Seaweed Foraging in Sussex

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
28/05/2017

The first coastal foraging session of 2017 was enjoyed by all yesterday evening, and I have now decided to run a second course later this summer.  It has to be timed to coincide with the very lowest of spring tides, because some of the best species can only be found near the low spring tide line. The next suitable, available date is Saturday July 22nd, when low tide will be around 5.30pm. The precise location in East Sussex is a closely guarded

Almost everything in this photo is edible.

secret, only to be revealed to participants of the course. This is without doubt the best place for seaweeds (as well as other types of rockpool wildlife) anywhere in south-east England.

Over a dozen edible species grow in great abundance. I will be covering all of the well-known edible species that can be found on this part of the coastline, as well as one or two that you will not find in any of your books, even though they make great eating.

Ogonori with onions and sesame

The session will be two to three hours long, and will include an introduction to seaweed cookery, south-east Asian style. I’ll prepare a couple of dishes on the beach with freshly foraged seaweeds. Places are £25 per adult, £10 for under 18’s.  The event is not really suitable for very young children, or anybody with mobility problems, due to the slightly hazardous nature of the terrain. Please email me at geoffdann@hotmail.com for further details or to book a place.

Ogonori

 

Spicy Oarweed with anchovies

Oarweed

 

Mahonia (Oregon Grape) Gin

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
16/05/2017

Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.) in May, southern England.

I’m still experimenting with this one. Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.) berries are edible, not unlike sloes, available at a completely different time of year, and so seemed like a likely candidate for making a sloe-type gin out of. So far the results have been even better.

These berries are available in large quantities if you go to the right place (which is often outside the front of supermarkets). They are a bit unpredictable in terms of which bushes produce the largest crop in any one year – there are about twenty bushes outside my local Asda which last year were overloaded with berries, whereas this year those bushes were a bit sparse but those outside of another local supermarket are very well endowed as of this afternoon. The timing is fairly consistent though – they are just ripening along the English south coast now, and will be doing so soon further north.

Freshly prepared (today) batch of Mahonia Gin

They are not native to Europe (they come from north America, hence the name) but are widely planted as ornamental shrubs and occasionally occur as escapes. Identification is not a problem – the only thing you could conceivably confused them with, fruiting in late spring, are other members of the Berberidaceae (Barberry family), which tend to have much smaller leaves and none have poisonous berries. Collecting them is relatively easy, although do be a bit careful to avoid the spines on the leaves (they are also called “Holly-leaved Barberry”), and be aware that the juice will stain your hands and clothes deep purple.

The gin they make looks like Sloe Gin, but tastes rather different. Very much like pomegranate, and in my opinion better than Sloe Gin. Making it is very easy, but you do have to wait a while for it to be ready. There are only three ingredients – berries, caster sugar and gin. The gin does not need to be of high quality – cheap stuff will do the job just as well. The proportions are something of a matter of taste, and I am yet to decide on exactly what I prefer. As a rough guide, there should be at most the same weight of caster sugar as berries, and at least 3 parts sugar (by weight) to 5 parts berries. Today I used 250g of berries, 180g of caster sugar and about 600ml of gin.

Oregon Grape gin, and jelly with manchego cheese (photo taken in 2016).

The method is simple, but there are options. First wash the berries. Then you need to break the skins. This is why sloes are supposed to only be collected after the first frost, but that is not the only way (and is not an option for Mahonia berries collected in May). You can also simply freeze them, then allow them to thaw, or prick individual berries with a cocktail stick (or a sterile needle if you are a purist). I just put them in a bowl and used a fork to transfer them to a (sterile, if you are a purist) kilner jar (by spiking them on the prongs, not scooping them, obviously). Then add the sugar and gin to the jar, seal it, and shake well. Now all you need to do is store somewhere cool and dark, and shake it every now and then, and it will be ready in a couple of months.

As you can see from the picture, there are also other uses for these berries, including making a lovely jelly/jam which works just as well with cheese, with game or on a slice of toast.

Burdock Root

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
09/05/2017

Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa), invading a flower bed.

One of the great joys of foraging is trying something new and finding out it’s delicious. Sometimes it is something you’ve never found before, or at least never recognised (this is particularly likely with fungi). In the UK there is also another obstacle to trying certain new things, and that is the law that uprooting wild plants without the landowner’s permission is illegal. In some cases this law is a bit irrelevant – nobody is going to notice or complain if you dig up a few Lesser Celandine tubers, for example. They are ludicrously common and abundant, and the tubers are like miniature potatoes, except not far beneath the surface. Burdock is a bit different, especially Greater Burdock, which is a big plant with a big, edible taproot. Not the sort of thing you can just casually uproot and wander off with, without anybody noticing.

Greater Burdock taproot, almost complete

Burdock is, of course, one of the best known of all British wild foods, because it has been combined for centuries with Dandelion to make a beverage, originally alcoholic, usually a soft drink these days (although the drink you’ll find on sale today rarely contains any of either plant). It is well known in herbal medicine also, and claimed to be of use for a wide range of ailments, especially those afflicting the liver.

Burdock is a biennial – it starts growing in the summer of one year, then overwinters in a dormant state before maturing, flowering and setting seed the following year. So when last autumn I noticed one had taken up residence in a flower bed in my back garden, I decided to just let it grow, and harvest it once it had started to become a nuisance. They are supposedly best when harvested around midsummer, but this one was getting too big for its location and so this afternoon I decided to dig it up and try eating it.

Prepared Burdock root

Digging up a Burdock taproot turns out not to be so easy. This one hadn’t even finished growing, but it was still presented a challenge to dig up that comes second only to Horseradish in my personal experience. The main root went well below the deep layer of topsoil and into the thick, sticky clay below. My fork didn’t survive the process, and I eventually had to use a hand trowel to excavate as far down the root as possible, before giving up trying to extract the entire thing undamaged and just pulling has hard as possible. Most of it came out. I presume, and rather hope, that it won’t grow back from the remnant that remained in the ground.

So what to do with it? The leaves were inedibly bitter, but the central part of the stem made a perfectly acceptable snack, briefly microwaved with a bit of butter. The main event was that taproot, though. I had read somewhere that most of the flavour was in the skin, and so to try to remove the dirt with the back of a knife under running water. It proved a bit too dirty and knobbly for this, so I ended up using the blade of the knife and lost quite a bit of the skin.

Steamed Burdock root, with a bit of butter

I tried three different ways of cooking it. Firstly I just microwaved it, with a little butter. This worked quite well, apart from it being tricky to get the timing right. Too short a time and it was a bit tough, too long and it was a bit dried up and crispy. Obviously the “correct time” depends on how much you are microwaving. It is therefore probably better to steam it, since the timing is more consistent and you can just poke it with a fork to see if it is ready. It took about eight minutes to be just right. Again I served with a bit of salted butter, and it was superb. Perhaps a little stringy around the edges, but the taste was delicate and delicious, very similar to Jerusalem Artichoke (to which it is distantly related). Burdock Root is packed with nutrients, especially Vitamin-C and Vitamin-A, and this is one of those wild foods that actually tastes like it is good for you.

Poussin casserole (just getting going in a slow cooker), with Burdock root (and other stuff…)

Finally I popped it into a poussin casserole that was already bubbling away in my slow cooker. This was one of those casseroles containing whatever happened to be available in my fridge/garden, which included a number of other wild foods. There’s some Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata – a member of the Carrot family with a rich, aniseed smell), some Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus – one of the few spring-fruiting edible wild fungi) and some Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata – a seaweed which thickens and adds a bit of umami to a casserole like this).

Poussin Casserole, with Burdock root, Sea Spaghetti, Dryad’s Saddle, Sweet Cicely and various non-wild vegetables and herbs.

The verdict: excellent, especially steamed as a side vegetable and in the casserole (and presumably therefore all manner of soups and stews). In the casserole it works better sliced into sections, rather than in lengthwise segments, so the slightly stringy bits near the edge are less noticeable. But I am an instant convert – this is a first class edible wild plant. If only it was easier to get out of the ground!

If you’re interested in joining a spring foraging course where we’ll (hopefully) be digging up and cooking some Burdock root, there’s still some places left at Bay Tree Cottage in Northamptonshire, this coming Saturday, May 13th.

Spring foraging on the Llangollen Canal

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
26/04/2017

St George’s Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa)

I have just returned from a week spent cruising the prettiest of Britain’s canals – the Llangollen, which runs from Hurleston in Cheshire to Llangollen in north Wales. This was my third holiday on this waterway (I love canals almost as much as I love fungi…), but the first time I’ve done it in spring, and I have learned something new about St George’s Mushrooms. This species can turn up in all sorts of places, but it has a liking for some habitats in particular. One of these, apparently, is the towpath of the Llangollen canal. I lost count of how many I passed last week (more than twenty lots), and almost all of them were in precisely the same habitat: the area between steel piling lining the canal, and the path itself. None were growing on parts of the towpath without piling, none were

St George’s Mushrooms. The Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in the top right of this photo is also edible.

on the worn down area that people walk on, and only one group were on the far side of the path, away from the canal. What is it about this precise habitat that they like so much? Are they as plentiful in the same habitat on other canals? I don’t know the answers to these questions and I’d be interested to hear from anybody who does.

Judging by the reports I’m getting from other parts of the country, it is a bit patchy for St George’s this year. The reason is fairly obvious: it has been very dry and in many places the ground is totally parched. We need some rain. I’ve personally seen none at all yet down south, although one or two other people have seen a few. They are more plentiful further north in the British Isles, where it has been a bit wetter.

Cowslip (Primula veris) and Tufted Vetch (Viccia craca)

There was no shortage of other foragables available, of course. Here are some of the best.

A lot of wild flowers are edible. Picking Cowslips is frowned on in some quarters – they aren’t as common as they once were. But they are definitely edible, and used to be popular candied, or even just eaten fresh with cream. The other flower in this picture (Tufted Vetch) is also edible.

Lady’s Smock (or “Cuckooflower”) (Cardamine pratensis)

Ramsons (or “Wild Garlic”)(Allium ursinum)

Lady’s Smock is typically found in meadows, but is happy to take up residence by the side of a lock overflow channel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ramsons (aka “Wild Garlic”) were abundant at the Welsh end of the canal, not so much at the English end. The combination of Ramsons and St George’s Mushrooms works well.

 

 

 

 

St George’s Mushrooms and Ramsons with Lady’s Smock in lemon juice.

Ramsons and St George’s Mushrooms, with Lady’s Smock:

Chop the St George’s Mushrooms and fry for 5 minutes in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then add chopped Ramsons leaves and fry for another minute or two. Allow to cool, then add lemon juice and Lady’s Smock flowers. Serve chilled.

 

 

 

Larch (Larix decidua) needle tea

There are quite a lot of Larch trees lining the towpath of the Llangollen, and these can provide two sorts of food. The soft inner bark is edible, and can be ground and used like flour. In spring, the fresh needles (Larch is deciduous, and re-grows its needles each year) can be made into a tea which has a number of claimed medical properties, including being high in vitamin C and “expelling flatulence”.

 

 

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh Marigolds were also very abundant. This species is slightly toxic and should not be consumed in large quantities, but the young leaves are edible and the unopened flower buds can be pickled and used like capers.

 

 

 

Pignut (Conopodium majus)

In some shady areas there were pignuts on the towpath. These have tasty tubers (the “nuts”), which can be found by following the stem underground. The tubers are frequently not directly under the plant, and the base of the stem is rather fragile, so finding them is not always as easy as you think it is going to be.

 

 

 

Pignut tuber

It is illegal to uproot wild plants without the landowner’s permission, so I left the ones I found last week – the picture of the tubers is from a couple of years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

More St George’s Mushrooms

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Sorrel is a well-known edible wild plant, and reasonably common along the towpath of the Llangollen canal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hogweed (Heraclium sphondylium)

Hogweed is extremely common on uncultivated land all over the British Isles. It is a bit of an overlooked delicacy, and at its best right now, as it produces its most vigorous leaf shoots. These should be cooked in butter – loads of it. Just keep adding more butter to the frying pan until it doesn’t soak any more up!

 

 

 

 

 

Wavy Bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa) and Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Dinner and death, side by side.

The last plant picture is of two species, growing side by side on one of the overflow channels that carry water past the locks on this canal (the canal is used to transport water from the River Dee to the reservoir at Hurleston, so these overflow channels are always full of fast-flowing water). On the left is Wavy Bittercress – an excellent edible salad leaf, often found in damp places, that isn’t particularly bitter, despite its name. On the right is the most dangerous toxic wild plant in the UK, measured by the number of deaths and serious cases of poisoning – Hemlock Water-dropwort, which can be mistaken for various edible members of its family (Apiaceae), most notably Wild Celery, which also lives in an aquatic habitat.

Even more St George’s Mushrooms

And finally, no blog about a holiday on the Llangollen Canal would be complete without a picture of the most spectacular aqueduct on the planet: Pontcysyllte (“pont-ker-sulth-tee”). With nothing but half an inch of lead between the boat and a sheer 120ft drop to the Dee valley, it is enough to give modern-day health-and-safety officials nightmares. Telford’s masterpiece was already something of a white elephant when it was completed, because it cost so much to build that no money was left to complete the rest of the proposed main line of the canal to Chester, and because in the decade between its inception and completion, cheaper sources of coal had been discovered than those in the hills to the north of the aqueduct. Worth every penny, though.

Urban and Suburban Foraging

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
05/04/2017

Foraging in urban and suburban areas can be even more productive than the countryside. This may seem surprising, given that much of urban and suburban areas are covered with tarmac and concrete, but this downside is offset by two factors. Firstly there is a significantly greater variety of habitats available, especially in suburban areas. A meadow is just grassland, woodlands are more diverse unless they are forestry monocultures, but towns and cities provide many different micro-habitats. Secondly there is the fact that in urban and suburban areas there is a huge variety of introduced plants, both native and non-native. You might argue that this doesn’t really count as “foraging”, but it is certainly food for free (although see below for notes on legality). There are also hazards to be aware of, some of which are common to all types of foraging (you need to be certain of the identification, because poisonous species abound), and some of which are more specific to urban/suburban areas. The most obvious of these is pollution, especially of the canine variety.

Lamb’s Lettuce (Valerianella locusta)

To give some idea of what can be found in a relatively small area, here is what turned up yesterday morning on a 15 minute wander that took me no more than 150 metres from our house. This is not a comprehensive list – just a selection of the best stuff.

Our garden backs on to a backstreet, and the first edible wild plant was growing at the base of the outside of the back wall of our shed (which is at the far end of our garden). This is unfortunately typical of the sort of location you might want to think twice about collecting food from in areas where dogs are walked (and yes that is a fag butt), but you can always wash it! The plant is Lamb’s Lettuce, also known as “Corn Salad” – something you can find on sale in many supermarkets, as a salad leaf.

Magnolia

On the other side of the road is another wall, this one the boundary of a pub garden, and at the end of that garden is gorgeous pink Magnolia tree. Magnolia petals are edible, either raw as a somewhat unusual salad ingredient, or pickled. Taking parts of cultivated plants from within the boundary of private land is theft (if they are growing as “weeds” then it is not theft unless you intend to sell them), but you can take anything that is hanging over the boundary and therefore on public land. Magnolias are very pretty, but they are also super-abundant for the brief period they are flowering, so taking a few petals is not so bad.

Rosemary (Rosmarinum officinalis)

From here I walked about 15 metres to the front of the pub and took a left, and immediately encountered a foragable herb: Rosemary, again hanging over the boundary and clearly on public land so perfectly legitimate quarry for a forager. In the background, across the main road, you can see the local “Gospel Hall”, which boasts a car park that almost nobody ever uses (the gate is permanently padlocked). Foraging from the ground in car parks is generally a bad idea, but a car park that is rarely used is likely to be reasonably free of pollution, including the canine variety.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

And growing from a crack in concrete in this particular car park is another herb: Chives. Very easily mistaken for grass – it pays to pay attention when foraging.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

From the gospel hall I turned right and just another 20 metres is another ecclesiastical building, this time the Victorian church of St Luke. Growing on its front wall is an edible plant that can be found on walls all over the country. Ivy-leaved Toadflax is slightly bitter, and can be used sparingly in salads, but is probably most valued decoratively. Next to the church is another pub, this one closed since the last owners shut up shop at Christmas. With nobody maintaining the plant pots, nature has taken over. Yes, there are some cigarette butts in there, but that doesn’t render the plants any less foragable.

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Smooth Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Of the three in this pot, two are excellent edible species, and high enough off the ground to be out of the range of all but the largest dogs. From left to right, Groundsel is mildly poisonous, Smooth Sow-thistle is a good salad leaf – slightly bitter but perfectly edible – and Hairy Bittercress is one of the very best (it is neither particularly hairy, nor bitter, and can be found growing in an unattended pot or bed near you).

Woolly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum)

I then turned right again and headed back towards my back door, via a different set of side-streets. At the base of a garage wall was a thistle. These can be difficult to identify when they aren’t flowering, but they’re all edible. This one is Woolly Thistle and it is armed with some pretty fearsome spines, but they are easily dealt with.

Woolly Thistle, ready to be tackled.

You need to carefully cut the spines of the base of each leaf, so you can hold it without getting spiked. Then you run a sharp knife down the sides, from the base towards the tip, and the spines will come off along with the leaf blades. You can then use the knife to peel off the skin (and the “wool”), leaving the crunchy centres of the stem and the main shafts of the leaves. This species is slightly more bitter than some of its relatives, and it benefits from being soaked in water for a couple of hours to leach out the bitter compunds (although it is perfectly edible without this preparation).

Woolly Thistle, ready to be steamed. The fat section at the top is the developing main stem, the rest are the middle of the leaves.

It should then be steamed for a few minutes and served with salted butter. A few metres away from the thistle was a thick stand of lush Ground Elder – a plant brought to the UK by the Romans both as a food source and a treatment for gout.

Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria)

Gardeners may hate it for the difficulties involved in getting rid of it, but foragers just see it as a free, wild substitute for spinach.

The next find was the result of a tip-off. A lady had spotted me photographing the Magnolia, and when I told her I was interested in it as food rather than for its beauty she said that there was Wild Garlic growing in the alleyway that runs along the back of her own garden,which was very close. Since this alley is a dead end, I had never been down there before yesterday. It turned out she was wrong – or at least most people aren’t referring to the plant she was talking about as “Wild Garlic”. It is another Allium, usually known as Three-

Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum)

Cornered Leek, or Three-Cornered Garlic. Another one of the very best wild edible spring plants, but there are many better places locally (dog-wise) to pick it than this!

Dandelion (Taraxum sp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having done a mini-circuit from my back door, I then tried from the front. The gardens are well above ground level here, and a few of them are unmanaged. Plenty of scope for foraging, and nobody is going to complain about somebody foraging Dandelion leaves. This plant is sometimes overlooked as a foragable item, perhaps because it is so common, but is has long been a popular wild food in France, where the young leaves are eaten in salads.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

It wasn’t Dandelions I was really after though – my destination was an unadopted road a little further away. Here I was looking for another foraged Spring treat, but an increasingly hazardous one. The plant in question is Japanese Knotweed, the young stems of which are a less sweet but nevertheless perfect substitute for Rhubarb. Unfortunately (for a forager), at least in some areas, people are getting rather efficient at treating this seriously damaging invasive species with weedkiller – industrial-strength weedkiller of the sort you most definitely don’t want to be consuming. It is very difficult to be certain the Knotweed you’ve found has not been treated very recently, but there are some tell-tale signs that show quite quickly. Obviously avoid any plant that is wilting and looks like it might be dying, but also look carefully for two lines running lengthwise up the leaves. The weedkiller is often applied in this pattern. I am not 100% certain these have been weed-killered, but there does appear to be some lines and they will not be on my menu. I have plenty of rhubarb in my garden anyway…

Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

So I made my way back home empty-handed on the Knotweed front, but there were still a couple more edibles to be found. The first was Comfrey, growing out of a wall. This species has been used by humans for a long time, both as food and medicine, but has recently come under the spotlight as potentially dangerous due to its content of liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the details of what is a rather complicated debate surrounding the safety of Comfrey, but in summary, provided the species really is Common Comfrey (which has white flowers, not pink or purple), and you are eating the leaves rather than the roots, and you aren’t pregnant, the dangers are so minimal as to be irrelevant.

White Stonecrop (Sedum album)

The last edible plant I found was growing from the gutter of the only derelict property in my neighbourhood. Derelict properties can be rich picking for foragers, but this particular plant can be found growing in gutters all over the place, as well as easier places to get to. White Stonecrop is a slightly hot succulent that can contribute a crunchy component to a foraged salad.

Free food really is growing all around us. You just have to know what you are looking for, and pay attention.

Ramsons and Egg Salad

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
04/03/2017

Picking Ramsons (Wild Garlic) 04/03/2017

Picking Ramsons (Wild Garlic) 04/03/2017

Spring is most certainly in the air. The last bout of cold weather down here on the south coast already seems a while ago, and our pond is bubbling like a cauldron with spawning common frogs and the most advanced Alexanders plants are about to burst into flower. And in those woods where Ramsons (Wild Garlic) abounds, the most advanced plants now have leaves big enough to be worth collecting. I am going to refer to this plant – Allium ursinum – as “Ramsons” for the rest of this post, even though it is widely refered to as “Wild Garlic”. This is because there are several other wild Allium species that are refered to as “Garlic” of one sort or another (several of which are also becoming available at this point). It is easy to recognise, because there is nothing else around at the moment with this combination of broad blades and strong garlicky aroma. You do have to take a bit of care

Ramsons in April 2016, East Sussex

Ramsons in April 2016, East Sussex

though – in the woods where we were foraging today, which are in a deep valley, the Ramsons dominate the lower levels while Bluebells dominate the higher slopes. There is a small band in the middle where both species grow together, and very small Ramsons leaves can look like very small Bluebells leaves. Also watch out for Lily of the Valley, which is the poisonous plant most easily mistaken for Ramsons. Again, just make sure what you are eating smells of garlic!

As for what to do with them – they go well just as wilted greens, or in a pesto, but today we had the classic Ramsons dish: Ramsons and Egg Salad. This is very simple to make, and delicious.

Ramsons and Egg Salad

Ramsons and Egg Salad

Ingredients:

Fresh Ramsons leaves
Eggs
Mayonaisse
Dijon Mustard
Sea Salt
Pepper

The amounts of these ingredients is entirely down to taste – just make it up as you fancy (although a rough guide is about the same volume of Ramsons and Eggs, and a lot more mayonaisse than mustard). Wash the Ramsons and remove most of remaining water with a tea towel, then spread out and leave to dry. Then hard boil the eggs (ten minutes), peel, roughly chop and put in the fridge to cool. When the Ramsons are dry and the eggs are cool, chop the Ramsons put in a bowl with the eggs and the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Serve with fresh crusty bread, and serrano or parma ham.

 

Foraging, Farming, Fossil Fuels…and Failure

(Or why and how our ancestors gave up on hunter-gathering, and why it was a terrible mistake)

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
23/02/2017

Anthropologist Jared Diamond has described the invention of agriculture (and the beginning of the end of foraging as a primary means of sustenance) as the worst mistake in the history of the human race. He claims the idea of “progress” over the past ten thousand years is largely a myth and that in many ways our ancestors who foraged for a living were better off than we are. Certainly they were better off than the early farmers who replaced them, both in terms of physical health and the way their societies operated. Diamond’s argument is that the obvious answer to the question “Why did our ancestors replace foraging with agriculture?” is wrong. That obvious answer is “Because it delivers more food for less work”, and it is wrong because the foragers had far more free time, and were healthier, than the farmers who replaced or displaced them.

It turns out that at least most of the time, hunter-gathering is a more efficient means of sustaining a group of humans than farming is. If you think about it, this shouldn’t be remotely surprising: nature does nearly all of the work for hunter-gatherers, whereas farmers have to nurture and prepare the ground, not to mention felling trees and grinding out stumps to make way for agriculture in the first place. Neolithic farmers did this with nothing but stone, antler and wood with which to make tools. The foragers also had a more varied and healthier diet, for a fairly obvious reason: foragers end up eating whatever they can find, whereas the farmers concentrated on a few crops that delivered the maximum amount of calories. These crops also often required considerably more preparatory work before they could be eaten than the food brought home by foragers.

Foraging societies were also relatively free of the grotesque class inequalities that have plagued us ever since the neolithic revolution. There are differing opinions on the reasons for this, but it is probable that the main reason is simply one of scale – foragers only ever lived in small groups, where inequalities were hard to create in the first place, and very visible and relatively easily dealt with when they did occur. Only in the larger societies permitted by farming is it possible to have an “elite” class living off the labour of the workers. Archaeologist Ian Morris has also argued that farming communities were much more violent – or much more tolerant of violence – than either foraging communities or the industrial societies that started replacing agrarian societies a couple of centuries ago. This was largely because in foraging societies, you can always run away to escape an oppressor, but in farming societies, existing in an increasingly crowded landscape, the losers in any dispute ended up incorporated into society anyway…as lowest class citizens. At its most extreme, this process leads to slavery – another evil unknown in foraging societies.

But if foraging is so great, and farming such a great mistake, how did our ancestors end up making this mistake? Why didn’t they go back to foraging?

Firstly I should say that I agree with Jared Diamond, and broadly also agree with Ian Morris – foraging as a way of life really is superior to farming, and abandoning foraging was probably the worst mistake in human history. This does have to be qualified, though. Agriculture was a necessary step on the path towards techno-industrial civilisation – we could not have gone straight from foraging to industrialisation. And techno-industrial civilisation has allowed humans to achieve incredible things – from the exploration of space to the invention of the internet. Surely these things are so incredible that the downside of agricultural and industrial civilisations are a price worth paying? Well, maybe. I certainly wouldn’t be quick to give up my car or my computer. But I am also of the opinion that civilisation as we know it is utterly unsustainable and heading towards an almighty crash (very possibly in the lifetimes of people alive today), and aside from all the human suffering that crash will involve, the wider ecosystem that survives the crash will be deeply impoverished compared to what existed when humans invented agriculture. When the dust settles, will the human survivors (assuming there are any) still think it was all worth it? Or, given the hypothetical possibility of turning the clock back, might they advise their ancestors to keep on foraging? Unfortunately, I suspect that even if we could indeed go back to before the neolithic revolution and warn those foragers about the mistake they were about to make, they’d still make it. There’s a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that it is almost impossible for human foragers not to start farming – it’s just too easy to do it (it gets a lot harder later on). In fact, I find myself doing it myself, as do most of the other foragers I know. All it involves is taking some seeds, or bulbs, from an edible plant, and spreading them around a bit or introducing them into a new area where conditions might suit them. Very little effort is required, so while it may not always work, there’s not much to lose and you might as well have a go. The situation would have been similar at the end of the mesolithic – our foraging ancestors would have started by spreading seeds about, and maybe doing a bit of “habitat re-arrangement”. The most obvious example of this would be to fell a tree here or there, to produce an artificial clearing. This would provide habitat for the sort of plants best for foraging. It would also have had the added benefit of attracting large herbivores, which could be hunted. The origins of animal husbandry can be traced back to about the same time, and would have started with selective hunting. By deliberately targeting males, and avoiding killing females, humans began to modify the gene pool of their prey species, some of which eventually ended up being domesticated. These sorts of activities both also led to the single most revolutionary change at that time: the replacement of nomadism with sedentism. If you’re going to improve the selection of available edible plants and animals in a particular location then there’s an incentive to stop wandering and build yourself a permanent settlement (creating yet more work). So sedentism and farming – the cultivation of plants and the domestication of livestock – would have emerged in a steady, inexorable manner. It wasn’t an overnight or single decision, but the result of thousands of little steps, each of which on its own made perfect sense.

The second is that there is an even more fundamental mistake underlying this “worst mistake” and even today, 10,000 years later, we’re still making it. I believe that it will eventually lead to the collapse of techno-industrial society. That mistake is our deep resistance – our near-complete cultural inability – to choose to limit our population. We always try to find ways to support further growth instead, but ultimately this has got to be unsustainable. Knowing that it is unsustainable won’t stop us from doing it, but right now we haven’t even reached that stage – mainstream politics and economics haven’t even acknowledged that growth is unsustainable (which is why the oxymoronic term “sustainable growth” is still in use). Even more unfortunately, our current gargantuan population, still rapidly expanding even as birth rates fall, is critically dependent on the industrial-scale use of non-renewable resources to produce and supply food: fossil fuels. As Ian Morris points out, this is in essence a return to foraging – a disastrous one. It is “foraging” in the sense that those fossil fuels are just found and removed from the ground by humans – we don’t “produce” them in the sense that pre-industrial farming societies produced food.

So we have an answer: farming replaced foraging not because it is a more efficient way of sustaining humans, nor because it leads to better societal conditions, but because it allows for a larger population to be sustained on a particular area of land. You might think that being able to produce more food per acre of land would improve food security, but, of course, it does nothing of the sort. All it does is allow the population to grow, meaning there are more mouths to feed than there were before, demanding ever more effort to grow ever more food. Suddenly that first agricultural revolution begins to look less like progress and more like a trap – the entry into a vicious circle. And if it really is a trap, then not only are we are well and truly still stuck in it, but we have very little, or no, chance of escape. What will happen, instead, is the very thing we have been trying to avoid all along: an involuntary reduction in the human population level.

We can only hope that once that process is finished, and the human population is reduced back down to a sustainable level, any post-crash culture that emerges from the rubble will finally have learned the lesson we refused to learn: the size of the human population and the human operation on this planet must be kept under control; growth is bad.

04/03/2017 Update

Discussion of the above post (on a forum) led to another question. If it is so easy to start farming – to start re-arranging habitat and modifying the gene pool of crop and prey species – why did it take so long? Anatomically modern humans were present in Africa at least 100,000 years ago, and were colonising the rest of the world by 60,000 years ago, and yet it took until the end of the last major glaciation 10-12,000 years ago before farming took off. Why didn’t it happen before?

The answer can only be speculative, but I suspect it is more of the same: it was to do with population pressure – or rather the lack of it – and how much food was needed from a given area of land. For most of that intervening period, while our ancestors relied on foraging and hunting, pressure from neighbouring groups of Homo sapiens would not have been high up on their list of problems. There were predators larger and more dangerous than any that exists today (and their eventual extinction may well have been at the hands of humans). There were also at least five other species of humans, all of which were eventually displaced by our ancestors and very likely also driven to extinction by H. sapiens. Climate almost certainly also played a part, with agriculture only taking over when conditions were agreeable in the most suitable locations. But ultimately it seems probable that humans avoided farming until population pressure from neighbouring groups of early modern humans left them with no other choice but limiting their own population. It didn’t happen earlier because before that point there were more attractive options: migrate, displace other species of human, or just keep trying to survive because the ability to find food in the available land was not the biggest problem.

 

Further Reading:

Jared Diamond: The worst mistake in the history of the human race.

Books:

Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse.

Ian Morris: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels – How Human Values Evolve

Campana et all: Before Farming – Hunter-Gatherer Society and Subsistence

Cafaro et all: Life on the Brink – Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation

John Michael Greer: The Long Descent – A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age

Fungi and Climate Change

Phone: 07964 569715 Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
18/11/2016

A typically spectacular fruiting of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea)

A typically spectacular fruiting of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea)

Mushroom season 2016 is nearly over. Not quite over yet (I found some lovely Penny Buns today), but I am not expecting much new stuff to appear before the winter. It has not been a vintage year. Not the total wipeout of the second half of last autumn, but a lot of species either didn’t fruit at all this year or fruited very patchily and unenthusiastically. On the other hand, it was a memorable year for a few species, including a couple of the most spectacular: Fly Agarics and Honey Fungus.

The poor showing of most species has prompted more than one person to ask me whether it has anything to do with climate change, and what it is likely to mean for the future. 2016 is without doubt an important year in terms of climate change. We are on target for yet another record-breaking year in terms of average global temperatures, and there is something very scary going on in the Arctic right now. The deviation from historically-normal concentration of sea ice, which had been in steady decline for several years, has just fallen off a cliff. Some sort of tipping point has been reached, whereby the sea has gone from pretty much frozen in November, to pretty much not frozen.

arctic sea ice disappearance

Arctic sea ice disappearance

Among other side-effects, this disappearance of the sea ice has led to the starvation of 80,000 reindeer. The reindeer usually feed on lichens beneath soft snow, but the changing climate has caused the snow to melt and then refreeze, covering their food in a thick layer of ice they cannot penetrate.

Fungi are less directly affected by climate; they are more at the mercy of weather, which is not the same thing. It is highly unlikely that the British Isles, which sits under a moving junction of several different climate systems, will experience a radical change –  we are destined to continue getting random and unpredictable weather, even if on average it gets a bit warmer. We’ll still have extended spells of dry, wet, warm or cold weather, at unpredictable times of year, as the competing climate systems move about.  It was the extended dry spell in late summer and early autumn that caused the problems this year – drainage ditches and ponds that are normally 1ft deep in water were empty until the end of October, and are only starting to fill up now.

Ruddy Bolete (Boletus rhodoxanthus)

Ruddy Bolete (Rubroboletus rhodoxanthus)

A lot of fungi have extensive ranges that are determined by average temperatures.  Their spores travel far and wide, but they are specialised in terms of at what temperature they can compete successfully with other fungi.  They therefore tend to be common in the centre of their range, and rare at the edges, where the temperature doesn’t suit them so well. This is likely to be relevant to fungi foraging in the longer term, because quite a few species of interest to foragers are much more common further south in Europe. This includes quite a few boletes (mushrooms with tubes and pores rather than gills). British foragers are not accustomed to watching out for poisonous boletes because the only poisonous British boletes are so rare that most people will never find them. This is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to change, because at least five poisonous boletes are considerably more common further south and are likely to become more common in the British Isles as the climate warms up.  They are the Devil’s Bolete (Rubroboletus satanus), the Bilious Bolete (Rubroboletus legaliae), the Ruddy Bolete (Rubroboletus rhodoxanthus), the Oldrose Bolete (Imperator rhodopurpureus) and the Brawny Bolete (Imperator torosus).

Dark Penny Bun (Boletus aereus)

Dark Penny Bun (Boletus aereus)

It is not all bad news though! Also in this category of likely-to-move-northwards is the best edible bolete of them all: the Dark Penny Bun (Boletus aereus). I’ve only ever seen this species on a handful of occasions, and always near the south coast. It is the only bolete tastier than a Penny Bun, and it is very welcome if it chooses to launch a serious invasion!

In other news, I have now been given the go-ahead by the Forestry Commission to run public sessions in Hemsted Forest next year, which means vouchers are available for Christmas presents. Details of this and other events in 2017, including my first dedicated coastal foraging sessions are here.

Finally, just a reminder that I am still selling signed copies of my book at the RRP of £20, including packing and postage.

British Fungi Foraging and the Internet: Teething Pains of a New Culture

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

23/10/2016

cover_cropFirstly for anybody who doesn’t already know, my new book (Edible Mushrooms – A forager’s guide to the wild fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe) came out last Thursday (see link at top of page). The customer reviews have already started rolling in on Amazon , if you’d like to know what some of the early buyers think of it. I’d like to thank everybody at Green Books for their hard work in the production of this book. I’m still selling signed copies for £20 (the RRP) including P&P, so email me if you’d like one.

This post is mainly about things I’ve encountered while promoting the book on the internet, some of which are rather worrying. I’m not a big fan of Facebook – I’m a bit old school and prefer forums, especially because of the ability to search for historical posts and follow complex discussions. But in order to get the word out about the book, I joined a number of facebook groups related to fungi and foraging. I am very familiar with the conflict between conservationists/mycologists and foragers that has sprung up in the wake of the pro-foraging cultural change we’ve seen in Britain in recent years. I’ve spent the last five years trying to find a balanced view in the middle of it, and as a result I’ve ended up making both friends and enemies on both sides. That dispute is far from being resolved, with the recent “ban” on personal picking in the New Forest being an example of what some people in mycology and conservation want to achieve of a wider scale: the prohibition of fungi foraging. In that case the “ban” turned out to be toothless, because it is legally unenforceable, but it was a statement of intent that must not be ignored.

What I was less aware of is the level of conflict and argument that exists within the foraging world, especially on the internet. This is also partly the result of the rapidly changing culture – not long ago there simply wasn’t any foraging community in the UK – but it is also partly directly the result of the existence of the internet, which would have been a game-changer anyway, even if the British had historically foraged for fungi.

The disputes I am talking about can be broken down into four main categories.

(1) Arguments about identification and use of hallucinogenic varieties

This of least interest in the context of this blog post, apart from where it co-incides with (4) below – people picking stuff that they are hoping might be hallucinogenic species, then asking people online to identify them later. The arguments regarding the legality and ethics of the use of hallucinogenic fungi are beyond the scope of this post.

(2) Glorification of overpicking

Some people seem to think the goal of fungi foraging is to pick as much as possible of prized edible species, and then post a picture online of their “haul”. This is routinely followed by arguments about why they picked so much. The response from the picker is inevitably “There were tons; I left loads” – something which, conveniently, nobody else can verify, and which might well be true in a few cases but probably isn’t in most. Why would I say that? Because for these people, the main purpose of going foraging has ceased to be finding food and become a competitive sport. It is all about the photo at the end, of their massive “haul”, and the bigger the better. The goal has become to have taken the largest amount and post the most impressive picture, in the hope of gain kudos from other foragers. This behaviour leads to a culture where over-picking in encouraged. Even in the cases where it is actually true that loads were left, the very fact that these pictures are being posted, and the pickers congratulated, just encourages other people to go out and pick as much as possible. It incentivises picking everything, just like commercial foraging does. And perhaps more importantly, it hands ammunition to those people who want to see foraging banned. I even saw one instance of a professional foraging teacher asking what was wrong with selling any excess. The answer is that unless the landowner’s permission was sought for commercial collection, and granted, selling it would be illegal.

This is an appeal to people in the online foraging community to stop doing this. Stop turning fungi foraging into a competitive sport – stop posing with pictures of your massive “haul”, stop boasting about how many kilos of bay boletes you picked and stop encouraging other people to behave in this way. These are the people who are going to get fungi foraging banned. And I also ask other people in the foraging community – the ones who don’t do this – to condemn it whereever and whenever you see it.

(3) People confidently identifying other’s people fungi, incorrectly

This one is also about earning kudos in the online foraging community. Lots of people want to play fungi expert, it seems. In this environment, being able to identify the fungi in other people’s photos earns you respect. Unfortunately, some people either over-estimate their abilities or are knowingly “winging it”. They don’t just say “I think that might be X.” They say “X!”, giving the impression to the person who posted the photo that somebody who knows what they are doing has been able to provide a firm identification of a fungus. The potential consequences of this sort of behaviour are all too obvious – it hinders people’s learning process and may well lead to people getting poisoned.

Please do not pretend you are certain what something is unless you really are certain. Sometimes, of course, you can be certain but still be wrong, in which case be prepared to be corrected without getting upset. Many of the people whose misidentifications get pointed out by other people take it rather badly, leading to flame wars. I came across one lady last week who had incorrectly identified a Slender Parasol (Macrolepiota mastoidea) for a true Parasol (M. procera). When I pointed out her mistake and asked her to be more careful in the future for the reasons given above, she took it very personally and spent most of the rest of that evening demanding to know what my qualifications are, refusing to accept that she’d identified the fungus wrongly and telling me that she’d been taught how to forage by her Sicilian family, that her boyfriend owned a 250 acre farm in Somerset and that her husband (apparently she had both) “had a PhD in biotech”. None of which changed the fact that she’d incorrectly told somebody that a Slender Parasol was a true Parasol. The next morning, after a moderator had deleted everything she’d posted after my initial post pointing out her mistake, she continued with more of the same. She eventually told me that she was going to report me to Facebook for harrassment. Oddly enough, I’ve not heard anything from Facebook on this subject.

(4) Picking and hoping

Why bother learning to identify fungi when you can just go out and pick everything you find and post a photo on the internet accompanied by the words “which ones I can eat?” or “what sort of fungi are these?”. Not “are any of these rare?” or “how do I learn to identify these?” This behaviour is lazy, anti-social and ecologically irresponsible. It gives foraging a bad name and is another practice that hands ammunition to those who want it banned. And, predictably, many of the people who’ve posted pictures of their unidentified “haul” tend to get rather upset when instead of being congratulated, they are asked to stop behaving in an unacceptable way, leading to more flame wars. Perhaps the worst example I have ever seen of this wasn’t on a facebook group, but on my own facebook page (Geoff’s Fungi and Foraging) a few years ago. Somebody posted a photo of a kitchen sink full of water, with a large amount of fungi bobbing around in it. The person said “My wife picked these this morning in the local woods. Which ones are edible?” I didn’t quite know where to start. Firstly I could see at least one poisonous Amanita in the sink, so the whole sinkful was potentially contaminated with amatoxins (Are they water soluble? Does anybody know?). Secondly it is impossible to identify most fungi when they are bobbing around in a sink of water. Thirdly, most fungi absorb water like sponges and you shouldn’t even wash them if it can possibly be avoided, let alone drown them. And fourthly this was “pick and hope” on a grand scale, and the person responsible may well have been picking rare stuff. When I pointed all this out, the person who’d posted it got very angry, because I was “trying to make me and my wife look stupid in public.”

In summary

The British fungi foraging community needs, at this point, to be aware that we have arrived at something of a cultural crossroads. I believe it is now very likely, and possibly inevitable, that there is going to be a change in the law governing foraging. Right now we still have a chance to self-regulate within the community. We have a chance to influence the direction this culture develops in, to minimise some of the worst practices described above. If we do not then I fear that the result may well be that the those people who want to see fungi foraging prohibited may yet get exactly what they want. It is far from impossible. There are places in Continental Europe where a total ban is in place, and it could happen here.

Better late than never – mushroom season kicks off down south

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

30/09/2016

Fungi season kicks off in the south

Fungi collected during my first ever session with customers. Late August 2010.

It’s only a month late. After the worst September in the south of England for fungi in many years, it is finally all kicking off. In fact if we are talking variety of fungi actually found compared to what I was expecting, this morning’s session was the best for many years. I started by warning my foraging students to expect to find very little, but we found bay boletes, penny buns, chanterelles, beefsteaks, plenty of brown birch boletes, parasols, horse mushrooms, a wide variety of russulas and several sorts of Amanita including some rare ones, chicken of the woods, white-laced shanks, spindle shanks, spotted toughshanks and quite a lot of other things also.  I’ve also had reports of giant puffballs coming through – very late for those.

When is a ban not a ban?

It has now become apparent that what was reported as a “ban” on fungi foraging in the New Forest is nothing of the sort. As admitted verbally in an interview on “You and Yours” on Radio 4 a few days ago, and now in writing in the comments section of this blog: https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/look-but-dont-pick-wild-mushrooms-and-the-forestry-commission-guest-blog-by-peter-marren/#comments, the Forestry Commission has no power to enfore the “ban”.  It is entirely voluntary, and anybody is free to ignore it. The only thing they can actually stop is commercial picking, which was already illegal.

First print run of the new book arrives in the UK

cover_cropFinally, the initial printing of my new book Edible Mushrooms: a forager’s guide to the wild fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe has now arrived on British soil. Not long to wait now! I hope to send out the first signed copies (to people who’ve already paid me for them) in the next few days. Please contact me by email if you’d like to buy one.