herb being used. Always do thorough research about the plants that you are working with.

Disclaimer: Everything in this article is provided for your entertainment only. I do not endorse you, the reader, to carry out these practices and if you do then you are doing so at your own risk. I am not responsible for the consequences if you decide to follow the information on this page. Always consume alcohol sensibly and if you take herbs check for any contra-indications that may be damaging to health or interact with other medications first.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article! If you would like to gain some practical experience of working with herbs and of tincturing, you could try one of our herbal weekend courses here, where we will show you everything you need to know to get you started:

SPICE JOURNAL - Episode 1: Jack - Putting the Spice Back...

Where is the spice? That is a good question, as one could be forgiven for thinking our ancestors in these islands didn't care much for it before the middle ages. I can't help thinking that this may be a misconception that has arisen out of the cuisine of the last 100 years though; doubtless somewhere there is a food historian who can put me on the right track?...


garlic mustard in flower

Jack-by-the-Hedge: image by Sannse at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

... in the mean time, I have decided to create this occasional series, SPICE JOURNAL, which is all about wild spice. We DO have wild spices growing here in Britain and Ireland. Much of the knowledge surrounding their use must be lost if it was ever here in the first place, so I am going to do a bit of learning by experimentation instead and from time to time share my experiments here, with you!

Jack by the Hedge / garlic mustard - Alliaria petiolata

I thought I would start with this plant because it is a good contender. Not only is it in the very edible cabbage and mustard family, its leaves are hot and spicy, tasting of mustard as well as garlic - as its other name, 'garlic mustard', explains... but what of the seeds I thought? According to Saul et al, in "Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine"1, garlic mustard was definitely in use as a spice in the baltic region of Europe over 6000 years ago.

garlic mustard in seed
 
Jack by the hedge - garlic mustard in seed

Some time ago I remember sampling some out in the forest as I was walking along a shady wooded ride and being immediately taken aback by their 'kick'. I revisited this place where garlic mustard grows all around, so as to recreate the sense of connection with this experience and take my spice journey further on to its next stage.

The first obstacle I came up against was that the seed pods appeared to be all ripening at different stages, meaning that some seed fell to the ground as soon as I touched the plant, but much of it was practically inseparable from the stringy seed cases surrounding it. 

garlic mustard seed pod
 
Seed pods full of ripe garlic mustard seed

I soon resolved to harvest all of the seed pods regardless of maturity and attempt to ripen them in the sun when I got home. I found that I could save a lot of time by holding a large bag open and stripping the whole seed pods en-mass by sliding my hand down the stems. Here is the result...

Once at home, I placed the seed pods in a large glass dish and let the sun do its work. I brought them in each evening and waited until things began to warm again each day before putting them back outside on a table in the sun. After about 3 days more than three quarters of the seed was fairly ripe and I judged that the remainder had probably hardened enough to strip from the pods without much damage. 

I found that the best way to remove the seed was by rubbing the pods between my palms, and to twist any that were stubbornly hanging on to their seed between my fingers until they ruptured and twisted undone. The seeds, being small and heavy, all sank to the bottom of the bowl. I then used a colander to separate the seed pods from the seed - putting the whole lot through it 3 times...

garlic must seed separating 
 
garlic mustard seed separated from the pods by sun drying then rubbing between the palms

I dried the seed a little further to lower the moisture content prior to storage, simply keeping it out in our warm scullery on a stainless steel tray for a couple of days.

The result is surprisingly good. Though the quantity obtained is small, it is very hot, packing a real punch. It is also pleasant in texture when used as a whole seed. There are definitely overtones of horseradish, garlic and pepper and a little will go a very long way but we warned, the heating effect is cumulative!  

garlic mustard spice 

SPICE SCORE: 8 out of 10

Reference
1 - Saul H, Madella M, Fischer A, Glykou A, Hartz S, Craig OE (2013) Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070583

St. George's Mushroom, Wild Garlic and Elderberry Antipasti

Today I awoke to the sight of a magnificent frost covering the Avebury stone circle and a bluer than blue sky heralding a bright (though as it turned out showery) spring day. Needing to re-shuffle the stores in the pantry I noticed there was still a three-quarter full 2 litre jar of dried St. George's mushrooms left over from last season, so with the new season definitely underway now I decided to get creative with the flavour of these delightful mushrooms by making an antipasti that combines them with wild garlic 'capers' and dried elderberries. You can make this antipasti of mushrooms with either fresh or dried St. George's and incorporate other foraged ingredients to make a flavour combination that is uniquely your own. Using dried mushrooms has the advantage that it can be made from stores whenever a fresh batch is needed. A lot of other mushrooms will preserve well using this method too, but there is only one way to find out which flavours will work together and that is to experiment. Here is my recipe, enjoy!...


St. George's Antipasti

Forager's St. George's Mushroom, Wild Garlic and Elderberry Antipasti

Ingredients:
  • 1.5 litres of dried St. George's Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). You can use fresh St. George's Mushrooms instead if you like, but you will have to experiment with the volume of brine (vinegar/salt/water) to ensure that there is enough for the quantity that you have. The recipe below should work with approximately 1.5kg of fresh St. George's too.
  • A small handful of wild garlic flower buds.
  • A small handful of dried elderberries (optional).
  • A thinly sliced knob of root ginger.
  • 2 tbsp of sea salt (I used herb salt in mine).
  • A generous twist of black pepper.
  • 400ml olive oil.
  • 400ml mustard oil (you could substitute sunflower).
  • 800ml organic cider vinegar.
  • 400ml warm water.
  • (All quantities are approximate)
Step 1: Marinating

St. George's Marinade

Place the mushrooms, elderberries, ginger, wild garlic buds and black pepper in a large Kilner jar or other similar storage jar. Mix together the warm water, cider vinegar and sea salt until the sea salt is completely dissolved. Pour this liquid brine over the solid ingredients in the storage jar, stir with a wooden spoon and allow the whole to marinade in a warm place for 2 hours.

Step 2: Brining

St. George's Mushroom antipasti - brining

Strain the liquid from the mushrooms in the jar using a colander or sieve and place it in a saucepan. Bring to the boil over a high heat, stirring occasionally. Do not let the liquid boil over. Once you have the brine on a rolling boil, add all of the mushrooms and other solids back into the liquid and bring the mixture back up to the boil, allowing it to boil for 4 minutes.  Note: Longer boiling times are required for some other edible mushrooms, particularly those in the Russula (brittle cap) and Lactarius (milk cap) groups, as well as honey fungus (Armillaria mellea). If in doubt please consult a reliable source for information about the mushrooms that you intend to pickle. After 4 minutes remove the saucepan from the heat completely. NOTE: After this point all utensils, bowls and jars that come into contact with the mushrooms MUST be sterilised first (using boiling water is fine). 

Step 3: Draining

St. George's Mushrooms - draining & separating

Once again separate the solids from the liquid by straining. You can bottle the brining liquid in a tightly sealed sterilised jar for future use and it ought to be good for at least another couple of brinings. You can always top it up if you start to find you haven't got enough, so best to keep it for later and avoid wastage.

Spread the solid part, mushrooms, spices and all, onto a clean tea cloth that has been boil washed to remove any traces of taint that may be left behind from washing powder or detergent. Ideally place the dish cloth on an oven tray or similar which will catch any moisture that drips through. Leave the mushrooms to drain for an hour or so, then carefully press out any excess moisture by rolling the solids up in the tea cloth. Do not press too hard or you will ruin their appearance and crush them!

Step 4: Covering in oil

St. George's Mushrooms - filling jars

Carefully ladle the dried off mushrooms into the sterilised jars that you have prepared one layer at a time. Cover each layer in your chosen vegetable oil. I have started experimenting with a 60:40 mixture of mustard oil and extra virgin olive oil. So far this seems to be working a treat, imparting a warmness to the pickle as well as improving the colour, without being too thick or having too much flavour. By pouring the oil into the mushrooms in layers and stirring very slowly you will be liberating as many air bubbles as possible from the oil, which will improve the shelf life of your pickle.

Step 5: Labelling

Always remember to label your produce carefully. Everyone must have found an unlabelled jar at the back of the cupboard at some point - with unknown contents that are probably well past their best. Always put the date of manufacture on the label.

St. George's Mushrooms make a versatile pickle

Your pickled mushrooms will improve in flavour over a month or more. You should aim to start eating them within 2 months and once you have opened a jar keep it in the fridge and consume within a couple of weeks. For this reason it is better to make lots of small jars rather than one big jar full! Unopened jars kept in a cool place should keep for at least 6 months, probably a good bit longer.
Bon appetite! Enjoy with salad leaves, artichoke hearts or ladled onto doorstops of bread! 

If you would like to learn how to identify and find the St. George's mushroom for yourself, the time is now and the season is short! Why not come and join us at The Wild Side of Life in Wiltshire for a day of St. George's hunting and dining using wild food ingredients, and enjoy your St. George's mushrooms over a glass or two of champagne. Bring a friend along to enjoy the fun with you and your second ticket will be half price this year . For more information on this special forage and feast (Saturday 7th of May 2016) visit... www.thewildsideoflife.co.uk/page21.htm


St. George's Champagne Picnic Fun



St. George's Mushrooms and Morels, the Time of the Green Man

This is a blog post about the tradition of St. George and the St. George's mushroom. For details of the forthcoming St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic please go here


St. George's day
approaches (23rd April)
 and heralds the beginning of spring revelry.  The Catholic St. George was a graft onto older stock and the slayer, or perhaps handler, of dragons is found throughout Europe, the near east and Russia today as a protector and patron saint. In earlier times he took the form of the 'green man', representing the rejuvinatory power of spring and the mysterious balance of light and dark, growth, decay, winter and summer that is central to the farmer's and the forager's year. In Orthodox Christianity as well as in Russian folk magic and even among the shamen of Siberia, the protector George is often called upon, consulted and prayed to before going ahead with any major work of healing or spiritual journey.

Green Man

The Green Man - by Grinagog (grinagog.deviantart.com)

Al Khidr, the Green Saint of Islamic folklore is perhaps another guise assumed by George, or perhaps more accurately another echo that has come down to us via that same ancient river of belief. In the holy-land they are venerated together at one and the same shrines (for example in Bethlehem and Jerusalem) along with Elijah, bringing Jew, Christian and Muslim to enter the same places of worship.  Similarly, in parts of India the cult of Kwaja Khadir is observed by both Muslim and Hindu. In some areas of Eastern Europe the festivities of Green George (Gergiovden) are marked by decking a young man in foliage resembling very much the more modern Hastings Jack in the Green and often he is paraded through the streets prior to being given a good ducking in the village pond or local river.  This festival is very popular in many regions, particularly among the Romani, taking place over the feast of St. George as rendered before post-mediaeval calendrical changes on the 6th of May. 

Very soon too, in English fields and meadows, it will be time to make May garlands and walk among the wildflowers of spring purely for pleasure and contentment. In the folk customs surrounding our old May-day the 'Green One' will be readied to marry the May Queen, his bride. In England too we have our own traditions to commemorate his life and his passing, as in the (probably now garbled) Padstow Obby 'Oss song...

"O' where is St. George, O' where us he O'

He's out in his long boat, all on the salt sea O'.

Up flies the Kite and down tails the lark O'

Aunt Ursula Birdhood, she had an old ewe

and she died in her own Park O'"

In contemplation and in honour of these cycles of time and of the year, take a walk out into the grassy meadows and limestone woods to seek the plump creamy-white fruit bodies of St. George's mushroom. A sign given forth by the earth herself to warn us that night time frosts are now coming to a close and it is the time to be industrious in the fields. 

St. George's Mushroom

Calocybe gambosum - St. George's mushroom

It smells pleasantly 'floury' (as if fresh from the miller's wheel) and often occurs in large wheels in the turf. St. George himself was said to have been ground into flour or 'broken on a wheel' at his execution and spread upon the land by his Roman captors, as commemorated in the lines of the old English mummers play "I'll grind yer bones to dust and send you to the Devil to make mince pie crust".  

St. George's Mushrooms

St. George's, chickweed and dandelion blooms are a good combination!

Be very careful to identify it correctly as there are some other whitish mushrooms that are very poisonous. St. George's mushroom is very tasty though and highly sought after and prized in Italy and France. In Britain it has undergone something of a revival in recent years and it is to be found on the menu's of many of the better restaurants and gourmet pubs. It can be sautéd in butter and goes well with shallots, asparagus, bacon, eggs and dandelion blossoms. It can also be pickled. The delicate complex flavour is easily overpowered by bolder ones and this is a mushroom to use as the feature of a dish, not a side portion, so take some care about who or what you partner it with.

Green Man

A warm tossed St. George's salad

Also highly prized at this time of the year are the elusive morels, often appearing in limestone woods and on sandy soils during the spring. The caps of these fungi, (there are several species) have an irregular honeycomb like appearance and the cap and stem are hollow. They are difficult to find but highly regarded as a cooking ingredient. 

Edible Morel

Morchella esculenta - Edible morel

Morels should be dried for storage and re-hydrated using warm water, herbs and a little salt for half an hour or so before cooking as this improves their flavour considerably. They go well with cream based sauces and add something very special to many dishes. Fresh morels can also be stuffed – one popular recipe uses crab meat, egg, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs – and baked for 15 minutes at 180oC. Be sure of your identification and do not confuse them with the poisonous gyromitra or turban fungus that looks a bit similar. Never eat morels raw as occasionally this has caused poisoning! Once again, if in doubt a visit to an expert is required.

If you'd like to sample the joy of Finding your own St. George's mushrooms then why not try out our St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic on Saturday 7th May 2016. You can find out about it here.

http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/DisplayBlock~bid~5697.asp

http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/DisplayBlock~bid~6466~source~gallerychooserresult.asp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khidr

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_George#Interfaith_Shrine

http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197106/st.george.the.ubiquitous.htm

Pickled Chanterelles for the Festive Season

This year I have been putting a lot of thought into Christmas presents for the family and I also have a bit of a glut of delicious wild mushrooms in my stores, so I thought I'd share a pickled mushroom antipasti recipe with you which is delicious as a cold salad and can be made with many types of fresh and dried wild mushrooms.


pickled wild mushrooms 
Pictured: Pickled oak milk caps - Lactarius quietus

To prepare the pickle from previously dried mushrooms you must first marinade them correctly for 24 hours to soften them. Ideally, if you can, use mushrooms that you have dried at a low temperature (less than about 45 deg) as when they re-constitute they will be a lot more similar to the fresh mushrooms that you started off with.

Marinade for dried mushrooms:
To marinade dried mushrooms for use in pickle or elsewhere this is the procedure that I follow. I put the mushrooms in a pint glass until it is three-quarters full, then add a 50/50 mixture of just boiled water and cold tap water so that the mushrooms are just covered. Next I add:

  • Half a teaspoon of salt
  • Half a teaspoon of dried thyme
  • 2 cloves of beaten/crushed garlic
  • A generous dash of balsamic or elderberry vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil 
  • A generous grind of black pepper

Stir the mixture thoroughly, cover it with a saucer and leave it to stand for 24 hours for some marinading magic!

If you are using fresh mushrooms then make sure that you cut away and remove any blemishes or brown areas that might be caused by food spoilage organisms. If you are using dried mushrooms you will of course have done this prior to the drying process.

Preparing the wild mushroom antipasti:

Ingredients
The ingredients are assembled. It goes against the grain but the mushrooms must be thoroughly cleaned - meaning washed if necessary!
Equipment

Stainless steel or non-reactive saucepan
Sterilised jars with lids
A sterilised food sieve
A sterilised ladle
A sterilised tablespoon
A boil washed tea-towel or similar that has been through a thorough rinse-cycle to remove any traces of detergent

Ingredients

1.5 litres of chopped fresh mushrooms or marinated dried mushrooms
1 litre of white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar (a little less refined perhaps but I enjoy its full flavour and bite)
600 ml of water
2 tablespoons of salt
4 bay leaves
A sprig of rosemary
A tablespoon of thyme
10 cloves
10 peppercorns
A generous amount of olive oil (not extra-virgin, and avoid 'pomace' oils which are often contaminated with hydrocarbon solvents)

Method

Add all of the ingredients except for the olive oil to the saucepan and bring them to a rolling boil. Add the mushrooms and bring the liquid back to the boil. Allow to boil for 5 minutes for small mushrooms and up to 10 minutes if you are using larger pieces or whole button mushrooms. Note - some mushrooms, for example the more acrid milk caps eaten in eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, require longer boiling times. The method given here is for mushrooms that can normally be safely eaten using typical western European preparation methods such as frying.

The brining process

Remove the mixture from the heat, pour it through the sterilised sieve into the sterilised bowl, cover and allow to cool. Boiling the mushrooms in the vinegar-brine mixture has sterilised them so DO NOT handle them from now on with fingers or un-sterilised utensils.

Once cooled transfer the mushrooms onto the clean tea-towel and folding it in use it to carefully press out any excess moisture. Do not attempt to wring the mushrooms as they are supposed to contain a little vinegar brine and their appearance will be spoiled if you squash them.

Drying the dried mushrooms 

Bottle the pickling vinegar-brine mixture for later use. You can re-use it a number of times as its low pH (very acidic) means that it will not go off.

You can now transfer the mushrooms to the sterilised jars. The best way is to add a layer at a time followed by a very slowly poured layer of olive oil, stirring gently between layers. This will remove the majority of air bubbles which could lead to storage problems. Once you have filled the jars in this way and the mushrooms are completely covered by a centimetre or more of oil, then fasten the lids tightly. Remember to include some of the spices that you cooked them with!

Keep pickled mushrooms in a cool dark place for at least one month before opening, preferably two. Once opened refrigerate them and use them up within a couple of weeks to avoid the risk of spoilage. Always use a clean spoon to ladle them out.

Finished product

A lovely jar of pickled trumpet chanterelles, Cantharellus tubaeformis

That's it, enjoy! I hope you like my pictures of the pickled trumpet chanterelles that I made as Christmas presents for my family yesterday :-)

At The Wild Side of Life we don't sell pickled mushrooms, but if you'd like an original present why not purchase one of our courses where the lucky recipient will learn all about how to identify, forage and prepare wild mushrooms correctly such as these? We have a 4 day course and several 1 day courses programmed for Autumn 2016!

Autumn Mushroom Season Update 2015

The 2015 autumn mushroom season is well underway now, with choice chanterelles, porcini, saffron milk caps, chicken of the woods and many other things being found over much of the country. Things in Wiltshire and parts of the south /south west have kicked off pretty early due to the unusually cool and damp summer that we have been having, and if we receive sufficient rain as autumn progresses we could be in for a long mushroom season! It's a great time to dust off that wicker basket, grab a small kitchen knife and get out there in the woods and fields to do some mushroom hunting


... as I write this I am tucking into a sumptuous omelette of forest mushrooms and preparing this year's batch of amethyst deceiver vodka (a Russian speciality) after spending much of the past 3 days hunting for and eating gourmet mushrooms.

Wild Mushroom Dishes

Amethyst deceiver vodka and a collection of wild mushrooms destined to be an omelette!

We have some great courses for you this autumn including the Secret Sunday Mushroom Club (recommended by BBC Countryfile Magazine as a way to learn to pick mushrooms safely) and our extremely popular Gourmet Mushroom Discovery Days with foraging and mushroom tasting that will delight chefs and foragers alike. We are hosting the UK's first 2 day Medicinal Mushroom Conference in November where some well known authors, foragers, mushroom growers and herbalists (Roger Philips, Matthew Rooney, Fred Gillam, Cristina Cromer) will team up to raise awareness among health care practitioners and the general public about the benefits of medicinal mushrooms. After a short pause to take stock over the middle of winter, we will start 2016 with our Small Game Preparation course and the very popular St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic in early May. We've got things happening in Wiltshire, Lincolnshire, Somerset, The New Forest and the Gower in South Wales, as well as leading foraging team building events throughout the autumn - so you are keeping us on our toes!

We've just heard that Vegetarian Living Magazine will be running a feature on mushroom foraging this coming October entitled 'On The Toadstool Trail' featuring exclusive hints and tips from our very own Fred the Forager (who brings 32 years of mushroom foraging experience to your table), so do look out for that... or you can get an exclusive member's preview... here

Mushroom Foraging 

The Secret Sunday Mushroom Club in action

Starting in mid September - The Secret Sunday Mushroom Club: 18.5 hours of tuition spread over 4 non-consecutive Sundays and over several excellent habitats. Watch the occurrence of mushrooms change as the season progresses and see them at all stages of growth. Includes a guest ticket for one day and 12 months email support with identification. Locations are given out a few days before each meeting to allow time for reconnaissance, ensuring the best chances of success! Click the link for info and dates. Cost: £145.00. Gift vouchers also available.

Available from September through November - Gourmet Mushroom Discovery Days: A day out in the woods encountering choice edible species and some of the most significant poisonous ones. Get to know your death caps, destroying angels, fool's funnels and deadly webcaps before learning to find the choice species such as ceps, chanterelles, blewits, bay boletes and more, then enjoy your finds with speciality breads and a glass or two of wine in the woods. Click the link for info and dates. Cost £90.00. Gift vouchers also available.

November 14th and 15th - The UK's First Medicinal Mushrooms Conference: A full weekend discovering the healing potential of medicinal mushrooms, including guided foraging, talks, presentations and demonstrations by Roger Philips (author of "Mushrooms"), Matthew Rooney (the UK's only bio-dynamic medicinal mushroom cultivator at www.mushroomtable.com), Fred Gillam (Fred the Forager and author of "Poisonous Plants in Great Britain"), Martin Palmer author of "Medicinal Mushrooms - A Clinical Guide"), Cristina Cromer (Medical Herbalist and former lecturer in herbal medicine at the University of Westminster) and Natascha Kenyon (forager and concocter of medicinal potions at The Wild Side of Life). Prices vary on a sliding scale - see conference web page.

medicinal mushroom preparation

Preparation of turkey tail mushroom full spectrum extract, an immune modulator

Saturday March 12th - Small Game Preparation: This one day course will take you through all of the basic skills and knowledge required to prepare small game such as rabbits, pheasant or wood pigeon in the field for food. Not for gratuitous hunters or those who see hunting as sport, this course is designed to equip those who choose to eat meat from the wild with the necessary skills to do so with as little waste as possible, and teach relevant knowledge about hygiene, knife skills, game, roadkill and the law. Cost £85.00. Gift vouchers available.

Starting in April - The Secret Sunday Spring Forager's Club: 18 hours of tuition spread over 4 non-consecutive Sundays and over several excellent habitats including ancient woodland, chalk grassland and river meadows. Learn to identify, gather and use a wide range of spring foraged ingredients including wonderous wild garlic, tasty burdock shoots, tender hogweed fiddles, crunchy pignuts, citrussy pine candles and more. You will also learn how to avoid Europe's most poisonous plants. Click the link for info and dates. Cost: £130.00. Gift vouchers available.

Fred Plant ID

Fred - demonstrating plant ID to a group

Saturday 7th or Sunday 15th May - St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic: The weather should be warming up now and there is nothing nicer than a champagne picnic in the spring sunshine. You will be taught how to seek the delicious St. George's mushroom effectively, how to identify it beyond any doubt and how to combine it with other spring wild food ingredients to the greatest effect. We will enjoy a foraged dish of super St. George's and wild herbs in the afternoon along with some glasses of bubbly and sample a range of other sumptuous wild food treats. Cost £85.00.

Basket of St. George's Mushrooms

A basket of delicious St. George's mushrooms in the spring

Don't forget our gift vouchers make a wonderful surprise gift for anyone, whether it is for Christmas, someone's birthday or just for the joy of giving something special to someone you love. I hope to see you all out in a wood or meadow sometime over the coming season, or perhaps next spring picking St. George's mushrooms. Until then, have a truly wonderful mushroom season, may it be both bountiful and fascinating!

Best Wishes
Fred the Forager / The Wild Side of Life

Wild Side of Life - Spring Newsletter 2015

Hello Wildsiders!

Spring is here and as the soil begins to warm up, things are also warming up in the foraging world. I'm going to tell you about all the exciting things we are up to this year in a moment, and I am also going to share a recipe with you... a simple recipe so good that having just drained my second bowl I am left wanting more! 

Wild garlic, young stinging nettles and the herb known as cleavers are to be found in many many places around the UK at this time of the year, and I am going to tell you in a minute how to make a truly rewarding thick soup using just these three common plants. It is so 'moreish' that you will want to go out picking the ingredients every single day!

Wild garlic and nettle soup

I'm just pausing for a little more of that soup... One day they will invent a 'click to taste' button but right now there is only one way to taste this and that is to go and make it for yourself. Once you have checked out the offerings in this newsletter, scroll down and check out this beautiful recipe... and thanks go to the talented Natascha Kenyon for having created all three bowls full :-)

First, here are my spring offerings to you from The Wild Side of Life. Click the links to find out more:


foraging courses

SPRING FORAGING

St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic (only a few places left)
We will forage for this beautiful spring mushroom that sometimes grows in HUGE rings, cook it together with other wild foraged ingredients, then enjoy with a glass or two of champagne! Delicious! Happening on the 26th April so book now!

Secret Sunday Spring Forager's Club (only a few places left) 
An in-depth foraging experience where you will receive 18.5 hours of expert tuition in different habitats over the spring season. Bring a guest along for a feast, and send pictures of the foraging finds you make outside of the course to our private mailing list for identification. Starting in 2 weeks - book now!

Pignuts, Fiddles and Burdock
A special day focusing on finding and cooking these 3 ingredients in imaginative ways... it's all about the taste and there will be plenty of it as we combine these exciting foods in a multitude of ways! We will also be walking through some stunning scenery on this day and will stop to eat out packed lunches in one of Wiltshire's remotest spots near an ancient burial chamber of the Marlborough Downs.

Private mentoring in sap tapping and spring wild food cookery is also available, contact me to arrange: Fred@thewildsideoflife.co.uk


Herbal Courses

HERBALISM WORKSHOPS

Herbal First Aid Weekend 
On this weekend you will learn to identify many useful medicinal plants from the English hedgerows and use them to make between 15 and 20 remedies to treat common ailments that most of us encounter at some time or another. You will take home tinctures, elixirs, teas, electuaries, infused oils, capsules and salves for your own home pharmacy, along with the skills and knowledge to make them again and again.

Many of us tend to suffer a bit in the winter in our temperate climate. Coughs, colds, influenza, chilblains, aches and pains brought on by damp. Lots of conditions are exacerbated by the damp cold of winter and on this weekend you will learn to identify many useful medicinal plants from the English hedgerows and use them to make between 15 and 20 remedies to treat common winter ailments. You will take home cough remedies, immune enhancing mushrooms, anti-inflammatory teas, elixirs, capsules and salves for your own home pharmacy.

UK First Medicinal Mushrooms Conference
A conference held at a 5-star venue in rural Lincolnshire with practical woodland foraging & remedy making, guest speakers include Roger Philips (author of "Mushrooms"), Matthew Rooney (Biodynamic Mushroom Cultivator at 'Mushroom Table'), Martin Powell (author of "Medicinal Mushrooms - A Clinical Guide"), Cristina Cromer (Medical Herbalist and former Lecturer at the University of Westminster) and Fred Gillam (author of "Poisonous Plants in Great Britain") and Natascha Kenyon from The Wild Side of Life. Please send an email if you are 
interested to... Fred@thewildsideoflife.co.uk


Greenwood crafts

BUSHCRAFT & WOODLAND BASED CRAFT COURSES

Family Bushcraft Camping Weekend
A weekend for all the family to learn the basics of camp-craft, putting up a 'basha' shelter, purifying your own river water, learning techniques for lighting the cooking fire without matches, making cord from tree bark, and much more. An idyllic woodland clearing with a clean flowing river awaits your adventure.

Ancient Pewter Smithing 
Using the ancient 'cuttlebone' technique known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, you will be guided through all the processes needed to cast your own item of unique and attractive jewellery in English Pewter. Some say the look of the molten metal in the fire is like a magical window on creation itself - it is certainly a memorable and inspiring experience. We will do this in a small group over a native hardwood charcoal fire. You will take home a beautiful and unique item to cherish forever.

Coracle Making Weekend
Coracles (skin covered, wooden framed, tensioned boats) of differing designs were once widespread on rivers in many parts of the world and originally covered in animal hide. Since the industrial revolution in Britain they have been covered in calico cloth and waterproofed with tar. Still used for salmon fishing, these versatile and fun craft carry a surprising load and can take you to places inaccessible on foot. Make your own and take it home!

Woodcrafts of the European Nomads (flowers, pegs, baskets and more) - details coming very soon, please drop me an email if you are interested... we will be creating hand crafted items in the woods using the centuries old methods of the gypsies and travellers... baskets, clothes pegs, wooden flowers... and sharing Romany stories and cookery around a roaring camp fire! Fred@thewildsideoflife.co.uk


Mushroom Foraging 

AUTUMN MUSHROOM COURSES
As featured in BBC Countryfile Magazine's Top 10 UK Foraging Courses

The Secret Sunday Mushroom Club
Acclaimed foraging experience where you will receive 18.5 hours of expert tuition in different habitats focusing on how to locate and identify with confidence most of the best UK edible species. Fred the Forager regularly uses more than 100 species and there will be plenty of advice on how to build you own repertoire safely. Bring a guest along for a feast on the last day and have the finds you make outside of the course identified by sending your pictures to our private mailing list. Places go fast so book early.

Gourmet Mushroom Discovery Days in Wiltshire, The Gower and the New Forest
If you are looking for an exciting and special one day mushroom experience these days are for you. You will be introduced over the course of the day to some of the finer gourmet mushrooms and shown how to spot the poisonous lookalikes. We will cook our finds in the forest at the end of the day. These courses take place in some of the best locations in the region for fungi, and time will be spent discussing how to pick mushrooms sustainably without detriment to future populations. Take home some wonderful memories and feel free to come back for advice when identifying you future finds.

Gift Vouchers

Did you know that you can buy vouchers for mother's day, birthdays, Christmas day, practically any day you like from my website? If the course voucher you need is not already available on the shop page, all you have to do is email Fred@thewildsideoflife.co.uk and I will prepare one especially for you with your recipients name on it! 

Here is what people have had to say about receiving our vouchers as gifts...

"My Gourmet Mushroom Discovery Day has simply been a wonderful birthday present. When I first received the voucher I wondered what it would be like but I have had an amazing time and have learned so much! I will never look at the woods in the same way again and I even feel confident enough now to go and pick some of the mushrooms for myself!"

"My son bought me a voucher for Mother's Day for a day's foraging tuition with The Wild Side of Life. I have had a lot of fun and I never realised just how much tasty food is out there for the picking. I enjoyed my present very much and I would definitely like to go out again, perhaps on one of the courses next time."

There is a new loyalty referral scheme that you can join too, meaning that you can get your courses for less if you share the joy with someone else - which is a win-win situation. I am going to email everybody about this very soon so if you are one of our subscribers keep an eye out for it in your mailbox.

MEET US AT EVENTS & FESTIVALS IN 2015

We will be attending a number of food and festival events this year so pop in to our stand for a chat and a foraged fruit leather... we love to meet you all! We will be at the Great WIld Food & Chilli Fair at Molden in Essex on June 27th & 28th. The website for this fabulous event is hereAs Fred the Forager I will be running workshops in 'de-mystifying mushroom identification', 'tree foods' and 'herbal first aid' as well as giving a talk on Poisonous Plants. You can find out about all of them here, where you can also pre-book your workshop places at this event.

On May 16th watch out for my talk "The Mushroom Forager's Tales" in The Real Food & Drink Theatre at the Marlborough Food & Drink Festival in Wiltshire. There will be lots of other talks by well known foodies too, so check their web page to find the schedule.

Fred the Forager 

The Wild Side of Life will be providing foraging workshops and medicinal mushroom talks at both the Green Gathering and Heart of the East festivals / gatherings this year, as part of the AVALON RISING programme.

...and now for the recipe (below), mmmm enjoy ;-) and don't forget to check out our presence on Facebook and Twitter


Best wishes and happy foraging!
Fred the Forager

Wild Garlic, Stinging Nettle & Cleavers Soup - mmmmm

Wild Garlic, Stinging Nettle & Cleavers Soup (serves 8 to 10)


You will need:


3 big handfuls of fresh wild garlic (Allium ursinum) leaves - be careful that you do not pick any Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) or lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) by mistake. Look for the parallel veins running the whole length of the leaf and the unmissable garlic smell!



1/4 bucket of fresh stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) tops - just pinch the tops out with about 4 to 6 leaves on each. You might want to wear gloves for this although I teach everyone who comes on my courses how to pick them without being stung.

Two large handfuls of young cleavers (Galium aparine) plants - you might know this as 'sticky weed', 'goosegrass' or 'sticky willie' in some parts of the UK... make sure they are still soft and pliable as in a few weeks they will stiffen up and after that you use only the softer tip of the plant.


Add a large knob of butter or 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive to a saucepan, together with a few twists of black pepper and sea salt. Slowly raise the temperature to cook the seasoning a little but do not let the oil bubble ferociously - a sign that it is too hot. After about 1.5 minutes add a good splash of balsamic vinegar and 600ml of hot water straight from the kettle. Add all of the leaves that you have picked (ideally) chopped into little pieces first.


At this point it should look like this...


  


Put on a lid, watching the temperature carefully and stirring periodically. You don't want the soup to get so hot that it boils as this will seriously affect the flavour, but you do want it to reach a slow simmer for a short period to assist in extracting the flavour from the leaves (this will also kill off bugs as it will cook above 74 degrees centigrade, but in practice this is not really a problem when freshly picked leaves are used taken from a clean spot).



Keep an eye on the soup, allowing it to simmer gently for 6 to 8 minutes, then remove it from the heat and transfer it to a blender. Give it a good 'whizz' until a thick creamy soup consistency is achieved, then transfer it back onto the heat and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, this time stirring continuously. Some people like to cook a few potatoes, blending them into the soup at this stage as a thickening agent. Whilst I do not think this is necessary it is a matter for personal taste.


That's it! It is a good idea to keep a little of the garlic back and chop it into shreds to use as a garnish on top of the soup. A little finely grated manchego or parmesan cheese will also work well on top and a couple of tablespoons of live natural yoghurt swirled in to each bowl completes the picture properly... and by the way, every portion combines the effects of these herbs to great effect. 


Serving suggestions...


  


Wild garlic has a natural antibiotic action and is a circulatory tonic that thins the blood a little and warms up the extremities by opening up capillary circulation. Lightly cooked nettles provide us with lots of vitamin C and iron, as well as a surprising amount of vegetable protein, not to mention huge amounts of the anti-oxidant chlorophyll.


Cleavers is well known to medical herbalists for supporting and clearing the lymphatic system. In short, this lovely soup is also a good medicine for driving away the last of the winter ailments that we tend to suffer from in our temperate British climate, and giving the whole system a kick-starting detox ready for the year ahead!


CLICK HERE TO SMELL THE SOUP - (ONLY KIDDING!)


You can learn much more about simple wholesome wild food cookery at the Secret Sunday Spring Forager’s Club

Sunshine, St. George and Dandelions!

The sound of bumble bees the heady smell of wild garlic becomes so strong that it almost engulfs the senses, and the blossoms of wood anemone enchant and captivate you as you reach a grassy woodland clearing. 

St. Georges Mushrooms!

St. George's mushroon, Calocybe gambosa

Something catches your eye like a small gleaming beacon. It is a bright mushroom, small yet perfectly formed. Pretty soon you see another, then another, and as your eyes adjust to see that there are many around you in the undergrowth, you carefully bend forward to take a closer look... 

Mushrooms, chickweed and dandelions

St. George's mushroom, chickweed and dandelion flowers

You notice that it has a delicious and unusual smell, mouthwatering, with distinctive overtones of freshly milled flour. Something within you thinks of food and your stomach begins to tell you that you are hungry... instinctively you want to pick it and take it home for tea... you don't... very wisely, you don't. You have heard that some mushrooms can be poisonous, even deadly, so today you just walk away and leave it behind.

Chopped St. Georges Mushrooms

Freshly chopped St. George's mushrooms!

This is where the adventure could have begun. The mushroom that you did not identify was excellent and edible and would have given a sensational twist to supper that evening. Perhaps even more significant it would have provided food for many years to come once you had learned to recognise its signature identification features.

Frying up with dandelions

Dandelion flowers - always a good accompaniment for St. George's mushroom.

At The Wild Side of Life we provide responsible tuition and pay great attention to detail. Any day now in woods and meadows near you, the delightful St. George's mushroom will be fruiting alongside all of the herbs and accompaniments you need to make a very memorable dish. We want you to learn how to pick them safely and sustainably, so why not come along on our St. George's Mushroom Champagne Picnic day in Wiltshire on the 26th April where you can learn to do just that?

Warm St. George's, chickweed and  dandelion salad

Delicious warm St. George's, dandelion, chickweed and spinach salad!

The Wild Side of Life can provide you with the skills to forage for delicious wild ingredients, avoiding depleting natural stocks and correctly identifying poisonous plants and mushrooms so that you can cook with confidence. Find out more below...

About Fred the Forager's Courses

The Wild Side of Life provides a grade A supervised foraging experience. Fred's courses are featured in the BBC Countryfile Top 10 and have received excellent feedback from participants who have travelled from as far away as Brittany, Jersey, and even the Highlands of Scotland to join in the fun. 

We firmly believe that our foraging tuition cannot be bettered anywhere and strive at all times to make sure that this is true.

Forthcoming foraging courses include (click the links):
  • ST. GEORGE'S MUSHROOM CHAMPAGNE PICNIC - 26th April. A day packed with delight...You will learn everything you need to know to harvest this delightful iconic spring mushrooom, from ID skills, recognition of the correct habitat and growth requirements, how to spot the mycelium rings in which it grows. You will then be taught how to forage for a basket-full and how to prepare Fred the Forager's favourite St. George's Mushroom dish (above) which we will enjoy together out in the fields with a glass or two of champagne.

  • PIGNUTS, FIDDLES AND BURDOCK - 17th May. A day of walking, harvesting and field cookery with 3 of the finest ingredients that are available on the Wiltshire Downs in the spring. We might even find a few early mushroom species too depending upon the weather. We will finish the day with a recap of how to identify all of our finds and a cook up in one of the most stunning remote locations in the Wiltshire landscape.

  • SECRET SUNDAY SPRING FORAGER'S CLUB - Starting late April. 18.5 hours of detailed practical foraging tuition spread over 4 Sunday afternoons at prime foraging locations in the northern half of Wiltshire. We will ID and sample pignut, hogweed fiddles, wild garlic, burdock stems, chickweed, pine shoots, and many more choice edibles. Time will be spent identifying poisonous plants, learning to harvest effectively, finding out how to look properly, to stay on the right side of the law and to preserve and cook wild foods - culminating in a wild food picnic afternoon in early June.
  • SECRET SUNDAY MUSHROOM CLUB - Starting late September. 18.5 hours of tuition on many of the most acclaimed mushroom sites in the county of Wiltshire, where you will encounter a wide diversity of edible (and poisonous) species, learning to forage for them effectively whilst staying on the right side of the law and avoiding damage to the sensitive ecology of the area. Fred the Forager regularly eats more than 100 different species and last year's finds included cep (porcini), winter chanterelle, wood blewit, hedgehog mushroom, monk's head and many more. Take a look at this magazine article from Wiltshire Life on the Secret Sunday Mushroom Club and see what other people have said about the course.

Book early to avoid disappointment!


A Day with the Bohemian Mojo Project

The following extract comes directly from http://www.bohemianmojo.com/index.php/129-fff and you can read it directly (with images from the day) here


The Wild Side of Life is proud to support the wonderful, inspirational Bohemian Mojo Project...

"The idea of foraging conjures images of grubbily rooting through muddy undergrowth in the heart of some primeval forest. This was only half true on our amazing day with Fred Gillam, the foraging wizard...

 Part I

The morning was cold, windy and threatened of a downpour as we piled in the car, trying our darnedest not to be victim to Mojo Meantime again! Today we were foraging with Fred Gillam, the amazing forager. We didn’t yet know just exactly how amazing he was but were excited to find out.  I have to admit even though I was excited to sightsee I was a little skeptical at what we might be foraging at Uffington White Horse which was where we to start our adventure for the day. What could we possibly forage on an open hillside? Didn’t foraging require the dank, damp, and brooding underbelly of ancient forests???

Fred met us in the parking lot; only slightly behind schedule we bundled up and began heading up the hill.  As we stepped out onto the expanse, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment to take in the amazing view around the valley, sobering my thoughts as I tried to imagine how this must have looked centuries upon centuries ago and Fred began filling us in on some ancient history.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that this was going to be no ordinary day; we were in the presence of yet another MajicMaker and could expect an adventure for sure.

As we fought the wind and traipsed up the hill Fred began pointing out the flora and fauna and my eyes began to see the landscape in a whole new way.  We befriended Nettle, tasting its succulent little leaves with no adverse effects (once Fred taught us the secret). We collected small bits of Yellow Dock, Amaranth, and even sampled some Hawthorne berries.

Walking along the impressive ridge, we worked our way over to Dragon Hill; which possesses an unassuming, yet somehow riveting presence. Legend has it that this is where St. George slew the Dragon (a legend I find quite distasteful for a variety of reasons) and the small, bare spot in the middle of the hill that will grow no foliage is where the Dragon’s blood was spilt.  I liked Fred’s suggestion much better that this was indeed a place for ritual and sacred activities.  There is a Hawthorne tree at the entrance to the hill so I picked a few berries and walked onto the plateau, allowing the land itself to draw me in. The sensations that happened next were unexplainable as I felt a heaviness settle onto my heart, perhaps it is no accident that Hawthorne grows in ready reach. 

As the wind buffeted, I left the hilltop filled with a sense of having touched the primordial pulse. As I was wondering how to clear my head and my senses and dive back into the day, the most perfect downhill slope presented itself...Nothing for it but to tuck and roll! It was perfect medicine as I bounced down the hill, smelling the sweet grass and rich earth with each rotation, finally coming to rest on the valley floor. Silly with laughter and a bit dizzy, I was ready to plunge on to the next phase. Looking back up the hill to see if there were any other takers, I clapped and cheered as Fred the Forager and Michelle follow suit, bounce, bounce, bounce. After a little more wandering and learning we made our way back to the cars, ready to get some lunch and continue to the Savernake forest. 
As we left White Horse Hill, I again was struck by the history and pre-history of this place, stopping on the car park ridge for one final sweeping glance of appreciation.

 Part II

We got to the Pub for lunch just in time as the sky opened the floodgates and rain poured. After our lunch of traditional fish and chips, cider, and plenty of heartwarming conversation we were now fast friends and ready to move on to the Savernake Forest....but not without stopping first at King Alfred’s blowing stone. The Mojo team was a twitter, what the heck was a blowing stone??? According to legend, the blowing stone was how King Alfred summoned his troops to fight off the Viking hoards and further legend reports that anyone capable of blowing the stone correctly, which will allow it to be heard up on White Horse Hill, is the future King of England.; Needless to say, none of us are going to be ordained as royalty any time soon. We all took several attempts, allowing ourselves to settle into the good humor of the ridiculous attempts to make a stone produce a magical note. By the time we were all light headed from our attempts, we decided it was time to continue to the Savernake. On to the mushrooms!!

The Grand Avenue into the Savernake Forest is impressive. The ancient trees and overgrowth instill a sense of mystery and hushed appreciation. We climbed out of our cars and were immediately regrouped by Fred’s command that for the next few hours we pick nothing, touch nothing, that he didn’t approve of first. We had no idea there were so many varieties of mushrooms with so many adverse effects! The rest of the afternoon was spent rummaging under fern leaves, looking into piles of leaves and the underside of felled trees. Majken proved to be the master of forest foraging. Her skillful eye and quick hand soon filled our foraging basket under Fred’s careful and informative tutelage. Soon we had enough mushrooms and other foliage like wild cress and rocket to compliment a lovely dinner. The rain began to pour again so we decided to adjourn to Bridge Cottage and prepare our day’s efforts. Alun graciously provided and prepared wild partridge. Fred cooked up our mushrooms, and the rest of us tossed up a wild salad and poured the wine we had acquired just the day before in Wales.

Dinner was served!! Cheers to fabulous friends, foraging and rekindling curiosity for forgotten times."

With warm thanks to Stephanie, Michelle, Majken and of course Alun!





Wild Music fuelled by Wild Food, and off to the Dorset coast...

It's not every day that you come across something as unique and imaginative as this... 


Adam Wilding's ability to blend flavour and texture and bring out the subtle is destined to become legendary. His food is a work of art and it will be eaten to the accompaniment of the equally legendary guitar licks of Nick Harper, and a superb up and coming guitar/vocalist by the name of George Wilding, another name to watch.

The Wild Side of Life is proud to be providing the Wild Food part of the menu for Adam's next event in Ashbury this weekend, only a stone's throw from the Uffington White Horse! We're off to the Dorset Coast for a day foraging only the finest and best this week. Garnished with herbs and mushrooms from nearby Savernake Forest Fred's Foraged Frittata features highly on the menu, and I am sure Adam is going to do us proud....

Here are the event details:

Following on from the sell-out success of last Supper Club, 2015 sees our first event take shape.

In this pre-Spring event, we'll be pairing your supper with an exciting live musical line-up. The event will take place at the Rose and Crown, Ashbury, and we are honoured to be joined by the hugely talented singer/songwriter Nick Harper.

This event is going to be even more popular than the last one, so book early!

ON THE STAGE

Nick Harper - 9.30pm to 11pm

Join us for a post-supper set from the UK's most prominent songwriter and acoustic guitarist, Nick Harper.

Watch this local folk legend perform solo at the Rose and Crown, Ashbury.

For more information about Nick, see his website HarperSpace.

George Wilding - 8.45pm to 9.15pm

We will also have support from Wiltshire's own, quintessentially English musician, George Wilding, who will be warming up the audience with his own original material.

Find out more about George on his website George Wilding.com.

  

ON THE MENU

Join for this evening of interesting local dishes cooked by local talented chef Adam Wilding.

The theme for Saturday’s menu will be ‘Fresh Fast Food’, with an emphasis on delicious seasonal ingredients.

Rather than a sit-down affair, we are aiming for a more informal dining experience and are providing an array of canapés and finger/fork dishes will allow you all to enjoy proceedings and mingle at your own pleasure.

Entreés:

  • Pork belly bites with apple sauce & crackling
  • Goats cheese puffs with honey & sesame seeds
  • Buffalo mozzarella + tomato salsa + basil on crostini
  • Marinated hogget shish kebabs

Savoury Bowls & Plates:

  • Spicy pheasant breast & pulled leg tortilla wraps
  • Mini rabbit burgers
  • Nettle gnocchi
  • Trio of vegetable filo parcels
  • Fred's foraged frittata

Dessert Bowls & Plates:

  • Savernake surprise!
  • Blood orange sorbet
  • Mini Chelsea bun bread 'n' butter pudding

Menu subject to change. Please contact us about any special dietary requirements.

We’ll also have a well stocked bar, supported by ‘Butts Organic Craft Ales’ and a range of wines and Champagne supplied by Caviste.

Butts jester

Wild Side of Life Christmas Newsletter!

The Wild Side of Life
Wild food, mushroom foraging, herbcraft, bushcraft and wilderness skills courses with leading tuition for 2015.

 
 

Welcome to our Christmas Season newsletter!

OUR LATEST NEWS: 
  • It's been a very successful 18 months for us in the media including being featured in BBC Countryfile Magazine's Top 10 Foraging Courses and appearing on the Jeremy Vine Show

  • We have had the pleasure this year of working with BANES Carer's Centre and Wiltshire SPLASH, both are charities well worth supporting for their valuable work

  • During 2014 we offered you more unique and exciting experiences than ever before and people joined us from as far away as Jersey, Normandy and the Isle of Mull (thank you!)
  • Next year we hope to run some wild food cookery school days in conjunction with Peter Vaughan’s excellent Bistro Cookery School and a residential weekend retreat in Lincolnshire where you can learn the latest info on gathering and using medicinal mushrooms

Whether you want to get crafty with some willow, heal with hedgerow herbs, identify and cook gorgeous wild foods or forage the forest for gourmet mushrooms we have something special for you in 2015! 

If you want to spend a weekend getting practical in the wilds of nature you could build and sail your own coracle from natural willow or enjoy a spot of wild camping with the family in the woods... Learn survival skills and make shelters, fire and food from the raw materials provided by nature that can be found all around us. We'll show you how!
 
Click for our calendar to navigate through next year's courses and events!



...one of our gift vouchers
We would like to thank you for supporting The Wild Side of Life and wish
you a Merry Christmas, Cool Yule and Happy New Year!


SEE YOU IN THE WOODS!
Fred the Forager


Velvet Shanks and Winter Frosts

There's been a distinct change in the weather these past two days. I've been waking up to heavy frost and cold winds and this tells me that in order to carry on being a successful mushroom hunter I need to change my quarry. The wood blewits don't seem to mind the cold and will keep fruiting for a few weeks yet, and oyster mushrooms often repeat flush on old beech in the forest right into winter, but It's time to go hunting for the beautiful little velvet shank mushroom, Flammulina velutipes. 

 

Velvet shanks, Flammulina velutipes by Le_roj
In Wiltshire these attractive little mushrooms with their glistening orange caps and red-brown antler velvet stems are most often found on the old stumps and stools of elms, including the wych elm Ulmus glabra, They can also be found on a range of other trees and I once even found a colony on a garden leylandii hedge! Elms were once common hedgerow trees but far from being wiped out by Dutch elm disease they continue to flourish as young trees that sucker and stem from the roots of their previous much larger selves. Once these trees reach 20 to 30 years of age, sadly, they too succumb, with the silver lining that they provide more food for the little orange toadstool of mid-winter. 

 

The velvet shank is worth gathering for food and very nice whether cooked in the frying pan or stewed. Some gourmands pickle them too; to remind them of startlingly beautiful cold winter sunsets high upon the Marlborough Downs.


Giant Mushrooms in the Stones of Avebury

An old friend of mine recently got in touch and we decided to have a catch up on each other's lives. The venue we chose for this was the stone circle at Avebury. Avebury is the largest stone circle in the world and a truly remarkable place to have a remarkable meeting... and so it was!


We were treated to some of our finest, moodiest English weather. A howling wind, brief periods of sheeting rain interspersed with sunlit windows in the otherwise moody, stormy canopy over our heads. As the evening light descended upon us we were confronted with two beautiful sights. A stunning double rainbow raised an illuminated arc over the eastern gate of the stone circle, and looking westwards towards the cove stones the setting sun's rays illumined the most bounteous sight of all; a HUGE specimen of the dryad's saddle mushroom, Polyporus squamosus, multi-tiered like some strange elfin landscape from the artwork of a 1970's Yes album cover. Although I only had my little Samsung mobile with me we took advantage of the light and got some lovely photos which I would like to share with you here :-)


One thing did make me feel sad though. The poor old veteran ash tree that the dryad's saddle was growing on seems to be struggling a bit. It's not the healthiest of trees; it is getting quite old, and a major indicator of this is the presence of such a luxurious growth of bracket fungi. Very often the mycelium of these fungi enters into the tree that it will spend it's entire life with at birth - when the tree germinates from a seed. It is only when the tree's chemistry begins to alter in old age or after extensive damage that the fungus begins to think about reproduction on this scale. The tree may well have many decades if not more left but it is struggling a bit. It is covered in the loving offerings made by neo-pagans at the site too... ribbons, little verses tied on to branches with bits of string...

...this is an old custom elsewhere in the land so I don't see why modern people should not revive it here if they so wish. Some of the offerings were not so savory however! Pieces of nylon ribbon tied around branches will not rot and will strangle those twigs and branches as they get thicker, causing them to die and drop off. Offerings in plastic bags cannot decay either, and neither can little plastic stars or any of the other man made materials that are tied on to the tree and onto the other trees around Avebury. Even though visitors leave these offerings with goodness in their hearts, they are still bane to the tree and I wish that people would think very very carefully about what they leave. Wool and cotton cloth will at least rot away and string needs to be tied loosely and be real string, not nylon or polypropylene string, as this will still be there even when the tree is dead and has returned itself to the earth.

Me, I am content with making an offering of love and friendship, and taking only photographs in this place. Ness and I had a glorious time! The past few weeks have been one of those times when a number of old friends have decided to depart from this realm, and I came away with a feeling of "life's too short. let's not leave it so long next time." Friendship is one of life's most precious gifts that we all have to offer and share.

Photos to follow soon!




Coracle Making with a Splash!

Coracle Making with a Splash!


Last weekend's coracle course was a huge success, but went down with a splash at the end as I face planted the river demonstrating how (not) to gracefully get in to a coracle! I now know that my local river tastes like muddy herb tea :-)... fortunately I was wearing a decent life jacket and was never in any real danger.

 

Completed River Boyne curragh


The initial weave going in


Tying down the frame rods

Tying down the frame rods calls for a fair bit of precision. At this stage adjustments can be made to the frame that are nigh on impossible later on. Everything must be as true and symmetrical as possible...


Chris trying his for size!


A husband and wife team effort in sewing on the cover

Coracle covers have been made of cotton fabrics such as calico since the Industrial Revolution. This is a big saving of effort and resources in comparison to the older and more traditional use of one cow hide (and therefore one cow) per coracle. The cover must be waterproofed thoroughly with tar though before the coracle will float.


Triumphant - the covering stage is complete and it is time to take one of the curraghs (gaelic word for coracle) for a paddle on the water :-)



It looks idyllic doesn't it? It really is once you settle in to it and relax...

I hope you enjoy this little video of my Jack on the water, he makes it look so easy - and he didn't manage to fall in like me this time!...








Charcoal!

This week has been packed with adventure and fun...just the way I like it!


Wednesday saw a charcoal burn with the students from Wiltshire College Lackham, where we nailed the burn process from start to finish in just 14 hours using green wood that was only cut from the ancient woodland on site 4 weeks ago. Obviously the true result will only be seen when we open the kiln next week, but experience has shown that the corbelled stacking technique that I use makes for a very efficient burn with short burn time and high yields.

Here are some photos of the burn and a video kindly uploaded by one of the students, Amy Paradise...

corbelling - laying the fire

Stacking the charcoal kiln - 'corbelling'

getting a good heart in the fire

Getting a good core of heat in the fire

corbelling - laying the fire

Time to get the lid on

a good head of steam

Steam being driven off

balanced flues

A nice balanced burn with all flues discharging equally

intense heat inside - view up an air vent

Intense heat - view up the north-eastern air vents

charcoal - black gold!

Black Gold!!!

The end product. Sustainably produced hardwood lumpwood charcoal, useful for a variety of applications from traditional blacksmithing through to summer barbecues!

Rosehips on a Kitchen Table - BOOK REVIEW

I recently received a copy of the new recipe book "Rosehips on a Kitchen Table" by Carolyn Caldicott (illustrated by her husband Chris Caldicott) for review.


Carolyn and Chris have got acres of experience in this department, having run the wildly successful World Food Cafe in London's Neal's Yard for many years (now closed) and gaining an international reputation in the process. Not only are the recipes in this book rich with the flavor of experience, but Chris has a well deserved reputation in his own right as a photographer for The Royal Geographical Society. You would expect something really useful and beautiful to come from this duo!

Rosehips on a Kitchen Table by Carolyn Caldicott


The book is very well presented and my first thought was that it would make an attractive gift for any creative cook, whether forager or not. The photography by Carolyn's husband Chris is quite sumptuous for a relatively small book and does an admirable job of bringing each of the recipes to life, providing inspiration on how each of the dishes could be served to achieve the maximum appeal.

The title of this book should have widespread appeal with the current growth trend in wild food cuisine in the UK, growth in public interest in food independence, increased self sufficiency associated with downshifting and a growing disillusionment with the chain of production required to get our food from the world of intensive agriculture to the dinner plate. A chain that produces a drastically high carbon footprint and relies on artificial long term storage solutions that result in food that is often not that healthy for humans or the environment, and not all that tasty either! People are looking for a better way, they are understandably looking for a much needed change.

The recipes in this book are VERY easy to follow, and make use of everyday wholesome ingredients in simple well balanced combinations. The cookery is not complex. The emphasis is on the balance of flavours, and if you get that right it is possible to enjoy simple ingredients to the fullest. This cook book would be as useful for the single parent with little time on their hands to provide a tasty meal for the whole family as it would be for those seeking a special idea for a dinner party and there is something for everyone!

The fact that this book makes use of commonly available foraged ingredients makes a welcome change and of course makes the book very appealing to me. If you like foraging for sloes and blackberries, enjoy a nibble on some sorrel and find wild garlic truly versatile then you will find many new ways to bring these ingredients to the table with some flair. There is one proviso though...

If you are looking for a cookbook containing predominantly wild ingredients then this book is not for you. It is just not that kind of book. The emphasis here is on quality cookery and the author does make use of a small range of wild food ingredients in diverse ways and to very great effect. However if you are looking for a manual on how to cook with the very many diverse wild food ingredients that are available in our fields, woods and hedgerows throughout the year then this is not that kind of book.

I recommend this book because it has much to offer, it is well presented, accessible, easy to use and beautifully illustrated. It is both useable and useful.

WILD SIDE OF LIFE READER OFFER
SAVE £2.00 ON COVER PRICE!!

Rosehips on a Kitchen Table by Carolyn Caldicott

Rosehips on a Kitchen Table is published by Francis Lincoln (www.francislincoln.com)

To order Rosehips on a Kitchen Table at the discounted price of £7.99 including p&p* (RRP: £9.99), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG97. 

Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to: 

LBS Mail Order Department, Littlehampton Book Services, PO Box 4264, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 3RB. 

IMPORTANT - Please quote the offer code APG97 and include your name and address details. 

*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.


It's nearly Valentine's, taste the first rose of spring...

On St. Valentine's day (February 14th) flowers, clothing or sweets would be left on the doorstep by admirers; the caller's identities always remaining secret. A 'valentine' was chosen among friends by drawing lots, and all participated whether young, old, married or single. On Valentine's morning you were supposed to marry the first person you saw, so it was essential to avert the gaze from unwanted suitors.

primrose - James Sowerby

Primrose - Primula vulgaris

Primroses, (prime roses) are becoming scarce but can easily be grown in the garden! 

 


Primroses are the first 'rose' of spring. They promote relaxation and in excess may cause a slight drowsiness, so remember to consume responsibly. The flowers can be candied or used to garnish spring salads and also make an intoxicating wine. The leaves can be eaten raw in the manner of lettuce although I find them to be quite bitter, and they can be cooked with butter as a spring vegetable. Because primrose is now becoming scarcer, I recommend that you only experiment with very small quantities from the wild, and definitely have a try at cultivating it in the garden.


The lawn daisy Bellis perennis (literally 'day's eye' because it closes at night) can be used to decorate and garnish food at this time of the year. The plump but tiny leaves can be used to add a 'piquant' note to salads. Both leaves and flowers are thought to strengthen the immune system and stimulate white blood cell production, so they may help to keep colds and viruses at bay.


Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria is also available in SW England about now. The leaves can be added to salads and soups in small quantities.  Be careful not to gather the greater celandine by mistake (this looks nothing like the lesser and is not related) as it is poisonous. Lesser celandine has shiny rounded-triangular leaves that are available in early February, and they are full of vitamin C. They are suitable for adding in small quantities to a green salad for interest, but should not be used as the main leaf. Later on as the myriads of pretty buttercup-yellow flowers emerge and start to run to seed the leaves gradually become mildly toxic and should be avoided.

Llanfyllin Workhouse Festival 2013

Hello world, me and Jack are back from the very splendid Workhouse Festival where we met and foraged with so many lovely people...boogied and raved...drank buckets of wonderful coffee from Rob and Michelle's Pirate coffee shop...hung out with a lovely permaculture tribe who are really living the change they want to see in the world :-) ...feasted on a banquet of burlesque, stage magic, rock n roll, tribal drum and base, dubstep and latin rhythms.

Some pictures to follow...but seemed like we barely had time to take any.  I can't recommend this event highly enough.  It is family friendly with a great kids area and very peaceful healing garden in a addition to almost non-stop top entertainment.  The atmosphere is friendly and light, and the organisers have true vision. Well done to the organisers for making it so special and to everyone who turned the event into a real community for a weekend...I have walked away with a smiling heart after meeting so many lovely positive people once again.

Making 'Blobsters' with the Young Ones

Today we trekked down to our local nursery school to do some fun nature based activities with the kids. The aim was to engage the children's imagination and let their own natural creativity determine the direction. Today's exercise was making 'Blobsters'...creatures fashioned from clay and natural found materials such as pine cones, shells, twigs and leaves.  

blobsters!

Each Blobster could be any shape or size that the child wanted it to be. Some had more or less than the regular number of arms, legs, eyes and ears, but the most important thing was that the child's imagination was crafting something into being that they saw as 'alive' in some way. Some of the kids quite naturally went on to provide landscapes for their Blobsters to inhabit too...little gardens, fields and woods...in which they could have their own imagined adventures.

blobsters!

The use of natural 'found' materials deeply interests me. I noticed when my own son was very young that he could spend hours playing with a cardboard box, a feather or a stick, and often he found these far more stimulating than bought items that cost plenty of money. His imagination was awakened, and would press into service anything that he found in order to express and bring to life the creatures and stories that he carried inside his own mind. This is a stark difference to the type of play where toys look exactly like some specific thing - often previously seen on television first, and where their form is so precise that it is difficult to play with them in a flexible and imaginative way. Add to this the fact that children seem to take a born delight in finding and handling the things that nature provides, and we have a recipe for a very creative time, where the child is encouraged to express their own view of the world in forms and stories by picking up pieces of that world and shaping and moulding them together with their hands...you have a recipe for a lot of fun and some very deep learning.

The concept and inspiration for Blobsters comes from Chris Holland's valuable book "I Love My World". Chris's book is jammed full of ideas to get kids with their adults into good connection with nature. The ideas in the book are both creative and a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. You can find the book here:

Secret Sunday Mushroom Club

Autumn 2012 saw the launch of a new venture - The Secret Sunday Mushroom Club!


This was an exclusive members only event held over 5 Sundays in Wiltshire Woodlands, the aim being that participants would gain experience of hunting for edible fungi in a range of habitats and get to watch the emerging waves or 'flushes' of different species as the season progressed.  


The photo above s taken from one of the hauls, and shows the prince (Agaricus augustus), amethyst decievers (Laccaria amethystea), giant polypore (Meripilus giganteus), bay boletus (Boletus badius) and mixed Russula species.

Time was taken to familiarise everyone with the distinctive features to look out for when identifying fungi for the table, how to recognise the poisonous species that could otherwise be collected by accident, and also how to pick them so as not to endanger the habitat where they grow and to ensure sufficient supplies can re-occur in subsequent years.

fred explaining the giant polypore

another great mushroom haul





At the end of the last meeting we cooked some of our finds and reminisced over the highlights of the course. There were some impressive hauls made this season, I hope you enjoy the pictures...let's hope next season is even more fruitful!


Busy Busy Busy Creating Remedies Now

The thing about stocking your own herbal pharmacy is that there are times of the year when you will find yourself very busy.  This is one of these times!  I have just returned from the fabulous Sunrise Offgrid festival in the Mendips, and from giving herb walks at the Chippenham River Festival over the weekend, and have now launched straight into herbal preparation and laying up stores of remedies for the winter!

On Sunday during one of the herb walks we harvested a decent quantity of very fine rugosa rose hips.  These are the hips of Rosa rugosa, or the rhamanas rose, and though not truly native to Britain they are very large, plump and red and ideal for our purposes. The rose hips were to form the basis of a herbal cough syrup base, and last night they were reduced over heat for more than half an hour along with whole root ginger, white horehound, musk mallow and sweet violet, then strained through a cotton cloth and combined in the proportions 2:1 by volume with some very good local honey.  The end result tastes delicious and it will take a great deal of discipline not to merely drink this one before winter sets in with its accompanying sniffles!  

ginger and rosehip syrup

The beginnings of the syrup base - rosehips and root ginger in the pan

straining the syrup through a muslin cloth

Straining off the syrup through a cotton cloth

I plan to use the base syrup in making cough formulations, as the white horehound has an expectorant effect, the mallow is soothing (demulcent) to the mucous membranes, and the vitamin C and flavonoids found in large amounts in the rosehips will have a supporting effect on the whole body, particularly useful when the body is dealing with infections.  I have also been making additional ingredients in tincture form that can be added to modify and enhance the effect of the syrup, dependent upon each specific case. 

chopped coltsfoot leaves

Chopped coltsfoot leaves - Tussilago farfara - ready to make a broncho-dilator tincture; 
an opener of the airways

cherry bark decocting on the stove

Wild cherry bark - Prunus avium - decocting on the stove

Elecampane root tincture (elf dock) can be added to shift deep seated congestion; coltsfoot leaves (tincture) can be added for their ability to dilate the bronchioles which can be useful in bronchial asthma, emphysema and general congestion; cherry bark decoction can be added as an anti-tussive that soothes the respiratory nerves and eases the cough reflex, and so on.  All of my tinctures are made in 100 proof grape alcohol using fresh herbs rather than dried, and in most cases this appears to preserve the vitality, properties and energy signature of the plants very effectively indeed.

tinctures working in jars

Tinctures working in their jars - they will remain in them for one month before filtration

Other preparations that I have been making during the past week, (with lots of help and enthusiasm contributed by Tasch) include meadowsweet and comfrey double infused oils, tinctures of mugwort, plantain, lemon balm, yarrow, hemp agrimony, angelica root, skullcap, meadowsweet, vervain, raspberry leaf, marjoram and wormwood, and a herb tea from the fabulous rosebay willowherb - the one the Russians call kapoori tea.

freshly bottled oils

Double infused oils of comfrey - Symphytum officinale - and meadowsweet - Filipendula ulmaria - newly bottled.  Kept in a cool dark place they will keep for 12 to 18 months.

Rosebay willowherb - drying to make kapoori tea

Rosebay willowherb - Epilobium angustifolium - drying slowly to make the beverage kapoori tea

NEWS: Wild Food Foraging on the Radio!

I made a guest appearance last Saturday on America's Home Grown Veggie Hour with host Kate Copsey.


The topic for discussion was Wild Food Foraging in the UK, and together Kate and I discussed many of the main issues that surround safe and effective wild food foraging, including the identification of poisonous plants, the first forageable plants of early spring, UK law relating to foraging in local parks and public open spaces, the effects of modern living, population pressures and climate upon the environment, the impact of foraging upon plant colonies, biophilia, and many more subjects.  

I really enjoyed chatting with Kate on her great and very informative programme as she is very knowledgeable in her field as a horticulturist and plant specialist.  The programme was broadcast on Radio Sandy Springs from Atlanta last Saturday, but you haven't missed it because you can download it or listen to it online here :)


I hope you enjoy the show!

Foraging at Nozstock

Current mood - very inspired....just returned from foraging at Nozstock festival in Herefordshire.

Upon arrival at Nozstock I was immediately struck by the colourfulness of the gathering, and the way in which the rolling landscape had been used to good effect to create a variety of intimate areas for entertainment, which ranged from woodcrafts and workshops, dance music and cabaret, up and coming bands on the festival circuit, and an excellent array of small but well presented food kitchens serving everything from Thai noodles and curries to traditional roast dinners.  The atmosphere was one of non-stop partying and there were plenty of fun and smiles to go around over the whole weekend :)

Foraging at Nozstock was going to be a bit of a challenge, as the beautiful rolling landscape with its' many mature trees was also impoverished - in the herb layer at least - due to the history of intensive farming on the site.  The first task for me was to locate a suitable area with a diverse community of wild plants, and I have to admit to a sense of relief when I found a fairly diverse hedgerow and field margin right in the middle of the site... I remember thinking "phew, the show can go on after all!"  The car park area on the site also turned up a surprise in the form of several elegant specimens of the broad leaved helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, a rather showy orchid that prefers ancient woodlands and woodland edge environments...not a forager's plant at all but it did at least inspire me to keep on going - the plants needed to be given their voice and the landscape also needed to tell it's story to those who wanted to listen!

Foraging at Nozstock Festival

You couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch of people than those who attended my herbal first aid foraging walk at the festival.  I began by asking everyone present what ailments they had which were affecting their enjoyment of the weekend.  Festivals are a challenging environment for many people; eating unusual food at unusual times, changes to the regular routine of sanitation, spending hours on end on one's feet walking and dancing, too much hot sunshine and at the other extreme potentially waking in up in a rain soaked bed in a leaky tent, and then of course there are the effects of too much indulgence, too much party party party; frayed nerves, disorientation, dehydration, and more.  This festival was no exception..."What are we all suffering with then, what do you need to know in order to feel better?" and the replies came "What can I do for festival belly", "I've got sore knees", "my back hurts", "HANGOVER!!!", "I've been stung and it is swollen and itching like hell"...

Foraging at Nozstock Festival

Fortunately remedies for all of these complaints and many more could be found in the short stretch of diverse hedgerow near the woodcrafts / kids areas.  We investigated the use of the plantain poultice as an anti-histamine for insect stings as well as elder as an insect repellant...chamomile, meadowsweet and oak leaf tea for stomach troubles...  willow bark and meadowsweet for relief of pain and inflammation... yarrow for minor cuts and grazes...nettle tea, dandelion and yet more wonderful meadowsweet for hangovers, and of course chamomile and nettle seed for soothing those frayed nerves and supporting stressed adrenal glands.

Foraging at Nozstock Festival

Of course I found the time to have a boogie as well :) ...to the excellent Sicknote from Cardiff with their heavily theatrical masked and costumed performance, and another band from the Welsh stable called 'We Are The Animals' as well as over one or two good DJ sets.  

Foraging at Nozstock Festival

Nozstock is an up and coming small festival that showcases a quality lineup of new talent and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a weekend of fun and frolics in the Herefordshire hills!

(Thanks go to Kate Proffitt and Olly Boon for some of the photos)

Foraging at the Festivals - Wessex Gathering and Workhouse Party

Well, we are just back from running wild food and herbal medicine foraging workshops at the Workhouse Festival near Wrexham, and it has been a very good one, so I feel inspired to post something about the last two festivals that we have attended - as they have both been so much fun!

8-10th June saw the Wessex Gathering at the lovely Burnbake campsite on the Isle of Purbeck, near Swanage...

http://www.burnbake.com/
http://www.wessexgathering.co.uk/

It is a gathering of people who share an earth based approach to spirituality and a love of nature, so I was delighted to be on board for this one.  Many thanks to Phil and Nina Robinson for organising such a great event.  Wessex was also my first experience of laavu living, a type of tipi invented by the Saami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia and tried and tested in extreme weather conditions of all sorts.  This was just as well as we needed to put the laavu up in the dark in a 75 mph wind on the first night...quite 'exciting' to say the least...at one point a gust took one of our helpers (holding on to the canvas) clean off of the ground by about 3 feet as the central pole hit another over the head - ouch!  The solution was to be found in tethering down the whole tipi using the guy ropes before inserting the ridge pole, and then slackening off the guys a little at a time to allow the ridge pole to be eased into position. 

My foraging groups during this event were both large and very keen, and their enthusiasm was infectious.  As per usual there were questions about plant identification features, ailments, and plant folklore, and certain plants seemed to come to the fore; becoming group favourites - as if they had a message for us.  The stars of the show were hawthorn, blackthorn, Scot's pine and ground ivy. 

We talked about the uses of hawthorn as a general circulatory tonic, improving nutrient transport to the heart and muscular lining of the arteries, lowering blood pressure, regulating and increasing the pulse, helping to remove cholesterol plaques and improve the elasticity of the arteries. Apart from the obvious medicinal virtues of sloe gin ;) there was a lot of interest in the historic use of blackthorn by cunning men and women for 'blasting' work, and the tales of the woodsmen of old brewing Scot's pine tea to prevent the winter coughs and colds brought on by their living conditions (woods in the winter are a damp).  One of our number had a headache and this made for the ideal opportunity to demonstrate the harvesting of willow bark to make willow bark tea, and in a lovely gesture later she later brewed up a pot of ground ivy tea and brought it over to the tipi for sharing.


sea beet

Sea beet - Beta vulgaris

Outside of the festival there was some time to go down to the beach and my companion Natascha and I went in search of some forage of our own.  I couldn't resist the allure of the sea and ended up shrieking with laughter and rolling along in the waves, the sea leaving me feeling cleansed inside and out.  We found fresh and tasty rock samphire, and some decent sea beet too - enough to add vitamins, minerals and plenty of fresh sea flavours to our meals for days to come. 


rock samphire

Rock samphire - Crithmum maritimum

Samphire and eggs really takes some beating - it is the perfect addition to omelettes and scrambled egg, and the perfect accompaniment to fried eggs too.  On the Saturday evening we also decided to go pop for a quick pint to the Square and Compass pub at Worth Matravers.

http://squareandcompasspub.co.uk/. 

This pint wasn't so quick after all...the cider was GOOD and so was the North American band, 'The Groanbox Boys'...

http://www.groanbox.com/

...playing sophisticated bluegrass with a pumping beat that soon had us up and dancing.  The Square and Compass is an old stonemasons pub that has been in the same family for 3 generations and even has its own little museum room containing finds going right back to the bronze age from the area.  At halloween it is host to the infamous Pumpkin Festival where local quarrymen have been known to blow up their giant pumpkins with explosives!

11th and 12th July and we are just back from the phenomenal Workhouse Festival in Llanfyllin, mid-wales!  This was an exciting time and highly recommended to all - thanks go to Andrea Proffitt and Ian Jones for the invite and for their unswerving support.  The venue is a dis-used Victorian workhouse in 5 acres of grounds that is being converted into a community arts and sustainable living initiative by a group of dedicated volunteers. 

http://www.workhouse2012.co.uk/

Among some great DJ sets and some excellent entertainment from live bands - including the legendary 'Sicknote' from Cardiff...

http://www.myspace.com/sicknote

...we found time to take two large groups around the periphery of the site to forage for herbal medicines and a few wild foods.  A number of participants came to the group with ailments that were 'acting up' and what was nice... each time someone said 'can you help me out with this', the right plants were almost always to be found very close to hand.  It was almost as if the plants themselves were prompting the person to ask at just the right moment. 
During the walk we talked about, scrunched, sniffed, tasted and worked with a lot of herbs, including nettle, ground elder, rowan, oak, cleavers, meadowsweet, comfrey, pendulous sedge, dandelion, ribwort plantain and greater plantain, hawthorn, goat willow, elder, white clover, self-heal, hedge woundwort, greater celandine, blue alkanet and hogweed. 


foraging group - workhouse festival

foraging group - workhouse festival


At one point Rob (owner at the 'Big Green Coffee Machine') had been bitten by a flying insect on the neck.  The area was swelling and reddening rapidly - he told us that he suffers with bad allergic reactions to insect bites - and so I was able to use the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of a spit poultice of plantain in reducing inflammation and quelling the body's histamine reaction.  Rob duly chewed the herbs as instructed and applied them, and in a few minutes all were able to see how the bite had almost completely disappeared.  Rob also reported that he would develop itching all over his body after just one insect bite, but the itching did not start this time, indicating that the body's histamine reaction had been halted.

plantain spit poultice 

On the second day we met 'Pogo' on our walk, a jolly chap who had had a bit of a 'mishap' the night before and thought he had broken his thumb.  On inspection the thumb looked dislocated and / or distorted indicating a possible fracture.  This provided the opportunity to demonstrate the use of comfrey - bruised and packed around the area, then wrapped in a comfrey leaf and poulticed on with a bandage from the first aid kit, tied so as to restrict the movement of the thumb. 


comfrey poultice

It would be nice to hear from Pogo to find out how things progressed from there - so Pogo - if you read this then please get in touch!

As well as running the herbal foraging workshops and being entertained during almost every waking hour by quality entertainment ranging from dance music, burlesque shows, the talented TACSI (a reggae outfit from Anglesey) and the unbeatable live performance from Sick Note (oh yes we WILL be seeing them again soon)...we hooked up with Phil, a local web designer, who took us to Pistyll Rhyader...

http://www.pistyllrhaeadr.co.uk/waterfall.html

Wow, just take a look!  The ambience of the whole valley is incredible, and at the waterfall the way that the water cascades down and is ejected out through that humungous hole stone - possibly the remains of a blow hole - so dramatic!  Thanks Phil - this is a memory I will carry with me for a long time and it made for the perfect end to our trip.


pistyll rhyader


pistyll rhyader

pistyll rhyader












Filming Wildlife in Devon and Cornwall

Well, its the last night of a very enjoyable road trip to Devon and Cornwall. The objective of the trip, apart from getting a little much needed R&R, was to capture some dramatic film footage of herring gulls in flight and the power of the sea for a documentary film designed to raise awareness of the environmental issues facing mankind...a film being made by visual artist and film maker Rhea Quien

The first two nights were spent in enchanting Branscombe on Devon's Jurrassic coast.

The objective here was to film the Jurrassic cliffs and the power of the sea but despite it being an amazing atmospheric location this failed due to the weather conditions - a heavy sea fog that refused to lift making filming almost impossible. After sampling the hospitality of the Mason's Arms (http://www.masonsarms.co.ukwe decided to head along the coast into my beloved West Cornwall, staying at a clifftop location near Portchurno. Cornwall certainly presented us with better weather for filming.



The coastline around the tip of Cornwall is nothing short of spectacular, providing us with a wild and raging sea, jagged rocky outcrops, caves and some secluded coves that were ideal for the filming assignment.  Wildlife abounds here and nature feels as raw, glorious and unspoiled as anywhere in the British Isles.  It is a strange place, where the very bedrock is formed from layer upon layer of fossilised sea creatures, itself encrusted in living sea creatures - limpets, barnacles, mussels - and wherever you find 'sand' it is no such thing; but the crushed and tumbled fragements of shell and skeletal remains of yet more sea creatures, some of whom lived a long time ago.  It is a kind of 'sea graveyard' as my companion commented, yet it feels so very alive!

On the very first day of filming we had a very close encounter with a large porbeagle shark which swam right in to the rocks in front of us in a blatant display of predatorial prowess, and there were numerous seals keeping a weathered eye on things (us) from just a couple of breakers out, waiting for us to clear the cove so that they could beach ashore for the night.  Incidentally the name porbeagle comes from the old Cornish porth bugel meaning 'harbour shepherd'.  We also saw basking sharks crossing the mouth of the cove, their characteristic outlines and wakes clearly visible and reminding me somewhat of strange biological submarines.



During the first couple of days in Cornwall I managed to take many macro photographs for the seashore vegetables section of my forthcoming forager's handbook - the written work scheduled to be completed this coming winter. The trip was worthwhile for this alone, with many stunning botanical specimens on display including rock samphire, sea beet, halberd orache, buck's horn plantain, wall pennywort (stunning salad texture) and sea rocket to name but a few; the samphire and sea beet providing texture and flavour for several good meals over the coming days.



Rock samphire Crithmum maritimum - flower buds detail



Halberd leaved orache - Atriplex hastata



Wall pennywort - Umbilicus rupestris



Sea carrot flower buds detail - Daucus carota subsp. Gummifer

The second night of our stay in Cornwall proved to be an action replay of my last foray into tipi living as a terrific storm blew in, and pitched as we were at the top of the sea cliffs this turned out to be a thrilling night.  The central pole of the laavu - a home developed by the Saami people of the extreme north - maintained a constant bend with the downward air pressure, and as 80mph+ squalls hit the canvas the whole structure at times felt as if it would lift into space like the nose-cone of some rocket.  The rain was driving too, but notwisthstanding a few small leaks we had a dry night and I was pleased to wake up to the sight of canvas still above my head, still buffetting strongly in the force 9 gale but having shown no sign of having moved...these tents are famous for their ability to hold firm in very adverse conditions and I can safely say that they live up to this reputation, with a resilience that has made them a mainstay of the Scandinavian armed forces.

A trip on the third day around to the north coast proved equally exciting in terms of wildlife as we made many seal sightings and captured some very good close-in footage of one male in particular, who seemed to be very friendly. Later towards evening I decided to do some fishing in the hope that the rising tide would bring the shoals of mackerel and pollack in, and despite an unsuccessful fishing trip this brought more stunning close encounters with seals, who seemed to just want to 'hang out' with us...literally just out of our reach and intent on watching just what we were doing.  

Seals somehow 'feel' so human to me.  Obviously they are anything but human, but there is something about their inquisitiveness, their facial expressions as they tread water, floating vertically upright and making strong eye contact, that stirs human emotions in me.  I am reminded of the beautiful and ancient tale of the Selkie Wife from Scottish folklore; the tale of a seal woman, a part seal - part human of the race of the sea fey, who married a human being.  Their marriage was frought and ended in tears as her man just could not understand her need to return to the wild and swim with her brothers and sisters on each and every full moon.  Let this be a lesson for all who turn their back upon nature, as we live in a world that frequently regards the true experience of the wild as too childish, and that turns its back upon those of such a 'fey' nature, for among the ranks of those who can still hear the song of nature calling in their hearts are seldom to be found those who would rob and plunder our beautiful planet for personal gain.  To some degree haven't we all turned our backs upon our marriage to the wild?


Last night saw temperatures plummetting around the wee hours of the morning, and I could actually see my breath...July?  Today, with only one day to go we decided to do just a little filming and hang out on the beach.  I met some lovely people including another veteran of 'Cholderton Woods' (you just had to be there - Chris this is for you) who now spends his time teaching others the skills needed to live in harmony with nature and to create a better future for our life on this planet. The sea however was extremely cold for the time of the year, raising questions about our dependence upon the Gulf Stream for our familiar climate, and it is certainly true that this summer to date has felt anything but familiar, or very summery!  

Before heading back to the tipi we harvested a good quantity of fresh mussels from the rocks and a few small whelks, as well as some lovely fresh samphire and sea beet from the cliffs above.  Back at camp my companion showed me her method of preparation, something she had done many times for a living in the past and this showed with her obvious efficiency not to mention the fixed, distant 'auto-pilot' gaze as her hands remembered what to do.  The mussels were first cleaned and their beards removed with the edge of a sharp knife.



Mussel - showing the 'beard' which must be removed



Mussel - beard all gone!

After washing we cooked the mussels in decent cider, prepared the sea beet and samphire with smoked sausage, herbs, garlic, and spices, and served the whole with corn starch noodles washed down with a bottle or two of beer. Mussells fresh from the sea with fresh seashore vegetables cannot be beaten. The flavour is exquisite and fulfilling - they were the sweetest I have ever tasted - and it was worth savouring every last foraged mouthful! 



Sea beet and samphire prepared to accompany our fresh mussels - delicious!

During the last day we headed further north to Rocky Valley in search of some graceful aerial footage of herring gulls.  As dusk began to settle the gulls made their way overhead to clifftop roosts, funnelled by the narrow valley terrain, and this turned out to be a most successful strategy although filming directly overhead was at times very difficult.  Rocky Valley was just stunning, and as we left for home contented and peaceful, I was also left longing for more of the Cornish coast with all of the richness of its wildlife!



Waterfall above the cauldron - Rocky Valley

Chicken of the Woods - LOVELY!

Whilst being driven by a friend along a deserted lane lined with mature oak trees today I spotted something attractive and yellow from the corner of my eye, and yelled STOP the car!

After being given a strange look, I pointed up into one of the trees and hurriedly, even frenetically, hopped out of the car and scrambled up the verge to examine the young fleshy outgrowth of Laetiporus sulphureus from a wound on the trunk of a mature oak, commonly known as chicken of the woods.  It was in good condition, and what is more there was lots of it!  I harvested around one third of the fungal fruit body and took it in to the car, which was soon filled with it's rich aromatic mushroomy aroma.

chicken of the woods - fruit body

Once back home I carefully and lovingly scraped off the attached leaf litter with the edge of my knife blade, and proceeded to grade the fungus as I chopped it into sections...one pile for the older material, which is tougher and slightly bitter but ideal for use in soups, stews a risottos...one pile for the younger material which is more tender and sweet, perfect for frying, stir frying, and just about anything else where you would like to use it's hallmark flavour and texture to the full.  We fried the first batch with some fresh herbs and delicate spices and the result was mouth wateringly good! 

chicken of the woods - preparation

The Wikipedia article on the species and it's allies appears to be fairly accurate.  You can find it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_of_the_woods

The article does mention that occasionally people experience disorientation and dizziness after consuming this mushroom.  One scientific study in my possession detected small concentrations of DMT in certain strains, and this psychotropic substance may in fact account for the 'disorienting' effect experienced by a few when eating this mushroom.  I have to say though, it is a world class edible mushroom.  It is versatile, firm, has a low moisture content and stores well, dries well and freezes well.  The dried fruit bodies can be ground and stored as 'mushroom flour' which is an ideal soup thickener or stock ingredient, although it is a little too bitter to bake with unless combined with other types of flour.  The flesh not only has a texture resembling chicken once it is cooked, but the flavour also bears a passing resemblance.

We enjoyed our culinary experience...I hope you enjoy the pictures :)

chicken of the woods - fried!




Jumbo Morels and Coralroot

This has certainly been a week of exciting discoveries.  Earlier in the week I walked past a large patch of something I had never seen before, in a place where I must have walked hundreds of times. This all goes to show that looking isn't the same thing as seeing, no not at all!  The plant in question is coralroot, Cardamine bulbifera.  After making enquiries it turns out that the colony I have spotted is the only one recorded from Wiltshire.

coralroot - a wiltshire rarity

    Coralroot - Cardamine bulbifera, a Wiltshire rarity

Coralroot is a member of the mustard family, and the flower resembles cuckoo flower, also known as Lady's smock, very closely.  However, this is where the similarity ends.  Coralroot has a wonderful pale blue-lilac flower, and serrate lanceolate-oval leaves born on a fairly tall stem...but there is a much more interesting surprise in store, for although coralroot does set viable seed, most of its reproduction is done by means of tiny bulbs that grow at first in the leaf axils and then fall off.  Each one of these 'bulbils' as they are called has the potential to grow into a fully fledged coralroot plant, just given a bit of nurturing. Coralroot is regarded as an edible plant, although it has a very subtle flavour in comparison to it's cousin Lady's smock, which has a nice robust peppery cress flavour.

Earlier this week I was also delighted when I happened across a patch of truly enormous morels near to where I live.  Morels are also fairly uncommon and foraging for them deliberately rarely leads to finding them, so I was very pleased on Tuesday with my 'catch'. The morels in question were a full nine inches tall and the two specimens that I harvested must have weighed around three quarters of a pound or more!

gigantic morels

The two gigantic morels I harvested - Morchella esculenta

another pic of those gigantic morels

Morels make for truly excellent eating whether fresh or dried, and are frequently used as signature ingredients in savoury flans and tartes, but also can be prepared with cream and pasta, and even made into a tasty mousse. They are easily preserved by cutting them into pieces vertically, removing any insects with a soft brush, and drying with good air circulation.  Re-hydration is carried out using warm rather than hot water, and many people think that their already exquisite flavour is improved by drying.  Morels are highly prized and sought after throughout Europe.  Limestone woodland edges and hedgebanks with a ground layer of dog's mercury tend to be productive places to look for them, as do burn sites and old vegetable plots.  

There are several different kinds of morels, but the most important thing is not to get them confused with the false morels, (Gyromitra species) which can cause a nasty case of poisoning.  The key thing to remember is that true morels are completely hollow and false morels are not.  It is also worth remembering that even true morels - the Morchella species - can at times contain toxic levels of helvellic acid and must therefore be cooked before consumption. If cooking produces a lot of steam, one should not hover over the saucepan for the first few minutes of cooking time as during this period the helvellic acid (if present in any quantity) is being driven off within the steam. For identification of morels I recommend Roger Phillips excellent book "Mushrooms"....however you plan to eat them, NOW is definitely the time to look for them...happy hunting!

Teachings About Life From Other Beings - How One Man Met His Death and Lived

This link -  http://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/?p=68 - goes to a fascinating and well written account written by one man, about how he survived a severely life threatening situation...Destroying Angel poisoning. There is a very powerful message in the punch line "...in reality, the mistake I made was just not taking the time to positively identify the mushrooms I had picked before ingesting them....no one with an understanding of the importance of properly identifying mushrooms falls victim". 

The following is a short essay I wrote as part of my spiritual practice as a herb worker, about my reflections on this person's account of their near death encounter. I do not know the person who wrote the account, and what I write is not intended to be a personal reflection upon them in any way.

On a Deep Ecology level, this story is an account of an interaction between two different beings, two different species of life. All is one but there is also a level at which all life is different. Many philosophies and spiritual systems seek to deny this by focussing only on the 'oneness' at the expense of the diversity of life. There is a great lesson here, just as the indigenous hunter must get to know the life of his prey deeply, and the herb worker must strive to know the plants they collaborate with intimately, so it is with all forms of life...whether mushrooms or people. If your expectations of any being do not match its true nature you can repeatedly find yourself in increasingly difficult and dangerous situations, as nature will always be manifesting in ways that you would not expect or desire. The blogger in this article did not expect to find himself in grave physical danger, and notably he blocked the awareness required to avoid the situation by bolstering his 'ego'...by his own account he felt invulnerable that day, invincible, one might say 'blinded by the light', and he lucidly re-counts his own mind's attempts in the beginning to deny the reality of what was taking place, in order to maintain a sense of control over it and order. 

It could be (and obviously I do not know the person involved in any way and this is not a statement of fact about that person) that in denying native wit, and allowing perception of the world around to become distorted by projecting unrealistic expectations onto the inner 'high' that he was experiencing, he opened the door to something destructive 'happening'. At the core of this type of mis-fire is a persons neediness, and we all have neediness in one form or another, yet it has the ability to knock the most profound spiritual height right off its foundations when it is not acknowledged. To identify our own needs, including our emotional and spiritual needs, is a very important step to take.

To hunt, to forage, to relate to another being effectively and in a meaningful way, we must seek to understand its nature...and by this I do not mean become blinded by the beautiful light that is the centre of all life...to relate to that light of being in a practical way we must first interface with it through its NATURE... nature, 'red in tooth and claw' is the signature of the material sphere...and in order to gain the skill to know the beings we interact with, from centipedes to mushrooms, to lovers, sisters and brothers...in other words to hunt and forage through life safely and co-creatively, we must first seek to know ourselves in a very honest way, so that we do not project our own expectations, needs, prejudices and perceptions onto others. 

The spiritual mystery traditions have always taught that discernment must be developed to a very high level in order to walk any magical path of any kind. Without this we invite life to bite us on the arse time and time again by opening ourselves unconsciously to dangers and obstructions, or in archaic words placing our soul in peril. Through denying the important influence that need...the need that arises from the practical world...hunger, shelter, rest, affection, validation...exerts upon our perception of other beings, people and situations, we endanger ourselves and those who must depend upon us. The hunter forgets the importance of vigilance and in falling asleep, falls prey to the lion. The forager glosses over the details and falls prey to their own lack of judgement. The lover forgets to check on the needs of their own life journey, or on the intrinsic nature of the beloved, and in their seeking for the light through another makes damaging life choices. The brother or sister forgets to check on the practical needs of his siblings, and discovers too late that his neglect has led to their downfall. This hurdle is crossed by developing and using the faculty of discernment, and with the tool of discernment the real work can begin that leads to the 'animation' of the soul's journey; with it the ability to relate to all beings in a meaningful and constructive way is a side effect of this process...but it is still a gift with the power to change the world in its hands.

http://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/?p=68

Wild Garlic is Everywhere Right Now

Since there is so much wild garlic about at the moment, I thought it would be good to share a few notes and recipes about this plant.


Garlic (and ramsons or wild garlic is no exception) is traditionally thought of as a hot, drying herb. Wild garlic is perhaps less so than the garlic that most of us grow in our gardens, but nevertheless it is still hot and drying.

Garlic is sometimes described as a 'rubefacient' - literally a plant that causes redness.  Several years ago I was leading a foraging day in a large woodland in the southern Cotswolds that was carpeted with wild garlic.  One particular student of mine took a liking to it and munched it as we walked around all day long.  After lunch he complained of feeling hot and very thirsty, and he was a little dizzy too.  When the others all looked at him the rubefacient action was plainly visible for all too see - his face looked slightly swollen and very beetroot red, and his eyes looked sore and red too!  I had cautioned him about eating too much garlic earlier in the day and I warned him not to touch any more; and in an hour or so he was looking and feeling very much better.  From the point of view of the four humours, which were the underpinning philosophy behind western medicine for around 2000 years, pretty much until the dawning of the age of enlightenment, he had thrown his humours completely out of balance.  The herb, according to Culpepper is ruled by the fiery planet Mars, causes a strengthening of the fiery choleric humour, whilst countering any excess of the watery phlegmatic humour that is produced in the lungs.  This is why traditionally garlic is used to treat chest infections such as chronic bronchitis that produce a lot of mucous discharge.

Garlic contains a number of medicinally active compounds, among them diallyl disulphide, which is eliminated from the body via the lungs and breath.  This compound is a powerful anti-bacterial agent and hence the consumption of garlic is known to be greatly beneficial - from the modern perspective of disease - in the treatment of chest infections.  It has a powerful reputation among herbalists as an anti-biotic whose action specifically targets the respiratory tract.

Another notable medicinal action of garlic is its stimulating and vasodilatory effect upon the circulation.  This is why the long term use of garlic is recommended for a variety of circulatory ailments, ranging from Reynaud's syndrome through to heart failure.  It is also regarded to have a normalising and lowering effect upon blood pressure and is thought to be beneficial in many cases of hypertension.  A typical recommended dose for the long term use of garlic is between 3 and 5 cloves per day.

Ramsons or wild garlic is thought to possess many similar medicinal virtues to the garlic of market gardens, even though it is in fact a different species, and its properties are regarded as being lesser though still significant.

Ramsons or wild garlic - Allium ursinum

It is of course a very very tasty herb!  All parts of this plant are edible.  The flower buds make a tasty pickle which I call 'Eagle Pickle' as in the 'green language' employed by the mediaeval alchemists the eagle was synonymous with garlic - one of the most sulphurous herbs.  The leaves are wonderful eaten fresh in salads with a vinaigrette dressing, and can also be carefully dried and laid up for winter use by the sack load.

Below are a couple of recipes given to me to post by friends Debby and Alecandr...all quantities approximate so you will have to experiment a little until you find a version that is right for you!

WILD GARLIC AIOLI

A splash of white wine vinegar
One egg yolk
A mixture of 10 parts sunflower oil to 5 parts walnut oil and 5 parts olive oil
a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar
250g of chopped wild garlic (ramsons) leaves / buds / flowers

Chop the wild garlic, cover in a vessel with the oil mixture so that there is just enough to cover the herb, add the sugar and salt and stir in a splash of vinegar to taste.  Whisk in the egg yolk and put the whole mixture through a blender until a thick mayonnaise like consistency is obtained.  Store in clean air tight jars and refrigerate.

WILD GARLIC PESTO

100g pine nuts or cashew nuts
250g of wild garlic (ramsons) leaves / buds / flowers
A couple of tablespoons of lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Lightly toast the nuts and chop the wild garlic leaves to a shred (hold them together in tight bunches while you do this).  Add the nuts, garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice to the blender and blend them together thoroughly.  Add olive oil and continue to blend until the right consistency is obtained, which is a matter of preference.  Parmesan or Gran Pedano cheese could also be added to taste.  Once prepared add to clean air tight jars and refrigerate.



First Foraging Walk of the Season

The first public foraging walk of the season today was a great success :)

A great big thankyou to all who attended.  I always love to hear people's tales about how they have used wild plants and the things that their parents and grand-parents used to do with them, it's always so interesting, and there was plenty of information of that nature shared among the group participants in addition to the teaching input from me.

The plants found / sampled and the parts of plants discussed in detail for their edible and/or medicinal properties were:

Cramp bark Viburnum opulus - bark, berries
Elder Sambucus nigra - bark, buds, leaves, flowers, berries
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare - aerial parts
Hogweed Heracleum sphondyllium - young shoots (fiddles)
Meadowsweet Fillipendula ulmaria - leaves and flowers
Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna - leaves and fruit
Goat willow Salix caprea - bark
Nettle Urtica dioica - leaves and seeds
Lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria - young leaves, bulbs
Hemlock Conium maculatum (a deadly poison)
Cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris - leaves
Bramble Rubus fruticosus - roots
Horse chestnut Aesculum hippocastanum - buds
Cleavers Galium aparine - leaves
Lords and Ladies Arum maculatum (another poison) - leaves, root
Sedges Carex species - seeds
Comfrey Symphytum officinale - leaves, roots
Foxglove Digitalis purpurea - leaves (a deadly poison)
Burdock Arctium lappa - leaf stalks, roots
Alder Alnus glutinosa - twigs



Meadowsweet - Fillipendula ulmaria
one of the three sacred herbs of the druids, and a valuable source of salicylic acid, the pre-cursor of aspirin

We also talked about spring soups and spring greens, macerations, teas, oil infusions, syrups and salves, and home made 'bath bombs', as well as the deficiencies in our modern diet.

Ailments discussed were bruising, fractures and sprains, psoriasis, gout, arthritis, liver cancer, adrenal stress, menstrual cramps, scurvy (vitamin C deficency), headaches, intestinal worms, influenza and fevers, tachycardia, circulatory disorders, degenerative memory loss, hypertension, headaches, narcotic addiction, lymphatic blockage, diarrhoea and varicose veins

An enjoyable afternoon!

Roadkill Game - How To Tell If Its Safe to Eat

Personally I am not in the habit of eating roadkill unless it happens to run under my car or I get told by someone that they just knocked down a deer, but for those who are committed to letting nothing go to waste, here is what to look for to tell if your game is safe to eat…..

  • Avoid any animal that has not obviously been killed by a car - avoid anything with no sign of injury, signs of being eaten, or with bullet holes

  • Avoid rabbits that have signs of myxamatosis – swellings around eyes and on face being the obvious sign – this meat can be cooked in a survival situation but the animals are not healthy

  • Remember some animals may carry tuberculosis, such as foxes, badgers and deer, and all mammals can carry rabies. Fortunately rabies is not extant in the UK at present – but avoid handling fresh blood and body fluids as much as possible, and always wash before eating, drinking, smoking or going to the toilet – as soon as possible

  • Try to pick animals with minimal bruising – like the winter roe deer in this picture, which was mostly damaged on just one hind quarter...

    fresh roadkill roe deer in winter coat


  • Does the animal smell like an animal, a corpse, or worse? Only go ahead if it smells of ‘fresh animal’.  Death - even recent death - does have a smell of its own but it is not at all like the smell of decay

  • Are the eyes intact? If they are just a little glazed over that is fine, but not pecked out by crows or shrunken back. They should not be pestered excessively by flies either

  • Is the abdomen distended with putrefaction gases? A deer’s belly will begin to swell within just a few hours, but if it has reached this stage – the clock is ticking as the putrefaction may taint the meat. A small degree of bloating is OK, but you will probably need to remove the 'skirt' meat around the belly

  • Is there fresh bright red blood, as opposed to brown ‘changed’ blood? Clotting, darkening blood may be acceptable, but the fresher the blood, the fresher the meat. For deer – if it is very fresh the blood will flow if the blood vessels in the neck are cut – and some people find deer meat too ‘strong’ if it is not first ‘bled’. However, I actually like the taste of blood – it makes a nutritious stock and is too good to waste in my opinion – so, ‘to bleed, or not to bleed, that is the question’

  • Again – there should not be a clustering of flies on the meat in our climate – except in very hot weather – so long as the kill is fresh

  • Above all - understand rigor mortise – stiffening sets in after a few hours, but disappears again in a couple of days – by which time the animal usually shows all of the signs of being ‘old’ stated above

    WARNING - No one can decide whether your game is fresh except you - but if you take care and look for all the signs of freshness, it should normally be perfectly safe to eat

Wild Food Mentoring near the Cotswold Water Park

Today I spent a lovely afternoon teaching Sue and her very enthusiastic 7 year old son how to safely identify and gather edible mushrooms, and how to identify and avoid a number of common poisonous fungi that grow in the south west.  I was really taken with the enthusiasm that this little boy possessed for nature, and how he still looked at the world in awe and wonder, a quality that many of us adults have lost as we learn to label everything rather than experience it, and become jaded by the concerns and pressures of adult life.

I chose a wooded site on the edge of the Cotswold Water Park that is well known to me, and where I have been collecting fungi and carying out surveys for the past 15 years.  This interesting landscape, prior to being wooded, was an area of rough grassland and common land - so called 'verny ground' - that was used by the Anglo-Saxons and Normans over a millenia ago to graze their pigs.

The edible species that we found today included wood blewit Lepista nuda, monk's head Clitocybe geotropa, goblet Cantharellula cyathiformis, various russulas, common puffball Lycoperdon perlatum, cow boletus Suillus bovinus, and clouded agaric Clitocybe nebularis.  Despite expectations founded on previous year's experience the plentiful winter chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms, saffron milk caps and occasional ceps that can be found in this place were not in evidence, but nevertheless we gathered plenty of mushrooms for the table and an enjoyable time was had by all!

monk's head mushroom - photo Charles Sommer

Monk's head - Clitocybe geotropa

The monk's head is currently my joint favourite edible mushroom along with the field blewit - which is probably just as well since there are lots of both around this year.  One fairy ring of monk's head found in France was over half a mile in diameter and estimated to be over 800 years old.  When you consider that under the soil's surface this is one gigantic organism, that is a very large and very ancient 'creature'!  I use the word creature advisedly as the fungi sit somewhere between the animals and plants on the tree of life.

At the end of the afternoon, my new foragers seemed very pleased with their 'catch', and Sue said;

 "Thanks Fred for a brilliant afternnoon, and a brilliant soup and risotto are now to follow!"

... I have a feeling we all went home rather satisfied, and I certainly had another fine basket of mushrooms to put on the drier for winter.

Mushrooms - BEWARE!

Last night I came home to a carrier bag full of large toadstools nailed to my door, accompanied by a very anxious letter.  The person who had left them, along with their contact details, was afraid that they might be about to die, as they had eaten a soup containing many of the fungi without really knowing what they were, or whether they were even safe to eat.  Fortunately I was able to contact them immediately and to put their mind at ease, letting them know that the most alarming symptoms they were likely to experience were sweating and the plentiful breaking of wind!  The person who left the mushrooms confirmed that this had already begun to take place, and thanked me profusely.  A similar experiment with the wrong species most probably would have brought about their death, and in a most unpleasant way.

Up until the past 10 days or so it has been a very unproductive mushroom season in my locality of Wiltshire - so much so that I cancelled plans to hold public forays after one very dissapointing foray in early October. The weather pattern - a combination of climatic factors, has been 'all wrong' and has not encouraged many larger edible species to form fruit bodies (the mushrooms).  True - there have been some worth harvesting - but generally in small quantities.

This situation has now changed completely over the past week or so and much better harvests are coming in, with people regularly sending me pictures of their specimens to identify.  Today produced for me a good basket of horse mushrooms in lovely condition, and I have also been picking a range of woodland species.


Honey Fungus
Here is a stunning photograph (copyright Dierdre McMurray) of a cluster of honey fungus - Armillaria mellea. This is a common garden pest often killing specimen trees, but in the wild it does far less damage, and tends to be kept in check by the ecosystem of which it forms a part.

The caps of this fungus are tasty once cooked - but they do have to be cooked as they are slightly poisonous when eaten raw.  Tasting a tiny amount of the raw fungus at the front of the mouth - accomplished by chewing a pea sized lump for about a minute and then thoroughly spitting it out - causes a peculiar acrid sensation in the back of the throat a few minutes later.  This can be used as a taste test by the experienced collector (who must first be able to eliminate all the more poisonous species on sight) - and once tried the effect is never to be forgotten, being written indellibly on the memory, and aiding future identification.  

It is likely to be a short mushroom season now if the weather turns colder - although one or two species will usually survive long after the first few weeks of frost - especially the wood blewit Clitocybe nudum, and the velvet shank Flamullina velutipes which grows mainly on dead elm stumps and branches.

This year I have started running one to one coaching in the art of foraging for edible mushrooms.  For a 2 hour session in my local area I charge £35.00 - so if you are interested in improving your foraging skills and keeping safe, get in touch!
bobdogstar@yahoo.co.uk 

The Coming of Bees - Attracting a Swarm to your Hive

Over the past few days I have watched with interest as scouting honey bees have been checking over my empty baited hive...Could there be a colony ready to move in somewhere in the locality?  We will have to wait and see! It is getting in to the late part of the season for recruiting swarms, and I am watching with anticipation and hoping to see some kind of result sooner rather than later - but I will have to be patient!

western honey bee
Photo by Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring, Munich.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.






The setting up of a bait hive in order to catch a swarming colony of honey bees couldn't be easier and is a good way for the would be bee-keeper to obtain a colony at almost no additional cost.

Obviously, one requires a hive of some sort, whether it is one of the types more commonly seen today, such as the Langstroth, National, or Commercial varieties, or one of the African Top-bar hives that are becoming increasingly popular with those taking an informed low-intensity approach to bee keeping (less focussed on large annual harvests and therefore less stressful to bees).  Although bee hives can be prohibitively expensive to buy from new, it is usually possible to find a bee keeper in your locality with spare second hand hive parts that they will part with for a modest cost in the interest of promoting the practice of bee keeping.  My own hive bodies were obtained this way and together with a smoker, an aluminium feeder and a hive tool I think I paid no more than £40 for the lot! The best way to get in touch with local bee keepers is through your local Bee Keepers Association, and you will mostly likely find that there is a branch nearby.  If you do not know the whereabouts of your local association, the best place to look is on the British Beekeepers Association's excellent website:


If you are good with wood you could of course make your own hive bits.  There are plans for an African Top-bar hive in this excellent free ebook by author of "Barefoot Beekeeping" Phil Chandler:

http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/how-to-build-a-top-bar-hive/15321150

Once you have built a basic hive set up - and really if you are using the more intensive methods that are commonly used in the UK it need be no more complicated than a brood body (where the colony will actually live), a floor, a crown board (the board that sits over the top of the colony) and a roof to keep the rain off and unwanted predators out - you will need to furnish it with some old honey comb as any bees that come by looking for a new home will be attracted to its familiar, warm aromatic smell.  A 'frame' is the technical term for something like a picture frame that is suspended in the hive and encloses / supports the honeycomb. It will greatly improve your odds of attracting a swarm of bees if you put a frame or two of honeycomb in the hive...it doesn't need to have any honey in it, just the wax will do.

If you have no ready built comb (you would need to get this from another bee keeper if you have none), you could put in two or three frames containing printed beeswax 'foundation'.  This is the name given to sheets of re-claimed beeswax that have a printed raised honeycomb pattern upon them to encourage the bees to build their metropolis in a regular, uniform manner, and this is the aim of the bee keeper using methods such as National or Langstroth. Bee keepers that are using the less intensive Top Bar method could still accomplish this by wiring some beeswax foundation directly to a couple of the single top-bars.  

To enhance the odds of a passing queen and her entourage taking a fancy to your new 'des-res' it is possible to obtain a small phial of queen pheromones that you can leave in the empty hive, and which serves as an attractant. This step is by no means essential as bee keepers have done without this high tech solution for many years...but every little helps, or so goes the theory!  The attractant is placed within the hive, and the phial is made of a very slightly gas permeable plastic, so you should not open it but simply place it inside. 

Sighting your bait hive correctly is a very important step. Bees build their honey comb in an east-west direction so it is important to orient the hive body so that they can easily accomplish this, otherwise they will tend to build their comb in the natural direction and in doing so will join together the existing frames and possibly even brace them to the body of the hive, making manipulation of the honeycomb and bees later on very difficult indeed.

Siting the Bait Hive
If possible you should site your bait hive in an area of abundant nectar sources in the form of plants that are flowering during the summer months.  Not all plants can be pollinated by bees however, so aim for plants that are already known to be attractive to honey bees.  You can find information about bee trees and shrubs here:
and here:

If you cannot accomplish this it may still be perfectly viable to establish a colony  on your chosen site - even if it is a concrete back yard, as the bees will travel for up to 5 miles to gather their sweetness in, however there would probably be a lower chance of a recently swarmed colony passing by and therefore moving in to your hive.

You should avoid siting your bait hive - or any bee hive - directly under the drip line of trees or in damp heavy shade, as this will be counter productive to the colony in the colder weather from autumn to spring.  You can site your hive in semi-shade if that is all that space will permit, and in any case it is quite good to have a bush or fence of some sort on the side of the winter prevailing winds (which tend to range from north-east to south-east in my locality) - as in the colder months the bees, like us, find it harder to keep warm.

Useful Reading
An excellent introduction to bee keeping is Ted Hooper's "Guide to Bees and Honey", which you can find on Amazon.co.uk at:  

"Bee Keeping for Dummies" is also very good and can be found at:  
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beekeeping-Dummies-Kim-Flottum/dp/0470430656/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309430839&sr=1-1

...and Phil Chandler's excellent book "The Barefoot Beekeeper" can be found at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Barefoot-Beekeeper-P-J-Chandler/dp/1409271145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1309472368&sr=8-1

Afterword
With this, as with many things where we foster our direct relationship with nature, patience is the name of the game.  Once you have set up your bait hive correctly, all you can do is wait.  Sitting outside watching for signs of activity, and watching the bees come and go once a colony has moved in, is a really interesting, rewarding and therapeutic pastime all by itself. You may be lucky, and you may not - certainly this year half of the swarming season has passed, but if you are not lucky there is always next year.  In reality this method is effective more often than not, and it is certainly both cheaper and more satisfying than buying your' bees.  One more thing...although you may get swarms appearing all of the way through June, July and into August, the later they come the smaller they tend to be and the harder they will find it to survive the winter.  Bees usually start their swarming season around April / May, and these earlier swarms tend to be very large and strong...they also have more of the year ahead to forage for food before they prepare to overwinter, and so tend to have a higher survival rate. I would not be put off by this.  If you want to learn the art and skill of bee keeping then get going...you actually have nothing to lose.  By following the information provided in the guides that I have recommended you may learn how to nurture a smaller colony through the winter, and if they don't make it (as is often the case regardless of the level of husbandry) you will have learned a great deal and still have some nice honey to remind you of the summer, not to mention ready-made honeycomb to start off next season's bait hive.

Patience is the name of the game.

Wiltshire Greenwood Collective - News of First Meeting!

Today saw the first meeting of the Wiltshire Greenwood Collective (WGWC); a group of like minded individuals who will meet on the 1st Saturday of each month in a Wiltshire wood to practice greenwood crafts, share skills and socialise with like minded folk with an interest in traditional woodland crafts.

 WGWC member - archery

 Photo - courtesy of Kelly Saunders

 

What fun - the time certainly flew by, and after looking at my watch I was shocked that 8 hours had flown in the company of enthusiastic crafters and a tasty barbecue - where did all that time go? Activities carried out by members during the day included archery using home spun bows, ladle making and the sharpening and restoration of some lovely old axes and chisels obtained from various boot sales and clearance sales.  The WGWC is set up as a branch of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Wood Workers, and we were pleased to be visited by the new Local Groups Organiser for the organisation, Jon Warwicker, whose enthusiasm for all things crafted was infectious!  We wish him luck in his new role.

 

Anyone who already practices any of the green wood crafts, (such as pole lathe turning, hurdle making, wood carving from green wood, charcoal burning, making wooden clothes pegs, spoons, bowls, flowers, baskets, etc.), and beginners who are keen to try some traditional skills,  are encouraged to come along and find out what the WGWC is all about.  The group will meet on the first Saturday of every month and is very informal, so for further information email  bobdogstar@yahoo.co.uk, putting WGWC in the subject line, and you will receive details about the next meeting by return.  Anyone with an interest can attend, as it doesn't matter whether you already practice or want to learn something new - just bring something to sling on the barbecue!  Hope to see you there :-)

For more information about the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Wood Workers, go to their excellent website at www.bodgers.org.uk

 

The Sap Rises as the Days Become Longer than the Nights

The days are now lengthening spectacularly and on March 20th, the 'vernal equinox', day and night became equal in length. Daylight hours will now exceed night time hours until the balance reverses at the autumnal equinox in September, and the whole of nature seems to be revelling from the impact of this change.  During the past week I have noticed unprecedented plant growth and the spring emergence of many species is now well under way.  The equinox used to be  new year's day in Britain, (and still is in many parts of the world - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nowruz) but it was moved to Lady day (25th) around a thousand years ago, and then in 1752 was changed again to January 1st.  Lady Day is a very interesting phenomenon - being imbued with the symbolism of new beginnings by the mediaeval church, and in addition to it being the alleged date of the anunciation of Christ (his conception date more or less), was said to be the original date of his transformation on the cross, the date of Adam's expulsion from Eden, and of Cain's murder of his sibling Abel using the jawbone of an Ox...an act that in turn began his eternal wandering as the mythological father of art, craft and civilisation itself.  These allegories hold in common the theme of radical transformation through the breaking down of established order, and the resultant re-vivification, and they may be tales that echo the transformative power of nature at this pivotal point in the year, coming down to us from earlier agrarian / herdsman / hunter forager times. 

 

As the sap rises in early March the birch and sycamore trees can be tapped. Currently (at the time of writing), the birch sap is prime for tapping in my area of South West England.  If you would like to try this, drill a hole in a clean smooth area of the trunk of a silver birch around 25 - 30cm in diameter.  The hole should be 3cm deep and 1cm wide, and angled slightly upwards. A clean stick with a shaving removed from one side, if wedged into the hole, will give a steady drip into a container. Afterwards use a small dowel to close the hole, assisting the tree to heal. Filtered by the tree's roots, the sap is refreshing to taste and rich in trace elements drawn up from the soil. It can be reduced to a sweet tasty syrup for pancakes and waffles, or made into wine.  Personally I like to drink a glass of the sap straight from the tree at this time of the year as a salute to the coming of spring!

 

 Ramsons or Wild Garlic

Ramsons - Allium Ursinum

'Ramsons' or wild garlic is now putting in an appearance. All parts of this plant can be eaten but the young leaves make a delectable salad – with added benefits to the circulatory system as well as lending assistance in defeating chest infections. Do not confuse this plant with lords and ladies (cuckoo pint) or autumn crocus – always be sure to check for the garlic smell, which is obvious and pungent.  These other two spring beauties are very poisonous indeed, although they seldom grow in large clumps the way that ramsons does.

 

Also, be sure to dress warmly for the 'blackthorn winter' as March draws to a close.  As the blackthorn (or sloe) breaks into blossom, it tends to bring chilly winds. Currently the weather is very fine and warm and the blackthorn is just breaking bud where I live, but I have found this old tradition to be true far more often than not, so I will not go foraging without a sweater in my bag just yet. 

 

Rural people at this time of the year have traditionally made use of 'spring cures'.  A spring cure is a soup or pottage of fresh wild greens, used as a vitamin rich tonic after a winter spent eating preserved foods that have a much lower vitamin content.

 

A 'SPRING CURE' RECIPE:
 

Take 2 pints of nettle tops, and two cupfuls of mixed young cleavers, dandelion, white dead-nettle tops, ground elder and great plantain (all chopped). Sauté with a large knob of butter for 5 minutes, then add two cups of water and season with fresh herbs, salt and black pepper then bring to the boil. Turn down and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid on, and serve with crusty bread. A definite refinement of this recipe is to put it through a blender, then swirl in some cream or live yoghurt to taste.  Enjoy - as this is really tasty!

Candlemas or Imbolg - Ewe's Milk, Snowdrops and Waxy Candles

 Author Matthew Bowden www.digitallyrefreshing.com

Unlike the earlier part of January which was still very cold in Southern England, the weather now seems to have changed and become much warmer and wetter.  Most of the natural world seems to think that spring has come early, with birds pairing up ready for the breeding season and spring vegetation already making a come back.  Let's hope that if we do have another cold snap, it is not too prolonged or severe, otherwise the verdant cloth of spring will suffer a setback this year that may impact upon harvests later in the season.

 

 

Once celebrated by Roman and Celt alike, February 1st sees a noticeable increase in daylight hours.  Imbolc (pronounced 'oi melg') was the Celtic festival of ewe's milk and marked the start of the lambing season, presided over by the Goddess Brigid, patroness of livestock, healing and smithcraft. The Romans also celebrated Lupercalia, the festival of lights, on this day. Later, the Christian festival of Candlemas (purification of the Virgin) came to be observed on the 2nd of February.  This day was dedicated to St. Brigid of Kildare - who bore the title "Adopted Mother of Christ", and whose nuns were said to guard a perpetual flame. Candles were lit in church, although traditionally they were also extinguished in the home as a sign that daylight had now increased. Snowdrops, as heralds of spring, were used to decorate homes with their virginal white blooms and signified the return of hope and vegetation for another year.  This was a time of ritual purification and aromatic herbs such as hyssop and rue would likely have been burned in the home as fumigants.

 

 

 

This year, to celebrate this festival of light I made some little votive candles from the fat of the mallard ducks that I have been eating.  I re-cycled some used 'T-lights', complete with the little round wick holders, and if you want to give it a try the method is simplicity itself.  Method: After setting the cotton wicks in their holders and centering them, the solidified fraction of the duck fat (goose fat or similar works just as well) is heated in a water bath in a saucepan until it melts. 

 

 

Pour the fat very gently into the T-light holders so as not to disturb the position of the wicks, and leave them for an hour to cool and for the wax to stabilise.  These candles burn with a very pure and satisfying flame and do not make your home smell of duck so no need to reach for the plum sauce.  They will also keep for a long time.  Providing you have not made the wick too thick or too long, they are very clean - virtually smoke free in fact - so have fun! 

 

Stinging Nettles and Jew's Ears

Stinging nettle is one of the finest vegetables.  Go to a big old nettle patch, and search at ground level underneath last year's dead stems where you may find a young tender treat emerging in this mild weather. Oh yes, they do sting! Whipping a rheumatic joint with stingers can bring relief for 2 to 3 days, and if you are suffering from the gout then nettle tea is also worth a try. We are told that Roman soldiers used to flagellate each other with bunches of nettles, but given that they marched for hundreds of miles in the cold soggy British climate it would be no surprise if their use of nettles was innocent after all!

         Stinging nettle - Urtica dioica

 

 

I prefer mine lightly cooked in a saucepan. Add just a little water and a knob of butter or 2 tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and close the lid. Once hot, just 5 or 6 minutes of cooking will disarm the stings and render the nettles juicy and tender to eat! 

 

Over the past week I have been collecting the Jew's ear fungus - Auricularia auricula-judae.

 

This fungus, which occurs mostly on the bark of elder trees, was originally named 'Judas' ear', recollecting the myth that Judas Iscariot was crucified on an elder tree. The jelly-like fungus really looks like an ear too!

 

You may have already tried the Chinese variety known simply as 'black fungus' in Asian cookery. It should be thinly sliced then dried in an airing cupboard or near to the fire, and after a short soaking can be added to stir-fries, creating a pleasing 'crispy seaweed' texture. It is also an ingredient frequently used in the French 'Garniture Forestiere' - a mixture of dried woodland mushrooms used as a stock ingredient and accompaniment to red meat.

 

CAUTION: People with blood or immune disorders should go easy on this fungus. Also, do not fry raw (non-dried) Jew's ear as it can spit and jump dangerously, showering you in boiling fat!  For identification pictures go to;

 

 http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/DisplayBlock~bid~5580.asp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Mild Weather in January - Salads and Greens

After the severe snow and frost that we have been experiencing you may not think there would be much available for the forager in the way of vitamin rich plants for salads and soups...but a walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal today conclusively proved that there was much available.

It was a beautiful day for a stroll, and my partner and I decided that we could use some fresh air.  I was a little surprised to find the ground still quite frozen in places, and more than delighted when I came across the plentiful tender re-growth of dandelion, cleavers and white dead nettle.  Our ancestors would have known from experience that a mild spell after harsh winter weather was a sign to look for valuable green vegetables that are loaded with goodness (in the form of vitamins and minerals).  Although the location was not safe for picking owing to the high volume of dog walking traffic, it was a welcome sign that food would be available for those who went looking, and it made the day even more special. 

Dandelion is a wonderfully edible plant, though the leaves can be bitter when picked wild and are best mixed with

 

 Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale

other salad greens and given a French dressing.  In France 'salade de pis en lit' has always been very popular, and it is loaded with vitamin C, although it can be slightly diuretic as the French name suggests!  Dandelion is also thought to be beneficial to the health of the liver.  Cleavers are traditionally used as a wonderful tonic for the lymphatic system, and are also loaded with vitamin C, making a very good soup vegetable when young.  White dead nettle has been used medicinally to slow internal bleeding (particularly uterine bleeding), and the tops are also good added to soups and stews!

 

 

The moral of this tale - when the weather turns warmer for a few days, seek out the more sheltered spots and you should still be able to find plenty of fresh green vegetables to eat!

A Winter Walk at Sunset to Gather the Ogham Sticks

Despite having a tight schedule, I just managed to fit in a wonderous walk today, through ancient woodland and park-land that I have visited since I was a child.  The highlight was the splendour of mid-winter evening light.  Whilst stood under a grove of tall beech admiring their silhouttes against the blueing silver dusk, I perceived the permanently windswept tendrils of twigs as veins within exquisite clear marble, and the negative space that enveloped myself and the trees took on an alternate meaning - hard to express in words but nevertheless it felt glorious to be somehow within such beauty, yet able to appreciate it still.  If anyone had come along I guess they would have found me transfixed, motionless and apparently staring into the sky, but fortun

 

 

 

ately I was more or less alone apart from the occasional hooting of a male tawny owl.

The purpose of my walk was to collect the bundles of sticks that I will use in the Celtic Tree Ogham Weekend course (see the 'Book Courses' page soon)...and I left feeling satisfied with my bundles of Scot's pine, gorse, English oak and holly.  I also managed to visit a yew tree that my partner and I planted about 14 years ago - a rescued seedling from a town garden, and I was very happy to find it brimming with health and vitality.

 

<Ogham inscription - standing stone>

Ogham (pronounced 'Oo - am') is a kind of script that was used to adorn wood and stone in the western British Isles nearly 2000 years ago.  It appears to be unique to these islands, and every letter bore the name of a native tree.  The script was used to write commemorative messages, such as could be found on monumental stones and markers, but Christian monks in the so called dark ages and early medieval period recorded a body of mystical and magical lore that surrounded the use of the Ogham, and it is occasionally used today as a system of divination and reflection. 

Beat the January Blues with (them) Wild Foods

There may be some bright crisp days ahead and perhaps even more snow, but January is always a mixed bag and after the Yuletide cheer, don't be surprised if you are feeling 'flat' as well as fat! Our livers may be suffering from over indulgence and due to short days our brains will be experiencing a shortage of serotonin – a neurotransmitter substance that helps us to cope and to concentrate, and prevents depression.  Our bodies may also be lacking in the antioxidant vitamins D (low sunlight), and C (from a lack of fresh leafy greens).

Scientific studies have shown that contact with nature promotes a state of calm, can lower one's blood pressure and also relieves stress. Why not gather some vitamin rich foods at the same time as soaking up much needed natural light, and beat the blues the natural way!

 

Woodsman's TeaScot

Scot's pine is rich in vitamin C and contains aromatic oily substances that help to chase away winter infections. Simply place a good handful of lightly crushed needles in a teapot and pour on boiling water. The flavour is delicious but very mild (do not drink it with milk). The tea can be made to taste stronger by a little simmering, but be aware that the more you simmer, the less vitamin C there will be.

 

Scot's Pine Vinegar

The needles make a delicious vinegar. Bring some white wine or cider vinegar to the boil, turn off the heat, and at room temperature seal it into a bottle crammed full with pine needles. Let this steep for 3 months in a dark place and enjoy later on your first spring salads!

 

NOTE: For both of these recipes be sure to use only pine needles, not those from other types of evergreens such as fir, cypress or even yew, as some of these are very toxic. I do hope you enjoy the Scot's pine's subtle flavour, more ideas to follow very soon!

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