Archive for the ‘Plant Uses’ Category

Pine Pollen

January 8, 2014

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I finally got round to processing the pine ‘catkins’ – or ‘pollen-bearing male cones’ to be more precise – which I harvested back in the latter stages of November or the beginning of December from a client’s garden (shh, don’t tell anyone!) and which have been sitting patiently in a cardboard crate in various warm, dry places waiting for me to do something with them. So, with apologies to them and to H who has to put up with the clutter of my various projects (which, to my shame, I occasionally fail to ever follow through) here’s how I went about it:

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Step #1 – Harvest. Following Feral Kevin’s advice I picked mainly immature cones which hadn’t yet shed all their pollen in the wind and put them in my plastic lunch box to avoid spillage. These were then left to ‘ripen’ in the aforementioned cardboard crate, laid out in a thin layer on newspaper to maximise contact with the air and provide a surface to gather the pollen grains.

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Step #2 – Sieving. It turned out there was a great deal more pollen still attached to the cones so I ended up by crushing them individually by hand which, with the help of a basting brush, got pretty much all of it. Only a few bits of chaff managed to get past the sieve, with the pollen getting variously shaken, tapped or brushed into the bowl beneath. This took me the best part of an hour, but I figure it’s possible to do it much faster with practice or if you don’t mind making a mess (eg: by rubbing all the cones at once with both hands).

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Step #3 – Re-sieving and final storage. I decided to keep my pollen in a jam jar to avoid the possibility of paper bags breaking open. Hopefully it was dry enough by this stage that it won’t spoil, although I may store it in the fridge for good measure. That’s a funnel you can see in the above photo. The pollen flour was incredibly fine and dusty at this stage, swishing around almost like a liquid in a way which I found strangely satisfying. I ended up sifting it gently in a side-to-side motion through the sieve while holding the funnel directly under with the same hand because other methods were causing it to puff out little clouds up & out of the sieve and onto the surrounding surfaces.

Step #4 – Eat! It’s supposed to be edible raw, but otherwise I guess I’ll mix it in with other flours to make bread, scones, cookies… although I won’t want to use it all in one go.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable so far to identify the specific species of pine tree these ‘catkins’ came from, so I’m breaking an important foraging rule in eating the pollen regardless and don’t recommend you follow my example. However I feel quite secure personally, having established beyond reasonable doubt that the tree was from the Pinacea family and come across several sources saying that all species of pine produce edible pollen, with no warnings of toxicity from the family other than the pollen allergies people sometimes suffer, which I’ve never had a problem with. Anyway, I’ve managed to narrow it down to a non-native ornamental which self-pollinates towards the end of the year, as opposed to springtime which is most usual. My best guess would be a Cedar of some kind, though I don’t think it was a Cedar of Lebanon as I didn’t see any of the distinctive cones (ie: the female ones which grow big and woody and eventually bear the seeds/nuts) and the bark didn’t have the same strong smell or stickiness that I’ve experienced on park specimens. The branches did the same helpful downward-hanging thing as F.Kevin’s ‘Cedrus Deodara’ or Himalayan Cedar, and the male cones pictured on the wikipedia page look pretty similar to mine, but the overall shape of the tree doesn’t seem to match my memory. Although ‘[t]he male cones are 4–6 cm (1.6–2.4 in) long, and shed their pollen in autumn and apparently it ‘is widely grown as an ornamental tree’… Answers on a postcard!

Finally a bit more reading which may be of interest, Green Deane ‘Pining For You‘:

[Pine pollen] has over 200 identified elements from vitamins to proto male hormones… yeah, it’s a guy food.  It’s been called the natural testosterone, androstenedione, but that is a marketing exaggeration.  It has about 27 nanograms per 0.1 grams of dry weight, not suitable for the bulking up weightlifters want, but available none the less. Putting the pollen under the tongue keeps it from being destroyed by the digestive system.

Androstenedione is an adrenal hormone produced in humans.  Reduce androstenedione by one molecule and you have  testosterone, which both men and women have in different amounts. Androstenedione can raise testosterone levels. The effect lasts about a day.  And this is how the Native Americans used it, for extra energy when they needed it. So when on the run, grab a little pine pollen. Pine pollen also seems to have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system as well.

And one to maybe take with a few pinches of salt (too many extravagant ‘super-food’ claims for my liking): ‘What is pine pollen and why should I consume it?

Oh, and here’s the late great Frank Cook talking about pine pollen as a potential ‘man medicine’ for helping to balance out all the oestrogen-mimicking compounds in the modern environment:

I’ll let you know if I sprout any new chest hairs :)

Taking up smoking

March 25, 2013

I’ve been toying with the idea of smoking herbs for a while, having seen experiments reported by fellow bloggers and thinking that it might make for another interesting (or pleasurable) way to take the qualities of wild plants into my person for medicinal purposes or simply to add the much-needed feral spark to my oftentimes dull, civilised character. I already do this with a myriad varieties of plant teas made from the dried or fresh leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots of the many species I’ve come across and experimented with over the years in my locality. So I asked myself: What’s the difference between herbal tea and herbal tobacco? It’s all dried plants (tea and tobacco are herbs just the same) – why not try smoking them instead of drinking them? That way, for one thing, the compounds go straight into the bloodstream via the lungs rather than having to slowly seep out of the digestive system. Plus it does look cool when all the other kids are doing it…

I first tried it a couple of summers ago in Italy. I’d heard that Mugwort was a good candidate for a smoking herb, and had found some pretty lush specimens growing in the sunny pastures of the mountain village where my uncle is fortunate enough to own a house:

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I let it dry in my room for about a week then brought it downstairs late one night when a few of us were getting ‘merry’, and we smoked small, torn pieces of the herb in roll-up cigarettes. The strong aroma of the growing plant came through in the taste and smell of the smoke, with one wild enthusiast comparing it to smoking incense(!), and there followed a very relaxed and pleasant light-headed feeling and the promised vivid dreams which a at least two of us reported the following morning*. We hoped there wouldn’t be any awkward questions at baggage control after one of our number had made a harvest to take with him on the plane back to Spain!

What tipped the balance for me, though, was seeing fellow herbal apprentice Charlie give a talk on ‘Herbal Fumigants’ at the Springfield Sanctuary ‘Celebrating Herbs‘ festival last September. She brought a bong and various smudge sticks and incense balls she had prepared in the preceeding months along with many plants to sample and hear associated stories, science and folklore about. It was a feast for the senses, especially when we got to try some of the herbs at the end. I tried Mugwort, Sage, Coltsfoot and Mullein.

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She writes:

Many people believe that burning herbs and smoking are something brought to us from the New World with tobacco, but tobacco is just one plant.  It’s true that a huge amount of the herbal lore that is current in the UK today has been imported or reimported from America but burning herbs to release their properties has been Old World practice for as long as recorded history has existed, whether we are referencing the Oracle at Delphi or Bald’s Leechbook which tells us in Anglo Saxon, “geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum“. (Translation: smoke that man with herbs).

Apparently Coltsfoot is the big one to check out here in Britain, with many smoking it during WW2 when tobacco became too expensive or impossible to import. Funnily enough it was a well known remedy for coughs and bronchial troubles, as indicated in the Latin name, Tussilago Farfara (‘tousser’ = French for ‘to cough’), making it potentially very interesting to people trying to quit ‘regular’ tobacco smoking. I’m told some continued to smoke it even after the war was over. As Maude Grieve wrote in her 1931 classic ‘Modern Herbal':

[…] Coltsfoot has justly been termed ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic.’ The smoking of the leaves for a cough has the recommendation of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities, both ancient and modern, Linnaeus stating that the Swedes of his time smoked it for that purpose. Pliny recommended the use of both roots and leaves. The leaves are the basis of the British Herb Tobacco, in which Coltsfoot predominates, the other ingredients being Buckbean, Eyebright, Betony, Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, and Chamomile flowers. This relieves asthma and also the difficult breathing of old bronchitis. Those suffering from asthma, catarrh and other lung troubles derive much benefit from smoking this Herbal Tobacco, the use of which does not entail any of the injurious effects of ordinary tobacco. (link)

Tussilago farfara ColtsfootNow’s the time to be on the lookout for the flowers, which perplexingly come out before the leaves. I’ve spied a few of the yellow beauties, whose location I will be doing my best to remember for when the leaves come out later in the season.

All this inspired me for a winter project: making my own pipe. Brief e-research told me to use a hard, non-resinous wood for the bowl and (obviously) something hollow for the stem. I heard good things about cherry wood and happened to know where a few trees were growing nearby. I couldn’t find any handily seasoned, non-rotting wood of the right kind of size around the base of my chosen tree so I climbed way up and selected a green-wood branch that it looked like the tree didn’t need too badly, carefully sawing it off close to the trunk with my pruning saw and carrying it back down with me. The next step, a few days later was to choose a section of the branch that looked most suitable and saw it off:

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I attempted to carve out the bowl with my pocket knife but it turned out the wood was too hard so I had to use a hammer & chisel instead, tilting the piece of wood and using the angled edge of the chisel on the inside of the bowl so it didn’t cut too deep:

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Then I used a drill to make a small hole downwards and then, measuring the likely position, from the side (it took a few attempts before they lined up, as proved by my being able to blow through the piece):

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Finally, selecting a larger drill bit, I drilled a small distance into the side and whittled the piece of bamboo I was intending to use as a stem to the right size to wedge inside:

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Et voila, my fully functional pipe (I’ll need to find a better stem once it dries out and gets too thin, and maybe the bowl will get de-barked or some further carving to show off the red cherry finish. Also there’s some research needed on filters to intercept as many of the bigger ash particles as possible, which might otherwise result in health issues if I become a regular smoker…):

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…which I proceeded to load up from my Mugwort tea stash and have my first enjoyable (albeit rather chilly) back-garden smoke of the year:

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Well, there you have it. I thought I’d share :) Further onwards I’m looking to try Lemon Balm, Angelica, Sage, Coltsfoot, Mullein, Yarrow, Rosemary, Lavender… There’s what looks like a great online resource of ‘Herbal Smoking Mixtures’ by Howie Brounstein over here, if you’re interested to find out more. It includes handy tips on how to prepare your herbs, which plants combine well together and recommended mixes depending on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Puff away, kids!

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* – I’d had similar experiences previously after drinking a tea of the plant before bed, but strangely the most powerful experience was a prolonged sequence of crazy, tricksterish dreams I had while drying a couple of long stems above my head where I was sleeping:

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Giraffe Boy’s Big Day Out

May 19, 2012

Newly escaped from his cramped, low-ceilinged enclosure in the zoo for strange human/animal hybrids (where he subsisted on tasteless fodder, dispensed three times daily, and was prodded and laughed at by his visitors and keepers alike), Giraffe Boy looks to the trees of the English countryside for fleshy, succulent leaves, longing to stretch his long, slender neck up into the tall canopies and feast on the tastes and textures of his idealised motherland.

Well, he doesn’t mind starting out a little lower to the ground. Here he gets his teeth into the miniature jungle of Lime leaves, suckering from the base of a tall tree at the entrance to a local graveyard:

Mmm, soft and flannelly and soothing to the mouth and throat, only just emerged from their red buds. The Southern lowlands used to be full of Lime woods until they were cleared by the first farmers or herdsmen. Now they are nearly all planted specimens of the small-leaved, large-leaved or hybrid varieties. Later on in Summer the leaves get all sticky and sweet from aphids sucking on the sap and pooing out the sugary excess. Yum!

A little further on he finds a rare Wych Elm which he recognises from the thousands of small, flat-winged seeds (also edible) he saw earlier in the year:

Wych Elm seeds - Ulmus glabra

A deeper, richer, more mealy flavour. Thought to be the first elm to establish itself in the primeval woodland, and, like Lime, a large component of that ‘wildwood’. Beloved by livestock and susceptible to disease, so it has suffered and dwindled long in this land. Giraffe Boy grazes only where he can reach and leaves the rest of the tree to drink in light and air and produce its vital pollen and seeds.

Mmm, let’s try some more Lime. Higher up this time:

And now a venerable Silver Birch:

A bit more bitter, but refreshing, and it’s lovely to see the the slender tree sway and shiver in the wind. If he gets really hungry, Giraffe Boy can nibble through to the inner bark. The yellow catkins also have an interesting, polleny flavour. And if he gets cold he has heard that the flaky outer bark is really good for lighting fires (though his hooves make it difficult to make a friction ember). Here’s another one he found later on that day:


Ah, Beech. Some beautiful, tall specimens occasionally generous enough to lower branches down to a young Giraffe Boy’s height:

Best when young, soft and slightly hairy (older they get more tough and papery), the leaves have a delicious lemony tang, leaving the mouth feeling wonderful. Giraffe Boy likes to reach down and feast on the small, pointy brown nuts in the Autumn.

A little further on, Giraffe Boy finds a hedge of Hornbeam. He tastes the leaves, which have a rather strong, not entirely pleasant flavour. It looks similar to Beech, but the leaves have deeper grooves, more like the Wych Elm. Hmm, not sure about this one…

Later on he finds a full-grown tree with its curious knarly bark:

Ooh boy, here’s a lovely Hawthorn!

Both the flowers and the leaves taste delicious. Heady & aromatic, and sweet & nutty. ‘Bread and Cheese’ as the country children used to call them. Mind the thorns Giraffe Boy! They start out soft but toughen up to a sharp point later in the season, and you wouldn’t want to impale your tongue on one! Don’t eat too many of the flowers, either – you know how much you like to eat the sweet, red berries they turn into by Autumn-time!

Oh dear, Giraffe Boy seems to be suffering from a headache. No fear! Someone has been good enough to plant an ornamental Weeping Willow by the lake. A brief nibble releases the salicylic acid – present in all Willow species, and a precursor to aspirin – into Giraffe Boy’s body. In a little while he feels as right as rain (and appears to have discovered that he has thumbs):

Giraffe Boy doesn’t care if a tree isn’t ‘native’ to Britain. If it feeds or heals him well then he will accept it joyfully. After all, he and his long-necked, rough-tongued ancestors came to these shores in exactly the same way. Likewise, for obvious reasons, he doesn’t get all pompous about the genetic ‘purity’ of any weird or wonderful varieties, noticed and propagated by human individuals. Speaking of which, oh my goodness, would you look at this glorious Copper Beech – what a luscious feast for the senses (taste included)!

All the same, Giraffe Boy feels at most at home among the trees in English woodland.

But, oh no! What has happened here?

Our story ends in tragedy, for Giraffe Boy has eaten the deadly foliage of the Yew tree! Oh Giraffe Boy, you felt your freedom so sweetly, but you didn’t know that some plants refuse to be eaten by curious human/animal hybrids, and instead of sustaining life they bring death. Oh the high price of wisdom! What a sad fate befalls the wide-eyed and innocent!

I bid you all to learn from Giraffe Boy’s example. Stretch your necks high and escape into the wonderful wildness of trees, but take care not to dive too deeply or too quickly without reasonable confidence in your knowledge, and keep a gentle, loving regard for your own safety and well-being.

[Photo credit: HC]

Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

March 5, 2012

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It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 - Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 - Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.

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* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

Loose Ends 2011

January 12, 2012

Here are some of the things I intended to write about last year, but which got heavily procrastinated and failed to make it past the event horizon. Until now…

1) – Holm Oaks. Also called Holly or Evergreen Oaks because they hold onto their tough, waxy leaves all through the year. A few weeks after writing about them in a comment on my Balanophagy post I was walking up a road I’d not been on for a while and bumped into this huge sucker:

He had lovely wrinkly-grey bark and was the largest of three, apparently of the same species, providing a hefty barrier to the road on the right and completely shading out the small houses on the left. A quick hunt around on the floor confirmed my suspicion – a thick layer of half-rotted leafmould, practically nothing growing and lots of small, pointy, shiny brown acorns:

Jackpot! I bent down and gathered a couple of pockets’ worth, earning the usual suspicious glances from people walking past. I noticed that many more of the nuts showed signs of nibbling by small mammals than I’ve found with regular acorns, perhaps confirming the lower tannin content I’d heard about. A quick taste test revealed only a slight astringency at the end, coupled with a lingering starchy sweetness which was in a different league to any other acorns I’d nibbled on. I’ve since noticed several more trees on my winter walkabouts – they’re much easier to spot when all the other trees have dropped their leaves.

Unfortunately it took longer to process a decent amount of the acorns, using the usual method of cracking, peeling, rubbing off the inner skin and roasting for around half an hour, but then I’d done Beechnuts earlier in the season, so couldn’t really complain…

Overnight soaking improved the raw flavour of the second batch (I had to do it because most of them had dried to stone-hardness by the time I got round to them), but I think I overdid the roasting in the end. The first lot came out better, approaching Ken Fern’s description of ‘a soft, floury texture and a sweet flavour that is rather like sweet chestnuts’ (Plants For A Future, p.36). I’ve put them into morning porridge, meat stews, lentil dishes and even a couple of fry-ups, and they seem to keep rather well in their glass jam jar – better than the regular acorns I kept in a paper bag which had to get washed and re-roasted to kill the mould that was growing on several of them.

2) – Linden Leaf Stew. As promised I finally got round to making a Creole-style ‘gumbo’ dish using the Lime leaves I dried and powdered previously. I loosely followed this recipe, frying ground beef and chunks of chicken with onions, carrots, garlic, spinach, misc. herbs and spices, then pouring boiling water over the top, adding the lime leaves, salt’n’pepper, some baking soda and, even though the idea seemed pretty strange to me, a dollop of peanut butter.

This then stewed away for about half an hour and eventually got served with plain rice:

Incredibly rich and flavourful, I was the only one who managed to finish their plate. Unfortunately I have to report that the meal gave me pretty terrible gas for the rest of the night 8O . Hopefully that was due to the baking soda and not the lime leaves or anything else essential to the recipe…

3) – Cattail Rhizomes. Ooh boy, this wasn’t successful! I maybe gave a false impression of abundance with my picture of two plastic bags full of rhizomes gathered from a local pond during a conservation task back in September. In reality my harvest wasn’t as substantial as it looked because the root material is very spongy with only a thin solid core going through the middle.

Well, I washed, scrubbed and cut them into manageable segments, keeping the tender young shoot separate. Then I tried boiling and roasting them like you would with potatoes, as recommended by several sources. The yellow outer skin remained tough and indigestible, but it was possible to tease out the inner fibres with my teeth and basically suck the pure starch off them – not the most satisfying culinary experience!

Then I spent a good long time peeling the outer skins off and chopping the white centers into smaller chunks. At first I tried drying these in the oven and whizzing in the food processor as a short-cut for flour, but the fibres just lumped together on the blade and didn’t show any signs of breaking up into smaller particles.

Then I decided to try and separate the starch by soaking them in tepid water, squashing by hand, boiling (after which they were vaguely edible in a chewy, fibrous kind of way), mashing and more squashing into several bowls of starch-water, which I then allowed to settle before pouring the water off the dirty white sludge at the bottom.

This then got poured into trays, dried out in the sun and the oven, then finally ground in my coffee grinder. I was NOT impressed by the amount of flour I ended up with.

So either people are talking bollocks when they say, for instance, that ‘Yields of 8 tonnes of flour per hectare have been recorded’ (Plants For a Future, p.135) or one way or another I’m not doin’ it right. Maybe I went for them at the wrong time of year, or perhaps I needed to go for the main root matter at the base of the stem rather than the creeping rhizomes. Either way I’m thoroughly sick of the plant by now, so probably won’t be revisiting it (at least for its roots) for a good long while. Sorry Cattails!

4) – Angelica & Sweet Cicely. Dug up a bunch of these on a gardening job and decided to save them. Both got washed, scrubbed and fine-sliced in the food processor (a grating attempt on the Cicely didn’t work too well). Angelica got tinctured in vodka and also dried in the oven for tea

…while Cicely got dried in the same way and simply ground to a fine powder, the idea being to use it as some kind of sweetener, as well as for a nice aniseedy tea.

Both gave the house a really strong aromatic smell (somewhat like gin!) during the various processing stages.

5) – Rosehips. Went out and made my usual harvest and my usual laborious attempts at making jam (too runny this time).

My main thought recently was about wildcrafting. Reading Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild over the summer and going on a gardening course that touched on the principles & practices of pruning for trees, shrubs, hedges and, yes, roses made me start thinking about actively managing wild plants for an increased harvest, rather than passively taking what they had to offer come fruiting season. Perhaps I should be bringing secateurs/loppers or a pruning saw with me along with the hooked stick (useful for pulling down long rambling rose stems) and plastic bag? I would like to get my eye in with cultivated roses first, but maybe next year I’ll start on the wild specimens. I’m guessing it would be the same approach as pruning for an abundance of flowers, except you would leave them on through the winter as they swelled up to form the hips. A mindful approach would do miles better than insensitive hedge-trimmers cutting them back to the same height each time.

Still need to figure out how to make flour from the seeds…

6) – Sloe Gin. My camera ran out of battery so I couldn’t take a picture of my harvesting technique. Basically I find a nice overhanging branch with bare ground or relatively short grass underneath (sometimes I bring a tarp or just lay out my jacket), then I thwack at it with a stick until most of the berries have fallen and finally just pick them up from where they’ve landed. This year I seemed to have the timing right, as the berries tasted almost sweet right off the bush, with just a hint of the normally face-shrivelling astringency after a couple of frosts had caused the tannins to retreat back into the body of the plant (I’ve heard the recommended practice of simulating frosts by putting the picked berries in the freezer doesn’t work because the tannins have nowhere to go to. Also it’s a pain handling frozen fruit, especially if you have to pick bits of iced mud, grass and wood off them.) Last year’s batch of sloe gin was too acidic for my taste, so this year I wanted to put more sugar in, as well as trying some nice warming spices – ginger, ground cloves & cinnamon. I used an old fondue fork to stab 3-4 holes into each berry and thus ease percolation of the juices and the supposedly almond-like flavour of the inner seed. One 75cl bottle of cheap gin became two 75cl bottles half full of sloes with the spices and sugar stirred into the gin and then poured over the top. I had just enough berries to plop in and raise the level of the liquid to the top of both bottles.

(It may have been a mistake to use dark brown sugar, as for the moment it looks rather like poo-water… (!) Hopefully that will change as the dark purple-redness of the berries seeps out in the coming weeks & months.)

Also, on a tip-off from R, I re-used last year’s sloes to make sloe cider with my last bottle of home-brew from 2010. Should have quite a kick to it!

7) Acorn germination! I planted nine fatties from tree d) of the Autumn harvests.

Still don’t know where I’m going to plant them…

That about covers it for plant happenings. Otherwise I’ve got posts brewing on food vs. population, cultivation & the production imperative, disturbance revisited, plus various summer reports and perhaps even the long-awaited ‘Coming Down From the Mountain #2′. Plenty of time & no rush to get into all of that :)

Enjoy the predicted cold snap in the next couple of days. It might be the only winter we get this year!

Acorns & Good Times Bread

November 17, 2011

As promised, I here present Ian’s step-by-step guide for processing acorns. If you like, watch this Ray Mears video to get yourself in the mood (starts at 3:36; continues in pt.2 from 8:34):

Step 1 – Gathering. Find a tree! Not all Oaks will crop heavily (and if it’s not a ‘mast’ year you might struggle to find a single acorn). As previously discussed your best bet will be to find a specimen with lots of space around it and a canopy open to the sun, especially on the South facing side. Stand-alone trees or those on the edge of woodland normally produce more nuts than those in the middle of the deep, dark forest. Some of the best I found this year – a) in front of H’s driveway:

b) a young fella on the common, branches still low enough for me to climb up into him and do a ‘shakedown':

c) a gaggle on a golf course:

d) street-corner guardians:

(I think these were all English/Pedunculate/Common Oaks, Quercus Robur, though I’m not sure I could differentiate this from Britain’s other native Sessile Oak, Q. petraea. Not that this would matter particularly as, while more bitter than their managed American or S. European cousins, the acorns of both species are equally edible after processing.) You should be able to find at least one tree that drops a good quantity of large, sound acorns. As you can see from the above pictures, it’s useful if the ground is reasonably clear, but also soft enough to not damage the nuts after their fall from a great height. Tarmac makes things easy, but a lot of the acorns from tree a) and other ‘street trees’ I gathered from had extensive ‘bruising’ where the nutmeat had hardened and blackened at the point of trauma and along fracture lines. This got progressively worse the longer I kept them before processing, I assume because the black colour is caused by oxidisation which is limited when the whole nut still has its thin inner skin surrounding it. I’m not sure if the hardened/blackened acorns are unusable (I spent quite a while cutting out the ‘bad’ bits just in case) but I found they were also the most likely to spoil and/or go mouldy.

Gathering was speediest throwing handfuls onto a tarp or jacket before funneling into a plastic bag, but just placing them in the bag directly worked out fine too. I did try raking directly into bags, leaf-litter, twigs & all, but this just meant I had to pick out the good nuts back at home anyway. It doesn’t matter if the acorns have been lying under the tree for quite a while – the hard outer shells are designed to last them through the winter before weathering finally wears them down enough for the sprouts to push through in the spring. They also protect against insects, moulds, bacteria etc. but not small mammals who sometimes take a nibble (or, if you’re lucky, large ones who eat them whole). A little ‘rain leaching’ might give you a head start for Step 5 too! However watch out for little holes in the acorns – these are the work of the acorn weevil which uses sharp mandibles to chomp into and lay eggs in the acorn when it’s still young & tender. A little white grub then gorges on the nutmeat for the next couple of months before chewing its way out and trying to find somewhere safe to pupate. Sometimes you’ll catch these little blighters in the act – probably giving them the fright of their lives! – inside acorns you previously thought were sound. Unfortunately they don’t leave much for you, but they make a good snack for the birds (or maybe they’d be tasty if you fried them up directly?) Otherwise I tend to only go for the dark brown glossy nuts, just because they somehow look more ‘healthy’ to me, even though they dry to the same light tan colour after a couple of weeks in storage. I also avoid cracked or damaged shells as these won’t keep so well. Here’s a load I picked up just yesterday afternoon from around tree d). It took me around twenty minutes to gather just under 8kg:

Step 2 – Storage.

Keep in a warm, dry place, preferably in open-sided containers that allow the air in to circulate. If the nuts were particularly sodden when you picked them up, maybe give them a head start against any cheeky moulds by putting them in a low oven or up against a radiator for a spell. If you want to make acorns your staple food you might have to take this part a bit more seriously:

My family and I have been known to gather tons of acorn. In the past my Great Aunt Mary had a room in her house where we would deposit all of the acorn we gathered. This was a 10’x12′ room, with a four foot board across the doorway. This room was always full of acorn. As children we used to fight for the right to jump into the acorn and stir them up. Anyone bigger than a child would crack the hulls. This had to be done twice a week so that moisture didn’t build up and that the acorn dried properly. Traditionally our people stored acorn in ‘Chukas’, acorn graineries made of cedar and California laurel. These are cylinder in shape and raised above the ground on stakes about three feet. Lacking a spare room for my acorn, I store mine in gunny sacks and hang the filled bags from the rafters in my garage. My sisters living on the rez, use the huge army surplus bins my parents bought. They keep them covered and stir them twice a week. No matter how you store your acorn it is essential that you add a generous amount of California laurel with the nuts. Laurel or bay leaf is a natural insect repellent and keeps the bugs away from the acorn. […] We let the acorn dry or season at least for a year, this assures that the nuts are well dried. (Kimberly R. Stevenot, Northern Sierra Miwok – link)

Step 3 – Shelling. This is a pain if you try to do it straight away with fresh acorns. If you let them dry for a bit the nutmeats shrink away from the outer skin, allowing you to open big cracks along the length with a quick hammer-blow to the head, which then makes it easy to prise the innards out whole with a knife. Here’s a picture of my set-up, along with my favourite anvil:

This part of the process takes up the most time. I like sitting down in the evening and listening to music, watching online documentaries or crappy comedy shows on the TV while I do this. It gets nice & hypnotic after a while… Mind your fingers!

Step 4 – Grinding. I ‘cheat’ and use a food processor for this stage. The idea is to increase the overall surface area in preparation for Step 5, which will go faster in relation to how fine you grind the acorns. I like to leave them in rough milimetre cubes, as I’ll be fine-grinding them later anyway and hopefully would like to keep some of the nutrients in there in the meantime. Of course, I’d prefer to do this part ‘aboriginally’ but on my own it feels too much like hard work. Apparently acorn-based ‘balanocultures’ used social technology to lighten the load:

At the edge of the village a group of women sit together grinding acorns. Holding the mortars between their outstretched legs, they sway back and forth, raising the pestles and letting them fall again. The women are singing together, and the pestles rise and fall in unison. As heavy as the pestles are, they are lifted easily – not so much by muscular effort, but (it seems to the women) by the powerful rhythm of the acorn-grinding songs. The singing of the women and the synchronized thumping of a dozen stone pestles create a familiar background noise – a noise that has been heard by the people of this village every day for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. (Malcolm Margolin, quoted in Suellen Ocean’s Acorns And Eat’empdf)

If you want you can keep the nuts whole, as the ancient Europeans appear to have done (ibid.), although this will leave you with a different foodstuff at the end.

Step 5 – Leaching.

Soak the acorn meal in cold-tepid water to leach out the tannins, using a thin-weave material to keep the solids separate (I used an old pillowcase). Change twice a day until the water stops turning a deep brown and/or the acorns lose their bitterness. This can take from 3 days to over a week. You can speed up the process by using boiling water which you pour off repeatedly, but cooking denatures the starches/sugars, and you’ll also lose much of the oil content, so I prefer not to. Other methods vary from dunking the meal in a stream as Ray Mears does in the above video, burying caches of whole acorns in boggy ground, cooking in a ‘lye’ made from the wood ash of deciduous trees or with iron-rich soils/clays, and even putting them in the (cleaned) cistern of a flush toilet 8O Other Native American methods include pouring water onto ground acorns in a sand ‘colander':

(source)

And this one, which I probably won’t be trying:

The aboriginal people of the Columbia River valley used urine to cure acorns. The settlers of European origin in that region gave the dish the name Chinook Olives. About a bushel of acorns were placed in a hole dug near the entrance of a house. The acorns were then covered with a thin layer of grass and then 6” of earth. Every member of the family regarded this hole as the special place of deposit for his urine, which was on no occasion to be diverted from this legitimate receptacle. In this hole the acorns are allowed to remain four or five months before they are considered fit for use… the product is regarded by them as the greatest of all delicacies. (‘Indigenous Acorn Facts‘)

If you want you can leach the acorns whole, just pouring the water off and re-filling. This will take a lot longer, though (unless you use boiling water). Mine started to bubble and smell slightly ‘fermented’ after about five days, so I finished them off with a slow roast in the oven:

They are tooth-breakingly hard by the end, but cook up to an acceptable squishy texture in porridge (and – I’m guessing – in stews, soups, etc.)

Step 6 – Drying, re-grinding. If you want to keep the acorn matter for a long time and don’t want to use it immediately as a ‘mush’ or in a soup etc. then you’ll need to dry your acorn grounds. If you get freakishly lucky with the Autumn weather you can leave this job to the sun, but mostly I have to put them in a low oven for a couple of hours to speed up the process.

They will tend to clump up during this stage, no matter how finely you ground them originally, so if you want a flour (as opposed to ‘grits’) you’ll have to grind them again. Tip: you can often find old-style manual coffee grinders in charity shops.

Leave out someplace warm & dry for another day or so to evaporate the last bits of moisture, then store in glass jars or paper bags. Some people say the fat/oil content will make the flour go off after a couple of months, but I still have some left over from my first experiments over two years ago, and it still looks and tastes just as good as it did back then. Maybe the final heating in the oven stabilises it somehow?

Step 7 – Eat! Most people say to treat it like corn/maize flour, for example mixing it 50:50 with regular flour to make breads, muffins, pancakes, tortillas…etc. It doesn’t contain gluten so will need to be mixed with something else that does, or with a different ‘sticking agent’ (e.g. egg). It’s a lot denser than wheat flour, so if you’re using it to make bread you’ll need much more yeast to make it rise – my one attempt at a 50:50 loaf two years ago, while deliciously rich & nutty, did not rise at all.

This year I’ve had some success with a recipe for ‘Hard Times Bread’ from The Wildfoods Cookbook by Joy Spoczynska, which she ‘unearthed’ from ‘an eighteenth century cookbook’ that traced the recipe back to ‘early pioneers in America’. She says they turned to it ‘when wheat flour was difficult to obtain or cost more than the pioneers could afford’. I’m guessing they adapted this from the Indians.

Naturally I want to change the name to break the association with famine and last resort measures to stay alive, and present this instead as a desirable alternative to the Staff of Death Bread made from farmed grains. Sure, it takes less effort for us affluent first-worlders to work a wage-job and buy a sack of flour from the supermarket, but this embeds us in an exploitative system whereby someone else, human or non-human (including the chemical remains of long dead non-humans) has been enslaved to do all the work in our stead. It’s easy, from our ‘privileged’ position, to forget just how hard it is to get something resembling food from the annual grains. Try to bake your lawn, or just watch this guy go about his business (sorry about the background music – mute and try this as an alternative):

Then have a look at this and ask yourself where the astronomical quantities of energy have come from to build, operate and maintain all those machines:

Suddenly, simply letting trees grow and crop in the Autumn for you to harvest and process through the above steps doesn’t seem so inefficient or energy-intensive, does it? Yes, you’ll find it hard work if you never had to take care of your own subsistence needs before, but I bet even ‘Seed to Loaf’ Steve would back me up in saying that we miss out on basic feelings of satisfaction from leaving this most fundamental biological activity for other people to sweat over. Also, as the wise people say: No security without food security. In other words if you depend on getting flour (or any other staple food) from the supermarket, that means they’ve got you by the balls/ovaries – you’ll comply to the demands of whoever controls the price of wheat because you have to eat. Unless you have another option…

So without further ado, here’s my adjusted recipe for ‘Good Times Bread’ – I’ve halved the original quantities:

Ingredients: 250g acorn flour, 50g maize flour, 2 tbsp butter, 1 egg, 1 tsp salt, 150ml buttermilk (or regular milk mixed with 1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar and allowed to sit for 5 minutes), 1/2 tsp baking soda (sodium bi-carbonate)

Step 1 – Sift the flours, salt and baking soda together, beat the egg and melt the butter in a frying pan (preferably cast iron) or griddle.

Step 2 – Gradually mix in the buttermilk, followed by the butter and lastly, the egg. Knead until ‘of a fairly soft dropping consistency, like a very stiff batter, but not sloppy’ (Spoczynska, p173).

Step 3 – Squish into balls and flatten on a level surface to desired size & thickness. Then add a bit more butter to the pan and cook on a medium-high flame, flipping to the other side after a couple of minutes when it turns slightly golden-brown.

Et voila. More than enough for a hearty breakfast to keep you going through the day:

These, unsurprisingly, had a delicious roast-nuttiness to them and the texture of a heavy scone. The salt made them a bit too savoury for jam, though – a later experiment with added brown sugar, chopped walnuts and dates went down a treat. I’m not sure how long they keep, but I was putting these in the toaster and they were still tasty after three days.

Aboriginally, I would be inclined to roast them by the fire on a flat stone like these guys:

For more inspiration and recipes, check out these sites:

Finally, submit your own acorn experiments to Butterpoweredbike’s ‘foraging recipe challenge’ on the Hunger and Thirst blog (thanks Annie!) Looks like there’s some great stuff up there already – I don’t think my ‘back to basics’ approach stands much of a chance of winning though…

So that’s about all I’ve got for now. Hopefully this didn’t come too late to fire you up in time for this year’s harvest. If you’re visiting SE England, I’ve still got plenty of acorns you can come help me process :) Email address buried in the comments on the ‘About’ page…

Beechnut Butter

October 8, 2011

I’m pretty much crazy about peanut butter. Give me a packet of biscuits and I will have munched two thirds of the way through it before realising, but I’ll feel bad – physically rotten as well as guilty – afterwards. I crave something in peanut butter though. Maybe the fats and oils (typically 50% by weight), maybe the sheer whoosh of carbs and protein, maybe just something in the taste. I don’t know, but I feel satisfied, sated after bingeing out on it, like it has provided me with something missing from the rest of my diet.* Back in my bread-eating days (nearly two months behind me now) I would think nothing of tearing through three or four slices covered in ‘fat with fat’ – butter & peanut butter – topped with maybe a few salad leaves.

Mmmm…

Anyway, looking at the ingredients list on the £3 jar of organic stuff I sometimes treat myself to – ‘Peanuts (97%), Palm Oil (3%), Salt’ – I asked myself how hard it would really be to make my own. A quick internet search provided the answer: not very. Basically the process goes something like this:

  • Shell nuts
  • Roast briefly (eg: 10 minutes in a hot oven)
  • Rub off skins
  • Blitz in blender with a steel blade for a few minutes until paste-like
  • Add small quantity of oil if too dry – ie: not spreadable
  • Add sugar/honey & salt to desired taste
  • Add whole nuts for a few seconds at the end if you like it crunchy
  • Spoon into jars & store in refrigerator (to avoid oil separation or rancidity issues)

Then I thought of all the wild nuts currently drying out in the kitchen and a light went off. Walnuts, Acorns, Hazelnuts, Beechnuts – why wouldn’t the same process work on these? So here are the results after following the same recipe to create my own ‘Beechnut Butter':

Step 1 – Gather nuts:

This is one of the first times I’ve ever been grateful for a tarmac surface! Good back-stretching exercise too, if you squat down on your haunches rather than bending down from the waist. Aboriginally I would be inclined to cut back or burn the undergrowth under my favourite trees to facilitate gathering. Tip: Some of the kernels will be empty. You can test them with a quick squeeze between thumb & forefinger, but soon enough you learn to judge by sight the most obviously ‘fat’ specimens, which often come in a glossier & slightly darker shade of brown.

Step 2 – Shell nuts. This is the longest, most mundane stage. I find it best to use a small knife to prize the nutmeat out of the 3-corner shell after having peeled one side off. A good evening activity – let the mind concentrate on something else (film, music, tv, conversation…) and the fingers settle in on their own rhythm. I estimate about 3 hours on good-sized nuts like the ones pictured above for the equivalent of one jar. This teaches you some respect for the amount of energy that goes into a lot of the food products we take for granted. I guess it also shows you why the beechnut, while just as tasty as any of the more famous nuts, hasn’t made it into the modern diet – difficult to imagine a machine that could shell these beasties en masse! (I assume the cooking oil they made from beechnuts during WW2† just required them to be squeezed through a typical press, leaving all the solids behind.) I actually found working with the nuts quite nice, once I got into it. A slow, steady accumulation of something with real value, leading to a warm satisfaction at the end. A bit like how I imagine knitting must feel like…

Step 3 – After washing the ‘fluff’ off in a colander, roast the kernels:

Your kitchen will smell pretty great after this, and the nuts themselves move to whole new level of tastiness. Apparently roasting lowers the levels of Trimethylamine (the PFAF page calls this a ‘deleterious principle’ and suggest that because of this ‘[t]he seed should not be eaten in large [read: ‘epic’? – ed.] quantities’). Shame, I do like a bit of that Trimethylamine…

Step 4 – Rub the skins off:

Slightly tedious picking out the ‘clean’ nuts individually after rubbing them together in one big mass. Not sure if this step is really necessary, although eating them whole at this stage (delicious BTW!) does seem to dry my mouth out more when the skins are left on. Will have to experiment with how this manifests in the butter…

Step 5 – Blend ‘continuously for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture forms a ball’ (wikihow, ibid.):

The second image shows the nearly finished ‘goop’ after adding extra nuts for crunchiness and a small glug of walnut oil (perhaps a little too much in retrospect), as the mixture seemed a little dry on its own. I didn’t add any salt or sugar, as my tastebuds liked it just fine on its own. Small warning: the overall bulk goes down a fair bit during this stage, which you might find rather dispiriting after all your hard work! The smashed-up nuts smell pretty amazing though… Seems like you could duplicate this process with a mortar & pestle, albeit at greater length, if you wanted to further indulge your inner puritanical primitivist ;)

Step 6 – Spoon and tamp down in a jamjar, refrigerate and enjoy:

I’ve received thumbs up from everyone who has sampled this, most comparing the flavour to peanut butter or tahini. I find it starts out with the vegetable-like taste of the latter, with a delicious roast-nuttiness kicking in after the 3rd or 4th mouthful. I don’t know if I’ll have the patience to do many batches of this through the season, though. It does rather represent a lot of work for not much reward, in my estimation, and perhaps you would get a better ‘return on investment’ with some of the other nuts (I’m looking forward to trying this out with leached acorns, for instance). That said, I don’t suppose there’s any pressure to process the entire beechnut harvest in one go and I imagine they would keep quite well in their shells somewhere dry and out-of-the-way, waiting for an evening when I felt like doing another load. As long as I didn’t nibble them all away as a snackfood in the meantime!

——————–

* – and after reading Lierre Keith’s awesome book,  The Vegetarian Myth (chapter 1 online here) I don’t feel guilty about the fat either. She quotes a story from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions about newly liberated POWs treated to a welcome-home feast:

The buffet was laden with roasts, vegetables, assorted breads, pies, salads, enticing deserts and fresh fruits, the likes of which they had not seen for several years. What did these men grab first? The butters, margarines, salad oils and creams. They were after fats. They consumed nothing else until the bare fats were gone. (Fallon, p.139)

Recognising the ‘physical compulsion for fat, “the primordial craving for the substance”‘ from her decades-long experience as a vegan, Keith comments:

You put your head down and you don’t come up for air until the food—the fat—is gone. In that moment it’s better than air. It’s everything you could want, and the relief radiating from each mouthful tells you it’s true: there’s nothing better, nothing else, but this.

My vegan time is punctuated by those moments. “Binges” we called them, or “lapses,” thus identifying them as a moral weakness, a political slippage, not a starved body, a shriveled brain, overriding a mind’s ideological demands. (The Vegetarian Myth, p.178)

† – British wild foodie extraordinaire Marcus Harrison dug up this fascinating tidbit:

Back at the beginning of the eighteenth century a British gentleman believed we could pay off the national debt by extracting the oil from the nut. He worked out that there were enough bushels of unused beech masts in a 50 square mile area around London to make our own oil and stop importing from France or Germany. At that stage beech mast oil was a commodity. It was used for lighting and also as cooking oil. It was thought to have a better keeping quality than olive oil.

Advertisement: See ‘Wild Food Mentor‘ for loads more foraging info, including historical snippets like this from Harrison’s extensive research (***declaration of interest*** – as an ‘affiliate‘ I get 30% of the sign-up price if you become a member after following this link)

Early Autumn Wild Food News Bulletin

September 19, 2011

Everything does seem to be coming on thick & fast at the moment! I only have about 500 photos to upload here, having gotten into the habit of taking a camera around with me and photographing plants and scenes, where before I would have just stopped a while, looked, said or thought “that’s pretty cool” and walked on. I’ll concentrate first on the food stuff going on right now or very recently to hopefully get your fire up (if you needed it) and going into wild food projects and/or experiments of your own.

1) – The basics: have I said anything about jams & jellies since this blog has been online? Ridiculous, really, considering how much time and effort I put into making them each year. It involves ::deep breath:: collecting your fruit in a saucepan, covering with water and boiling until mushy (helping this process with wooden spoon or potato masher with the harder fruits), separating pips, hairs, stones, dead bugs etc. by passing through a sieve, food mill or jelly bag, then mixing with sugar (the books say an equal weight, but I usually go for a 4:5 ratio of suagr:fruit, eg: 800g:1kg) and boiling fast until a drop of the mixture gets wrinkles on the surface when you nudge it with a finger on a cold plate. Then ladelling into jars that have been washed and sterilised with boiling water ::phew!:: (look it up if you want more details.)

Here’s one I made this year using the garden rosehips – which for some reason went squishy about three months earlier than usual – plus some larger rosa rugosa fruits and a bowlful of Hawthorn berries:

This needed quite a lot of mashing, after which it went through the food mill and then I spent the best part of an hour squeezing the maximum possible amount of liquid through a jelly bag (I hate rosehips – they contain loads of tiny hairs that can irritate your innards if ingested so you have to fine-strain them or gut each one individually with a knife and then run under a tap – but then I love the taste so what can you do?)

Books say not to squeeze the jelly bag if you want a clear jelly. To me this represents a criminal waste of fruit matter, although a compromise I’ve found works is to wait until the solid mass cools a bit, then pick a handful and squeeze inside the bag leaving the juice free to percolate through of its own accord. Another problem with rosehips is that they’re a bastard to thicken/set, especially so when you’ve processed them in several batches of water. Like many of the softer fruits it helps to mix in some harder ones like apple or haws (as above – remember their ‘crazy-high levels of pectin‘) or lemon juice sometimes helps. I boiled mine extra long this time to make sure:

Note the bigger pan: jam often gets excited in a fast boil and can spill over and make half your kitchen sticky for a week. This has happened to me far too many times than is good for my reputation to admit, and invariably leads to the surrounding air being turned blue by my cursing… It all worked out pretty well this time, though. Four jars contributed to this year’s haul so far:

Mum gets the credit for maybe half of these, which include: Plum, Blackberry, Blackberry/Apple, Damson (ugh, not ripe yet), Elderberry/Hawthorn/Apple, and oddities of marmalade, honey, ‘Cherry Plum’ (from H’s garden), Chilli and one unlabelled Misc. which came as a gift.

2) – Syrup. Pretty much the same process except you try harder to minimise the amount of solids and keep it liquid at the end by not boiling so much. Here are the various stages of my ‘Elder Rob': first a load of elderberries popped off the stalks with a fork and washed, cooking in their own juice before being joined by handfuls of blackberries, blackcurrants, last year’s sloes from the freezer, chunks of apple and a bunch of ‘warming’ spices:

Then mashed through a sieve (I put the leftover pulp through a second time after cooking it again with more water), measured out into a bigger pan and boiled for a bit, again with 4:5 sugar, until slightly thick and ‘syrupy’, then poured into sterilised bottles and kept somewhere warm & dry.

Great for when you feel a spot of ‘flu coming on (the elderberries have antiviral properties) or you need something hot and comforting in a cold winter evening – best mixed with hot water and a shot of rum/whisky/brandy.

3) – Harvest-time! I find it very satisfying to be out and about with a shoulder bag, a knife and a few ‘just in case’ plastic bags. Not even necessarily with any plans to forage for particular items – just if you happen to find something interesting or bountiful and find yourself in the right mood to stop and harvest a few things…

…then you can stop and do so for as long as you please (not having to be somewhere else as fast as possible helps with this) and come back feeling you’ve accomplished something wonderfully simple and direct but powerful at the same time: you’ve actually ‘put food on the table’ in a way that most Breadwinners never even approach:

I gathered all this (Lime leaves, beech nuts, hazelnuts, Hawthorn- and Elder-berries) on the way back from the station over the course of perhaps an hour and a half. Processing took maybe the same again or slightly longer, leaving me with this:

Now they say that hunter-gatherers, even in the harshest environments on the planet (the only places they still exist since we farmers booted them off the best lands) can meet all their caloric and nutritional needs with an average of two hours per day of what we might consider ‘work’ (though hunting, fishing, foraging all come closer to ‘play’ in most peoples’ definitions). At times like these I almost dare to think the same would be possible here, even with a heavily degraded landscape and no tribe of many hands and much ancient wisdom to make the work lighter. How long could the above sustain me for at approximately four hours in one day? Hard to tell – there’s less volume than I would usually go through in, say, a week of farmed foods, but then it probably punches above its weight in terms of nutritional density. How sick of this would I get if I had to do the same thing three times per week? Probably not so much as I would do with farmyard chores! Also the same abundance doesn’t make itself available all through the year so this would be a time for harvesting more than to simply meet day-to-day needs. Thought experiments like these bring home to me the importance of engaging in subsistence efforts with a large group of people who pool their resources and, while they may specialise to some degree through preference or aptitude for one particular task, they would also keep the freedom to shift their activities into other spheres of differing utility to the tribe.*

4) – Chutneys. Something to do with surplus vegetables and a variation on the endless sweetness of jam. Chop everything up to your preferred fineness, fry it for a bit in the bottom of the pan, then cook in vinegar (I hear cider vinegar is best) for several hours with a reasonable amount of brown sugar and loads of herbs, spices, seeds, chopped nuts, dried fruit and anything else you can think of until it reaches the desired consistency. So far I’ve done a ‘Hawthorn, Sloe & Apple’ (Haw/Sloe + vinegar mush has to go through the food mill to get rid of the stones before you mix in any other ingredients):

…and a ‘Marrow + Omni-Veg’ (if I remember: onions, peppers, garlic, carrots, runner beans, tomato, celery, beetroot, apple with ample lovage, sage, rosemary, chili powder, cloves, mixed allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, salt as well as raisins, various chopped nuts, mustard seed … juniper berries … erm … other stuff):

5) – Other experiments. Lime leaves, as gathered above, seem to be having a second wind at the moment:

…which is lucky because I didn’t get the opportunity to try something I heard earlier on in the year – an intriguing method for drying and powdering masses of the edible leaves for use as a thickener (thanks to high mucilage content) in soups & stews and as an adulterant for flour. Apparently this comes from a French hard-times tradition, but also relates to African practices with the Baobab leaf, both of which were perhaps distilled in the ‘Creole’ cooking traditions of Louisiana that use Sassafras leaves in much the same way:

It just happens that Louisiana Creole cookery is, at its heart, an admixture of French and African cookery traditions with a few bits and pieces of native Arawak culture thrown in to the bargain. One of the mainstays of Creole cookery is the Gumbo a rich stew made with seafood, sausages and meat that, typically is either thickened with okra (from West Africa) or with sassafras leaves (filé powder) as it’s most commonly known.

The use of filé powder is always thought to be a native Arawak tradition (which it is)… But what made the use of dried and powdered sassafras leaves so acceptable. From the African slave population it’s possible to see that the use of sassafras as a thickener echoed the use of baobab leaves back home, it gave them an echo of their lost homeland.

But what about the French colonialists? Could it be that the use of sassafras leaves also gave them an echo of their homeland? Perhaps the easy adoption of sassafras leaves as a thickener in stews also provided them with a taste of home, reminding them of the use of linden leaves in their homeland. (‘Clues to Lost Recipes with Linden – A Culinary Detective Story‘)

So that’s what I’ve tried, with all of the above leaves duly dried and condensed down to this amount of powder after a minute-or-so in the food processor:

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Otherwise, this fruit leather made from elderberry leftovers might not have enough flesh in it to make it palatable, but I might break it into small chunks and turn it into fruit tea:

Also, Poppy seeds are quite fun and easy to gather (albeit rather tasteless), if you get to them before the winds! If you leave them in a hole-free bag and shake it about a bit, you’ll find most of the seed comes out and gathers at the bottom. If you want to be fastidious you can squeeze each individual poppy head over a bowl & sieve and break it apart if it feels like there’s still something in there. This was a yellow-flowered variety which apparently self-sowed itself in a neighbour’s garden. I’ve not had much luck with the wild ones you sometimes find growing on (non-sprayed) field margins.

CATTAIL RHIZOMES!!!

And I’m coming for you, Burdock (your roots, that is – as pictured on my original banner photo from, what, four years ago?):

What an abundance! I’ll try to keep you posted with any new developments over the rest of the season.

——————

* Some of these insights come second-hand from Rebecca Lerner, who has actually experimented with eating a wild-foods-only diet for a week, first on her own and then with friends helping her out – scroll down this page.

Apple Tree Eulogy

April 5, 2011

Our apple tree has died. We think it happened last summer, when the leaves went yellow in the middle of fruiting season and the apples stopped growing at about half their usual size. Despite our best hopes and my rather long-shot attempts of feeding it with various infusions & decoctions (mostly leftover from my personal use) and giving occasional pep-talks, Spring came this year and it showed no signs of coming back to life. Two Sundays ago I came home to find it sawn back to the bare trunk and the visceral shock of it took me completely by surprise. I didn’t realise how much it gave us over the years, and how much I would miss it, until it was finally gone.

Here’s a compare & contrast from our first meeting shortly after I was born, to the present day:

Not all of our interaction was necessarily friendly. Once a year I would usually be let loose with a pair of secateurs to ruthlessly cut back all the new growth the tree had put out:

(On a few occasions I left 1-3 of the branches reaching upwards as an ‘artistic’ touch, which my family didn’t tolerate for long!) Also I have one troubling memory of attacking the main trunk with the garden spade when still fairly young. I managed to cut a finger-sized gash through the outer bark before a parent stopped and scolded me. This left a scar which was still visible until the bark started to rot and turn spongy. I still remember the bizarrely detached feeling of hurling the spade at the tree. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t think I intended to kill or fell it, and I don’t recall an awareness of what I was doing as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. My best guess is that I was passing on the abuse that had been levelled on me. I saw this process best explained by Alice Miller:

The family structure could well be characterized as the prototype of a totalitarian regime. Its sole, undisputed, often brutal ruler is the father. The wife and children are totally subservient to his will, his moods, and his whims; they must accept humiliation and injustice unquestioningly and gratefully. Obedience is their primary rule of conduct. The mother, to be sure, has her own sphere of authority in the household, where she rules over the children when the father is not at home; this means that she can to some extent take out on those weaker than herself the humiliation she has suffered. In the totalitarian state, a similar function is assigned to the security police. They are the overseers of the slaves, although they are slaves themselves, carrying out the dictator’s wishes, serving as his deputies in his absence, instilling fear in his name, meting out punishment, assuming the guise of the rulers of the oppressed.

Within this family structure, the children are the oppressed. If they have younger siblings, they are provided with a place to abreact their own humiliation. As long as there are even weaker, more helpless creatures than they, they are not the lowest of slaves. (from For Your Own Good, the chapter ‘Adolf Hitler’s Childhood: From Hidden to Manifest Horror‘)

…or in the immortal words of Edmund Blackadder III: ‘the abused always kick downwards’.

Looking back now I’m sorry for the hurt I unthinkingly inflicted on this generous being, and for taking its gifts for granted too often without any of the proper thanks. I’ve felt like crying every time I stopped to look into the back garden over the past week. Somehow it, along with the surrounding neighbourhood and the rest of the world I face, suddenly feels infinitely more sad and desolate; uncertain, insecure and more openly hostile.

The trees protect us more than we know.

Early Spring Salad & Nettle Soup

March 4, 2011

As an example of the kind of thing I’ll be showing (hopefully) lots of people tomorrow, here’s a salad I made yesterday using ingredients foraged on a walk that lasted slightly longer than an hour:

From left to right; top to bottom:

Ground Elder, White Dead-Nettle, Yarrow, Primrose leaves/flowers
Cleavers (aka Goosegrass), Dandelion, Gorse flowers, Sorrel
Chickweed, Hairy Bittercress, Bramble (Blackberry) Shoots, Ribwort Plantain

All are edible raw, but as an experiment I tried steaming them all together for just over a minute, thinking this might make more nutrients available by breaking down cell walls etc.

Then serving straight away with a little olive oil drizzled over the top:

Not all of the plants responded well to this. Gorse and Hairy Bittercress all-but lost their flavour (especially a shame with the latter), the bigger leaves went just a little too soggy for my liking (Sorrel did its usual blanching thing, retaining its nice sour flavour though). On the other hand I think the bramble shoots could’ve done with a little longer. Yarrow, Cleavers, Chickweed and (most of all), Ribwort Plantain benefited most from the process, at least as far as my taste buds were concerned. The whole dish gave me stacks of energy though, which was felt mostly by some poor guy innocently wheeling his bins out when I body-checked him at practically full pelt, running home down the hill(!) … ::gulp:: Sorry mate!

Another potential benefit of steaming would mean I could include Stinging Nettle in the above mix (heat disables the stings). As it happens I ran out of them making the promised soup:

Ingredients: 1 onion, 1 potato, some nettles, fried in butter & oil (nettles added only for the last couple of minutes):

(I added some garlic and half a chopped carrot for good measure.) Then pour approx 1.5l boiling water over the lot and crumble in a stock cube:

Simmer for 20mins-1/2 an hour, then finally blend with one of those wand thingies and you’re done:

I forgot to add salt and pepper. Crème Fraîche is a nice addition at the end, too. Also my soup was a bit watery, which could be solved (I’m guessing) either by adding less water or by putting in more nettles or other veg.

Do this: it’s good for you!


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