Wild Mussels vs. ‘Farmed’ Mussels

Wild MusselsWhy would anybody want to forage for wild Mussels? Especially when one considers that ‘farmed’ Mussels are actually wild Mussels themselves, only they have been gathered when young and encouraged to grow on man-made structures – often ropes studded with plastic spikes – for easy harvesting when fat enough for eating. Moreover, these Mussel ‘farms’, when managed responsibly (which they usually are), serve as a natural boost to the local marine environment. 

The Common MusselMussels (and other bivalves) are nature’s means of organic filtration. Every day a single 5cm Mussel will suck through 50 litres of sea water, filtering microscopic nutrients through its flesh and essentially cleaning the water that passes through it. What’s more, Mussel farms naturally enhance local biodiversity: they attract seaweeds and anemones, which then act as ideal nurseries for several species of fish and crustaceans. Indeed, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) regard rope-grown Mussels as one of the most environmentally friendly forms of aquaculture. Their website, FishOnline: The In-depth Guide to Sustainable Seafood, gives the farms a rating of 1 out of 5 for sustainability – the highest possible. (The website also rates hand-gathered Mussels (i.e. foraged) as a 1, though there are other farming methods that don’t rate so highly.)

The other great thing about farmed Mussels is that you don’t have to worry about cleaning them, or indeed worry about the cleanliness of the water that they are taken from. Truly wild Mussels that you gather yourself have to be scrubbed and ‘de-bearded’ before consumption – a time-consuming exercise – otherwise they will be intolerably gritty when it comes to eating. (Keep watching this blog for how to scrub, de-beard and purge Mussels.) And, of course, you also have to be 100% sure that you don’t gather wild Mussels from a shoreline that harbours a sewage or other industrial outlet, for obvious reasons.

Wild MusselsSo why would anybody want to bother foraging for Mussels – worrying about the pollution-levels of the waters you take them from; scrubbing them until your fingers are sore; purging them at home for hours to remove most (though certainly not all) grit? Why indeed, would anybody want to take a small adventure down to the seashore, grubbing around and splashing about the rock pools like they were 8 years old again? Why would anybody want to rekindle an ancient and lost instinct for the hunt? Why would anyone want to acquire the wisdom of season and habitat of the vulnerable wildlife – edible or otherwise – of our precious coastline? Why would anybody want the fresh smells of the salty shores adorning their kitchens while their quarry purges quietly away, waiting to be cooked. Why, indeed, would anybody want the satisfaction of feasting on a seafood delicacy that they have acquired, scrubbed and grafted for themselves?

Well, I know that I would – but you tell me…

Identification – See my Edible Molluscs A-Z page for full pictures and description.

EatingThai-style Mussels with Noodles

Warning – Avoid months without an ‘r’ – May-August.

Moules Marinere is the classic way to prepare Mussels, and hard to beat. Check out a fantastic recipe for them on the blog Chop, Stir, Grate. You can, of course, ring the changes: use cider instead of wine; coconut milk instead of cream. But please try my Thai-style Mussels with Noodles – just as easy, fragrant and fresh.

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Identifying Mushrooms: How To Take A Spore Print

Spore Print

The Pale Pink spore print of the Wood Blewit

This nifty little trick is not only pleasing to the eye, but a truly brilliant and in many cases essential means of successfully and assuredly identifying the mushrooms that you have gathered. What’s more, it couldn’t be simpler – all you need is a piece of paper and a glass (or mug, bowl, cup, or plastic tub of some kind).

What are Spores?

Spores are essentially the seeds of a fungus. Mushrooms, with a few exceptions, have either gills or tubes on the underside of their caps. Here they produce spores – tiny microscopic seeds that can be spread on the wind.

The spores of different mushrooms have different colours, and if you can get enough spores together, you are able to see their colour with the naked eye. This information is incredibly useful in determining identification.

Wood Blewits, for example, have pale pink spores. Some similar looking Webcaps have brown spores. So, if you are at all uncertain take a spore print.

Please note: Determining the spore colour of your mushroom is not a short-cut to identification of the mushroom. Always make sure that your mushrooms have all the distinguishing features contained in your guide books.

Taking a Spore PrintThe Wood Blewit

1. Slice off the stem of your mushroom.

 

 

 

2. Place the cap, gills or tubes side down, on Taking a Spore Printa piece of paper, and place a glass (or some other beaker) over the top. This will prevent the mushroom from drying out, and also remove any draft that may affect the spore print. Leave for at least 2 hours, though 6 hours or even longer is better.

 

 

 

3. Check the colour against your identification guides.

Wood Blewit Spore Print

The pale pink spores confirmed that this mushroom was indeed the Wood Blewit.

 P.S. Check out the artistic use of spore prints by Jo’s Green Room or Pretty Cool Spore Prints.

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Wood Blewits

Wood BlewitsYesterday I pulled off one of the mushroom hunter’s most self-glorifying and (unfortunately) rare of achievements – I found exactly what I set out to look for. It was a labour of love, mind you. Unsurprisigly, perhaps, December is not the best month for the mushroom hunter. Most fungi are sensible beings and keep their vulnerable fruit bodies (i.e. mushrooms) safely tucked up beneath the soil during the winter months. The Parasols have all ducked away for another year, and the Puffballs have all burst and dispersed their spores into the frozen winds. And even if you do come across anything mushroom-like still clinging on for dear life in the bitter chill of the forest floor, the chances are they will be soggy, rotten, crawling with maggots, or all three.

Unidientified Mushrooms

Unidentified, soggy mushrooms.

And so it was when I went out a-hunting for the tan and lilac treasures that are Wood Blewits. I came across many a mushroom, but nearly all were too saturated and soggy-sandwich-floppy to even consider identification, let alone eating. Then it rained. And then it hailed, and I spent a good twenty minutes cowering beneath a Holly Bush sheltering my wife’s terrifyingly expensive camera from the down-pour. Thankfully, it was just a (rather long) shower, and when I re-emerged it took me no time at all to stumble upon a patch of perfectly formed, tan and lilac Wood Blewits.

The Wood BlewitBlewits in general (for there are others apart from the Wood variety) are a gift from nature herself, as they almost single-handedly extend the mushroom hunter’s active-season sometimes right through into January. They are unflinching little soldiers that for some reason take favour in the nip and bite of late autumn and early winter (as must we if we are to enjoy them), and usually begin to appear just as everything else decides to call it a day for the year. And so, with a little persistence and tolerance of winter’s unforgiving weather, I’d soon gathered half a kilo of them – plenty to make a jar of one of my favourite preserves: Pickwits.

Identification & Links

Unfortunately there are some similar species that are very poisonous, so please see my Edible Mushrooms A-Z page for full description and pictures of Wood Blewits. And visit Wild Mushrooms Online, and Mushroom-Collecting.com for more.

Eating – Warning: Wood Blewits must be cooked before consumption

PickwitsWood Blewits are among my most favourite of all wild mushrooms. Not only does their colour add an immediate touch of almost floral intrigue to a dish, their strong mushroomy flavour and distinct warm-orange/wine-gum aroma is something truly special and a real winter treat. So fond am I, in fact, that I always preserve the first batch of Blewits that I gather, so that I may continue to enjoy them when they too have finally succumb to the hard frosts of mid-winter, and you can try my recipe for Pickled Blewits or ‘Pickwits‘ in my Preserves section. But, if pickled mushrooms aren’t your thing, check out my Frying Wild Mushrooms page for further inspiration. Or, even better, take a look at some of Girl Interrupted Eating’s ideas – yum yum.

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Black Bryony: Poisonous!!

Black Bryony BerriesThe foolhardy beware this delicious looking, juicy red berry that I have seen only this week still growing and glowing temptingly from the hedgerow. As sweet and as tempting as these burstingly rotund berries may appear, they are nonetheless quite seriously poisonous, and you will do well to learn them so you may positively avoid. 

Black Bryony has an unusual growth habit for a berry in that it climbs through the hedgerow like a vine. It weaves its beady tendrils amongst the other plant-life indiscriminately, and may well impose itself amidst a bounteous growth of Haws, Rowan Berries or Rosehips.

At this time of year, there isn’t really much that’s edible about that you could confuse Black Bryony with. Having said that, if you have read my most recent post you will realise that the very last Haws of the year may still be clinging to the trees, so do take care if you decide to go out for them.   

For further pictures and description of this poisonous berry, see my Poisonous Berries A-Z page.

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Haws: By Any Other Name They’d Still Look As Sweet

Hawthorn BerriesHaws are the splendid though unfortunately named berries of the Hawthorn Tree. They are easily the most prolific berry of autumn, and persist long after the Sloes have all shrivelled and fallen, and Blackberries are nothing but a distant memory. I doubt there’s a hedgerow in all of Britain without at least one of these most generous of plants, which offer an unsparing bloom of powdery-white and raspberry-ripple blossom in spring, and glossy, lipstick-red berries in September through December – the very blood of autumn.  

You’ll have to be quick now if you want to grab yourself some of these fine berries this year. September and October are the very best times to pick Haws, with things starting to dwindle in November, and completely disappearing by the end of December. We are lucky this year in that we have had a relatively mild autumn, and so I was still rather impressed by their persistence yesterday when I went out a-gathering. But perhaps another week or two and they’ll all be gone, so now is your last chance to lay down some of my Chilli Hawthorn Dipping Sauce or Hawthorn Hedgerow Jelly to see you through till next September – there’s not a moment to lose!

Identification

Hawthorn Berries

Hawthorn Berries growing in clusters.

Black Bryony Berries

Black Bryony Berries growing in 'strings'.

You should have no trouble identifying Haws, nor indeed finding them. In fact, their sheer abundance is quite a good indicator that the red berries you will find yourself surrounded in come autumn are indeed Haws. But this is not quite enough to be sure, as there are a number of quite nasty poisonous red berries that look superficially similar. I am thinking of Black Bryony in particular, but this grows in long ‘strings’ or sometimes bunches, whereas Haws always grow in clusters along the Hawthorn Tree’s thorny branches. For further pictures and description, see my Edible Berries A-Z page, and keep watching this blog for more on the poisonous Black Bryony.

EatingHawthorn Preserves

The forager’s undisputed bible is Richard Mabey’s Food For Free (1972) in which he likens the taste of raw Haws to ‘avocado pear’. I think this is a rather generous appraisal, as Haws are pretty much all skin and pip, and, despite my rather tongue-in-cheek title for this blog post, they aren’t really that sweet. But by all means try one for yourself – you might like it. Cooking is where these little red beads come into their own, and for some truly innovative inspiration I refer you to Wild*Crafty’s excellent blog What Can I Do With Hawthorn Berries? But do try my Chilli Hawthorn Dipping Sauce – you’ll be licking your lips all the way to next fall.

P.S. This post also appears on markITwrite.com, the word in professional, persuasive writing for the web.

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Common Sorrel: Not Too Much, Not Too Often

Common Sorrel

A beautiful 'rosette' of Common Sorrel, positively glistening in the morning dew.

I find myself hesitating to include Common Sorrel in this guide. At first glance, Sorrel is everything the avid forager could hope for. It is certainly an abundant plant, growing in nearly all types of pasture, including meadows, roadsides and hedgerows. And the flavour is delectable: a citrusy, sherbetty sharpness not quite like anything else.

Common Sorrel

Another patch of Sorrel, but notice the other leaves growing amongst it: vigilant picking is essential to safe foraging.

But, unfortunately, Common Sorrel does contain a certain amount of a substance that is, if consumed in any great quantity, in fact poisonous to us humans. The substance in question is oxalic acid and is indeed what gives the plant its distinctive sharp flavour. If one were to consume too much oxalic acid, then one has vomiting, muscular spasms, and in extreme cases cardiac arrest to look forward to.

This seems positively frightful, but now that I have scared you, I will quickly reassure you that the amount of oxalic acid contained in Common Sorrel is actually very small, and so long as you don’t eat a basketful of the stuff every day then there really is no need to be too cautious. Indeed, if you treat it as a treat, a hearty helping of Sorrel soup every once in a while will do you no harm at all. Honestly.

Identification

Common Sorrel

The arrow-shaped leaves of Common Sorrel, with the two pointed lobes pointing back down the stem.

Common Sorrel is a very easy plant to identify, but, as always, you must be absolutely sure of what you’re picking. There are a couple of similar looking, mildly toxic docks that you wouldn’t want to end up eating accidentally.

Thankfully, the leaves of Common Sorrel have one telltale feature that should always see you right. Notice on the picture opposite the lobes at the base of the leaf that point backwards down the stem. These lobes are always pointed on the Sorrel leaf, and if they appear rounded on what you have picked, you most likely have picked something else and must discard it.

For further pictures and description, view my Edible Greens A-Z page.

Eating

The lemony sourness of Sea Bass Fillets and Sorrel Salsa VerdeCommon Sorrel is quite unique, a fact acknowledged by Elizabeth David in her classic book French Provincial Cooking (1960), where she writes that the flavour gives a sharpness to dishes ‘for which there is no quite satisfactory substitute’. That said, I would argue that the in fact unrelated Wood Sorrel is almost identical in flavour, but no matter. (Keep watching this blog for tips on gathering and identifying Wood Sorrel.)

Sorrel Soup is perhaps the classic dish that is made from this piquant plant, but it also makes wonderful sauces, salads and omelettes. Try my Fried Sea Bass in Sorrel Salsa Verde for a real treat.

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Puffballs Good; Earth Balls Bad

Puffballs and Earth Balls

The Stump Puffball (left), The Common Puffball (centre), and The Common Earth Ball (right).

Allow me to introduce you to two groups of fungus: one of which containing perhaps the most thrilling find in the mushroom kingdom, the Giant Puffball; the other, the absolute bane of my foraging escapades: Earth Balls. I won’t defile this post with a description of these far-too-ubiquitous-already toadstools here, but divert you to my Earth Balls page in the Poisonous Species section.

The Puffball Family

It doesn’t take much for me to become sidetracked into a quick mushroom hunt, and as soon as I spotted a cluster of these little beauties – The Stump Puffball – I was off. I thought it was getting a bit late in the season for Puffballs – I found my first Meadow Puffball way back at the start of August – but how wrong I was. A five minute walk through a Beech forest brought me upon a patch of Common Puffballs, and had me cursing that I didn’t have my camera with me to show you a huddle of these pillowy little clouds growing in situ. But, no matter, for these are the most simple of mushrooms to identify.

Common Puffball

The Common Puffball: notice the covering of fragile spines.

Stump Puffball

The Stump Puffball: pear-shaped, and decidedly browner than the Common Puffball, and always growing on tree stumps.

The Puffballs you are most likely to find are The Common Puffball, The Stump Puffball, and The Meadow Puffball. For further pictures and descriptions of these I direct you to John Harris’ excellent blog The Mushroom Diary, and to my Edible Mushrooms A-Z page. Their tastes are all much of a muchness, as is their texture – try to think of a savoury marshmallow and you’re almost there. If you find some (and you are 100% certain that they are what you think they are) try one raw and you will see what I mean.

Giant Puffball

The Giant Puffball: the slugs had had a good go at this by the time I found it, but a quick trim and it was enough to feed six amply.

The other Puffball you may have the good fortune to come across – and of which I have only had the pleasure once – is The Giant Puffball. These, by all accounts, can be truly massive – the largest ever recorded was reportedly 120cm across. The Giant Puffball that I found was about the size of a football, and indeed this is about the only thing that you are likely to confuse this mushroom with – or maybe a small igloo.

Eating

Before you start frying/stuffing/grilling/scoffing your puffballs, just be sure that they are pure white in the centre, like these in the picture. As puffballs mature their white centres turn a yellowy earwax sort of colour. Don’t eat them at this stage – not because they are dangerous, but because they are foul. Try my Warm Puffball and Celeriac Salad for something tasty and different.

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