Tag Archives: Foraging

Nuts About Nuts

No posts for ages, then two in a row.

Last year I found a supply of foragable sweet chestnuts. The nuts were very small, but looked edible enough.  I gathered some but never got round to eating them, and they dried out. I discovered that I could break off both the dried shell and the furry husk, which tastes dry and bitter if left. This leaves a small kernel that I could rehydrate, boil and use as a vegetable. I was contemplating returning this year, but have found a supply of much better ones. This lot I gathered in about five minutes, and look forward to roasting soon.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year's dried out nuts and this year's.

Sweet Chestnuts, last year’s dried out nuts and this year’s.

I’m very surprised such lovely big nuts were available in such profusion. Perhaps people don’t know what they are, or perhaps they distain them in favour of nice clean supermarket nuts. Perhaps they fear contamination. I wonder if we, as a nation, have completely lost touch with the countryside or the foraging potential of parkland.

Last year was a mast year and there were loads of acorns on Tiptree Heath. I was too busy to gather some, which is a shame because there are none this year. Acorns, as they stand, are toxic because of the high concentrations of tannins. Toxic to humans and to horses, so it would have benefitted the ponies if I had reduced their risk of consumption. Fortunately the ponies on the heath are sensible about acorns and didn’t eat them. In the New Forest, sadly, horses die every year from eating acorns. (Pigs, on the other hand, love them and can digest them.)

So if they are toxic to humans, why would I gather them? Apparently the bitter tannings can be leached out of the nuts. I fancied trying this, mostly out of gastronomic curiosity, but also because it was one of the staple foods I read about when researching Gladiatrix.

In the US acorns are sweeter, and have been a mainstay of the indigenous peoples.

A few weeks ago I also foraged for hazelnuts. Then a dear friend gave me some from her garden. I have a dream one day to plant an orchard and nuttery. I think I shall be opting for a cultivated variety of cobnut. They are lovely when fresh, with a particular milky texture that has vanished by the time the nuts come in for Christmas.

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Wild and domesticated hazelnuts

Certainly nuts seem to be a better way of obtaining concentrated nutients than gathering miniscule seeds

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Fat Hen Chenopodium alba

Fat Hen and Family

I took on an allotment last year, and one of the prevalent weeds is “Fat Hen” Chenopodium alba. Knowing that it’s giant relative Quinoa is used for “pseudograins”, I wondered if the seeds of fat hen were edible, but last year couldn’t find this out and when I asked the question on a forum, was warned off from trying them.

If only I’d known I had the answer at home already in Jekka McVikka’s Herb book. It is edible. So this year I decided to try both the young leaves and, later on, try harvesting the seed. I also grew its cousin “Tree Spinach” which is very similar but has leaves which are pink when young.

Tree Spinach

Tree Spinach

The first startling discovery was that fat hen leaves are actually nicer than spinach. I had to overcome that instinctive suspicion of new foods, but once that forkful hit my mouth, I was delighted and wondered why we don’t grow it instead of spinach. I think the answer is that it’s fiddly to pick and goes off quickly.

I left a few plants and they have gone to seed. The seed is spherical and black, but enclosed in a coat which on some looks like tiny beetroot seed (they are in the same family). On others it’s easier to rub the coat off. The flowering tips can be eaten like asparagus, and I did include one or two in a stir fry and they were palatable, but I had so much else to eat I neglected these as a food source.

I saved some seed in a cloth bag (made from an old pair of trousers) and dried the seed off before rubbing it between my fingers and winnowing it. What a chore, and, as this was at home, I fear I might find rather a lot of seedlings next year. No matter; caught in time it makes a good green manure. However, as a means of separating the seeds from the chaff, it was unsatisfactory because it was time consuming.

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James Wong on quinoa says that quinoa has saponins coating the seed which need to be removed before consumption. He whizzes his quinoa heads in a food blender, which does the job of washing the seed and bashing it out of its coat. So I whizzed some different fat hen seeds up with the stick blender.

Whizzed up seeds

Whizzed up seeds

The water frothed up, so I think there are saponins in the fat hen, too, which I wouldn’t want to eat too much of. The foam held many of the seeds in suspension, so I passed it through a sieve. Alas, the sieve holes were large enough to pass the seed through, so I had to find a finer sieve. But once washed, the seeds were far less foamy. I think the thing to do for this “water winnowing” is to whizz the seed clusters up then wash the seeds through a cloth. This does not get rid of the “chaff” though, which might be tolerable with freshly harvested seeds for soup, but not for dried – perhaps. So I left the seeds soaking to see if the good seeds would sink.

Some seeds sank

Some seeds sank

They did, and they didn’t. I decided the ones which didn’t might be duff, so tipped them away. After a lot of faffing abut and rinsing and discarding, I was left with a teaspoonful or so of seeds, and still some chaff. I boiled them for 10 minutes + then turned the heat out and let them sit for a while. They were still crunchy. So I cooked them up some more. Still crunchy.  I’m beginning to think they’re not worth harvesting, except as seeds for next year. And then only the giant spinach, so I can eat the leaves. The fat hen will come back of its own accord, of that I am sure.

I think the basket of seeds will go in the green bin, but I will save the ones I harvested the other day. They might be OK used like poppy seeds on bread – except that I grew bone fide poppy seed for that. If I were really hungry I might consider it, might add them to soups etc as recommended, but I have beans and  other things to give me carbs and protein from the allotment, and foraged nuts are far more satisfactory.

I have the feeling I shall find seedlings everywhere.

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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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