Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring forage: Alexander buds and Balsam Poplar

Today is officially the first of summer, and suitably equinoctal it is too - daffs in full fettle and lots of blossom in the hedgerows. For the first forage of the year, I was out gathering alexanders. This was once a potherb, so they say, brought by the Romans and naturalised around the verges and cliffs of England. It's a handsome plant whose stems can be eaten like asparagus, and the young leaves of which add a bit of zing to a spring salad. But I was gathering buds and flowers.

The flowers grow in bracts of creamy greenish white and are very attractive to insects. Under the open flowers you can find furled up against the stem a round ball of the flowers yet to come. These taste a little stronger than the flowers and can be used like capers.

A pinch of partly opened flowers (the buds are about the size of a pinhead) is a nice snack while walking, tasting something like cucumber with mustard seed: a very fresh green taste with a bit of heat to it.

Sprinkle them raw on salad leaves. We like french bread with a slice of goats cheese sprinkled with alexander buds and a little black pepper and grilled- actually the black pepper is slightly redundant, as the buds have enough zing in them. They are also good on hardboiled eggs.

I picked enough to pickle some for later use: bring some cider vinegar to the boil, drop in the buds and leave to cool before storing in a sterilised jar.

An experimental forage - not sure how it will work out - is some buds of balsam poplar. The smell of this tree in spring perhaps the most heavenly countryside scent I know, but it's oddly fugitive. Alan Bennett in his autobiographical writings describes getting a whiff of it while in company with a fellow undergraduate and thinking his companion had the odour of sanctity. He says he took some into Penhaligans, the very posh perfumier, and asking if they had something similar, but no joy.

You get a breath of it around this time of year, but it is hard to tell exactly what part of the tree it comes from. I think it is the brown carapaces of the new buds, which exude a stickiness when in sunlight. Anyway, I gathered a handful of these from a long row of the trees, a slow forage as I only wanted to take a couple from each tree in case it harms them.

Half I have put in a little jar and covered with almond oil and half in a jar with vodka - not to drink, but as a potential transporter for the scent. Last year I experimented with talcum powder but it didn't quite work: we shall see how it goes this time around. It would make an ambrosial perfume, I think, if I could get medium right.

Watch this space!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Funghi fears and fun

A terrific and terrifying article by Nicholas ('The Horse Whisperer') Evans in last Saturday's Guardian, in which he outlines the circumstances in which he and three other adults had their kidneys irreparably damaged. By irreparably, I do mean 'without hope of recovery'. In fact they would be dead if not for prompt action, and five hours a day each of dialysis. He has now accepted a kidney from his daughter, so that he (and she) each have a single working kidney. The other three people wait in hope of a transplant, and are only kept alive by long daily sessions on the dialysis machines.
There has been a certain amount of comment on this article on various science-based blogs I follow, because Evans has been in receipt of an awful lot of loony advice about giving up the medicines and the treatment and using crystals (or whatever) to 'regrow' his kidneys. Rightly should such advice be scorned and ridiculed (basic biology - livers can regrow, up to a point. Kidneys don't, possibly why two kidneys is a better evolutionary deal than just one).
But my focus here is the foraging aspect. Evans and the others ate the wrong wild mushrooms, the kind that make you feel incredibly ill but not until enough hours have passed that irreparable damage has been done already.

One paragraph really struck me:

 "The cause was much more complex than has been talked about. I did pick [the mushrooms], but it was really two people, each thinking the other one knew what he or she was doing."

So, if I read him aright, it seems that the people involved took each other's expertise for granted, perhaps both thinking 'well, not sure, but X obviously knows what they are...'

I thought of it even more this week when a friend, a long time forager, gave us some lovely funghi that he had just picked.

I've always been a bit shy about picking funghi, for the very good (it seems to me) reason that the excuse 'well, it looks a bit like...' doesn't sound so convincing when your stomach is being pumped out. I'm doing my best to learn, but have three or four times this year collected mushrooms, brought them home, and then chucked them out because I really wasn't sure enough about what I was looking at.

So, rather than accept Francis' word for it, I made spore prints, consulted several books (especially those with several photos of each species) and cross referenced.

And last night we had a delicious chanterelle omelette. Chanterelles are fairly easy - the smell particularly is distinctive, strong and pleasantly fruity.

This evening I'm going to stew some field blewitts - also distinctive, though I was not familiar with them before. I was helped in this by the delicate violet of the stalks and the scrolled and curled edges - also because one of my field guides has about 7 photos of them in different angles, which was a great help.

I'm planning to cook them slowly with leeks, bacon and beans. I'm cautiously optimistic I'll still be here next week.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


It's been an excellent autumn for nuts around our way.

First off, a row of rather neglected-looking Turkish hazelnut trees. Someone must have planted them along the road (they are handsome trees, not very tall) and then forgotten all about them. In September the path was already ankle deep in the complex-looking carapaces the nuts form in.

English hazelnuts and Kentish cobs develop in pairs, held within a kind of green frill of sepal, which always reminds me of the prim paper frills proper hostesses used to put on the end of roast legs of lamb back in the day, or at least so the photos in my Mum's 1950s cookery book suggest. Turkish hazelnuts, instead, grow inside mad explosions of green tentacles the size of a fist, somewhere between a sea urchin and a conker. I suspect them of being based on Fibonacci series, like so much complexity in nature.

Anyway, instead of pairs of largish nuts, each fist of carapace contains about a dozen small but delicious nuts. You have to prize apart the carapaces, which start off green and sticky with sap but gradually dry and brown. I swept up kilos of the stuff and took them home to rip apart at my leisure, the carapaces making excellent firelighters for the woodburner. I couldn't quite believe that passers-by were leaving kilos of protein to lie about the streets.

There was, however, a problem. Our nutcracker is one of those hinged contraptions, and the nuts were too small to crack even in the smallest setting. What we need is one of those ring crackers, where there's a screw which tightens on the shell. Could we find one? No we could not. Everywhere it was the same 'we don't stock nutcrackers until the run-up to Christmas.' This from shops which already had mince pies on display (best before 24th October). Gosh, I hate shops! In the end B took some outside and bashed them with a hammer... delicious! They'll keep in the shell for a long time, so I may add some recipes later on.

Then it was beech mast. You need to be quick - if they sit on the wet ground too long they discolour and start to sprout. The best place would be beech trees which have a pavement under them, but not a pavement that is much frequented, otherwise they get crushed. I found just such a place and filled my pockets, as well as a little trek along a couple of hedgerows. They are smallish, triangular nuts, glossy brown (exactly the colour of dried beech leaves) and a little fiddly - you need to split the thin shell off to clean the golden-brown kernel, but they are delicious. Much tastier than pine nuts, IMO, and no more fiddly.

Beech pesto:

fresh basil leaves
beech mast
oil (a dab - the oiliness of the mast varies)

Crush the garlic, nuts and basil leaves with a pestle, or whizz in a food grinder. Add enough oil to cover.  If you make more than you need it will keep in the fridge in a jar under oil.

This is superb with arborio rice.

And then there are sweet chestnuts - some as big as conkers. Of which, more later...

Monday, 15 August 2011

Updates, and courgettes and marrows for times of glut

I've been rather quiet lately, mainly due to work - actually having a job this summer is a bit of a shock, though I'm very glad to have it. Plus various other things - I might actually have got a book accepted for publication, for instance...

Plus I haven't been entirely happy with some of the brews I've made lately: I had a batch go off, which has never happened to me before. I think I know what the problem was - a bit of the mash did not get properly strained out, and so went off and contaminated the demijohn. It's called 'putrefaction' and justly is it so named.

On the bright side, there's a batch of redcurrant rose perking away. It was excellent last year, so I hope I've got it right this year. Last week we picked the first blackberries and elderberries - I was thinking of doing a combined wine, but I've now got enough in the freezer to do one of each - the first of many. Elderberry is one of the best wines I've made, so I hope to do a lot of it. Blackberry has not been so good - rather watery and thin - but last year I used a new recipe with added red grape juice, so the next batch may have a bit more body (I won't know for another year, as the 2010 lot is still in storage: supposed to be a year in bulk and another in the bottle). We shall see.

Found lots of damsons yesterday, not quite ready though, so damson wine next? It's not on our usual routes - in fact, I don't associate damsons with Norfolk at all - so it would mean a special foray... but it it a very fine wine if you get it right. Hmmm.

In the meantime, let me sing the praises of the wonderful Norwich Farm Share. What it is, is a group of people who stumped up a deposit to rent some acres in Postwick, and a standing order of a few quid a week. This pays for an organic grower to... er ... grow stuff organically. The stuff then comes to a distribution point, and everyone gets a share. It's wonderful, and not just because the distribution point is practically in the next street to ours... very handy.

The veg is delicious, fresh, local, varied, and grown by people we are getting to know and like. (I was eating some farmshare carrots the other day and it made me wonder just what is done to ordinary carrots that prevents them tasting like carrots? I can't imagine.) Next weekend there is a communal weed-in which is fun (we haven't been able to visit so far... looking forward to it and also the chance to scope out some potential forage around the site, maybe for spring...)

Anyway, there are gluts. Currently there are loads of courgettes (fabulously delicious... I like them a la greca - sliced thinly lengthways and grilled with a little olive oil and crushed or sliced garlic, with a dab of lemon juice before serving). But I mean LOADS of courgettes. Some of them becoming marrows as we speak.

So... courgette or marrow wine, for dealing with gluts... 


2.5 k ripe courgettes or marrows

2 large unwaxed lemons

1 juicy orange

200g sultanas or raisins (golden sultanas give a good colour)

1 mug of strong black leaf tea

Piece of ginger root about 3 cms long

1 kg of sugar (in two servings of 500 grams each)

4 litres water

1 campden tablet

2 teaspoons pectolase

1 teaspoon Yeast Nutrient

Sauternes or general purpose wine yeast

If using courgettes:

Rinse the courgettes and top and tail them. If any courgettes are borderline turning into marrows, split them down the middle and scrape out the seeds – these become bitter if cut or broken and can spoil the taste of the wine.

Grate the courgettes, skin, vestigal seeds and all.

If using marrow:

Wipe the marrows, split them, remove and discard seeds. Chop the marrow into small pieces.

Some recipes recommend freezing the pulp for 24 hours at this point to help extract juice and flavour.

Sprinkle the veg pulp with 500 grams of the sugar and the pectolase. Leave for 24 hours.
Peel the ginger root, chop and crush into pieces, add to the pulp.

Rinse and chop the sultanas and add.

Scrub the lemons and orange. Peel them finely, avoiding the white pith. Chop the peel and add.

Boil the water and pour over the mash. Stir in the yeast nutrient and black tea.

Squeeze the orange and lemons, discarding the pips, and add to the mix.

When the mix cools to blood temperature, stir in the yeast.

Cover and leave to ferment for five days. Stir twice daily, making sure the veg pulp is submerged.

Strain through a fine sieve or a clean muslin cloth. Squeeze the pulp to get as much liquid out as possible. (The squeezed pulp can then go to your chickens or pigs if you have any. If not, fold it into your compost with some brown material such as twigs, leaves, torn-up paper, etc).

Put a couple of mugfuls of the juice into a saucepan and warm over a low heat, taking care not to let it boil. Stir in the remaining 500 grams of sugar until it dissolves. Then return it to the main bulk of the liquid.

Decant into a sterilised demijohn.

Top up to the neck with cool boiled water, fit an airlock and leave to ferment out.

When fermentation has stopped, rack into a clean demijohn, add 1 crushed campden tablet, top up with cool boiled water if necessary, bung tight and store for 6 months.

Rack again. If the wine is still hazy at this stage, you can fine it using fresh milk (most finings are not vegetarian).

To fine:

Rack into a clean clear glass demijohn and add two tablespoonfuls of fresh milk. Bung tight and roll or rock the demijohn to swish the milk all around it. Leave in a cool place for two weeks. The wine should be brighter and a white must will have formed at the bottom. Rack the wine again to remove this, topping up with water.

Bottle and store for 6 months before drinking.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A-popping and a-perking

There are 4 gallons of wine currently popping and perking away in my kitchen, a result of some mass foraging, and an executive decision to make more of those wines we've enjoyed most. So, two gallons of gorse wine, and two of dandelion, all a-fermenting away like crazy.
(The expression 'barmy', now an antiquated term for stone bonker, comes I think from the word 'barm', ie, yeast. A barmy person has a brain that is fermenting and bubbling with crazy gases, just as my wine is doing).
Now if I had a greenhouse, I'd move the demijohns into that greenhouse right now, because what comes out of those bubbling airlocks is very largely carbon dioxide. Which is a... well, it's a greenhouse gas, I suppose, and overall then a bad thing.
In small quantities, however, and in the right place, f'rinstance in a greenhouse full of plants, where soil fertility, temperature and water supply are all properly calculated for good growth, it makes the plants come on like gangbusters faster.
I don't have a greenhouse, alas, but I do have a large kitchen windowsill, with plants on it, and have recently doubled the area by persuading my Beloved to install a plank shelf across the middle, also with plants on it. So the plants are getting the benefit of the bubbles.
Last time I made gorse wine it was very pretty to look at - bright lemon curd yellow - but a bit disappointing in taste and body. A little bit sour and thin, we thought. I made it with the flowers and just a couple of lemons, which I think did not give enough oomph. This time round I added 300 grams of chopped sultanas, juice and peel of 1 orange and 2 lemons to two litres of flowers, to every gallon of water and kilo of sugar, or thereabouts, plus a mug of strong black tea for the tannin. So it might turn out with a bit more body and smoothness, I hope. We shall see... in about 8 months time.
The dandelion wine, however, has always been exemplary. I make it with dried fruit (either unsulphurated apricots, or chopped raisins) and the result is like a fino sherry. Yum yum. I do hope this batch - 2 gallons made with apricots and some of the sugar muscovado, will be as good.
I should here plug the wonderful Roy's of Wroxham, who now sell plastic reusable demijohns for a mere £1.75 each. A snip, though the "groms" which hold the airlocks in the tops are sold seperately and will set you back another 49p apiece.
So... now those wines are transferred into the demijohns, my fermentation crocks are empty. What is next? I made bramble tip a few years ago and it was good, and kept well too (we finished the last of the 2007 batch just now). Only I can't quite remember the exact recipe - it had no fruit added, and muscovado sugar, that I do recall. Hmm.
I've never made nettle wine, or lime blossom wine, or may blossom wine, so I might try those next. Lots of nettles still around my way, and the may blossom is just coming out. Lime blossom I will look for later on. Just a gallon of each, I think...

Monday, 11 April 2011

Spring Leaves 4; Garlic Mustard Pesto

'I never knew how much there is to see
Until I started looking
I never knew how good my tastes could be
Until I started cooking...'

Foraging for one thing leads to another: once you start looking there's no telling what you might find. A few sunny days have brought everything on like gangbusters.

First I went foraging for gorse flowers to make wine. It's fermenting on the must at the moment, and there is plenty more if I decide to make another batch. At the same time (spiny things tending to congregate together) I got some nice new nettles for risotto. And while looking for the nettles I found some fennel plants, lots of dandelions (that's my next wine batch), the heavenly-scented balsam poplar (which I don't know what to do with, apart from dry for pot pourri: any ideas?), what I'm pretty sure is horseradish (best in October), a spot likely to produce St George's Mushrooms  (so named because they come in on 23rd April, St George's Day) fairly soon, and lots of Garlic Mustard. Phew.

Garlic Mustard looks a bit like nettle, and likes similar places to grow in, but the leaves are heart-shaped and deckle-edged, smooth rather than hairy, non-stinging, and aranged in regular quarters off the straight upright stems, which end in tiny white flowers on top. As the name suggests it is neither a garlic nor a mustard, but a member of the splendid family of the cabbage - the lower leaves taste somewhat cabbagy, in fact, although mainly they taste of... well... of garlic and mustard. They don't smell much, unlike say Ransoms or Wild Garlic, which you can find with your eyes closed: the scent and taste are released when the leaves are bitten, or crushed.

Hmm... crushed...

'Pesto' takes its name from the verb 'pestare' - to pound or strike (also, idomatically to fuck). Pesto sauce is 'that which is pounded' - in the Genovese version, it is pinenuts, garlic, basil and oil which get pounded: a good protein-rich dish.

Well, I didn't have any pinenuts in the cupboard, but I did have some walnuts, and, as it happened, some walnut oil (which is fabulous on toast, btw).

I took 2 handfuls of garlic mustard leaves (removed from the plants without breaking the stalk: it will put out more so I can come again), washed them, made them into a wad and cut them up with kitchen scissors.

I put them into a steep-sided dish with a handful of walnuts and a pinch of sea salt. Then I set about them with the handle of a wooden rolling pin (I don't have a pestle and mortar at the moment), crushing the leaves and the nuts and mixing it all well in.

Add a slug of walnut oil, black pepper and a little ground nutmeg to taste.

Garlic mustard walnut pesto! (I must try it with pine nuts sometime).

I left it overnight in the fridge for it to infuse further before using. If you want it to keep longer, spoon it into a pot and then put a thin layer of oil on top: this seals it. Keep in the fridge.

You know, of course, the trick with pesto? Which is to cook your pasta in fast-boiling salted water, from which, just before the pasta is ready to drain, you ladle a spoonful of the water into the pesto sauce, stir, and then add the drained pasta. But you knew that already.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Spring Leaves 3 Nettle Risotto - Vegan recipe

 For those who don't eat animal products, a creamy effect can be got by cooking a potato with the rice. This is not unusual in the south of Italy, where rich grazing is harder to come by. Sprinkle with poppy seeds or with toasted sunflower seeds for an extra tang and a protein boost.


  • 2 litres of young, fresh nettles
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of cooking oil
  • 1 litre good vegetable stock (I usually add a teaspoon of marmite to my stock)
  • 1 glass white wine or fino sherry. Bramble or a rich dandelion wine is good for this  
  • 300 g short-grain rice. Arborio is best for this.
  • I small potato, peeled and cut into pieces
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Fresh chives or parsley, chopped
  • Poppy seeds, or toasted sunflower seeds
Fill the sink or a washing bowl with cold water. Wearing rubber gloves, submerge the nettles. Wash thoroughly, changing the water once or twice.
Strip the leaves from the stalks. Discard stalks.
Shake excess water from leaves, place in a pan with a pinch of salt, and cook briskly until leaves are soft and quantity has reduced.
Drain liquid from nettles into the vegetable stock.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the chopped onion. Soften over low heat until translucent.
Press the last drops of liquid out of the nettles into the stock.
Peel the potato, cut it into quarters, and add to the vegetable stock.
Transfer the stock to a saucepan and simmer.
Chop the drained nettles, add them to the onion, and cook for one minute on a low heat, stirring constantly.
Add the rice to the onion and nettle. Cook on a low heat until the edges of the rice grains begin to turn pearly.
Stir in the wine.
Using a ladle or slotted spoon, transfer the pieces of potato from the stock pan to the rice.
Ladle enough liquid from the stock pan onto the rice and potato to just cover it. Stir gently. As the rice absorbs the stock, keep adding a ladleful at a time. You need to stir the rice and potato pieces enough to prevent sticking, but not so much you break them.
When all the liquid has been absorbed the rice will be plump and fluffy and the potato pieces cooked. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with black pepper, the chopped green herbs, and the poppy or sunflower seeds.
Traditionally, a risotto ‘rests’ for a minute after this before it is served.
Serves 4.