Alys Fowler Talk

Last autumn I went to a talk on foraging by Alys Fowler, held at Writtle and hosted by Edible Essex. You may recall that the previous year I went to a similar talk by James Wong. Alys Fowler’s talk was very enjoyable and interesting. Though I forage for fruit like blackberries and apples, I am still wary of other wild food and hoped this talk would increase my awareness of what is edible in our environs.

Alys pointed out that people who forage actually see more on a walk than those who are just walking. This is an interesting point, because people who walk regularly have bigger brains than those who are sedentary. Perhaps just recognising plants as foods stimulates the brain even more. I certainly see more, or should that be observe more if I’m out with the camera looking for something interesting to photograph. The next startling remark was that wild greens contain much more Omega 3 oils than cultivated greens. Man has bred out the omega 3 oils in exchange for shelf-life. So there are good reasons to gather a few wild greens when out for a walk. The snag is that foraged greens go off quickly.

Alys showed a photo of wild rocket growing against a wall. I didn’t know it’s perennial and this makes me inclined to grow it, especially as I now have an allotment. I grow ordinary rocket in pots but it often gets munched on by flea beetles. Wild rocket is evergreen so can be overwintered under a cloche. Even more reason to grow it, if only to lift an ordinary salad. Is Iceberg the most boring salad leaf ever? Unfortunately it’s cheap, keeps well, and the rest of my family prefer it. I think it’s fine as a salad base but look forward to adding more zingy herbs.

One thing Alys didn’t talk much about is the legalities of foraging (though this is covered in her book). There was vague mention of seeking permission from the land owner, but no discussion as to how to go about this. I haven’t a clue who owns which fields around me, nor am I up to speed on land protected by SSI status. At one point Alys mentioned picking Chaenomeles quince in a car park, and another, more significantly, of picking walnuts on a housing estate where fence bars had been prised apart to allow access. I don’t suppose it matters of you only take a little and the produce would otherwise go to waste, but when does foraging become pilfering? Someone used to pilfer all the apples off the trees I planted on my old allotment and it upset me. As I was listening to Alys I realised that most of my foraging could be done in my garden and allotment, when it came to greens. That way I was relatively certain about there not being any additions from dogs (not so sure on the allotments because some dog owners need training). I recognised sow thistle on my allotment and thought perhaps it could stay if it was edible. (It didn’t because it grew old and coarse.) I will look more favourably on the dandelions in the garden, though.

Being an impecunious author I was tight fisted and didn’t buy the books there and then, partly because last year if I’d waited I could have got Wong’s book far cheaper than the £20 I paid for it (£8 was the lowest I’ve seen it) and partly because the family were nagging me for suggestions for Xmas and these books seemed like a good idea. I did receive them for Xmas, am delighted with both of them, and went on to buy Miles Irving’s book on foraging. I’m astounded at how many of our wayside weeds are edible and hope to get round to posting alimentary adventures more frequently. Continue reading

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Getting a Sense of Proportion

Every so often in the 5:2 group someone posts a photograph purportedly showing the difference between lean tissue and fat. Fat is indeed less dense than muscle – the so-called “Muscle weighs heavier than fat” but from many of the photographs you’d think the difference was huge. It’s not.

The reason the internet abounds with these misleading photographs is to give a crumb of comfort to people whose weight has remained static. The conversation generally goes like this:-

Distressed dieter – “I haven’t lost any weight for a month. I go to the gym three times a week and run five miles twice a week. I don’t understand it.”
Worried gym instructor (worried because client may take custom elsewhere) – “Ah, well. you’ve been building up muscle, and muscle weighs heavier than fat. See this photograph.” Flourishes graphic photo of masses of yucky yellow fat and a lot smaller piece of red muscle.
Distressed dieter – “Oh well, that’s all right then. I’ll carry on doing what I have been doing (inadvertently cheating and massively overestimating exercise levels) and carry on paying your gym subscription.”

So how much of a difference between muscle and fat is there?

To show this I bought some beef suet from my local friendly butcher and compared it with steak. The first photos show the weight is approximately the same (78 g and 79 g). Then compare the two side by side. The fat is indeed bigger, but not twice as big as some photos would have us believe. Because the fat is all knobbly and the meat is nicely trimmed, it’s not easy to see exactly how similar or different they are. The knobbles of fat make it appear to take up more room than it does.

Lean tissue (Muscle)

Lean tissue (Muscle)

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So I filled a jug up to the 900ml mark, then looked to see how much water was displaced by the fat (I don’t have a suitable measuring cylinder). I then compared that with the water displaced by the meat. The fat floated because it’s less dense than water and had to be held down.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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There is a difference of about 10%, though the jug just isn’t accurate enough to measure it precisely.

Although we should bear in mind that the bathroom scales don’t tell the whole story, we have to beware of fooling ourselves by assuming that weight gain or lack of weight loss is due to lean tissue. Building muscle, especially for females, is hard work. It requires stimulation of a subset of muscle fibres called the fast twitch fibres, and these are not stimulated by long distance running nor aerobic gym work. look at the physical difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner, especially the men. This illustrates it very well. So if we’re not losing weight, chances are we’re eating more than we think and not exercising as much as we think we are.

Gaining/protecting muscle during weight loss is good because it burns calories, quite apart from being needed for doing every day activities.

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Book Review: “Tender” Volumes 1 & 2 by Nigel Slater

I received these sister books for Christmas this year and spent some pleasant hours reading through both of them. 

“Tender” deals with the use of vegetables (Volume 1)  and fruit (Volume 2) in the kitchen, some of which Nigel has grown in his own garden. They’re not really gardening books, though Nigel discusses his garden, but are,most definitely, cookery books with some very luscious recipes to inspire one to both grow food and to use that food in the kitchen. I’d say they’re “coffee table books” rather than “kitchen table books” in that they inspire and engage enthusiasm rather than being straight “How To” recipe books. They also seem too “posh” to risk making mucky in the kitchen. They are the sorts of books which provoke garden-longings and culinary adventures where the cook will find his or her own way based on the inspiration between the pages. I rarely follow recipes slavishly, being somewhat maverick in the kitchen, so this sort of approach suits my psyche. I will try some of the recipes, but I will probably adjust them to suit the produce I have available at the time. The recipes in these books strike me as lending themselves to this sort of cavalier treatment.

Volume 1 deals with a short introduction to Nigel Slater’s garden and an A to Z of vegetables, Volume 2 deals with an introduction to the fruit in his garden, and then an A to Z of fruit. Both books are weighty, two inch thick tomes and appear to cover the majority of fruit and vegetables which can be grown in the UK climate and which have been either home grown, purchased from farm shops, foraged, or from friends. Every entry seems to be based on Nigel’s own wisdom and this, to me, is important in such a book. I want that personal experience, not some reiterated conglomeration of information gleaned from the work of others or “common knowledge”.

Each A to Z entry has an introduction to the fruit or the vegetable, some remarks about their garden-worthiness, then some remarks about their use in the kitchen, and recipes.

The photographs leave me in two minds. Not all the recipes are illustrated, but those which are, are accompanied by well composed and luscious photographs. Those images alone are enough to inspire and make me want to cook the dishes. Something as simple as a photograph of elderflower fritters looks yummy. But some of the photographs seem to be self-indulgent “mood” photographs. And this mood seems gloomy, earthy, almost furtive and frankly under-exposed. Now, I ought to like this, tending towards the same myself, disliking over-brightened garish photos, but I’m not sure that I do. For example, p 24 Vol 1, there is a photo of pots of courgette plans, and that seems underexposed, lacking in sunshine and uninspiring. P 30, in the asparagus section, there is a photo of backlit sweet peas. The flowers are the main focus of this photograph, the rest of it fading to dark colours, so the photo is really “about” the sweet peas, an arty-f**ty style of photograph which bears no relation to the topic in hand. Sometimes the depth of field annoys me, because there are out-of-focus blurs to the front pulling my eye away from the subject, for example, a courgette flower p 266. I gather from the text that Nigel Slater is an earthy-mood sort of man, and so these photos do convey that emotion quite well, but some of the photos just didn’t inspire me. That’s just personal taste, not a matter of quality.

Another bugbear I have with the photos is that there is a thumbnail at the start of each subject – a great idea, except that the thumbnail often bears no relation to the fruit or vegetable in question. For example, the thumbnail for “Peppers” is nasturtium flowers. The colour tones quite well with the facing rather good full page photo of peppers in varying degrees of ripeness, but what’s wrong with having a photo of peppers growing on the plant itself as a thumbnail? Another example is a viola thumbnail for spinach, yet for Jerusalem artichoke, the thumbnail is the Jerusalem artichoke flower, and for onions, there’s an onion flower. There’s a rose thumbnail for plums and for redcurrants, yet quince blossom for quince flowers. It seems to lack logic, could be misleading, and it’s almost as if Mr Slater lacked a suitable photo for some thumbnails and shoved any old photo in instead, so long as it looked good.

I found the peculiar font for “ct” rather distracting.

The other major niggle is the indices. There is an index at the end of each volume, but the one at the end of volume one is scant and confusing. I used it to try to look up artichoke soup, but failed to find it. However, artichoke soup was listed in the Volume 2 (Fruit volume) index, which looks like the main index to me. I feel the main index would have been better divided between each volume appropriately, perhaps losing a couple of the irrelevant mood photos, such as the sweet peas, the dahlia and one or two of the frozen brassica photos, to accommodate them, if pages were short.

None of the niggles were enough to detract from the overall enjoyment and I’m delighted to have received them for Xmas.

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The Dehydrator and Linden Tea

One of the things I have hankered after for a couple of years is a dehydrator, ever since I tried making fruit leather and it took a long time to dry in my oven. I decided the fan in the oven wasn’t designed to run for 12+ hours and a dehydrator was the way to go if I wanted to make leather again. I looked at cheap ones but they’re more suited to drying fruit than leather because the shelves stack up over the heater and fan. I needed one which had shelves, but they are far more expensive, quite an investment for something which I feared might be used just once a year for blackberry leather. I looked out for a second hand one, but they were also pricey, considering they were second hand, so in the end decided to have a new one, an Excalibre, the one I really wanted. Of course, having shelled out all that money I had to make good use of it. Being somewhat insomniac, I thought I would gather linden blossom for tea, which is reputed to be soporific. Like the nettles, the blossom doesn’t last long and last year I was a week or two too late to gather any, so this year I made a special effort. The first thing I noticed when going to pick the blossom was the silence. Where were all the bees? The trees should have been throbbing with their hum, and yet there were none. This is worrying.

Unfortunately there were a lot of pollen beetles. It took a fair bit of shaking and sorting to get rid of them.
I picked a carrier bag full, which took a good morning’s work, and dried the blossom out in my drier. The scent in the kitchen was wonderful, like honey. When it was dried the entire crop fitted into one 1lb honey jar. The resultant tea is mild and sweet, but there was astonishingly little of it considering the effort involved.

I found this to be a recurring theme this year – foraging is time consuming with little to show for the effort, yet I still feel it worthwhile because I enjoy the produce and it makes me feel more in touch with nature. It does mean that foraged food has a value far greater than stuff bought in the supermarket. Because of the comparative cheapness of food nowadays, I think we have lost touch with the actual value of food, which is why we have become so wasteful.

I also picked some young green lime leaves, intending to use them in a salad, but in the end I didn’t eat them because I had too much else to eat and couldn’t get past the feeling that these were tree leaves, not real food. Next year I will give them a go.

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A Neglected Blog but an Interesting Year

I have neglected this blog shamefully over the last few months because I have been very busy.

I had a frustrating start to the year. After years of being stymied in my hopes for an allotment, I found somewhere locally which does allow people from outside their village to rent one. Full of excitement because Google Maps showed large tracts of uncultivated land, I applied, only to be told all the plots were taken (a lot can happen in four years, it seems). So it was back to Plan A – container grown veg, and foraging.

This changed later in the year when a plot became available, and at the end of July I took on an allotment about 15 minutes drive away. It’s not ideal from a time, fuel or pollution point of view, but it’s an allotment and I’m thrilled.

In the meantime I’d done some foraging, had intended to keep this blog up to date, but found myself too busy. What I intend to do now is a few “catch up” posts of events earlier in the year, and how I got on with some of the James Wong inspired growing. I shall start with Nettle Soup.

Nettle Soup

It was a long cold winter and a very late spring this year. Once it started to warm up everything rushed into growth, so I very nearly missed making nettle soup. As nettles age they become inedible with crystals in the leaves, particularly when they start to flower, so it’s best to pick them young. I saw to my horror that the little sprouts of fresh leaves I’d seen a few days before were now several inches tall. Despite being busy with other things i knew that if I wanted nettle soup this year, I would have to gather the nettles immediately.

The question was, where from? I considered Tiptree Heath, because there are lots of nettles near the entrance, but I suspect that’s because of the high nutrient levels from years of dog fouling, and didn’t fancy toxocara soup.

I realised that this was going to be a consideration wherever I went. The usual rules of harvesting above dog leg height could not apply to something that had to be harvested very young and low growing. So I picked areas where people are unlikely to walk their dogs, like the side of a road without a footpath. But then there is the potential for pollution, though I think this is less of a problem since lead is no longer added to petrol. In the end I picked a local quiet lane which proved a bountiful place for nettles.

A dog walked did pass by, but I think the number of dogs is fewer and so any contamination is likely to be more spread out. I was a trifle embarrassed to be discovered rummaging in the nettle patch, wondering if the poor lady thought I was some sort of weird woman, but instead she was interested.
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I picked just the tips, gathering a good carrier bag full, as called for by a River Cottage recipe. They needed a good picking over and thorough washing, which was a time consuming fiddle. I cooked the base of potatoes and stock before adding the nettles, cooking then whizzing with a hand blender.
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I was surprised at how green the soup was. I’d been expecting a more khaki colour, an “appetizing” cowpat brown. As it was, the soup looked lovely. The smell was strongly metallic, reminiscent of watercress soup. Some describe the taste as lemony, but I thought it acid, fresh and green, which might seem a silly description until you try it. It was a very pleasant flavour.
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The family weren’t interested, so by the time I finished it a few days later, I was a little tired of nettle soup. I will definitely make it again, but will regard it as a seasonal treat.

As nettles are rich in vitamin K I think perhaps those on anticoagulant therapies like Warfarin shouldn’t eat too much of it.

I found a couple of interesting articles on nettles. This one describes some fearsome sounding nettles and goes into the history of their use for cloth making.

This one is about some of the herbal benefits. Perhaps I should have dried some to make tea.

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Tiptree Heath Fungus Foray

On Tuesday 22nd October a group of people met on Tiptree Heath for a fungus foray led by Ian Rose of Colchester Natural History Society. It’s been a good year for fungi and we had high hopes of finding a good array of specimens. Ian was hoping to find a Death Cap. In this we were unsuccessful, but we found lots of different samples, some edible, some deadly. At the end we displayed our finds on a paste table for Ian to pick over and discuss.

I can’t remember the names so will just post some of the photos I took. I was interested in the edibility of some of them, particularly the parasol mushrooms, which I thought I had recognized the other day but which I was too scared to eat.

There were earth balls and small puffballs. Earth balls, when cut in half, are hollow, whereas puffballs are solid. I thought I’d try these but in the end didn’t like the smell of them so only ate the parasols. One type is better than the other – the one with the zigzag markings at the bottom. The others can cause gastric upsets.

My kids were appalled when I ate the parasol caps sliced and fried, and said they had 999 on speed dial.

There’s one photograph of the puff ball puffing spores, which I like.

Ian told us that nowadays with the increase in interest in eating fungi, gangs of collectors are going through woods like a search party, grabbing everything and taking it to the boss who sorts and discards anything unusable. although these are only the fruiting bodies, these gatherers are indiscriminate and are causing a lot of damage to the environment.

In addition to which, foraging is supposed to be for our own use, not commercial use.

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“5:2 Fasting & Fitness Easy Science in Layman’s Terms”

7th October is my “Fastiversary”.

A year ago I did my first ever fast day in an effort to lose the “writer’s bum” which had been getting broader every year. I joined Kate Harrison’s 5:2 Facebook Group and started to lose weight through intermittent fasting.
Previous attempts to lose weight have always failed for me, basically due to the regime being too hard to maintain. Not so 5:2. A year later and nearly 3 stone lighter, I am still following 5:2 and still losing weight slowly. In that year, most of the time I haven’t counted calories or restricted my food type or quantities in any way. Some of the time I have restricted my intake to 500kcals. This approach goes against the received wisdom, but that same received wisdom has seen the Western World getting fatter and fatter.

This method works for thousands of people.

In the Facebook Group I found myself constantly explaining aspects of health and fitness in easy to understand terms, and decided to put these analogies into book form to supplement Kate Harrison’s book on the 5:2 dietary approach.

To celebrate my Fastiversary I have scheduled 5:2 Fasting and Fitness Easy Science in Layman’s Terms to go free from 7th to 9th October only

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.co.uk link

.com link

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