Medlars, as we say in English…

… is the rather innocuous sounding name we have given to a fruit that the French have seen fit to dub much more alarmingly – Cul-de-Chien (Dog’s Arse).

Medlars

Ironically enough, we have actually taken the word ‘Medlar’ from the French Medler, meaning ‘(the fruit of a) small fruit-bearing tree’, though quite why we were so prude as to adopt this radio-friendly version is not clear (for in Old English the name was equally risqué – Openærs (Open-arse)). Regardez… 

Medlar

As you can see, it’s not hard to imagine how such mischievous names for these little fruits came into being – the five-tailed open end (known as a ‘calyx’) has that unmistakeable tea towel holder/balloon knot/dog’s arse appearance. Thankfully, though, I can absolutely assure you that it is only down to this appearance that the Medlar has acquired its more funky nomenclature, for its flavour is (contrarily I’m sure) quite divine.   

Identification

I hope everything I’ve told you thus far should leave you in absolute confidence as what to look out for when hunting for Medlars – if not then just follow your nose! (I’m joking, of course, but further pictures and description can be found on my Edible Fruits A-Z page).

Eating

MedlarsThe Medlar Tree is a Mediterranean plant and the fruits will not ripen on the branches in our more temperate climate. You will therefore have to pick (or scrump) them when still hard and store in a bag or box for a few months until they have bruised, softened and basically rotted a bit (a process known as ‘bletting’). The flesh when ready to use is a lovely brownish-caramel colour, and the taste almost datey but slightly sharper (it’s quite unique, in fact). I always make a Medlar Jelly with my bletted fruits, and it is certainly the richest of all the hedgerow jellies available to the forager. At the moment my fruits are still softening up, so I shan’t give you the recipe until they’re ready. In the meantime, though, I suggest you peruse fellow WordPress Blogger Ichykoo’s recipe for Lamb Chops with Spiced Medlars and Red Wine Sauce – now, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at that!

Posted in Fruits & Berries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Horse Mushroom: Back in Business

This beautiful, nay, magnificent fungus was my first fresh wild mushroom of the year, and just look at it…

The Horse Mushroom

A thick, creamy, saucer-sized cap, as firm as a tennis ball, and, when I found it, as dry as a bone – no wonder the slugs couldn’t resist!  But take a look underneath…

Horse Mushroom Gills

A velvety fan of deep autmunal-brown, aniseed-scented gills…. What a find to get back onto my forager’s feet!

Horse Mushrooms are among the very best of all edible fungi, and perhaps indeed among all foraged food. I place them second only to The Prince when it comes to mushrooms, and they are so deliciously sweet and meaty that only Lobsters and Brown Crabs hold the trump cards over the rest of the forager’s menu – seriously, they’re that good.

Identification & Links

The Yellow Stainer and Horse Mushroom

The cut stem base of the Yellow Stainer (left) stains yellow, whereas the Horse Mushroom (right) does not.

Young Horse Mushrooms

Notice the gills on the sliced mushroom. When very young the Horse Mushroom has pale cream/off-white gills. These soon turn a pale pink colour before becoming dark brown.

Horse Mushrooms have a very unfortunate look-alike, which itself is the most common cause of mushroom poisoning in the UK – the Yellow Stainer. It is imperative, therefore, to learn both of these mushrooms, or else what you thought was going to be your most pleasing dish of autumn, might well be your last (well, to be fair, the Yellow Stainer is not actually a killer, but the effects of consumption could well be enough to put you off mushrooms for life). Both of these mushrooms stain yellow upon bruising, though the Yellow Stainer more vibrantly so. After a few minutes, however, the yellow seen in the Yellow Stainer fades to brown, whereas it persists in the Horse Mushroom. What the Horse Mushroom does not do, though, is stain yellow when cut through the base of the stem – the absolute distinguishing feature of The Yellow Stainer. So, if you remember nothing else, then remember this: Always ensure that your Horse Mushrooms do not stain yellow at the base of the stem.

See my Edible Mushrooms A-Z page for for further pictures and description, and also my Spore Print Gallery to see the Horse Mushroom’s spores.

Eating

Inky, sweet, pungent with a heady aniseed aroma – I advise that you do as little with mature, open-capped specimens as possible: brush with melted butter, sprinkle with salt and a little pepper, and bake under a hot grill. I wouldn’t even be tempted to use garlic oil Baked Horse Mushroom Stuffed with Mushroomy Tapenadeor a squeeze of lemon – especially if it is your first one: you don’t want anything to infringe upon the Horse Mushroom’s intense flavour and melting texture. I promise you, when those inky-black juices lather over your tongue, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were biting into a hot rare slab of sirloin. Exquisite.

Younger specimens, though still sweet, lack the gusto of their older brethren, and can be used as you would any other mushroom. I managed to collect both young and old on my travels, and so came up with a recipe that combines both: Baked Horse Mushroom Stuffed with Mushroomy Tapenade. Enjoy.

Posted in Mushrooms | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sea Beet: The Wild Grandfather of the Veg Plot

All hail the magnificent Sea Beet! So green, so succulent, so big and bright in the bareness and bleakness of winter!

Sea Beet Sea BeetWhere would we be without Sea Beet? Just look how rich and luscious these leaves are even now, slap bang in the middle of January. A lot of the literature on foraging will tell you that Sea Beet is only available from spring through to about the end of November – but I know of a good few plants that are just as productive all year round (there was even some fresh young growth coming through on this one (right)). And this is just as well, for at this time of year the forager’s vegetable rack can be starting to look a bit bare. 

Meet the Beets

But it isn’t just us foragers who would be feeling a bit hungry and hard done by at the moment if it wasn’t for this most fecund of plants. Without the incredibly versatile genetic properties of Sea Beet, plenty of domestic store cupboards and veg plots might too be feeling a little empty…

Over the centuries Wild Sea Beet has been cultivated into a multitude of domestic forms, some of which are the very staples of kitchen gardens and cupboards. This very Sea Beetplant is the common ancestor of no less than:

  • Perpetual Garden Spinach
  • Sugar Beet (from which we farm sugar)
  • The Chards (Swiss, Rainbow, etc.)
  • Beetroot
  • And even good old Mangel Wurzel

What a very proud parent Sea Beet must be.

Identification

See my Edible Greens A-Z page for full pictures and description.

Eating

All parts of Sea Beet are edible, including the summer flowers and roots (the roots can often be quite swollen and look very tempting, but please be aware that it is illegal to dig Sea Beet, Bacon and Potato Tartup any wild plant without the landowner’s permission). The flowers are perhaps the sweetest part of the plant, but the real abundance comes from the leaves. These taste and behave (when cooked) so much like Garden Spinach, that you’ll wonder why you ever parted with your hard earned cash for something that is so similar and can be had for free. The flavour of Sea Beet is most definately stronger than cultivated Spinach, however, and, especially with the big fat older leaves, can sometimes be quite bitter when eaten raw. But the bitterness is invariably mellowed with cooking, and you can use Sea Beet in any recipe that calls for Spinach or Chard. Try out some of fellow blogger Chica Andaluza’s Spinach and Chard recipes using Sea Beet – you won’t be disapointed. I made a Sea Beet, Smoked Bacon and Potato Tart with what I collected – and very nice it was, too.

Posted in Edible Greens | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Hemlock Water Dropwort: The Most Poisonous Plant in Britain…

…And indeed one of the most poisonous in the world. Some websites (such as Zidbits.com) even list it as the deadliest, and it never fails to reach the top ten. If you only ever learn one poisonous plant, please, let it be this one.

Hemlock Water Dropwort: Deadly

Hemlock Water Dropwort is the Death Cap of the kingdom Plantae (plant kingdom), and in fact leaves that most deadly of fungus looking rather innocuous in comparison (it’s absolutely not, mind you). Whilst the consumption of the Death Cap will leave you with about 10 days to bid your final farewells to the world (though it may be more advisable to seek medical attention), a substantial serving of Hemlock Water Dropwort will see you in the ground within 3 hours.  

The poison contained in Hemlock Water Dropwort is oenanthotoxin, and the effects after ingestion are nothing short of horrific, as summed up very succinctly by the Online Encyclopaedia of the Umbelliferae (Carrot/Parsley) Family of the British Isles: ‘Great agony, sickness, convulsions, paralysing speech, death.’

Identification

Hemlock Water Dropwort roots

The Parsnip-like roots and leaves of the deadly Hemlock Water Dropwort.

Unfortunately, there are a number of edible and very tasty species – including one of my favourites, Alexanders – with which Hemlock Water Dropwort may be quite easily confused. As you can see from the picture (right), the roots (which contain the highest concentration of oenanthotoxin) look rather parsnip-like, and as you can imagine, have been tragically mistaken for the Wild Parsnip and Water Parsnip in the past. I refer you to the online Emergency Medical Journalto read of the narrow escape had by a group of foragers after feasting on what they thought was a Wild Parsnip curry back in 2002.  The leaves, too, have found themselves mistaken for Wild Parsley and Alexanders (view the slideshow, below), and have sometimes, disastrously, even been nibbled absent-mindedly by children.

See my Poisonous Greens A-Z page for full pictures and description.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

P.S. The dangers of foraging sometimes stretch beyond the positive identification of species. Sometimes, it is the positive identification of direction that can prove to be one’s peril.  Even though I was sufficiently familiar with Hemlock Water Dropwort to leave it well alone, after taking these pictures I found that I was certainly not at all familiar with the woodland that I was rummaging around in. I was lost! Proper lost! I had ventured off the footpath and had no idea which way I had come. Forty-five minutes later, when I finally and very shamefacedly found my way back to the car, my waiting (and heavily pregnant) wife was just about ready to throttle me… perhaps Dropwort poisoning isn’t such a bad way to go.

Posted in Poisonous Greens | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Winkles

I’d like to lead a cheer for the humble Winkle. Hip, Hip, Hooray! I say, for this wonderful little mollusc. Hoorah! Hoorah! 

Winkles

Winkles are, without a doubt, the kindest pieces of protein available to the forager. They are easy to find, easy to identify and easy to gather, and it is a real shame that they are so under exploited these days as a food resource. The problem may be that they are just so fiddly to eat – if there is a knack to extracting cooked Winkles from their shells then I don’t have it. Or it may be that they just too closely resemble the Garden Snail (to which they are indeed related (and which, too, incidentally, is perfectly edible)) to render people squeamish. But please note: I will be encouraging you to give Garden Snails a try at some point in this blog, so you may want to build yourself up with a few Winkles.

Finding and Identification

The Dog Whelk and Winkle

The Dog Whelk (left) and Winkle (right).

You will have absolutely no trouble at all finding Winkles (or Periwinkles, as they are sometimes called). They are extremely common down by the seashore, and it will take probably no more than a 10 minute scramble across the rocks to gather a hundred or more. The only thing you need worry about is the state of the tide, and the cleanliness of the water (see my Molluscs entry on my Forager’s Toolkit page).

Identification is also simple – the only things you are likely to confuse your Winkles with are Dog Whelks or Top Shells – both of which are edible and just as tasty. But see my Edible Molluscs A-Z page for full pictures and description.

Picking WinklesEating

Now, I’m going to be honest with you: eating Winkles is probably more of a chore than any meal ever should be – in fact it could probably constitute its own sport. Twisting out the cooked flesh from a Winkle’s shell with a pin is an incredibly fiddly and frustrating business. But fear not, for it is invariably made enjoyable when there are a group of you all struggling together, maybe after having boiled up a batch over an open fire on the beach, with perhaps some alcoholic lubrication applied.

Crunchy Winkle Dippers with Haw SauceWinkle recipes are very few and far between – I can find none whatsoever on WordPress to direct you to, and there are only three suggestions in the books that I have on the subject. But I have located one enthusiastic forager with a few ideas, and so I divert you to WILD AND FREE to check them out. Alternatively, I have devised my own recipe for them – Crunchy Winkle Dippers – designed, admittedly, to conceal the rather grey and rubbery-slug-looking flesh that curls out of the shell (though certainly not to disguise the taste: Winkles are actually surprisingly sweet, and slightly livery). Hopefully this crispy treat may convert a few Winkle skeptics to this excellent and under-explored free meat. Go on – give them a try, and then give them a cheer!

Posted in Edible Molluscs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Earth Balls: Poisonous!!

Poisonous: Though not life-threatening, if consumed the Earth Ball will cause gastric upset.

Common Earth Ball

The warty, 'reptilian' skin of the Common Earth Ball

I hate Earth Balls. It pains me to dignify them with a capital letter, and I only do so for consistency. They are the warts of the forest floor, and you will find them everywhere. They are extremely persistent little growths, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they stubbornly endured to feed the cockroaches if that nuclear disaster were ever to strike.

They do an important job, of course, as all mushrooms do: digesting the leaf litter and replenishing the soil with the vital nutrients it needs to feed the other plant life. But I don’t care. They are just too many.

I am joking, of course… well, slightly. Earth Balls have the infuriating habit of appearing in the corner of your eye when nothing much else in the way of mushrooms are about. Many a time have I returned home from a fungal foray with nothing to show for my efforts but an empty basket, deflated all the more by the masses of Earth Balls that have given me a false flash of excitement in my periphery vision. I swear these things are just put there to torment me.

Description

Puffballs and Earth Ball

The Earth Ball's centre turns a purplish black upon maturity (right), whereas Puffballs (left and centre) are snow white when ready for eating. Notice, too, the thick skin of the Earth Ball.

The Earth Ball pictured here and on my Puffball post is a Common Earth Ball. You shouldn’t really confuse Puffballs with Earth Balls, but if you are unsure, just give whatever you have a firm squeeze between your fingers: Puffballs will squish and squidge like a marshmallow, whereas Earth Balls will be more resistant to the pressure, and the thick skin will crack and split rather like that of an under-ripe Passion Fruit. Another difference is that the inner flesh of Earth Balls is never pure white, like Puffballs are when in perfect condition for eating.

 For further pictures and description, see my Poisonous Mushrooms A-Z page.

Posted in Poisonous Mushrooms | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mussels (again): Purging, Scrubbing, De-bearding (And a Pearl!)

MusselsHopefully, my last post – Wild Mussels vs. ‘Farmed’ Mussels – managed, in its funny little way, to persuade you that gathering wild Mussels is still a great idea, despite there being no real benefits for either the cook or the environment (though there certainly isn’t anything harmful either). As I state on my About this Blog page, foraging isn’t about convenience – it’s about discovery. And if you’ve discovered the fun of foraging for some of the free fruits-de-mer available to us all, perhaps you’d now like to discover the simple skills of how to render them as grit-free as possible in preparation for the pot.

De-bearding Mussels

De-bearding Mussels

De-bearding Mussels

Mussels attach themselves to rocks via thick black beard-like fibres called byssal threads. These are not very tasty at all and will need to be removed. To do so, simply pinch them between your thumb and a small knife and rip them away (being very careful not to cut yourself)(see picture, right). Mussels are also usually spotted with a few barnacles. Use the back of the knife to scrape them off.

Purging: Mussels, Winkles, Dog Whelks, Clams and Cockles

Take a look at the picture at the top of this blog post. As you can see, even when Mussels are growing on rocks, they will still be exposed to quite a lot of sand. So-called ground-seas swirl up the grains from the sea bed, and, as the currents calm, the sand then re-settles in amongst the Mussels. Even worse, Clams and Cockles spend their whole lives beneath the sand, constantly filtering all the grit and grains of the seashore through their flesh. And so, Purging Musselsbefore you attempt to cook any of these bivalves, they will need to be purged for a few hours in clean water to remove as much of this grit as possible.

The process is very simple. Place your bivalves in a container of either clean seawater, or tap water with 35g of salt dissolved in every litre. Throw in a scant handful of porridge oats, and leave for 2-12 hours, depending on how gritty you suspect your quarry to be (this, I’m afraid, will be knowledge you discover yourself through experience). When purged, rinse off the oats under the tap.

For Winkles and Dog Whelks, the process is exactly the same, but you need not add the porridge oats, and a 2 hour soaking is ample.

Scrubbing

A Pearl!

A pearl! I can't believe it!

No secret to this, just scrub each mollusc with a nail-brush to remove as much grit from the shells as possible.

Your bivalves are now ready to cook! Try my Thai-style Mussels with Noodles.

P.S. Check out this pearl that I found in one of my Mussels! I must admit, I didn’t realise until I nearly cracked my tooth on this thing that pearls could be formed in anything else but Oysters. But a quick search on the Internet taught me that a few other bivalves are also capable of forming pearls (it also taught me that it probably isn’t worth much). All the same, another great foraging discovery! Check out Gioiellando‘s blog to find out how pearls are formed.

Posted in Edible Molluscs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment