Sunday, 2 September 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - July & August

Rather late on the July and August episodes due to excessive work and a terrifying amount of rain, and yes, I'm quite embarrassed about it. With flowers mostly shrivelled, many leaves past their best, and most fruit and nuts not yet ripened, summer is a surprisingly sparse, transitional time for wild food. The saving grace for the learner at this time is normally new season fungi, but it's been a bit wet here in the UK and they've not been out in quite the same force. However, for the committed forager, there is still plenty to be had, you just have to pick the best and keep your eyes peeled for the covert treats. It's a good time to know those habitats and companion plants, giving you that extra clue.

This post will be a double. We'll take a look at a couple of similar trees, some early fruit and nuts and a couple of fungi, one which is rare and impossible to get wrong and one which has a very similar confusion species, but is incredibly tasty. We'll cover a little more about leaf morphology, fungal features and try to get back on track for the coming autumn treats, of which there will be many. Hopefully, the last couple of months have not been terrible for you, with no new posts, and I trust you've kept up the process of identifying and eating the plants and fungi you know, watching them mature and change throughout the summer whilst keeping an eye out of companion plants.

Tree - Common Lime

The Common Lime is hardy and widespread, often found in parks and streets as well as woodlands throughout the UK. People will have you believe that early Beech and Hawthorn leaves are the tastiest of all the trees, but this denies the succulent young leaves of the Lime. These leaves crop in June and July with some still around in August. They are at low level, shiny and inviting. They taste sweet and have body. They are without doubt the best of all. The fruits are edible, but bitter, tasting quite like cocoa. The flowers can be made into a tea, which is a mild sedative, good for calming all over. The sap is also usable, being sweet and nutritious.

Lime wood can be used as a fuel, but burns slowly and not so hot, so not super for high heat or cooking, but adequate for a little sustained light and heat to keep the edge off a cooling summer night. As it's not poisonous, it can be used to make cutlery, as well as other tools. More useful are the straight and supple offshoots which support the most edible leave. Like willow saplings, these are can be woven together into baskets, hurdles or for construction of some of the more elaborate traps. The inner bark is strong and can be woven into cordage as well be being used for strong bindings and even the construction of sandals. 

Lime leaves are mostly round, but slightly heart shaped, having a small cleft at the stem and a slight point to the tip. The edges of the leaves have fine saw teeth and the veins spread from the stem, forking as they go. To use strict terminology, that's a cordate leaf with serrulate margins and palmate venation. Even if you don't remember these terms, it's good to take note of these three elements of leaf construction.

Tree - Hazel

Of shrub-like construction, lacking a distinct trunk, hazel trees grow as a series of flexible, straight poles with few branches from each. This makes it an excellent construction material and has been used for hurdles, thatching and other frameworks as well as tools and weapons including spears and bows. It's also a good firewood, though its lack of thick branches make it more suited to cooking than keeping you warm through the night. It can be found throughout the UK, especially in new woodland, though it also survives well under the canopy of other trees. This is why its catkins come very early in the year before its neighbours overshadow it.   

Hazel leaves are almost round (orbicular) with doubly serrated margins and venation which branch only once from the central vein (pinnate). They have a very small point a the tip, even small than lime, but lack the cleft at the base. Though quite floppy, they have stiff hairs on the underside giving them a rough feel.

The best part of the hazel tree are the nuts. Tasty and high in protein and essentials fats, they are a worth their weight in gold in a survival situation. The problem with hazelnuts is that squirrels like them too and they are far better at finding them, reaching them and ultimately gathering and hiding them. The point at which hazelnuts are mature and you want to gather is the point at which the squirrels have normally bagged them and you're out of luck. You best change for a good haul is in an area of woodland dominated by hazel trees, but even then you've got to be fast. Thankfully, early in the season, hazelnuts can be eaten green, in the immature state. They may be a little smaller, but they are not so appealing to squirrels as they lack storage ability. At this time they have a sweet, milky taste and make an excellent trail snack. The intermediate stage is no use to either as they are neither sweet or nutty and best avoided.

Plant - Wild Strawberry

These are some of the earliest of fruits of the season and are a pleasure to find and munch on the trail. With few other fruits ripening at this time, you'll be competing with the birds for them and as they are a low lying plant, rodents too. Unlike their cultivated counterparts, they are small and spherical, but share the same colouration and sweet taste. High in vitamin C, they are healthy as well as tasty.

As a veracious ground cover plants, they grow in large patches, so if you see one strawberry, chances are there are a few more about and it's worth stopping and taking a closer look. What it needs is moisture and partial shade, so can also be found in sunny areas of sparse woodland or shaded hedgerows, often near water or in boggy areas. The distinctive triplets of slightly spiny margined leaflets advertise this plant well. The flowers are white, having five petals and a yellow centre and can often be seen on one plant as another is fruiting. These patches are worth revisiting throughout the season until all the flowers and fruit have completely gone.

There is a plant with which this can be confused, the Mock Strawberry. Natural to East Asia, you're unlikely to find it in Britain unless it's escaped from a garden. It has very similar leaves, but a wholly yellow flower and the fruit is much more regular with distinct pimples. It's not poisonous, but lacks the sweet flavour of strawberries.

Plant - Blackberry

You probably know the blackberry and have done since childhood. You can probably recognise it from miles away and know that grows in huge patches at the meeting point of meadows, where the grass wins, and woodlands, where the canopy wins, or at the edge of paths or roadways, where the ground is compacted or dominated by tarmac. You probably know that the berries are edible and ripe when they can be pulled off easily. So let me tell you some things you may not know.

The young leaves can be used to make a tea. Some say munch on them, but I don't go for them at all. The thorny winding stems are the bane of the berry picker, often acting as a defence for the ripest of all the fruits. When dry, they become hollow and although a pain (pun intended) to collect, they make excellent tinder for the early stages of fire lighting. When live they have a wire like strength and can be used for binding, should you have suitable hand protection. Live or dead, when packed, the stems can also be used for an tangling type trap. The your shoots are good boiled. The roots can be boiled or roasted and are an excellent source of carbohydrates, though the alleged "coffee substitute" that can be made from the over roasted roots needs a lot of imagination to stretch the definition.

Fungus - Giant Puffball

There are many puffball fungi, all looking quite similar. Some are edible, some will make you really sick. Thankfully, there is a variety which is impossible to get mixed up and that's the giant puffball, so called because it's huge. Most grow to between 20 and 60cm in diameter, but occasionally, they grow up to 1.5m. Found in fields, meadows and hillsides, they can grow in rings or individually. If you find one, you'll know. They are unmistakable.

Cut it open and if the flesh is still solid white, it's perfect. If yellow or brown, then the spores are forming and you risk a tummy upset. Peel and sauté and they are excellent. They don't dry well, but I am told they can be cooked and then frozen. Higher in protein than must mushrooms, it would be a great boon to a survival diet. Medicinally, it can be used as a styptic, which stops bleeding by contracting tissues around the wound site.

The pain with giant puffballs is that they only come up when they fancy, where they fancy and though likely to grow in the same area each season they come up, finding them in the first place can be a bit of  a challenge. I'd like to thank Jeremy Kilar for letting me use one of his photos because this season, I've been out of luck so far.

Fungus - Chanterelle

True Chanterelle - False Gills
If you want to find chanterelles, ask a Frenchman. I did and was informed that in France, people forage for mushrooms with a shotgun. After much enthusiastic discussion and not actually asking him where they can be found (which is internationally considered rude) he divulged a spot where I might look. I took a trip and though unable to find any there, I made a special effort to take in the features of the habitat. Moist banks in partial shade covered in decaying leaves and moss are the place to find these prized beauties. The air smells mushroomy. Best to look on a warm morning after a rainy day. I've had best luck at the edge of beech woods, often intermingled with ivy.

Of course, it's not that easy. The False Chanterelle is very similar indeed to the ones we're looking for but for the following features. True chanterelles smell a little like apricots. False chanterelles have true gills which are fragile, true chanterelles have lumpy gill like structures, which are similar, but look messy. True chanterelles are yellow, false ones more orange with graded colour becoming darker to the centre of the cap which notably curls over the gills at the edges, though this is also a feature of the real deal when young. To be sure, the false chanterelle spore prints white, while the true prints yellow or amber over a period of about six hours.

A more dangerous look-a-like is the Jack O'Lantern, which will give you a really bad stomach.  More deeply orange and growing in clumps, these too have true, knife like gills. Find some pictures and you shouldn't have too much of a hard time distinguishing them. Something to always be aware of is that all three of these can grown in the same patch, so don't assume that because the first you picked was a good one that the rest will also be.

Clean them, pat them dry, fry the and pop them on toast or in an omelette; chanterelles are some of the best eating in the world of wild mushrooms, just make sure you're getting the right ones. Like any fungi, chances are if you find one, you'll find more so if you do spot some, make the effort to slow down and check around. Start lifting some leaves or moss and see if more are hiding. You can't collect too many of these because they can be dried and in that state will last for ages. Some people pickle them, but if you ask me ... pickled mushrooms ... eww!

You patience in waiting for this article has been appreciated and they fact that you've got this far means  I've done at least a reasonable job making up for the delay. September will bring us more fruits and nuts as well and more fungi, though if the rain keeps up, I'll be appealing for good pictures again.

Happy foraging and look out for supporting articles.

REMEMBER: Do not pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

BE AWARE: There is an inherent risk in the consumption of all new foods, both wild and cultivated. Ensure they are cooked as prescribed and begin by eating a little of only one new food at a time in case you have an intolerance or adverse reaction. If you are taking any medication or have a current or family history of any allergy or medical issue, seek advice from a medical practitioner before eating any new wild foods. 

NOTE: This article was written from a UK perspective and identification will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advise to confirm positive identification.

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