The mysterious case of the missing mushrooms, and other news…

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

19/09/2016

Larch Bolete (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

Larch Bolete (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

Given the length of time that mycologists and foragers have been watching fungi, you might think we would have a pretty good idea if there’s going to be a good year or a bad year and be able to predict what they are going to do. If so, you’d be wrong. This is actually part II of the mysterious case of the missing mushrooms – part I was the second half of last autumn. In that case what happened was an extended dry spell from mid-September to late October. That this led to a lack of fungi isn’t remotely mysterious; fungi need moisture or they cannot produce fruit bodies. The mystery was their total failure to recover when the rains finally came. I expected November 2015 to make up for the disappointing October, but the situation actually got worse, and by the end of November there was nothing to be found, even though the usual season-ending hard frost hadn’t happened. My most successful outing of last autumn was exactly one year ago: September 19th 2015. Today I returned to the precise locations I visted that day and I found sweet fanny adams. And it is not just some species that are missing; it’s almost everything apart from a few wood-consuming bracket fungi like Giant Polypore and Beefsteak Fungus. This is particularly strange, since last year’s poor showing might have been expected to be followed by a bumper harvest this year. A further element of strangeness is a geographical inconsistency – in the northern half of Britain there is a completely different story unfolding. Judging by the photos and the words of mouth, the start to the mushroom season in Scotland and northern England is at least average and in some places very good indeed.

Fly Agaric (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

Fly Agaric (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

I won’t pretend that I know what is going on, but my best guess is that it is a combination of temperature and soil moisture. We’ve just had the highest September temperatures for over a century, and my home territory lies just on the border of what botanists call “hardiness zone 9”. Most of the UK is in the colder zone 8, but the south west and the areas immediately adjacent to the south and west coasts of Britain are warmer. This is due to the sea acting as a temperature buffer: daytime highs are slightly lower and nighttime lows are slighty higher. The result is that while the average lows further north have fallen below the level that triggers most of the autumn fungi to fruit, in the far south the fungi still think it is summer. Although it is more complicated than that, because what I’ve been seeing over the past two weeks is one fruit body here and there – one Deathcap, one Blusher, or as today, one Scarletina Bolete (spotted from the car, growing by the side of a road). This suggests that soil moisture content is also playing a part, even though we have had a reasonable amount of rain recently. I won’t pretend that I know what is going to happen next either, but my best guess is that it is just taking a while for the fungi to respond to recent temperature falls and heavy rain, and that within a week or two there will be fungi all over the place. I certainly hope so, because I have got a busy October ahead of me.

Penny Bun / Cep (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

Penny Bun / Cep (19/09/2015, south-east Sussex)

Speaking of which, it is probably worth reminding people of some important dates and events which still have free spaces.

Firstly, I have just added another extra date to my fungi foraging sessions in Hemsted Forest (west Kent), due to the others being booked up. This will be on Saturday November 5th (see fungi foraging link at the top of the page).

There are still places available on the fungi foraging workshops on Sat/Sun 8th/9th of October at Bay Tree Cottage in Northamptonshire, and the fungi foraging day and chef-prepared meal on Sun 16th of October at Catthorpe Manor in Leicestershire.

There will be a book launch event (free) on Sat Oct 22nd at Bookbuster, Queen’s Road, Hastings. This will include talks at 6pm and 7.15pm, and signed copies of the new book will be on sale.

There will be another launch event on Fri Nov 4th at The Garden House in Brighton, East Sussex. The launch event will include a display of a wide variety of fungi, signed copies of the book will be available, and it is followed by a talk, a tasting session and a meal (see their website for details).

New Forest fungi foraging ban part II: why the ban is wrong.

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

09/09/2016

My previous blog post was openly critical of the Association of Foragers’ (AoF) response to the ban on picking fungi on Forestry Commission (FC) land in the New Forest. The AoF claimed that the FC’s ban was “unscientific”, but go on to make claims that are at least as unscientific as anything the FC has said. The reality is that the FC is not being unscientific, but that doesn’t mean the ban is justified. This post sets out the reasons why I believe it is a mistake.

First it needs to be pointed out that there are clear and important benefits to foraging. It gives people a reason to engage with the natural world, to learn about fungi, and to reconnect with the source of their food. A lot of people enjoy foraging very much. It also should be noted that the New Forest National Park is a publicly-owned resource, and that the Forestry Commission’s job is to manage it in the best interests of the general population of the UK.

The FC have said that the ban is “precautionary”, because “the jury is still out on whether or not foraging has a negative impact on future fungi populations.” The AoF has responded by citing two scientific studies that it says demonstrate this isn’t true. Unfortunately these studies do not demonstrate this. They only prove that picking fungi from a specific adult fungal mycelium does not have any long-term negative impact on future fruit body production from that mycelium. This should surprise nobody! The fruit bodies of fungi are not like the leaves of deciduous trees, from which nutrients can be recovered. Once they’ve been produced, the resources required for their production are irretrievably spent by the mycelium – they’re gone. It doesn’t matter what happens to those fruit bodies – whether they rot, are eaten by insects, or eaten by humans – there’s no reason it should make any difference to the mycelium that produced them. What it might make a difference to is the prospects of that mycelium reproducing. This is the real issue regarding foraging and future populations of fungi – not future harvests at the original location, but future harvests at other locations, after the original mycelium has expired. I am aware of no scientific studies that have attempted to answer this question, so we simply do not know the answer. Therefore the FC are correct – the scientific jury is still out, and there’s no prospect of firm scientific answers to these questions any time soon. Therefore we have to make decisions in the absence of clear scientific evidence.

The FC have also said that the ban is to protect populations of certain insects (small beetles and flies) that are obligatory feeders on mushrooms. The AoF has responded by claiming that foragers aren’t interested in picking the fungi that the insects eat, and demanding evidence that insect populations would suffer. No such evidence exists, but once again, this a precautionary ban, so the FC doesn’t actually need any evidence, just sufficient reason to believe insect populations would be negatively impacted. The AoF’s response is simply incorrect: many species of bolete and Agaricus that are highly prized by foragers are eaten by these insects. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to believe that the removal of fruit bodies by foragers negatively impacts the populations of these insects – the burden of proof is really on those who seek to deny something that makes such intuitive sense.

Finally the FC have cited the existence of “gangs of illegal commercial pickers”, and the AoF has questioned whether such gangs even exist. Once again, there is a lack of hard evidence upon which we might come to a firm conclusion. However, rather than questioning the existence of illegal commercial pickers, it might be more helpful to ask whether if they really do exist, given that they have already decided to do something illegal, there is any reason to believe that they will stop doing so because the FC have decided to ban currently-legal foraging for personal use. I doubt it very much. If those gangs exist then all this ban will do is ensure there are more fungi for them to illegally pick. So this is not a good justification of the ban.

There is no point in responding to a precautionary ban with demands for scientific evidence, and there’s certainly no point in responding by making scientifically questionable counter-claims. Instead, I think the way forwards is to examine the reasoning behind this precautionary ban. What, exactly, is it a precaution against?

There are cases where precautionary bans should be enacted. A perfect example was when the BSE crisis first hit the British beef industry. There was, at the time, no scientific evidence to suggest that BSE could jump the species barrier and infect humans, so the tory government at the time, under pressure from vested interests in the farming industry, declared that there was no reason to believe British beef to be dangerous. In this case a precautionary ban should have been implemented, but wasn’t. Human lives were at risk. And we eventually discovered that BSE can indeed jump the species barrier and several people died of a horrific degenerative brain disease as a result. But what is at risk in this case? The population levels of a few species of insect, and two or three species of fungi?

Let’s take the insects first. I’m all for biodiversity – biodiversity is a general measure of the health of an ecosystem. It is generally a good thing to have as much of it as possible. But not all species are equal. Some, such as apex predators like tigers and eagles, have a special status. Not only is their presence in the landscape something truly spectacular to behold, it is also a sign that the ecosystems they are the apex predators of are in a reasonably decent state of health. The loss of those apex predators tends to indicate serious problems further down the food chain, and can be a sign that the whole ecosystem is collapsing. Other species are important because they play a key role in regulating populations of other species, usually as predators or prey. Some of these species are ecological linchpins, and if they are in trouble then the whole of their ecosystem is in trouble because without them that ecosystem is thrown badly out of balance. But some species really aren’t that important. It is nice to have them around, but if they were to disappear then it wouldn’t make an enormous amount of difference to any other species, or to the ecosystem in general. So we have to ask, in what category are these beetles and flies that only feed on certain species of fungus? The Forestry Commission, and the conservationists who are the real driving force behind this ban, have not, to my knowledge, answered this question. They haven’t even been asked it. They have simply expected everybody to accept without question that the reduction of population levels of these insects would be sufficiently ecologicaly-disastrous to warrant a total ban on fungi foraging, as a precautionary measure, just in case. This looks like an absurd level of overkill. We have to make judgements all the time about conflicting interests – sometimes we have to accept something undesirable because it avoids something even less desirable or because it allows something really beneficial to take place. And in this case, the Forestry Commission has apparently decided that all of the benefits of foraging are less important than the population levels of a few species of insect – species that could disappear from the face of the Earth and nobody but a handful of entomologists would even notice. I could be wrong about this; maybe those insects are ecological linchpins. But if so, neither the FC nor the conservationists have seen fit to mention it, let alone provide any evidence to support the claim.

What about the fungi themselves? Again, instead of demanding evidence that even FC knows doesn’t exist or making unsupported claims that foraging helps spread fungi about, let’s assume that the concerns of the conservationists turn out to be justified: that foraging really does have a long-term negative impact on the ability of the fungi in question to reproduce. What are the ecological consequences this precautionary ban is protecting us against? Any human lives at risk? Any ecosystems likely to collapse? The answer: a reduction in the population levels of two or three common species of fungi. This might be a bit annoying for foragers – fewer chanterelles, hedgehog fungi and penny buns for them to pick. But who or what else might it effect? Nobody and nothing, as far as I can tell. The reduction of the number of mycelia and spores of these species would presumably make it easier for other species of fungi, of less or no interest to foragers but just as good for wildlife to eat, including rarer species that are usually outcompeted by the hedgehogs and chanterelles, to reproduce. In other words it would probably increase fungal biodiversity by selecting against common species (no, there’s no scientific evidence to support this, but it makes perfect sense). It is hard to see how it could reduce the overall populations of fungi (all species put together). We’d only expect that as a result of a loss of habitat, which is not the scenario under discussion. So again, what is the judgement that’s been taken here? Apparently the FC think that the reduction in population levels of two or three species of fungi that aren’t endangered and aren’t ecological linchpins is more important than all of the benefits of allowing foraging.

What is really going on here? The Forestry Commission has not made this decision out of the blue. It has been pressured into doing so by a small number of conservationists who have become increasingly alarmed at the ever-increasing popularity of fungi foraging. Those conservationists have long been trying to get foraging banned, and they have now managed to convince the Forestry Commission that foraging might be causing sufficient long-term ecological damage in the New Forest to prohibit it completely. Where is the justification for this precautionary ban? Where is the analysis of how the potential ecological problems that might occur compare to the loss of the positive benefits of allowing foraging that definitely will occur now that it has been banned? Who has decided which is most important, and on what basis have they taken that decision? Who are they accountable to? No such analysis has taken place. Instead, somebody at the Forestry Commission has decided, behind closed doors, for reasons that have not been adequately explained, to cave into these conservationists. If they have asked the questions they should have asked about why the ban was necessary, then they aren’t telling anybody.

This debate should not be about science that doesn’t exist. It should be about what takes priority in the absence of clear scientific data – the right of the general public to use a publicly-owned resource to engage in a thoroughly beneficial activity enjoyed by thousands of people, or the maintaining of population levels of a few species of not-very-interesting, ecologically-irrelevant insects and a handful of fungi species that aren’t remotely endangered. And the answer should be a no-brainer. Even if the conservationists are right about the insects and the fungi, they are still wrong about the ban. The Forestry Commission really does need to think again about this. The ban has been introduced for the wrong reasons. It has not happened because foraging poses any sort of serious ecological threat, but at the behest of a small number of very conservative conservationists who don’t like foragers and want to turn the clock back to the good old days when the British public was scared stiff of fungi. And unfortunately the Forestry Commission, which should be acting in the best interests of the whole population of the UK is instead doing the bidding of these reactionary conservationists.

New Forest Fungi Ban: Forestry Commission vs Forager’s Association

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

03/09/2016

With the main mushroom season just around the corner, the long-running battle between foragers and conservationists has just gone into overdrive. This time it is serious: the Forestry Commission has banned all fungi foraging in the New Forest National Park.

I can’t say I’m surprised. The New Forest has increasingly become a victim of its own reputation as something of a Mecca for fungi foragers. It has been attracting pickers, both commercial and personal, from much further afield, and in recent years it has become harder and harder to find any fungi. However, the situation is quite complicated and many of the claims currently flying around both the mainstream media and the internet need to be examined quite carefully.

What has actually happened? According to numerous reports in the mainstream media (for example: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3768111/Foraging-fungi-banned-New-Forest-commercial-pickers-broke-rule-taken.html), the Forestry Commission has now prohibited all picking of fungi on its land in the New Forest. The reasons given are that commercial pickers are flouting a 1.5kg per person per day rule, picking up to 50kg. The simplest solution to this problem, they say, is to ban all picking. The decision was taken, the FC has said, to protect both future populations of fungi and populations of insects whose grubs (“maggots”) feed on the fruit bodies.

In response to this ban, an organisation called “The Forager’s Association”, which describes itself as “An international professional foragers association, promoting sustainability and ecological stewardship through teaching and harvesting wild plants and fungi for used as food, drink and medicine” has issued a press release (see: http://www.foragers-association.org.uk/). I should disclose at this point that I am not a member of this organisation, but that I do know several of its members.

The contents of this press release are worth a close look if we want to get down to the truth underlying these issues. The press release is titled:

“New Forest Fungi Picking Ban “unscientific” say fungi experts”

It begins:

“A campaign by the Forestry Commission in England to ban the picking of all fungi in the New Forest has been heavily criticised by fungi experts and foraging educators. “

Well, the Forager’s Association really is an association of foraging educators rather than fungi experts, and, put politely, one wouldn’t expect turkeys to vote for Christmas. Clearly such a ban is not in the interests of foraging educators – and it also a precedent that is not welcome – so one can be forgiven for questioning their impartiality. I am also a foraging educator, and in my case somebody who comes from a conservation and scientific background and who has spent many years trying to maintain a balanced view, often in difficult circumstances (it has felt a bit like being in the middle of a war zone at times).

The release then implies that foraging actually helps long term fungi populations (which is quite a claim), and that the ban has no grounding in scientific evidence:

“The Association of Foragers, which represents the collective knowledge and experience of nearly one hundred writers, teachers and researchers, say the ban has no grounding in scientific evidence, and is more likely to undermine fungi populations in the long term.

There are at least 2,700 species of fungi in the New Forest. Only a dozen are routinely collected as food – none of which are rare”, said John Wright, author of the bestselling River Cottage Mushroom Guide, and member of The Association of Foragers.”

This claim by John Wright is correct. Yes, only a small number of species are routinely collected for food, and yes none of those are rare.

“More fungi are kicked over and trampled by the uneducated than are picked for the pot. Foraging provides an important point of human connection with these otherwise mysterious organisms”, said Mr Wright. “

Unfortunately this is also true, along with the number of fruit bodies which are collected at random by people who don’t know what is edible and what isn’t. However, the fact that many fungi are trampled, either accidentally or intentionally, does not make any difference to the fact that a lot of them are also picked by foragers, especially in places like the New Forest.

“Mark Williams, a member of The Association of Foragers who has taught about fungi in Scotland for 25 years, said: “The Forestry Commission has presented no scientific evidence to show why this ban is necessary. That’s because there simply isn’t any.” A 25 year study of the effects of picking mushrooms revealed no correlation whatsoever between picking and future growth, in the same way as picking a bramble does not impact the parent plant – in the case of mushrooms an invisible underground network called mycelium.”

This claim by Mark Williams is correct, but does leave something important out. The 25 year study in question (“Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests – results of a long-term study in Switzerland” Biological Conservation 129(2006) 271-276) did indeed demonstrate that no amount of picking made any difference to survival of the mycelium – it did not harm the adult fungal organism. The same study did demonstrate that increased trampling of the area decreases fruit body production, but there’s something else that it is more important. This study did not even attempt to assess the impact of picking fruit bodies on the fungi’s chances of reproducing – it did not measure whether picking fruit bodies in location X had a negative effect on the appearance of new mycelia in adjacent areas. In fact, it would have been impossible to measure this, because fungal spores travel far and wide and it would also have been impossible to know whether new colonies in adjacent areas were the progeny of fungi in the study area, or came from elsewhere. In summary, this study did not conclude that picking fungi does not have a negative impact on the future populations of fungi. So whether or not Mark Williams’ statement is true depends on the meaning of “future growth”. Future growth where? At the location of picking, or elsewhere?

Mark Williams continues:

“The picking and movement of mushrooms is actually more likely to help spread fungi spores and expand populations.”

This is a problematic claim. It is not impossible that it is true, but given that the Forager’s Association is complaining so bitterly about the lack of scientific support for the Forestry Commission’s ban, they do need to be careful about making counter-claims that are equally lacking in scientific support.

The truth is this: there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that picking fungi helps the growth of populations. There is some folk mythology that carrying mushrooms around in open baskets helps spread the spores about, but there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, and since many fungal fruit bodies produce large amounts of spores long after they’ve ceased to be in edible condition, it is highly doubtful that picking fungi actually improves the prospects for future populations. At best, we simply don’t know.

The press release continues:

“The Forestry Commission also cites “fungi-dependent invertebrates” as reason for the ban. Research herbalist Monica Wilde of The AoF says: “People don’t pick the mushrooms that are appealing to maggots! The most widely eaten species – chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms – are almost entirely resistant to insects.”

This is perhaps the most worrying statement in the press release. Ms Wilde is one of the founder members of the Forager’s Association, and not a fungi expert. The above claim is deeply misleading. As already stated, at least ten species are widely picked, and while it is true that chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms are not the favourite fungi for insect grubs, several of the others most certainly are. Probably the most sought-after fungus of all – the Penny Bun or Cep (Boletus edulis) is very popular indeed with insect grubs. Indeed, in many European markets these fungi are cut open before sale in order to determine how badly infested they are. The same goes for most of the other edible boletes (mushrooms with pores/tubes rather than gills or spines), many of which are popular with foragers.

The press release continues:

“The FC also cites anecdotal evidence of “teams of commercial fungi pickers”. “This is a mantra that has been so often repeated, mostly by the tabloid press, that it has entered the public consciousness”, says Mr Williams. “With collectively 1000’s of days spent teaching and recording in the New Forest, not one member of the AoF has ever seen any evidence of this – not even a photograph. 99% of mushrooms rot where they grow.”

Well, I don’t spend much time in the New Forest. I am based on the south coast in Sussex. But I do on occasion go foraging nearer London, and I have indeed seen evidence of large-scale commercial foraging. The final claim – that 99% of mushrooms rot where they grow – might just be true of all mushrooms nationally, but there’s absolutely no way it is true of edible mushrooms in the New Forest. I am not going to get into the game of pulling statistics out of nowhere, but I’m willing to bet that very few penny buns, chanterelles or hedgehog fungi end up rotting in the New Forest.

The press release concludes:

“The AoF is calling for the FC to rethink the ban. It is unscientific, unenforceable, and will serve only to further disconnect people from the world of fungi. We urge the FC to use the collective knowledge of the AoF to help formulate evidence-based policy to support future populations of fungi”.

I am all for evidence-based policy. Unfortunately, claiming that foraging actually helps future populations of fungi is not evidence-based, nor is claiming that it doesn’t impact the ability of the fungus to reproduce, nor is claiming that the species most highly sought by foragers are of no interest to insect grubs.

I believe that a change in legislation in the UK is now very likely, although how long that takes remains to be seen. Natural England have recently instigated a project to resolve some of these problems, and also to promote the positive aspects of foraging (and there are many – including getting people out into the countryside and reconnecting them with nature).

My own contribution to this debate, in conclusion, is to call on all sides to stick resolutely to evidence-based policy and not resort to repeating unscientific folk mythology. That includes the Forager’s Association.

Perfect roadkill venison

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

29/08/2016

I went out today in search of cherry plums, and found none. But as is often the way with foraging, you go out looking for one thing and end up finding something else. This time it was an almost perfect roadkill deer.

The small ones are more juicy...

The small ones are more juicy…

Roadkill is a bit of a lottery. A large number of deer are involved in collisions on Britain’s roads every year, and I drive past more than my fair share in the heavily wooded countryside of Kent and Sussex (I am fortunate not to have actually hit any – they can do some serious damage to your car). Many of these carcasses are not in very good condition, especially at this time of year, when the temperature means that roadkill meat does not stay in good condition for very long unless it is found and dealt with soon after death. In freezing conditions in mid-winter it keeps for much longer. In this case, it was a young fawn and the carcass still had rigor mortis when I picked it up from the side of the A21, indicating that it was a fresh kill. The fact that it was so young was also beneficial – there might be less meat on a young fawn like this, but it is obviously much easier to get it into the back of the car, and it is easier to butcher the carcass. The meat is also very tender, unlike in some older animals.

Internal organs removed.

Internal organs removed.

The next thing that determines how good a carcass is for meat is where on the carcass the damage is. In this case it was not obvious from looking at it – there was no visible damage. This is a good sign, apart from the small risk that the animal did not die from a road traffic accident – you do not want to be eating animals that died from disease. However, since this was next to a road, the chance of that was very slim, and it usually becomes very clear what happened as you butcher the carcass – the butchery process is therefore partly an autopsy.

The last thing you want to find is damaged intestines or stomach, because this can taint the whole carcass. Put bluntly, it makes the meat taste of shit, as well as introducing health hazards. In this case the guts were completely intact, but there was some damage to the liver. Venison liver is very rich (so rich that it it unsafe to eat it more than three or four times a year, or you risk poisoning from excessive amounts of vitamin A). Further damage became apparent to the rib cage – this fawn had suffered a sideways impact, damaging mainly its ribs and some of its internal organs. But on the whole there wasn’t much damage and nearly all of the best cuts of meat were in a usable state.

The best bits: two fore legs, two hind legs, two sides of saddle, two tenderloins.

The best bits: two fore legs, two hind legs, two sides of saddle, two tenderloins.

The bits I usually keep from a roadkill deer (in addition to the liver) are the legs, the saddle and the tenderloin. This was a rare case where all of these parts were usuable. On a larger deer, creative use of parts like the neck and flanks become more worthwhile.

The meat is now sitting in my kitchen (with the windows closed to stop the flies coming in), so the blood can drain out of the various cuts. Will be ready for freezing later this evening.

Edible Mushrooms: a look inside the new book

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

23/08/2016

cover_cropWell, mushroom season is nearly upon us once again, and this year there’s going to be a new book on fungi foraging to add to your collection. Here is your first chance to take a look inside and get a taste of what you can expect from Edible Mushrooms. To start with, here is the finished cover (click on the image to enlarge), with comments taken from reviews of the book by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Town movement), Fergus “the forager” Drennan, Tim Maddams (of River Cottage fame) and Gary Johnston from Jack Raven Bushcraft. We decided to to buck the trend of putting a Penny Bun on the front of the book: these are Dark Honey Fungus, pictured growing in a conifer plantation in south-west Kent.

snk_prv2The book is divided into two sections: Part I consists of seven chapters on various aspects of fungi foraging, including an extensive chapter covering the different cultural attitudes to edible wild fungi in different parts of Europe, the historical origins of these cultural differences and the resulting differences in the legal situation. In places where fungi foraging has not, until very recently, been popular, the laws are likely to be out of date. If hardly anybody forages for fungi, then there isn’t much need for regulation, and vice versa. Part II – the bulk of the book – is the species guide.

charcoal_burnerThis is a spread from the species guide, to give an idea of the sort of information provided for each of the 320 species covered in the book, and the quality and format of the photos. The Charcoal Burner is a common species, but it is not often you come across a patch like this, which shows the wide variation of cap colours that are characteristic of this species. Even less frequently do you find them in reasonable condition (wildlife finds them just as tasty as humans do) and at a time and place where the weather is good for taking photographs.

introdHere is the first half of the introduction, including a picture of yours truly taken by my wife, Cathy, on her phone. It was never intended to find its way into the book, but sometimes unplanned photos work out the best. The location is Eartham Woods in West Sussex on a rather foggy day in September 2013. Forestry monocultures like this are often derided by ecologists for their lack of biodiversity, but in the case of fungi they can sometimes turn out to be very rich hunting grounds indeed, especially if, as in this example, there is a lot of coarse woody debris littering the forest floor.

snk_prv1Edible Mushrooms: a foragers guide to the fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe will go on general release on October 20th 2016 at an RRP of £19.99. You can already pre-order copies from the major online book retailers, you’ll be able to pre-order from the publisher Green Books very soon, and signed copies will be available directly from myself, a few days before the official release date, if you get in contact with me before the end of September (my email address is at the top of this page – please email me if you’d like to order a signed copy).

 

 

 

Pepper Dulse – Spice of the Sea

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

11/07/2016

Laver (Porphyra sp.)

Laver (Porphyra sp.)

I’ve just returned from a week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire, much of which I spent wandering about near-deserted beaches at low tide in search of seaweed – specifically in search of really nice photos of edible seaweeds. Pembrokeshire is, of course, famous for one particular edible seaweed that is an essential traditional component of a Full Welsh Breakfast: Laver. When exposed on the rocks, Laver can look uncannily like the monster “Scaroth” from classic Doctor Who serial “City of Death”, but fortunately it’s rather more edible and highly nutritious. “Laver Bread” is made by simmering the seaweed (which must be repeatedly washed to get rid of the sand) for six hours, before mixing with oats and frying. Perfect for a slow cooker.

Dulse (Palmaria palmata)

Dulse (Palmaria palmata)

But it was Pepper Dulse I was really after. This is not to be confused with Dulse, to which it is not closely related and does not even vaguely resemble. Dulse is another famous edible seaweed, generally associated with Ireland more than Wales, but common around most of the coasts of the British Isles and very abundant in Pembrokeshire. Dulse is edible raw, with a strong “umami” flavour and a gently chewy texture, but is more often dried – like crisps before crisps, but better – or fried, or used in stocks and broths… The most obvious visual difference between Dulse and Pepper Dulse is the size of the fronds. Dulse is much bigger and noticeable. It can also be found much more easily further up the beach.

Pepper Dulse (Osmundia pinnatiffida)

Pepper Dulse (Osmundia pinnatiffida)

Pepper Dulse can be a more elusive quarry. I found it on several Pembrokeshire beaches, but on each occasion it only became obvious in the half hour or so around low tide. It is also easily missed unless you know what you’re looking for – especially in terms of its size. It superficially looks a lot like any number of small, frilly, red seaweeds (although it is not always red, particularly if it is higher up the beach). You’ll know instantly that you’ve found Pepper Dulse though, the moment you smell it or taste it. “Truffle of the Sea” (as it has been described elsewhere on the internet) is a bit misleading, but it certainly qualifies as “Spice of the Sea”. It is at its strongest nibbled raw, when it has a taste and smell that is something like a mixture of garlic, pepper and some of the more aromatic fungi in the genus Lactarius (the spicy milkcaps).

Pepper Dulse closeup. Each frond is smaller than a fingernail.

Pepper Dulse closeup. Each frond is smaller than a fingernail.

Collecting it can be a bit of a bind, especially if the tide has rendered you short of time or you are knee deep in the waves. But simply ripping it off the rocks is counter-productive, because you’ll end up with loads of the wrong sorts of seaweed, as well as bits of rock and sand. Ripping the holdfast off also prevents it from regrowing, and you will need to remove it later anyway. A sturdy pair of scissors are the best option.

If you aren’t going to eat it fresh then Pepper Dulse can be dried and powdered, at which point it becomes a spice to rival anything you’ll find in a traditional curry recipe. The only problem is that it tends to lose some of its potency and you’ll need to collect quite a lot of it in order to end up with a decent amount of dried seaweed spice. As things stand this seaweed is still relatively unknown as an edible species. I suspect as the foraging revolution continues to gain pace, it won’t remain overlooked for much longer. It is unquestionable the most flavoursome edible European seaweed, and everything about it suggests it has a bright culinary future.

Nursehound

Nursehound

I didn’t spend the entire week on a beach. I also went sea fishing – something I have relatively little experience of. Most of the fish weren’t biting, but I did get lucky with quite a few members of the shark family, most notably the Nursehound. This species is one of several sold in fish and chip shops under the name “huss” (it is also called “Bull Huss”). Traditionally it was not just eaten, but its skin used as a high quality and extremely expensive alternative to sand paper. I learned about this the hard way, the skin on my hands being ripped to shreds as I skinned the biggest of the day’s catch. Most of the others were returned to the reef.

I have to say that my first visit to Pembrokeshire is unlikely to be my last. There’s a reason why it is the only coastal national park in Britain – the geology is spectacular. It is also the perfect playground for a forager. Cornwall without the crowds.

Oregon Grape Jelly

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

19/05/2016

mahoniaOregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) aren’t grapes. They aren’t native to Europe either, coming, as their name implies, from North America, where they are the state plant of Oregon. In the UK they are more often simply referred to by the Latin name “Mahonia”, and they are a very popular ornamental garden plant. Their closest native European relative is Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – a species that was once common in Britain but was systematically exterminated in many areas because it is a host plant for a fungus that attacks cultivated cereal crops. Oregon Grape produces yellow flowers in spring, but by early summer (i.e. now) these have been replaced by masses of beautiful purple-blue berries. These berries are edible raw, but not particularly impressive. They have large pips, and are rather bitter and tart. They are much better used in jams and jellies, especially to accompany game.

oregon_grape_closeupOregon Grape jelly is very easy to make. First collect plenty of berries. This is quite simple, because they hang in long clusters and easily detach. Although you do need to watch out for the spiky, holly-like leaves and the juice stains everything seriously purple (so wear rubber gloves if you don’t want to stain your hands, and don’t wear your best clothes). When you get them home, rinse the berries to get rid of any debris. The only other ingredients required are sugar and water, and you need a berries/sugar/water ratio of 3/1/1 by volume. Oregon Grape has a high natural pectin content, so you don’t need to add any extra, although there are variations on this jelly that include other ingredients such as lemon juice and ginger. Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, then add the sugar and berries and boil gently for 20 minutes covered, mashing a couple of times. Uncover, raise the heat a little and boil for a final five minutes. Then strain through a sieve, using the back of a spoon to get as much of the juice and pulp through as possible, while leaving the pips and the skin in the sieve. Or you can use a food mill.

And that’s it! As it cools it will set firmly, and it is ready to be served with venison, turkey or other strong-tasting meats. (If it doesn’t set well, you can always return it to the saucepan and boil for another few minutes to reduce the water content, then leave to set again.)

Ramsons and Nettles

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

28/04/2016

ramsons“Wild Garlic” is one of those unhelpful common names that refers to more than one plant. There are at least 8 members of the genus Allium growing wild in Britain, several of which have been called “Wild Garlic” at one time or another. However, most people use the name to refer to Allium ursinum, otherwise known as “Ramsons”. It is the only wild vegetable that almost everybody has heard of, and it is very common in woodland throughout the whole of the UK. There are a few things people mix it up with, including the highly toxic Lily of the Valley. However, none of its poisonous lookalikes smell of garlic, so they are fairly easy to avoid.

What to do with it? The whole plant is edible, but it is illegal to uproot wild plants so it’s the leaves and flowers that actually get used. You can just eat them raw, as part of a salad – the unopened flower buds pack a serious garlic punch. Ramsons soup is another popular choice, and you can also use the broad blades of the leaves to make “dolmades” – the wild British equivalent of stuffed vine leaves. However, one of the tastiest ways to use them is to simply sauté them in butter. This works particularly well when combined with another wild vegetable that is abundantly available at the moment – Stinging Nettles.

nettles

Collecting nettles is a little tricky, of course. You need a sturdy pair of rubber gloves, and maybe a pair of scissors. You only want the tip of each nettle – the smallest 4, or at most 6, leaves. When you get the home, rinse them under cold water, then blanch for 30 seconds in boiling water. This will disable their stings, and allow you to roughly chop them. Then wash and chop the Ramsons, and sauté both in butter, making sure that the Nettles and Ramsons are well mixed together. They will be ready in about three minutes, or however long it takes until most of the water has been boiled out of the pan.

Wild Cabbage

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

21/01/2016

Velvet Shanks. Sussex, January 2016.

Velvet Shanks. Sussex, January 2016.

Midwinter is a lean time for foraging. We’re just heading into what is statistically the coldest month of the year, and properly cold temperatures have finally arrived in the UK. The only fungi you’re likely to find are Jew’s Ears and Velvet Shanks, and you’ll need a good dose of luck to come across those. Although I was rather pleased to find this lot, which were sneakily hidden inside a dead log, making them rather hard to spot but worth finding from a photographic point of view, because the very fact that they are growing in a restricted space,

Enokitake - the cultivated version of Velvet Shanks.

Enokitake – the cultivated version of Velvet Shanks.

with restricted light, has meant they more closely resemble their cultivated descendents Enokitake

than Velvet Shanks normally do. The Japanese force this species to grow into this strange, spaghetti-like form by growing them in the dark, in canisters, with an elevated level of carbon dioxide.

In terms of plant foraging, the most advanced Alexanders plants are just reaching their best for harvesting and using the succulent stems, although most of them are still much too small and won’t be ready for a few more weeks. Alexanders is a coastal specialist, and where it is present it is usually present in invasive quantities.

Wild Cabbage. Sussex, January 2016.

Wild Cabbage. Sussex, January 2016.

The same cannot be said for Wild Cabbage. Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea), is the wild ancestor not only of cultivated cabbages but also broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. It is native to coastal areas of western and southern Europe, but it doesn’t compete well with other plants and therefore tends to be restricted, naturally, to its most preferable habit, which is chalk sea cliffs. It is not particularly common.

However, it does also sometime thrive in disturbed ground near the coast, and not exclusively in chalk/limestone areas. Right now there’s loads of it growing in otherwise barren mud, all along the sides of the new Hastings-Bexhill link road. This is acidic, sandy soil, about a mile inland from the sea. It’s likely to be brief, localised hey-day for the Wild Cabbage. Come the spring this mud will doubtless become a sea of early-colonising “weeds”, hopefully (from a foraging point of view) including loads of juicy Fat-Hen.

Wild Cabbage leaves.

Wild Cabbage leaves.

For now I will enjoy this rare glut of Wild Cabbage. It is actually much tastier than any of its cultivated forms – the same taste, just stronger. The stems can be stringy, so you need to strip the leafy parts of the leaves before steaming for a few minutes and serving with melted butter.

 

Oh well, there’s always next year…

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

05/12/2015

winter_woodlandThere couldn’t be bumper years for fungi if there weren’t also duff ones. 2015 was a duff one. As explained in the previous post, the start of the season was promising and it was a great year for Chanterelles and Horn of Plenty, but after that it just went downhill and stayed there. Last October was also a bit dodgy, because it had been too warm, but there was a recovery in November. This November was the worst for fungi, both in terms of variety of species and number of actual mushrooms, that I can remember. It also ended early – in a normal year I’d still be out picking Winter Chanterelles now, but they stopped growing several weeks ago and now there’s none of those left either – not in good enough condition to pick, anyway.

On the bright side, it bodes well for next year. When a particular species of fungus has a bad year, it often does well the following year, and when all the fungi do badly then lots of them will do well the following year. I don’t expect to see many chanterelles, but there’s likely to be plenty of other stuff. Which would suit me just fine, given that I’m going to spend most of next autumn launching a book on fungi foraging…of which I have some news, because a decision has now been made on the title and release date.

The book is going to be called “Edible Mushrooms: a forager’s guide to the fungi of Britain and Europe” and it will hit the bookshops on Thursday September 29th. It will feature over 250 edible species and 50 poisonous ones, covering the whole of the temperate and mountainous areas of Europe (that is, everywhere apart from the Mediterranean climate zone and biome south of the Alps and Pyrenees, where the fungi are significantly different).

Some other news for next year: I will be running open-to-the-public sessions in Hemsted Forest (half way between Tunbridge Wells and Ashford). See link at the top of the page for details.

Enjoy your Christmas and see you next year.

Geoff