Archive for the ‘Tea’ Category

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!

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.

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* 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.

Hawthorn Chutney

September 16, 2010

The Hawthorn tree is another of my favourites. I’ve munched on the flowers and young leaves for two Springs, and this year made a tea from drying the same, most of which went to my grandmother who has been using it as a heart tonic*. This will be my third Autumn making preserves from the small red fruits or ‘haws’. Two years ago I came to them rather late but full of enthusiasm after seeing what Ray Mears did with them in his ‘Wild Food‘ series on the BBC:

My berries were more the purple than the orange side of red, and mashing them by hand in the sink they quickly turned a highly suspect, sticky brown which was up to my elbows by the time the bell rang and I answered the door to my mother (with a rather quizzical expression on her face!) Still, the resulting ‘fruit leather’ tasted okay after a few hours in a low oven, and I quickly nibbled my way through the lot.

Last year was my first big jam/jelly season and hawthorn berries got squeezed through sieves and muslin into a variety of preserves. They tasted good just on their own, but my favourite was a mixture of ‘hips, haws and crabs’ which came out a lovely clear, dark red. The crazy-high levels of pectin in the berries, as the Mears footage demonstrates, helps with other fruits (eg: rosehips) that have trouble setting.

I don’t know what it is – whether I’m noticing them in an earlier, juicier phase, whether there’s an especially hard winter coming, or it’s just that they’re showing a special exuberance because they see somebody (human) finally paying attention to them – but the haws in my locality have never looked so fat, juicy and plentiful (hahaha – say it out loud):

Growing a little tired of eating jam (ie: a half-weight of sugar) all the time, I thought I’d try a chutney recipe I found in Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. I gathered a plastic bagful of the berries, mostly from the above bush. Just grab clusters of them by hand and twist them off the main stalk. Mind the thorns which are much harder & spiny-er now than they were in the springtime. Then comes the rather arduous process of stripping away stalks and leaves. Best done with a friend, and sharp fingernails come in handy:

It took me about an hour to fill the above bowl – slightly less than 1.5kg in total. But I was in an OCD frame of mind and you don’t have to be so fastidious ;) I saved the best-looking leaves (center-right) for tea, which I find looks & tastes different depending on what time of year you harvest.

A couple of days later I got round to buying some cider vinegar, into which went the berries (after a good wash under the tap). The recipe suggests 500ml for 1kg of haws, but I put all of my fruit in. After an hour’s simmering (covered, occasionally stirring/squishing with a wooden spoon, with 1tsp salt), which got the whole house smelling of vinegar, the mixture was pretty thick and starting to attach to the bottom of the pan, so I added a few more glugs of vinegar from another bottle. I didn’t have much success mashing the pulp through a specially purchased metal sieve or even a colander, but had more luck when I dug out the trusty Moulinex†:

Perhaps it’d be easier to do separate the seeds by hand, ‘aboriginally’ as Mears does, only adding cider vinegar (how easy is this to make from Mesolithic Crabapples?) instead of water at the early stages to help the juices run, then proceeding with the jelly for the rest of the recipe.‡ For the next step, I measured out 300g of demerara sugar, plus an extra 125g of raisins + dried fruit, and added 1tsp each ground ginger and ground nutmeg and ¼tsp each ground allspice and ground cloves (though I put slightly too much of the latter as I had to grind them myself). Then I milled black pepper over the top for about 30 seconds.

This then went in with the fruit/vinegar pulp and got cooked & well mixed for a further 20 minutes after I brought it to the boil. The spice mix smelled incredible. Here it is, steaming away:

And for the final stage ladle into warm jars and label:

Michael writes:

It is good with all cold meats and poultry and makes a lovely ploughman’s lunch with bread and cheese. The little berries are so plentiful that it is worth making several batches of chutney to store through the winter. You can vary the recipe by omitting the dried fruit and cooking the mixture or only 10 minutes, which results in a spicy-sweet sauce which can be bottled and stored.

As I find myself doing fairly often these days, I’m wondering if it’s necessary to put all (or any) of that sugar in. It’s only been in the British diet since the Jamaican slave trade, after all. How did people preserve without it during all the previous centuries and millennia?

Okay, let’s finish with some Hawthorn folklore. This from Margaret Baker’s Folklore of Plants:

Interference with thorns, fairy or holy, was reckless. At Redmarley Farm, Acton Beauchamp, Worcestershire, the farmer, annoyed by sightseers, chopped his tree down. Retribution came swiftly. He broke first his leg, then his arm and finally his farm burned down to the ground. At Clehonger, another axe-wielding gambler saw blood flow from the tree’s trunk and stopped work in terror.

If felling were unavoidable, a prayer must be offered first. In 1877 a County Meath man felled a whitethorn without precautions, pierced his hand with a thorn and died of septicaemia. Felling must be for ritual or healing purposes only, never merely to tidy the farm. To fell a hawthorn in preparing a house site means misfortune or even death for those who will live in the house.

When firewood ran short one winter at Berwick St John, Dorset, Walter Grove, son of the manor house, is said to have cut down an old thorn standing on an earthwork. The horrified village soon found that no chickens would lay, no cow calved and no babies were conceived. When the tree was replaced everything quickly returned to normal. (p.70)

Farmers beware!

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* – PFAF write:

Western herbalists consider it a ‘food for the heart’, it increases the blood flow to the heart muscles and restores normal heart beat [...] Both the fruits and flowers of hawthorns are well-known in herbal folk medicine as a heart tonic and modern research has borne out this use. The fruits and flowers have a hypotensive effect as well as acting as a direct and mild heart tonic[222]. They are especially indicated in the treatment of weak heart combined with high blood pressure[222], they are also used to treat a heart muscle weakened by age, for inflammation of the heart muscle, arteriosclerosis and for nervous heart problems[21].

† – Hand-crank grating machine present in every French household from around 1950.

‡ – I found out too late that you can use the discarded seeds, roasted and ground, as a coffee substitute (ibid.)

Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡

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* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.

Wild Food June/July – pt.2

July 8, 2010

Sorry for the delay – I originally meant to have this post up a couple of days after the first, but hit a wall of lethargy & writer’s block and somehow couldn’t find the energy to finish it until now. My principle (thanks DJ): yelling at the plants won’t make them grow any faster. They will do their thing at their own pace and the best thing you can probably do is leave them to it.* Without further ado:

3) – Yarrow. I really like this plant, first making a spicy, aromatic tea from the flowers & leaves after identifying it last summer in Italy. The book talked about how Achilles purportedly used it to dress the wounds of his soldiers (a leaf wrapped around a deepish cut on my finger later stemmed the bloodflow pretty quickly) and how there was ‘scarcely an ailment for which the various applications of the herb weren’t effective’ [approx.] With the white, sometimes pink flowers out it looks a bit like an umbellifer (member of the carrot/parsnip family) but the feathery leaves distinguish it and make it unmistakeable once you’ve seen them a few times.

I uprooted five of the plants on walkabout last Autumn and replanted them on a very dry, bare patch in our garden, formerly home to an aged conifer. Apparently Yarrow acts as a ‘good ground cover plant, spreading quickly by its roots’. Someone who shall remain nameless unthinkingly dug up all the baby sprouts in April to make way for a red salad, but fortunately I managed to rescue about three of the larger-leaved ones from the compost. Here’s what the patch looked like a few weeks ago, red salad long since disappeared:

Those roots must’ve been busy! Now the whole patch is green with their leaves and we have four stalks straining up into the sun, just about ready to open up their flowers… Anyway, if you want enough leaves to use as a vegetable, I recommend hunting for a patch where they do something like this (picture taken a couple of days ago):

I know two spots in my local area, both near water, both growing among other long-stemmed plants (in this case grasses and nettles, in the other a load of pondside horsetails). It’s easy enough to grab the ends of 3-4 leaves and reach down the stems to snick them all off at the same time with a knife. I’ve been using them to make soup. Here’s a picture of 1 red onion, sliced and simmering in butter & olive oil, with yarrow washed and chopped, ready to go in:

… quickly followed by 1.5l boiling water from the kettle plus salt, pepper and a crumbled veg stock cube. Fifteen minute simmer, then blend (we have one of those electric wand things with a spinning blade) to produce something that looks like this:

Serve with cream, if you so desire. This first attempt tasted a little watery, so I would either put in more yarrow or less water. I put a tbsp flour to thicken the second attempt, but felt the flavour suffered as a consequence. Also lots of stringy bits of stem survived the blending process, so next time I’ll make sure to chop them more finely. PFAF list the herb’s medicinal properties: ‘antiseptic, antispasmodic, mildly aromatic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, odontalgic, stimulant, bitter tonic, vasodilator and vulnerary’ (ibid. – under ‘medicinal uses’ where you can hover over the words to see them explained). I don’t know how many of these would survive the cooking process, but either way I reckon you’d struggle to find something more healthful to put into your system.

4) – Clover. My first year collecting the flowers for tea. Here they are drying indoors (those in the know tell me sunlight is too harsh for the drying herb), red on the left, white on the right:

I prefer the heavier flavour of the reds. Becky Lerner has a good post on the medicinal uses, noting that ‘Red Clover, Trifolium spp., is highly regarded by herbalists as a blood purifier because it helps support the liver as the body’s detox organ.’ It also has quite a reputation as a ‘woman’s herb’, helping with menstruation, fertility troubles, etc. – see here. I might try grinding the whites up to put their sweet, slightly beany flavour into breads – I hear they’re supposed to be ‘very wholesome and nutritious’ that way.

5) – St. John’s Wort. I found this plant growing wild for the first time just the other day (up on chalky downland and in a cornfield border, where the farmers may have sown it as part of their oxymoronic ‘farming for wildlife’ program). You identify it by the needleprick holes in the leaves when held to the light – hence the latin name, Hypericum perforatum – as in ‘perforated’. Didn’t see so much of it growing, so I only gathered a small bouquet, leaving at least three plants standing in each small patch†:

Another one for infusing as a flower tea. It’s supposed to help relieve depression, though a possible warning: ‘The plant was used to procure an abortion by some native North Americans, so it is best not used by pregnant women[257]‘ (PFAF). I tried a pot yesterday with the whole herb, fresh, and it tasted quite nice – heavy, sweetish, almost oily. As with a lot of the yellow flower-teas, it starts off straw/urine-coloured and darkens through orange to red the longer you leave it. Apparently SJW does the same in its other popular usage – dunked in oil and left in the sun for several weeks to make a blood-red salve which ‘is applied externally to wounds, sores, ulcers, swellings, rheumatism etc[240]. It is also valued in the treatment of sunburn and as a cosmetic preparation to the skin[240]‘. Perhaps I’ll try that if I find it growing more prolifically somewhere. Otherwise for similar skin troubles (including insect bites) I’ll probably stick to last summer’s discovery of the marvelous, cure-all Plantain Leaf Poultice!‡

6) – Lime. Another splendid tree currently doing amazing things:

This beauty is one of several they’ve allowed to mature in the local park. Close-up:

The flowers make a calming infusion known by the French name Tilleul. Last year I spent quite a while up trees plucking the flowers individually and trying not to get stung by the clouds of bees & other insects feasting on the nectar. Tired of this labour I then tried shaking low-hanging branches over a tarp to collect the snow of petals that came loose. This worked quite well, but I later learned from my (French) grandmother that the light-green bract was supposed to go into the tea as well – in fact I found that it added a cool, mellowness to the flavour, which otherwise could be a little harsh with just the flowers. So this year I grabbed flowers and bracts by the handful (2-3 at a time worked best, with a hand steadying the main branch) and stuffed them straight into the bag, no fuss. Here they are drying:

They smell really great when fresh & concentrated like this. People say the tea has a calming, almost sedative effect. I include myself among those people :) – a mug or two prepares me for a deep, sound sleep. Intriguingly, ‘Lime flowers are said to develop narcotic properties as they age and so they should only be harvested when freshly opened’, though I have nothing to report on this (yet…) I should also mention, perhaps belatedly, that permaculturalists like to rave about lime leaves as a suitably abundant (and much hardier) substitute for lettuce in salads. They taste quite pleasant, albeit slightly bland in this capacity to me. In Food For Free Richard Mabey writes that ‘Some aficionados enjoy them when they are sticky with the honeydew produced by aphid invasions in the summer’. While I would’ve preferred not to know that it came from vast quantities of insect poo, I did rather enjoy the sticky sweetness of the leaves I tasted while gathering the flowers the other day. Something to serve up to unknowing friends and watch their expressions after explaining what they’ve just eaten!

That’ll do for now.

———————

* – See also Ran Prieur, who writes:

The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish [...]

† – A Native American foraging rule I once heard (maybe via Ray Mears??): Don’t harvest either the first or the second specimen of a particular plant in any given area because they may need to cross-pollinate in order to reproduce. Something like that… [citation needed]

‡ – Read ‘Grandfather’s Footsteps‘, an Anthropik classic, telling ‘new stories about our rediscovered friends’:

Then, one day, a bee stung one of the Grandfathers. He cried out in pain, and he heard the little plant call out, “Grandfather! Grandfather! Take one of my leaves, and crush it into a poultice with mud!” The Grandfather did so. As the mud dried, it pulled the blood and the stinger’s tiny shot of venom out of his arm. The leaves stopped the sting from infection.

“You have powerful medicine, don’t you, little friend?” the Grandfather asked.

“Indeed I do!” the little plant replied. “Wheresoever the soil is upturned, I grow quickly, and heal the soil, and that is why I grow in your footsteps, for you walk heavily and leave deep footsteps, and much soil for me to heal. But since healing is in my nature, I can also heal your scrapes, cuts, insect bites, stings and rashes. I can soothe your pains and heal your cuts, and a tincture or tea of my healing leaves will help you breathe easier when you grow ill.”

For general use saliva works just fine, either dribbled on the plant as you pulverise it with fingernails, or mixed directly in the mouth, mincing with the front teeth.

Wild Food June – pt.1

June 24, 2010

Here’s some stuff I’ve been getting up to (that’s what blogs are for, right?) and which I presume you could be getting up to too:

1) – Stinging Nettles. Further to picking & eating them raw as a wayside snack / test of manhood, I felled this lovely bunch from a shady part of the local park (I guess they have more incentive to grow tall with a lack of light, plus the books say that they make better eating than those getting scorched in the full sun all day):

I snicked them off at the base with a knife, put gardening gloves on after the 3rd or 4th sting from the bristly stems, then flopped the lot of them over my shoulder and walked the 15 minutes home, people staring all the way*. Usually I’d just pick the lighter green tops off for food use, but I wanted to try my hand at making cordage from the strong fibres in the stalk. Here’s the Ray Mears tutorial I worked off (watch from 2:35):

Here are my stalks, stripped of newer, nice-looking leaves (in the bowl on the right) and older, nasty-looking leaves (in the tub on the left, covered in water to use as a plantfeed when well-rotted after a couple of weeks-or-so†). Gloves not really needed from this point:

I flattened them against the paving stones with my thumb before splitting them from the mid-point and peeling away the pith as Mears demonstrates (top-to-bottom, inner pith, partially split stem, fibres):

Then I hung them to dry, and a couple of days later they looked like this:

I tried to twine the dried fibres together as Mears shows, but they weren’t pliable enough to roll along my jeans so I settled on a threeway plait. I was in my usual doing-things-for-the-first-time mindframe of assumed competency and feverish annoyance when things don’t work out right away, so the result was a bit of an untidy rush job:

Still, not bad for a first attempt. A good length from 5 fibres (feeding a new one in as the old one tapers out) and it felt strong enough when I tugged on both ends.

I made a couple of really tasty soups from the leaves. Pamela Michael’s ‘Nettle Borscht’ recipe of butter-fried onion + nettles + vegetable stock, boiled for 10 mins, blended + cream to finish was my favourite. They also went well in bacon fry-ups, veg casseroles and omelettes. Oh, and I saved a couple of handfuls from the outset to dry for tea, but I’m not crazy about the flavour … seems like a bit of a waste of the incredible 25% dry-weight protein content too – I feel really nourished and full of a nice buzzy energy after eating nettles in one form-or-other. Sadly deceased herbalist & wild food guru Frank Cook said that it should be our ‘national food’ here in England‡ and I’m inclined to agree.

2) – Elder. These guys have been going mad with all the sun lately, poking out their lovely, delicious-smelling flower sprays almost everywhere I turn. I suppose that’s the first stage in the relationship: recognition – the brief interval in the year when a plant species takes it turn to do something incredible and un-ignorable – “Hey, look at me! Check out what I’m doing over here! I wanna be your friend! Remember this meeting and maybe come back to say Hi at another point in the year – perhaps I’ll have another special gift to offer you??!?” I finally went on a trip with my mum to visit my favourite Elder buddy on a field margin down on the way towards the river. He was practically groaning under the weight of berries last Autumn (October?) and this is the second year I’ve gathered his flowers – in fact I only just finished the last batch of tea (just dry the flowers, then infuse at will) which he helped provide:

Closeup:

Recently I’ve read about the importance of Elder as a ‘keystone species’ in plant communities. In The Vegetarian Myth Lierre Keith quotes extensively from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Lost Language of Plants, in which he ‘talks about archipelagoes of plant communities, groupings of intercommunicating plants around a dominant or keystone species, usually a tree. These archipelagoes form in response to mysterious and unpredictable cues, and often announce the wholesale movement of ecosystems.’ Keith continues:

Once established, the keystone plant then calls the bacteria, mycelia, plants, insects, and other animals necessary to build a healthy and resilient community. The keystone’s chemistries arrange the other species and direct their behaviour. “This capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognized in indigenous and folk taxonomies.” Elder trees are called elders for a reason.

Among many indigenous and folk people it is said that the elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused … Other indigenous peoples, recognizing the nature and function of keystone species, have said that ‘the trees are the teachers of the law.’ ” [Keith, pp.88-89; Buhner, p.183]

That was about the most awesome thing I’ve read all year. Elder also has a crazy diversity of medicinal applications, known as ‘the medicine chest of the country people’ (Ettmueller via Grieve), though so far I’ve only used the flower tea, fairly successfully, to sweat out colds and fevers before they get into full swing. I think next I’ll be trying out the leaves, which, according to PFAF’s Ken Fern, work to repel insects and are ‘very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance’. For edible uses, I made elderflower fritters (which tasted okay with powdered sugar, but didn’t agree with my digestive system – here’s a recent post, including recipe, on Nick Weston’s ‘Hunter-Gathering’ blog) and, after having a whole batch of laboriously-snipped flowers (the green flower-stalks taste bad) go mouldy, I decided to throw the next lot quickly into Elderflower Cordial. Robin was kind enough to link me to another Hunter-Gathering recipe, which I followed pretty closely apart from the orange zest  and citric acid. So this is a load of snipped flowers + three lemons sliced & grated in slightly over 2l of water, brought to the boil for around 10 minutes:

I left the thing to infuse overnight, then strained through a jelly bag (squeezing hard to get all the juice out of flowers & lemons), added several squirts of lemon juice concentrate and 1kg sugar to the resulting cloudy yellow liquid, boiled for another 10 minutes before allowing to cool slightly and pouring into sterilised bottles. Voila:

To be continued…

—————–

* – Watching people’s reactions to my climbing trees, walking barefoot, smelling flowers, looking up at birds, and especially foraging for wild plants, I wonder if I underestimate the propaganda value of just seeing somebody engaged in these activities, behaving like it was the normal thing to do. Having rather shy & retiring personality traits (in the flesh, at least) I started out quite furtively with my nettles, trying to avoid other people, taking the smaller paths &c. Illicit activity. When I came to a main road, though, I had to give this up and actually started to enjoy my role as walking advertisement for a sane way of life. All the cars zooming past with quizzical expressions on those driving them, behind wheels, behind glass … why should I be the one to feel embarrassed? They’re the crazy fundamentalist revolutionaries, not me!

† – PFAF say: ‘The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap[12, 18, 20] and they can be soaked for 7 – 21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants[54]. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed[14, 18, 53].’ (link) My little tub stank out the whole garden after two weeks, when I finally spread half of it on the flower borders and dumped the rest in the compost. Weirdly, we had a couple of wood pigeons who seemed to love drinking the stuff – I had a good laugh when the one with a limp (who keeps coming back even though I’ve sworn that I’ll try to kill and eat him if he does) fell into the tub and got covered in the stinky sludge trying to flap his way out.

‡ – Watch him speak about nettles. Quote (0:27): ‘[T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.’

Ian’s Haircare

June 1, 2010

Step 1: Pick a handful of Rosemary.

Step 2 (optional): Pick a couple of stems of Sage and a few extra leaves.

Step 3: Bash fresh herbs with the business end of a rolling pin (because it’s fun but also because people say it helps to liberate the various essences) and place in a pan of cold water corresponding to the size of bottle you’d like to fill, plus a little extra to make up for evaporation loss.

Step 4: Bring to boil, cover to stop the volatile (Latin: volare “to fly”) oils escaping, simmer for 1/4 of an hour then take off heat and allow to cool. Strain & bottle.

There, wasn’t that simple?

I’ve had satisfactory results over the last 3-4 months just washing my hair with warm water, pouring a capful of this stuff on, massaging it all in and toweling dry without re-rinsing. I like the smell, it leaves my (nearing neck-length) hair feeling grease-free & healthy, plus I know what went into it and didn’t give my money to any nasty pharmaceutical company*.

I got the recipe from Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. The first time I just used Rosemary, but she repeats the instructions in the entry for Sage, so I’m experimenting with a mixture of the two†. Michael notes that  ‘All sorts of commercial preparations for the hair are made with rosemary, and its good effects are well known [...] A little rubbed into the scalp daily gives the hair a nice sheen and wholesome fragrance’. She says that ‘it will not keep for more than a week or ten days once opened’ but my last bottle lasted about 2 months, just getting a little darker in colour and stronger-smelling. Perhaps the plant’s strong antiseptic properties help with this. Anyway, they say fermented plant-feed gets more effective with age…

In case you were worrying that this concoction would only suit an aspiring Cro-Magnon such as myself, here’s a decent page of Rosemary info for you, written by a woman who has had ‘many long haired beauties [recommend] rosemary herbal hair teas, oil and rinses’ over the years ‘to stimulate my follicles and grow my hair longer and stronger’. More relevant bits:

Rosemary For Hair

This magnificent herb is widely respected for its value as a hair and beauty aide. Rosemary can also be used in the bath, on the face and as a body or scalp massage.

Believed to stimulate hair follicles and hair growth, rosemary is generally believed to slow down or even permanently hold off premature hair loss and gray hair.

Rosemary oils and concoctions will soothe and condition dry, flaky scalps.  When applied in a concentrated form to the roots and scalp, rosemary is helpful in clearing many cases of dandruff.  Rosemary also mixes well with tea tree and basil for stubborn scalp problems.

Rosemary Hair Oils

Rosemary is known to help darken gray hair over time (although not obvious for a long time) and it is considered to be a stimulant for the roots and the scalp. Many people trying to help stimulate their hair to grow longer or healthier swear by various rosemary infused recipes.

If you have long hair with some hints of gray, you may want to avoid using commercial dyes or colors to protect the health of your hair.  Over an extended period of time rosemary rinses and oils are rumored to gently and softly darken gray hair. Rosemary will also eliminate dryness and act as an excellent conditioner.

Besides being rumored to help grow hair faster & prevent pre-mature baldness (no scientific evidence to that at this point) it is also good for knocking out dandruff.

If you have blonde or light colored hair you may NOT want to try this recipe as it may darken your hair.

Apparently a rinse made with Chamomile flowers is good for blondes, but they haven’t come out yet (the flowers, not the blondes). Other good ones include Stinging Nettle, Yarrow and Burdock. While you’re at it you can use the same plants to make yourself a nice cup of tea!

—————-

* – I recommend Pat Thomas’ snappily-titled Cleaning Yourself To Death for a forensic investigation of all the toxic (including carcinogenic) ingredients and industrial waste-products that corporations have dumped on us in the form of cosmetics and cleaning products. She explains how unnecessary most of these are (of course – that’s why they have to spend so much money on advertising) and provides alternative options including simple recipes you can make in your own kitchen.

† – Try it yourself, but I think I’ll just be sticking to Rosemary in the future. After a week of daily use my hair feels maybe a bit cleaner and ‘fluffier’, but it’s also curling all over the place and getting rather unmanageable. Well, it’s probably time to cut it too…

Down By The River

April 23, 2010

I’ve started taking my Wild Flowers pocket book around with me. Am actually grateful for the thing’s relative unsearchability because having to leaf through the whole thing every time I come across a new plant to identify has really helped a lot of information seep into the old subconscious. The other day I was looking at a leafy plant with big yellow flowers on a piece of boggy ground. The name ‘Marsh Marigold’ just popped into my head out of nowhere. Reach for Wild Flowers, search index, flip to page, sure enough, Marsh Marigold – ten second ID! Anyway, another plant it has recently helped me put a name to is the Cuckooflower, aka Lady’s Smock. The book says that its name comes from the fact that it ‘starts to flower about the same time as the cuckoo begins to call’ – although I think I read somewhere that cuckoo populations have crashed in the UK, and I haven’t heard a single one so far this year. Anyway, here’s a huge bank of the suckers:

close-up:

Picture one shows them growing in a ditch by the side of a trackway. As they’re ‘new acquaintances’ I’ve started to notice them popping up all over the place, but they do seem to prefer to grow near water or on otherwise damp soil, sometimes by roadsides (which get a good ‘run-off’ when it rains). Picture two shows the lovely four-petalled flowers which vary from cream-white to more violet-tinted. Click on the picture for greater detail on the purple veins and the ‘pinnate’, finger-like leaves further down the stem.

Rubbing a leaf in my fingers uncovered an intriguing smell which I couldn’t help but get a second opinion for from the taste-buds (generally I spit after a couple of front-tooth nibbles; one piece of advice I took from this page). After a few seconds I got hit with a powerful taste like really strong mustard. It was kindof a thrill to get such a reaction from a pretty unassuming-looking plant. I’ve wondered about the condiment plants (mustard, horseradish, etc.) before – whether the strong flavours actually represent a defensive tactic which we’ve perversely come to enjoy: “Hey, Plant: you’re feisty but I’m gonna eat you anyway!” Anyway, I kept waiting for an unpleasantness to kick in but it never did. Books & the internet later confirmed what I already knew about its ‘pungent’, ‘cress-like’ flavour and suggested using leaves and flowers to give salads or sandwiches an extra kick.

It’s a ‘Blackthorn Winter’:

close-up:

The river flooded last winter and swallowed all the sloes before I could collect more than one batch (for three pots of plummily astringent jam) from the thick bushes that grow along its banks. I like nibbling the flowers for the weird shifts of flavour from sweet to bitter to almondy when the cyanide kicks in. Before you go crazy, let Plants For A Future (henceforth: PFAF) reassure you that ‘[it] is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm’ and further explain:

[...] all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water [or saliva? - ed.] to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being[238].

Still, I wouldn’t go overboard… I’ve dried the blossoms to make a yellowish tea which tastes pleasant enough and is supposed to help with ‘diarrhoea (especially for children), bladder and kidney disorders, stomach weakness’ (ibid.)

The weather has been really kind to us for the last week-or-so. I’ve been paying attention to the clarity of the sky since the Iceland volcano knocked the planes out of action. There seemed to be a special deep kind of blue in the blissfully empty sky, and I thought I could see much further and more sharply from the various local vantage points. Also the relative quiet was wonderful – the birds didn’t sound so much like they were straining to make themselves heard. I took the above photo just after missing a particularly splendid crow in mid-flight between the tree and the moon (above-left). This was the day the airports were just beginning to get back to ‘normal’ (climate destruction renewed – yay Normality!) so the plane in the top-right is probably one of the first to come back. “Brave pioneers … *sniff*”

‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ as they say. In this case it took their absence and subsequent return before I realised what a knife to my senses these abominations truly represent. I couldn’t help but give the finger and shout out at the first few low-flying growlers to ‘get the [expletive] out of my sky’. I had felt such a thrill a few days previously seeing signs on the motorway (as a passenger in somebody else’s car) warning of the closure of both Gatwick and Heathrow airports, fantasising about this continuing into a permanent condition (and maybe then a series of earthquakes could take out all the motorways?) Now the knife was slowly sliding back in… Once I wrote a poem about shelving and beasts of burden, with the key idea being that:

good shelving will hold beyond its capacity
but will buckle immediately
if,
after you’ve taken the load off
you try to put it back on

I wonder what it’ll take before people stop relying on distant volcanoes or other acts of God or Nature to shut down the airports for them. How long a break do they need before enough of them realise that actually, no, they don’t want air travel’s constant imposition back in their lives; how long before they finally make the connection between their needs (e.g. to not get poisoned) and the clear-if-daunting course of action to get these needs addressed?


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