A first look inside my forthcoming book Edible Plants

02/09/2021

After six long years of plant-hunting, researching and writing, my new book is now at the design stage, and it is time to give people a first peek inside. Edible Plants will be the most comprehensive guide to foraging for plants and seaweeds in north-west Europe ever published, by some considerable margin. It actually delivers everything you need to know about every edible species worth knowing about, and all of the important poisonous ones too. In total it covers over 400 plants, seaweeds, lichens and cyanobacteria.  The RRP for the paperback is £25 (a hardback to be released later will be £35).

There is no wasted space in this book. Every available square inch is filled with useful information and images. It is also being manufactured to the highest standards – lithographically printed on high quality paper and thread sewn bound.

The book will go on general release on January 15th 2022, but we will be exclusively selling signed pre-release copies (at RRP) from the moment we take delivery, which should be at the end of November.

Signed pre-release copy of paperback £25 (incl p&p) for delivery in early December

 

Traditional watermint and chocolate chip ice-cream

06/08/2021

This is my first blog post in a while. We have been very busy trying to get our forthcoming book Edible Plants ready for publication, which has included testing and honing the recipes, and I felt this one was worth sharing, partly because now is the time to do it. You will not be disappointed with the results, though it is not for people on diets…

Watermint (Mentha aquatica)

This is ice-cream how it used to be made — all you need is a freezer, though it dates from a time when the only way to freeze things in the summer was to have an underground ice room.

You could probably use any sort of mint, but the one that works best is Watermint (Mentha aquatica), and it is in perfect condition right now, just as it starts to flower (that’s its current state in Sussex, anyway). Watermint is distinguishable from other mints partly by its liking for aquatic habitats (here it is shown growing next to a lake, but you will find it in ponds, ditches, small streams). The arrangement of its flowers are also distinctive, with a large terminal clump at the top. Once familiar with it, you will also be able to recognise it by smell.

 

Watermint and chocolate chip ice-cream

Ingredients: 200g caster sugar, 180ml water, 8 tbsp watermint chopped leaves (these are too light to specify by weight),  1 tbsp broken-up watermint flowers and whole flowers for decorative purposes, juice of ½ lemon, 600ml double cream, small bar of very dark chocolate.

Method: Heat the water in a saucepan. Add the sugar and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lemon juice, mint leaves and the broken flowers, blitz for 30 seconds, then allow to cool. Then roughly chop the chocolate, passing it through a colander to make sure no large bits get through. Stir the mix thoroughly with a whisk when cold, then add the cream and chocolate, stir again then put in a freezer until it has the consistency of slush. Stir thoroughly again, then return to the freezer. You can repeat this process 2 or 3 times, the goal being to introduce air bubbles to lighten the final product. When frozen hard, serve with whole flower heads as a garnish.

 

Lesser Celandine tubers

04/04/2021

Happy Easter, and let’s hope we’re finally seeing the beginning of the end of this covid nightmare. I took my first group of the year coastal foraging on Friday, and it was just about the most exciting thing to happen to me since last November.

It is illegal to uproot wild plants in the UK, unless you have the landowner’s permission. As a result, various wild root vegetables tend to get overlooked. There are a few, though, which are sufficiently common as garden weeds that we ought to pay more attention to them, especially when they are as nutritious as the tubers of Lesser Celandine. They do also sometimes wash out of the soil on their own (see below).

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna syn. Ranunculus ficaria) is a small perennial herb (to 25cm) with fleshy, clossy, long-stalked leaves, with cordate bases, some of which develop dark markings. They have solitary yellow flowers, and on some plants there are small bulbils in the leaf axils. They are found in damp woodland, scrub, meadows, grass verges, hedgerows and gardens, and they are abundant throughout the British Isles. The leaves could be confused with several other plants, although I can’t think of any seriously poisonous lookalikes.

The raw leaves, which are rich in vitamin C, are edible before the plant has flowered (winter and early spring), and are used as a mild component of a mixed salad, or cooked. The flower buds can be eaten, and pickled like capers or Marsh Marigolds. The leaves and flowers become increasingly laden with protoanemonin after the plant has flowered, but the later leaves can also be used as a cooked leaf vegetable.

The plant has a cluster of small tubers (it was historically known a “pilewort”) which become edible (cooked) as the above-ground parts of the plant begins to die off. They’re too tough before then. The bulbils are also edible cooked. The tubers take a lot of work to clean. After digging up, you will need to detach the tubers from the root ball, and then clean off all the mud. The inedible bits (mud, roots and dead tubers) either dissolve or float in water, so repeated immersions and use of a sieve eventually leaves you with just the edible bits. These are like miniature, waxy new potatoes. They should be sautéed in butter, with a little cornflour added to thicken, then seasoned and served – crunchy, tasty and nutritious. Alternatively they can be boiled in salt water then stored in vinegar, and used as an accompaniment to cured meats. Preserved in this way, they last for over a year.

Charred Lesser Celandine tubers have been found at several Neolithic archaeological sites in Northern Europe, including the British Isles. It is possible our ancestors didn’t even have to dig them up. Historical European sources describe large amounts of the tubers being washed out of soil by heavy rain as “rain of potatoes” or “heaven’s barley”.*

* Charred root tubers of lesser celandine in plant macro remain assemblages from Northern, Central and Western Europe, Klooss, Fischer, Out and Kirleis, Quaternary International Volume 404, Part A, June 2016.

When is the best time to go fungi foraging?

28/10/2020

I am continually asked this question, so here is a very detailed answer. The answer here applies to southern England, and should be adjusted for latitude — in northern Scotland autumn and winter come at least a month earlier, and further south in continental Europe they come later (unless you are in the mountains….).

Fungi, including edible species, can be found at any time of year. They are scarcest in the depths of winter and during drought conditions that most frequently occur during the summer. There is a brief flurry of activity in the spring, usually peaking in April or May, when spring-fruiting specialists such as St George’s Mushrooms and Morels can be found. Other species, such as Chicken of the Woods, Dryad’s Saddle and Field Mushrooms can fruit at any time from spring until early autumn.

The vast majority of fungi fruit between late summer and early winter, but each year is different and their behaviour is extremely hard to predict. In an ideal autumn, we would get a decent amount of rain once or twice a week, as the average temperature steadily drops. If this were to happen, then the main mushroom season would start some time in August, build to a peak around the end of September and start of October, and fizzle out with the first ground frosts in December. In reality, of course, this never happens. Instead we get the British weather, which can include summers when the sun never shines, followed by high temperatures and drought conditions in October. Other factors affecting the availability of edible fungi include what happened last year (if a particular species had a great year last year, maybe it will take a year off), how good a year the trees have had (this affects the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi), and the size of the slug population.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the season typically starts slowly, ramps up to a peak, then ramps down again. This is rarely what happens. Very often the season will start with a big burst of activity from symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. These include many of the very best species, such as Penny Buns and Chanterelles, and it frequently occurs right at the start of the season, sometimes as early as the second week in August. In other years, especially during dry summers, there is very little to be found until the middle of September. Whenever there has been a dry period, there will be a burst of activity after the first proper deluge, but it takes between ten and twenty days for the fungi to respond. In exceptionally dry autumns, this peak of activity can be delayed until early November.

Later in the autumn the saprophytes/parasites start to take over from the mycorrhizal fungi, and this seems to be particularly true in coniferous woodland and unimproved grassland. Edible waxcaps, as well as (mycorrhizal) Winter Chanterelles can be found in late November, or even well into December.  The main fungi fruiting season is brought to a close by the first serious ground frost, after which the only things that continue to appear are cold weather specialists like Velvet Shanks and some hardy all-year-rounders like Judas’ Ear (Jews Ear / Jelly Ear).

Fungi foraging is, therefore, a lottery. Not only are the fungi unpredictable, but I frequently find myself struggling to explain why they’ve done what they’ve done even after they’ve done it. This unpredictability and mystery is part of their charm.

Why you shouldn’t eat Earthballs…

20/10/2020

I was contacted last night by a person (let’s call him “Dave”) who has had a bad experience with a fungus, and he has given me permission to blog about his story and use his photos. The story is worth telling firstly because of the unusual reasoning that led to the poisoning, and secondly because the fungus in question is very rarely consumed and the information about its toxicity is conflicting.

Dave has a copy of my book. Last week he found a fungus growing in an unusual location – it was emerging through an asphalt pavement by the side of a wall. He then…

…tried to identify it from Geoff’s book but couldn’t find anything that looked like a close match though it seemed to look more like a truffle rather than anything else – though we realised that would have been pretty unlikely. However, since we couldn’t find anything like it in the “poisonous” pages we thought we would take a chance. Bad decision!

The overwhelming majority of fungi poisonings are the result of a positive misidentification — for whatever reason, people think they are eating edible fungus X and in fact it is poisonous fungus Y. Most people abide by the rule “If in doubt, leave it out.”  It is very unusual for a person to eat a fungus simply because they’ve failed to positively identify it as poisonous, knowing perfectly well that they don’t know what they are about to eat.

The fungus in question looks a bit like an old puffball (these are edible while still white, becoming poisonous as the spores start to mature to brown). In fact it is an Earthball. Not a Common Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum), which is in my book. It is not big or tough enough. I believe it to be a Scaly Earthball (S. verrucosum), though I am open to being corrected on that if anybody reading this thinks otherwise (I did wonder for a while whether it might be the very rare Dyeball (Pisolithus arrhizus), which I’ve never seen and is known to grow through tarmac, but its internal structure (the “gleba”) looks wrong. It is certainly a member of the Sclerodermataceae, all of which should be considered toxic. It seems this one might be quite seriously so, since not very much was consumed and the symptoms were rather unpleasant. There is no reason for me to edit Dave’s account:

There were about three growths there, in various stages of maturity. We picked one of the smaller ones and took it home with the aim of trying to identify it. Despite consulting a couple of reference books (including yours) we were unable to come to a conclusion what it was. It actually resembled a truffle more than anything else, though we were aware that it was most unlikely to be one of those. We were also aware that earthballs were inedible, but this thing didn’t look like the standard picture of an earthball, which apparently are generally pale on the outside and black on the inside. This thing was quite the opposite: brown on the outside and pale on the inside. In addition, it had an irregular, somewhat knobbly shape, unlike the smooth dome-shaped earthballs we saw in the pictures. So we didn’t suspect that this was what it might be. SO we thought we would try it. We shared just one small fungus between us with our evening meal – and as things turned out it was indeed fortunate that we did not eat more of it.

When fried and eaten it tasted quite pleasant, and for some time we had no reason to suspect anything untoward. When we went to bed about three hours later the first sign of anything unusual was that we both suddenly developed blocked noses. We thought initially only that we must have picked up a cold from somewhere, although it was odd that it came on so suddenly and for both of us at the same time, It was a couple of hours after that that I felt there unstable in my stomach and thought I had better make my way to the bathroom. Having done so, I suddenly felt a terrific blow on my forehead that seemed to come from nowhere, and then realised that I was on the floor. The odd – and rather frightening – part about it, is that I had no sensation of feeling dizzy or unsteady on my feet, or even of falling. One moment i was on my feet, and the next thing I knew was this mighty whack on the head and me wondering how and why I came to be on the floor. My wife then came into the bathroom, attracted by the noise of what she describes as a terrific crash. It turned out I had fallen against the radiator and gashed my forehead on it, which would account for the noise. In fact it was lucky in a way that the radiator broke my fall, since if I had simply fallen flat on the floor I might well have broken my nose and/or several teeth.

My wife at that point began to feel unsteady on her feet and decided she had better sit down on the floor next to me – she evidently had the benefit of a prior warning, which I had not! We both then found ourselves wanting to vomit. My wife did bring up a small amount of brown liquid, though nothing like the amount of food we had eaten at supper. For myself, I retched a few times but did not bring up anything at all. After that we crawled back into bed, and noticed immediately that both our blocked noses were now clear again – suggesting that this effect had also evidently been a symptom of the fungus poisoning as well.

We managed to get to sleep. In the morning we lay in bed for a long time feeling unenthusiastic about getting up. When we did so we were still rather light in the head and queazy in the stomach, but these symptoms wore off during the morning and by lunchtime we felt well enough to eat a proper meal. Later we went back to the spot where we found the fungus and collected the other samples that were growing there. These were the ones we photographed and sent the photos to you. As you saw, although the outside surfaces were dark brown, and the shapes irregular, the larger one when cut open showed on the inside the classic earthball appearance. If the small one we collected the first time had looked like that, we would have known better!

 

Acorn flour

08/10/2020

This is a guest post by Cathy, Geoff’s wife. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been experimenting with acorns – and while those experiments are far from finished, here’s a bit about the journey so far.

It started with a book, called It Will Live Forever, by Beverly Ortiz and Julia Parker. And how we came to have that book is one of those strange things, in itself. One of Geoff’s big influences was the late archaeobotanist Gordon Hillman, and upon moving to Hastings, quite by chance, we met his daughter, Thilaka, who recently lent us this book that had belonged to him.

Anyway. It Will Live Forever is a fascinating and infuriating book about Yosemite Indian acorn processing. Infuriating because it is told in the oral tradition and for someone looking for clear and concise instructions on how to process acorns, it is rather time consuming. But once it hooks you in, you can get a bit obsessed.

The reverence the books shows for acorns is in stark contrast to Claire Loewenfeld’s Wild Food Larder:Nuts (1957), which describes them mainly as pig fodder, but “can be used as a supplement to human food in times of need”. Interestingly, Loewenfeld’s preparation instructions don’t include leaching the tannins out, which could explain the unimpressed tone.

It’s not my first time trying to work with acorns, but my attempts last year at cold leaching yielded acorn chunks that were still bitter after two weeks of water changing, and hot leaching left me with little black pebbles that surely had lost all their nutrients.

The Miwoke/Paiute method is gentler than others I’ve tried or read about – there’s a lot of storing and waiting. They regularly store the acorns, still in their shells, for around a year – but sometimes up to ten years. That seems to be one of the strengths of acorns, they can be stored as a just-in-case food, and then processed if and when they’re needed.

I’ll do exactly what the book does not, and condense the process into a short list (I can sense Julia Parker’s frown).

  1. Gather your acorns from the ground, not the tree, and avoid any that look less than absolutely perfect.

  2. Store them somewhere airy and warm for at least two weeks. This makes them easier to shell.

  3. Shell them, and if the inner skins don’t come off in the process, dry them for another week.

  4. Remove the inner skins by winnowing/rubbing them. Failing that, scrape with a knife.

  5. Pound them to a flour-like consistency – or use a food processor.

  6. Filter water through them for several hours, or until all the bitter taste has gone. (Note: I did this using a colander lined with teatowels, and a dripping tap. Julia uses a sandpit.)

  7. Dry the flour somewhere warm and airy.

  8. Freeze it, refrigerate it, or use it straight away – its fat content means it won’t keep for long at room temperature.

So far I’ve managed to make one small batch of good flour using this method already, and I have two hoards of acorns in the airing cupboard at different stages of drying. I used my first batch of flour to make some simple biscuits, substituting a third of the normal wheat flour with acorn flour instead. I’d like to tell you it was delicious and subtly nutty, or something like that, but they just tasted as if they’d been made with wholemeal flour. Fine, with a healthy undertone.

I’m still mid-research, but here are two other sources I’ve found useful.

This article from Practical Self Reliance.

And this podcast from Robin Harford, interviewing acorn processor Marcie Mayer.

Rooting Bolete

11/09/2020

It has been a muted start to the mushroom season in deepest south-east England. The last couple of years have seen a big fruiting in August, but this year there has been very little around. The situation isn’t hopeless — there are mushrooms here and there — but most species are either fruiting unenthusiastically (few fruit bodies, not very large) or are entirely absent. There are very few Brittlegills, for example, and no Milkcaps. There are some Penny Buns (Ceps) in places, and Chicken of the Woods is doing well, but nothing worthy of me writing a blog post about. The situation is better in other parts of the country, presumably because they have had more rain.

Rooting boletes (Caloboletus radicans)

So perhaps it is time to talk about a species I usually ignore, because it isn’t edible. Rooting Boletes (Caloboletus radicans) are too bitter to be edible, and possibly mildly poisonous as well. They are easily recognised — large, pale-capped, bright yellow pores that readily bruise blue, flesh that turns blue, nearly always with oak, and typically in open areas rather than dense woodland. This species is currently by far the most abundant bolete in Kent and Sussex.

This abundance isn’t reflected in the information in most fungi guides. Phillips just says “occasional”, and Buczacki says “occasional to uncommon”. I listed it as “frequent in southern England” in my own book, but I’d now say that is an understatement. In Kent and Sussex it is common, bordering on very common. You certainly won’t have any trouble finding it right now.

Looking forwards, we need some serious rain. My guess as to why the situation is disappointing is that even though the ground looks damp on the surface, it is still dry underneath. Unfortunately the forecast is heading in the other direction.

 

Russian chilled blackberry soup

17/07/2020

It is looking like a great year for blackberries. The bushes near me have plenty of fruits forming, though most aren’t ripe yet. This year I have been testing potential recipes for inclusion in my forthcoming book, and this one is so good that I couldn’t wait to share it with people. Makvlis supi is a traditional Russian/Georgian/Polish dish, and quite unlike anything else I’ve ever had, but it is well worth the mess and effort of making it. It is served as a starter.

You will need a good source of lush blackberries. Note that all blackberries are not the same – there are hundreds of microspecies, all with slightly different characteristics, including the size and taste of the berries. Fortunately for us, the best patch I know of locally is less than a minute’s walk from my front door, but also at a very quiet and little-known location at the end of a cul-de-sac. The berries here ripen earlier than any others locally, and are also bigger and juicier. The best blackberries from any bush are at the end of the stem, and ripen first. This one has already been taken from those pictured here — the others don’t ripen until it has gone, which makes for a less attractive photo.

Ingredients:

600g fresh blackberries, finely chopped herbs (50g coriander, 5g mint, large sprig of fresh thyme), 1 small onion (finely chopped), 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 1 small cucumber (peeled, seeds removed and diced), 1 tsp wine vinegar, salt to taste and sour cream to serve.

Method: Put the blackberries in bowl and crush and strain to obtain the thick juice. Add water to make this up to 900ml of liquid, and then add all the other ingredients apart from the sour cream. Add salt to taste and chill for several hours.  Serve with sour cream, which can either be left in lumps or mixed well into the soup.

Reedmace rhizome flour

30/03/2020

Reedmace in late summer

This is the first of what will probably be quite a few blog posts on survival/emergency/famine foods, while the UK is under indefinite partial lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations is currently warning of a likely global food shortage. These are extra-ordinary times, and frightening things are not just happening in faraway places. My family is in self-isolation, and trying to rely on supermarket deliveries (surely the last place you want to go if you are trying to dodge this virus).

Reedmace rhizomes (March)

Unfortunately, the delivery that arrived this morning was missing a number of essential items, including eggs, milk and bread. I therefore decided to risk a trip to the supermarket (with gloves, mask and sanitiser spray). Also unfortunately, the socially-distanced queue for the largest supermarket in Hastings stretched several hundred metres from the door, so I decided to try my luck in some smaller shops. All of these were similarly devoid of eggs and bread, apart from the corner shop at the end of my road, which is currently selling individual eggs for 40p each.

Rhizome in cross-section, showing the outer spongy layer and the starchy core

If you can’t get bread, why not buy flour instead? Answer: we haven’t been able to get any flour for the past two weeks, and that is far too close to authentic conditions for approaching famine, for comfort. Historically, many of the most important of famine foods were things that could be used to bulk out dwindling supplies of flour, especially anything as rich in carbohydrate/starch.

One notably high-quality source of starch at this time of year is Reedmace (Typha spp.) rhizomes. Reedmace is that large semi-aquatic grass-like thing with cigar-shaped black blobs on top, often incorrectly referred to as “bullrush”.

Reedmace rhizomes cores

Collecting the rhizomes is not for the faint-hearted. It involves plunging your hands into icy-cold mud where you see the first spring shoots emerging, and extracting as much of the rhizomes as possible. They don’t look particularly edible, but looks can decieve.

Beneath the papery skin is a layer of inedible spongy material; it is the core of the rhizomes that contains the starch. They can just be boiled, but if you want to extract the starch for use as a flour substitute then they must be processed as follows.

Ready to be pounded or blended

First clean the rhizomes, and cut out any damaged parts, especially where mud has penetrated into the core. Then cut off the green shoots, but make sure not to lose any of the rhizome, because it is the part of the rhizome immediately adjacent to the shoot which contains the thickest starch deposits. You then need to peel off the spongy outer layer, to reveal the harder core.

Next, place the rhizome cores in a bowl of water and pull the fibres apart. At this point it will become clear just how rich in starch they are – you can feel it, and you can see it. If you’re going

the authentic route, you now need to pound the

Filtered Reedmace starch suspended in water

rhizomes to release as much starch as possible from the fibre. I cheated and used a hand blender to do the work in 30 seconds. Then pass through a colander or sieve (how wide the mesh will determine how much fibre makes it into the finished product), leaving you with a thick, white liquid, covered in bubbles. This should be left to stand for several hours, during which time the starch will settle on the bottom. Skim off the water, to leave a gloopy paste.

This paste now needs to be dried. It can be done in a low oven, but we dry ours in a shallow metal dish placed on top of a woodburner. When fully dry you will be left with a light grey-brown “cake”. The final

Reedmace flour (partially ground)

stage is to grind this cake up in a pestle and mortar, and hey presto you’ve got reedmace flour. As well as being used to bulk out wheat flour, it can be used in exactly the same ways you can use cornflour, and it tastes very similar.

 

 

 

 

 

COVID-19: The end of the world as we know it?

27/03/2020

Our foraging events are postponed until further notice, for obvious reasons. I will be contacting everybody booked on our workshops, to make alternative arrangements.

It is deeply ironic timing for me. I’ve spent the winter months working on my second book, which is a guide to the edible plants and seaweeds of north-west Europe. I’d already planned to spend this spring focusing my research on some of the things I’ve neglected in the past because they were primarily “only” famine foods, as well as experimenting with various techniques for preserving wild food. This morning, as I was pounding reedmace rhizomes to extract the starch, I find myself in a world where the local supermarket shelves have been stripped bare by people who for the first time in their lives are worried about the security of their food supply. Fear of this sort, on this scale, hasn’t been known in peacetime Europe since the potato famine of 1845-49. I feel it myself. This crisis could continue for many months — and even longer if a vaccine proves elusive — and being a global problem there is absolutely no guarantee that food currently imported into the UK will keep coming. Should it falter, it is very hard to see how this country will be able to feed itself. So this spring I will not just be storing wild food as experimental research for a book; it will actually be for real.

My family has been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for the last six weeks, and we continue to prepare. We are in total isolation, because I am in one of the people at risk dying. I’m only 51, but my lungs aren’t in great shape because I’m an ex-smoker who suffered a nasty attack of pneumonia two years ago.

Stay safe and good luck. We are all going to need it.