Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - October

As Autumn marches on the soft fruits come to an end and we gain the firmer ones, together with nuts. Most tree borne seeds have now fallen and nothing more to do this years, the leaves of deciduous trees are changing colour and will eventually fall and rot. Though late this year, the fungi season is now in full swing with many edible and poisonous species alike. There is still plenty for the forager to collect. A great deal of the hardier plants we've learnt this year are still out in force, though flowers have long since passed. In some cases, seeds are now available as well as roots and tubers. Here then are some choice treats for the month of October.

Tree - Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Rowan - Mountain Ash
Found wild and commonly in parks and streets, the berries of the Rowan are quite distinctive. However, there are berries that look like them, some red, some orange and some yellow. It is important to ensure that you've got the right ones, as many of the other are quite poisonous.

First, we're looking for a tree, rather than a shrub. A tree has a single, principal trunk, rather than many minor ones sprouting from the same root stock. Hazel is a good example of a large shrub.

Another distinguishing feature is the leaves which are pinnate. That is to say that they are compound (formed of many leaflets) with a single vein supporting many opposite pairs. They look very similar to those of an Ash tree, but for the fact that the margins are toothed. Another name for Rowan is Mountain Ash. Though it will become second nature, an aide-mémoire for this is the Mountain Ash leaves are like Ash leaves with little mountains on the edges.

A hard wood with relatively straight and tight grain, Rowan was traditionally used for making tools, wheels and for carving as well as making bows. As the branches have a twist and bend to them, it's not the best construction material, but makes great walking sticks. Like any dense, hard wood, it burns hot and slow. The berries are high in vitamin A and very high in vitamin C but contain parasorbic acid, which will give you a bad stomach ache. Cooking reduces significantly it and freezing completely neutralises it. Most commonly, the berries are used to make a jelly to accompany meat, but also jam and for making wine.  As they are quite bitter, they need something two sweeten them or al least dilute the taste.

Plant - Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

Blackthorn - Sloe
Arguably a tree, Blackthorn only grows up to six or seven metres tall and is more often found much smaller and in hedgerows. The reason I include it now is because of the berries (sloes) which are now ready for picking. Freeze them or pop them with a needle, add them to gin and sugar and leave it there for months. I'm sure you can find a recipe online. Some then take the sloes from the gin and pop them in sherry for another few months or make jam with them. After that, the can be added to scrumpy to make sloe cider, or slider. So much from what is on it's own, one of the most bitter and sour edible berries. Try one some time. Underneath this sharpness is an intense flavour of plum, to which it is related. If not added to alcohol, sloes are best made into some form of preserve. In a survival context, like Rowan berries, they'll need that acidic taste diluting somehow.

Defending these berries is a series of twisted, thorny branches. The twigs are excellent fire starters and the wood is very hard, burns slowly and with very little smoke. In a survival context, it might not be worth the risk, since a prick from one of these can get nasty. Being so hard, they are brittle and the end can break off in a wound leading to infection. If you do find yourself thorned, then it might be in your best interest to get a medical professional to have a look.

Fungus - Common Puffball  (Lycoperdon perlatum)

Common Puffball
There are many puffballs, many of the are the same size, many are white and have white flesh. Thankfully, one is more common than the rest, the Common Puffball. Found in acidic soil, quite often with pine, it grows prolifically for most of Autumn. But with so many alternatives, how do we tell it from the others? Follow these simple rules and it's a snap. 

  1. Found in the woods on the ground.
  2. Up to 7cm tall and 6cm wide.
  3. Ball shaped with a stem attached to the ground.
  4. Mostly white turning brown with age.
  5. Tiny spines which fall off easily.
  6. Brittle shell on the head.
  7. Solid white flesh all the way through, including stem.

Solid White Flesh
If you've matched all of these criteria, then you've got a common puffball. In reality, you've probably got a dozen or so. The last is the most important identification point. There are some nasty fungi which look like puffballs when they are very young, however, if you cut the in half, then you'll find they are not solid. Instead, they have early forming parts of stem and cap. In addition, by slicing in half any puffball, you can tell its age. As they get older and spores form, the flesh turns yellow to brown. They should only be eaten young when the flesh is pure white. Strip off the shell, as it can cause some people gastric problems, and fry in butter. Simple. They have a delicate flavour, which works really well with eggs. They are a great source of protein, as well as carbs and fats as well as iron and manganese. Excellent survival food which can even be eaten raw. They have the texture of marshmallow.

There is still plenty to come in Autumn, so look out for the next instalment.

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.

DON'T FORGET: You can get updates and share comments on the Survival's Cool Facebook Page.

Take part in an open discussion about this article on Facebook