Friday, 28 September 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - September

September heralds the beginning of Autumn. Some would say it starts on the first, while others the 22nd, at the Autumn Equinox when the nights begin to dominate the days. I say that we've had a pretty rubbish summer, and it's felt like autumn for most of August, let alone September. As autumn arrives, so do the fungi, with these few months being rife with many species, edible and deadly. It is now that we have to start paying extra attention to detail, but fear not, I will continue to provide you with many a  tasty treat which, if care is taken, can't me mixed up with anything nasty.

I was very happy to be invited to a patch of woodland near Dartmoor to try out some new patter for my wild food foraging courses. A small plot of less than ten acres of mixed birch and pine, with a few sweet chestnut and occasional oak, we were far from the beech and ash dominated woods that I'm used to up on the north coast of Devon. Although the light, moisture and even soil acidity aspects of this woodland habitat were very similar to my own, the change of species combined with inland air had a dramatic effect on the plants and fungi.

John Wright, in his River Cottage Handbook on Mushrooms, wrote that children are the best fungi spotters and I thought he was joking. It turns out, they are incredible. Maybe it's because they are closer to the ground, or maybe more competitive than us, but I hadn't even managed to pluck the first mushroom before they had found another and yet another species. We spent most of the day on catchup as they steamed ahead to find something new. By the end of the walk, they had spotted at least 20 different species of fungi, which isn't bad for such a small area. It's hardly surprising that fungi have such a good relationship with these particular trees, as in ancient times, they would would have dominated the land throughout most of Britain.

Here then, are a set of edibles from the weekend.

Plant - Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Why, you may ask, have I suddenly started using the Latin names? Very simply, there are a number of species of plant called Bilberry and number of common and colloquial names for the species that I'm talking about, including wortleberry, winberry and blaeberry, amongst others. By using the Latin name, there can be no doubt at the plant we are talking about, should you wish to find another reference.

The genus Vaccinium contains many other shrubs with berries, such as cranberry and blueberry, all of which grow in largely acidic soils with habitats ranging from woodland to heath and bog in generally colder areas, be they further north or at higher altitude, as is the case with Dartmoor. The family of plants to which this genus belongs (Ericaceae) also contains many heathers, as well as rhododendron, so it's not surprising that are all also found in the same region.

Almost leafless Bilberry bush
The bilberry season is short, lasting only a month or so. Depending on where you are, it can start in late July or run into mid September. With so little sunshine this year, the berries are quite late, so bilberries are still available, albeit not in the quantities required to make a winter's worth of jam.

Bilberries, like many berries, can be munched on the trail, dried, made into jam, pies, cordial, shoved into gin or frozen for another day. With such a short picking season, it's worth getting as many as you can on one go. Like most fruit, they are high in vitamins and sugars. Medicinally, they have been said to be good for the eyes, but claims of improving night vision have not held up in experiments.

Fungus - Common Yellow Brittle Gill (Russula ochroleuca)

A fungus with many names, including Ochre Brittle Gill and more throughout Europe and the Americas. The Russula genus is huge, with many brightly coloured mushrooms which have very brittle, generally white or pale gills which snap easily when bent. The Milk Caps (Lactarius) look similar and also have brittle flesh, but exude a liquid when cut. The chief distinguishing difference is that the milk caps have decurrent gills (running down the stem) like False Chanterelle, unlike the Brittle Gills, which range from free (not touching the stem) through adnexed (only just touching the stem) to adnate (touching the stem, but not running down it). The equally brittle, non fibrous, stems of both are thick and lack a ring or vulva (cup at the bottom) and are generally white or pale. Russula caps are generally smooth, sometimes sticky, but range from convex (normal mushroom looking) to flat or depressed (with dip in the middle) which can make them difficult to identify.

The great thing about both of these genera, which both fall under the family Russulaceae, is none of them are considered toxic except for possibly one found in Taiwan. This does not mean you can simply chow down on all of them, oh no, some are so peppery and hot that they can give you raging stomach ache. This is the slight difference between poisonous and inedible, of which many from this family are. However, a simple taste (not swallow) of a tiny portion will let you know if you've got one of the peppery ones and you can take a mental note and discard it. This is unusual for mushrooms, so do read on.

With all this information, you might still make mistakes. The Funnel and Web caps look similar, rings might have fallen from some nasty Amanita mushroom and by pulling up or cutting the stem, you might miss the vulva. It is essential that you can make a positive identification before proceeding to consume. It is essential that you have picked the mushroom right down to the ground and that you have seen many of the same in the same place to ensure you've not got a special case. Only once you are super confident in identifying the genus can you even consider beginning to experiment within it. So don't, until you are, or there could be deadly consequences.

Back to the Common Yellow Brittle Gill. It has an affinity with Birch, so if it's under an Ash or Beech tree, it's unlikely to be right. It has a dull yellow, ochre cap. It can be confused with the Yellow Swamp Brittle Gill (Russula claroflava), which I would have preferred to have found, because it tastes nicer. The distinguishing features are pale yellow gills and a bright yellow cap. Similarly, the Yellow Brittle Gill (Russula lutea), which is slightly smaller and has very much more yellow gills and will give you a stomach ache. Mental note, avoid darker gills. The Geranium Brittle Gill (Russula fellea) is another, this time with uniform colouration of gills, cap and stem. It smells of geraniums, unlike the Common Yellow, which has no distinct smell and has that bitter taste.

Like all Brittle Gills and Milk Caps, Common Yellows should be cooked. The taste is slightly acrid, but that can be removed with a little parboiling before cooking.

So, make sure you get this one right. It's not that difficult, but you do have to have your head screwed on. Make a concious effort to spot, check, photograph and double check. This is probably your first step into danger, but with a sharp mind, and all of the above information, which will ultimately become second nature, you will gain confidence. Once again, take no risks.

Tree - Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

After that barrage of information, this one is going to be a lot easier. You may already know the Sweet Chestnut, which is distinct from the Horse Chestnut (conker tree), as a tree with spiky leaves and spikey nut cases. And basically, that's what it is. The trees are massive and have hollow trunks, which could be used for shelter, if you don't mind sharing with the creepy crawlies.

The nuts are sweet and can be eaten raw, boiled, roasted, pounded into flour or any other way you fancy. Like all nuts, they are an important source of fats and vitamins, but lack the protein content of other nuts. The best way to preserve them, like many nuts, is to dry them.

Though the season is not really until October, it's worth getting your eye in now, since like Hazel, the squirrels are gonna race you for them. Chestnut wood burns well with few sparks and a pleasant odour. It's very durable good for tools and construction.

So, that was my trip to a small patch of Dartmoor forest. A complete change from the norm, it has given me the opportunity to present you with a few treats not available to me locally. I feel a trip to Exmoor coming on.

So what can we say about this habitat that we might recognise it again elsewhere and keep our eyes peeled? A mixed woodland of climax trees in well drained (quite a good slope) acidic soil (indicated by pine, birch and rhododendron). Dabbled shade and good covering of leaf litter, ivy and mosses. This type of patch is not going to be uncommon, so should you find yourself in such a place, take a look around and see what you can find and how it differs from other patches.

Happy foraging and look out for further 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: All articles are written from a UK perspective. Common names and identifying features will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advise to confirm positive identification.

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