Author Archives: Geoff Dann

Introducing the Sooty Parasol – Macrolepiota fuliginosa

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

29/09/2017

Conifer Parasol (Chlorophyllum olivieri)

The parasols used to be so simple. One big one with a stripey stem, one small one with a plain stem that turned red when you cut it open, and also made some people violently sick. They were the Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera) and the Shaggy Parasol (Macrolepiota then Chlorophyllum rhacodes). And there were a couple of others that weren’t very common, but seemed reasonably easy to identify, and had English common names.

Everything has since all become rather more complicated. The old Shaggy Parasol has been split into three, two of which were given new English names while my book was being put together (Brown Parasol – Chlorophyllum brunneum and Conifer Parasol – Chlorophyllum olivieri). The Conifer Parasol in particular has been throwing people astray this autumn, with many mistaking it online for a Macrolepiota. This situation is not made any easier by the presence of at least two other Macrolepiota species, both of which have caps more similar to the Chlorophyllums than that of M. procera.

Macrolepiota fuliginosa (Sooty Parasol?)

One of these has turned up quite a few times, both on my own travels and in posts from southern England online. It is supposedly very rare, but I am beginning to suspect it is not as rare as all that. Today I came across it growing on a grass verge right next to a busy main road, not far from a school, and most of the fruit bodies had been disturbed by passers-by. It doesn’t have an English common name, and there wasn’t enough space to include it in my book (or it would have been given one at the time). Maybe it is about time it was given one, and in this case it is there is a very obvious candidate for a name. Its specific epithet is fuliginosa, which means “sooty”. Since this rather aptly describes its cap, at least relative to its better-known relative, “Sooty Parasol” is surely the odds-on favourite. I have suggested it to the British Mycological Society, and will be using this name until/unless informed that a decision had been made to call it something else. Regarding identification, another difference is the stem, which is more “marbled” than “snakeskin”. It also tends to turn up more often in woodland than procera does.

Macrolepiota, possibly fuligineosquarrosa. Scaly Parasol.

They have an even rarer relative, which I believe I may have come across a couple of years ago (although having only found it once and relying on rather minimal information about it, I am far from certain that this picture really is the species concerned). This fungus also has a descriptive Latin name – Macrolepiota fuligineosquarrosa. “Squarrosa” means “scaly” in Latin (I think!), so perhaps this one should be called “Scaly Sooty Parasol”. Though I think I’ll wait for the first suggestion to be accepted before offering another…

(Update: Liz Holden from the BMS likes “Sooty Parasol”, but perhaps fuligineosquarrosa is going to end up just being “Scaly Parasol”, which is admittedly less clunky.)

They are both just as edible and tasty as a normal Parasol Mushroom.

Lamb Shanks with Horn of Plenty recipe

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

14/09/2017

Horn of Plenty / Black Trumpet (Craterellus cornocopioides)

As requested by several people, here’s my Horn of Plenty and Lamb Shanks recipe.

Ingredients:

2 large or 3 small lamb shanks
Lots of Horn of Plenty (and possibly other wild mushrooms, see below)
500ml vegetable stock
250ml Côtes du Rhône red wine
1 onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
mixed herbs, salt & pepper
vegetable or olive oil for frying
optional: carrot, stick of celery, bay leaves, bouquet garni

For the mushrooms, horn of plenty is definitely recommended and works best, either on its own or mixed 50/50 with penny buns or other good quality boletes. They can be dried or fresh, and the quantity is up to you. Today I happened to use 50% horn of plenty (fresh), and 50% mixed penny bun, dark penny bun & summer bolete, and a couple of morels (all dried). You cannot overdo the wild mushrooms in this dish.

There’s two ways to cook it – a deep casserole dish in an oven, or in a slow cooker. The methods are about the same, but the slow cooker takes longer.

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C or set the slow cooker to high, and put the stock and wine in the slow cooker or the casserole dish. If using a casserole dish then put it on the hob on low.

2. Seal the lamb shanks on all sides in a frying pan with vegetable or olive oil. This takes only a couple of minutes. Add the sealed shanks to the pot.

3. Fry the chopped onion for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and continue to fry for another minute or so. Don’t let either of them burn. Add to the pot, with a large pinch of dried herbs, seasoning, and all the mushrooms. Also add the optional ingredients if so desired.

4. If using a casserole dish (now put in the oven) then check every now and then to make sure there is enough liquid (it will depend how much is escaping). The shanks should be nearly covered with liquid. If there’s not enough, add some extra water. Turn the shanks occasionally to make sure all parts get long cooking. In an oven the meat should be almost falling off the bone after 3 hours. It will take longer in the slow cooker because it can take ages to get up to temperature and start bubbling.

Lamb Shanks with Horn of Plenty

5. Carefully remove the shanks, and put on a plate, then tip the rest of the contents into a large pan and return the shanks to the cooker/casserole. The shanks can just sit there keeping warm, and maybe getting a bit crispy round the edges. Now remove the optional ingredients from the liquid if you used them (they were just there to add flavour), and turn up the heat on the pan to reduce the liquid to a thick sauce with an intense taste. There’s an optional stage here too – you can either just reduce the liquid to a sauce leaving the mushrooms as intact as they still are, or you can use a hand blender to break them into smaller pieces. The first method produces a thinner sauce with identifable bits of mushroom in, the latter a thicker sauce without. Both taste great, which to do is a matter of aesthetics. You can also add a bit of cornflour-in-water to thicken the sauce if you would like more of it with a less strong taste.

6. When the sauce is sufficiently thick and tasty, plate up the shanks with seasonal vegetable and pour loads of sauce over each shank. The sauce goes particularly well with mashed potato.

Cornucopia of Craterellus

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

10/09/2017

Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides). October 2013. October is when you typically find this species in southern England.

Fungi foraging fanatics live for days like the one I just had. So many times you go out and find very little, or at least very little that you actually wanted to find. But by persisting, sooner or later you end up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, and you find something spectacular – something rare and beautiful, something you’ve never found before or just the motherlode of one of your favourites. Last weekend it was the something I’d never found before, today it was the motherlode of my absolute number one favourite fungus. Today I not only saw more Horn of Plenty or Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) than I have ever seen in a day before, I probably saw about as much as I have in my entire previous life before. Truly this fungus lived up to its name. I also learned something new about the way it grows and the way it spreads.

It wasn’t a great day for most other species. I was out with a private group and the only boletes we saw were a handful of Leccinums, the only Amanitas a few False Deathcaps, one or two Brittlegills, some Laccaria, along with a selection of very common inedible species like Wood Woollyfoot and Spotted Toughshank. Only the relatives of the Chanterelle were doing well, and not all of them were doing anything special. We saw a few Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), but 2017 is not, so far, a classic year for members of the genus Cantharellus. Their more-distant relatives Hedgehog Fungi were also about in good numbers, but that’s true nearly every year. It’s only the Craterellus species that are going crazy.

Wavy-capped Chanterelle (Pseudocraterellus undulatus)

Rewind to last week. When I got up last Saturday morning there were two British members of the genus Craterellus I’d never found in the 30+ years I’ve been hunting for fungi. (These are both better known under old Latin names, because they’ve recently been moved to Craterellus from Cantharellus. Recent evidence has suggested that all the hollow-stemmed members of this family should be Craterellus, not Cantharellus.) They are the Golden Chanterelle (Craterellus lutescens) and the Ashen Chanterelle (Craterellus cinereus), and I’d been searching for them without luck for so long that I wondered whether I might never find them. Anyway, last Saturday my wife and I were walking our labradoodle in a tract of woodland I have frequently visited over the past five years, and there were various sorts of Chanterelle all over the place. Significant quantities of Horn of Plenty in places I’d never previously seen them, Winter Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) just starting to fruit, at least a month earlier than they usually do, but most noticeable of all were quite a lot of Wavy-capped Chanterelles. These aren’t Craterellus – their Latin name is (currently) Pseudocraterellus undulatus – but they really ought to be. They share the same smooth spore-bearing surface and hollow stem of the Horn of Plenty and Golden Chanterelle, and are closely related. They are also supposed to be rather rare, but they aren’t this year. I have found large quantities of them over the last week, in many locations I’ve never seen them before. Then my wife found yet another patch of Black Trumpets – apparently in better condition than a lot of the others, which were well past their best. But as I turned them over, I immediately noticed they had false gills – gill-like wrinkles like those of a Winter Chanterelle. Black Trumpets don’t have false gills – they are smooth underneath. Much as they looked like them from above, these were no Black Trumpets.

Ashen Chanterelle (Craterellus cinereus syn. Cantharellus cinereus)

They were Ashen Chanterelles, and it turned out that there were quite a few of them, although they are so rare that I only took a small amount for experimenting in the kitchen. It is not often I get the thrill of finding a wild fungus delicacy for the first time anymore, but one more was crossed off my dwindling to-find list that day. They turned out to be the most fragrant of any Chanterelle-relative I’ve eaten – intensely fruity, even more so than Black Trumpets. That day it became clear that 2017 is a classic Craterellus year, but only today has it become apparent to what extent, at least in some locations.

We were two-thirds of the way through today’s session, and we’d already filled a trug with Horn of Plenty and Hedgehogs. I decided to switch routes and headed off across a road to a different area, hoping to find something else. This was another very familiar tract of woodland, that I’ve observed carefully for the last few years. And I had seen some Horn of Plenty near the entrance to it before, and in a couple of locations in the interior. The most I’d seen in any one year was probably about enough to fill a couple of carrier bags – a decent “haul”, but not an explosion. Today there was a supernova. There were Horns of Plenty in every direction. They weren’t just growing in vast areas where I’ve never seen them before, but they were growing in dense clusters and some individual fruit bodies were enormous (for this species). I had not come equipped for foraging anything myself – the group had borrowed my trug and all I had was a small plastic carrier bag at the bottom of my rucksack. They also had a couple of bags. We spent nearly half an hour moving no more than 50 metres, collecting only the largest of the Black Trumpets, until we ran out of containers. Since running out containers pretty much ends a foraging session, we returned to our start point and the group disappeared off to Hastings planning a Horn of Plenty risotto – before a long evening of removing small creatures from their trumpets.

It had already been a very long weekend (I did another three-hour session yesterday), but my curiousity was such that I could not resist going back out in the woods one more time (my trug now returned, and my bag of trumpets emptied into a box in my car boot). I wanted to know what I would find at a location where, in previous years, there had been considerably more Horn of Plenty than where the group just hit the jackpot. It was only a ten minute walk.

Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides), today in Sussex. It was like this for 30 metres in every direction, and this was just one patch.

Oh. My. God.

This patch had also spread, and in the same relative direction, and the same relative extent. This wasn’t just an expanding mycelium, but hundreds of newly established mycelia, all fruiting like there is no tomorrow. I have never seen anything like it before, and that’s taking into account I’ve spent the last six years foraging full-time in the autumn, and I’ve seen mass-fruitings of this species before. There’s no way I could possibly have picked them all – I just grabbed handfuls of the largest specimens from each little patch, then moved on to the next. I don’t normally approve of “taking more than you need” or posting pictures of your “haul” but in this case these fruit bodies were unbelievably numerous, and a lot of them are at the point where if not picked, they would start to rot (and this is also a species not normally eaten by insect grubs, and largely left untouched by other wildlife (perhaps their strong odour is actually some sort of deterrent for other animals?). And this is one of the few species that is not only easily dried (it is thin-fleshed), but better dried than fresh, so easy to store in quantity without using freezer space. I too have a busy evening of cleaning and drying Black Trumpets; I have enough to last me until next Christmas.

Horn of Plenty, with a few Wavy-capped Chanterelles thrown in for luck.

What do I do with them? They go great in omelettes (a “tromplette”), with pasta, in a cream sauce with white fish, in casseroles and stews and quiches and have many other uses. But my absolute number one black trumpet dish is lamb shanks, slow cooked with mountains of black trumpets and penny buns. I am planning on getting round to posting the recipe some time soon, but tonight I have work to do!

 

 

Three Serious English Poisonous Mushroom Incidents in 3 weeks

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

01/09/2017

Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus)

There has been a spate of poisonings and near-poisonings involving wild fungi in England this August. That they happened in August is itself unusual – in many years the toxic species involved haven’t even started fruiting by now. This year the main fungi season has started early, and some species have been fruiting very abundantly, and this includes some of the most dangerous poisonous species. Combined with the ever-increasing number of people foraging for fungi in the UK, a spate of incidents involving poisonous varieties was probably inevitable. However, these incidents expose a persistent myth – a hangover from our long-standing mycophobia. The impression given is that fungi foraging is a dangerous pastime and even “experts” can get into serious trouble. This is simply not true, as anybody who really does know what they are doing will confirm.

The first case involved some fungi picked on Dartmoor about three weeks ago. It has not, to my knowledge, been reported in the national media, but the victim’s friend’s sister notified the

Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda)

foraging community via social media. She told us that the victim “knows his mushrooms”, and that he had offered his friend some too, but she had rejected them because they were too infested with insect grubs. The insect grubs wouldn’t have harmed her, but had she eaten the fungi then she might have died. The victim is currently in hospital, on dialysis, suffering from kidney failure and in need of a transplant. Within a couple of days, confirmation emerged of the species involved: the victim had mistaken a Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus) for a Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda). The discussion on social media immediately turned to how this could possibly have happened. How could somebody who “knows his mushrooms” have made this particular mistake? The answer is that this is simply not possible. Blewits are blueish-purple-grey, and while there are plenty of Webcaps which are a similar colour, one or two of which are indeed easily mistaken for Blewits, Deadly Webcaps are red-orange. The two fungi also have very different gills and grow at different times of the year – you wouldn’t expect to find a Wood Blewit in England before October, even in a year where everything is early. In short, this is precisely the sort of mistake a novice would make, not an experienced shroomer.

Thai Death Soup (photo by Stephanie Jayne Thomas)

The second case involved absolute beginners: two Thai ladies who had never been mushroom foraging before. They had encountered a local forager who’d been picking Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they decided to pick some for themselves. What they didn’t know was that beginners and Blushers don’t mix well, because it is far too easy to mistake a Panthercap (Amanita pantherina) for a Blusher, and Panthercaps are dangerously poisonous. These two ladies were lucky enough to run into some people from Glamorgan Fungi Group, who, having noticed their bucket full of Blushers, asked them what they were doing. They offered to go through the collection, and check to see whether any Panthercaps had crept in by mistake. No Panthercaps turned up, but something far worse did. In amongst the Blushers were some Deathcaps. More than enough to kill not only these two Thai ladies, but most of their families as well, had they got home and made the wild mushroom soup they had planned. No experienced forager would have made this mistake either. (And I’m not even going to start on the state of this pile of mushrooms, ruined by dirt even without the lurking Deathcaps – what a pointless waste).

A third case emerged yesterday, reported in a local newspaper in Essex. Details are scarce, but what we do know is that an “experienced mushroom picker” who lives in Southend has eaten a Deathcap and has been “hospitalised for several days with severe illness”. It might be true that this was an experienced forager, but I simply don’t believe it. These stories get reported like this, both by the traditional media and on social media, by people who do not understand the risks associated with fungi foraging. Yes, it can be dangerous, but only if you are over-confident, foolish or complacent. “Experienced foragers” do not make these sorts of mistakes – only people who themselves do not know much about fungi make the claim that “even experienced foragers can easily make fatal mistakes”, and this includes both journalists and friends of victims.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides), deadly but does not really look like either The Blusher or a Panthercap, regardless of being related.

Foraging for fungi is perfectly safe provided you take the time to educate yourself about the risks. The two species of fungi involved in these incidents are very well known, and have been responsible for countless previous poisonings worldwide. For any particular edible species, we know what you are likely to confuse them with, and how to tell them apart. The people who end up poisoning themselves (and their friends and families) are nearly always either beginners who didn’t understand the risks, people who are foraging in foreign lands with unfamiliar fungi, or people who made a very stupid mistake that could easily have been avoided. The truth is that people who do take their time, make a bit of effort to learn about fungi and then take a reasonable amount of care, do not end up eating any poisonous wild fungi.

If you want to learn more about safely foraging for fungi then there’s two things you need to two. The first is to buy a good book (mine came out last year, and is the most comprehensive and up-to-date book on fungi foraging in northern Europe).  For details see the link at the top of this page, or reviews on Amazon . The second is to go on a forage (for food) or a foray (just about mushrooms) with somebody who really does know what they are doing, because this greatly accelerates the rate at which you can learn.

Below are some photos of the fungi involved in the recent incidents, and some other of the “usual suspects”  and I’ll leave you with one other comment posted on social media a couple of days ago:

“Has anyone ever eaten a poisonous mushroom? I know they all have varying effects but is the worse that can happen sickness and or diarrhoea? I’m more up for trying mushrooms but my other half is really adamant unless we can know 100% what it is which I find hard as a lot have poisonous look alikes”.

The Blusher (Amanita rubescens), edible but looks like a Panthercap.

Panthercap (Amanita pantherina), poisonous but looks like The Blusher.

Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), another well-known seriously toxic species, though rarely deadly.

Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum), just about as dangerous as a mushroom gets without actually being deadly.

Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) (photo by Andrea Kunze)

 

School holidays fungi foraging special offer

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

Phone: 07964 569715

20/08/2017

The mushroom season has started early in England this year. Usually you wouldn’t start finding much until early September, but this year the woods were already full of fungi two weeks ago. Therefore I’m offering a special deal for anybody who’d like to introduce their kids to the joys of fungi foraging, before the end of the summer holidays. My private groups on weekdays cost £150 for 3 hours and are limited to 6 people. Between now and Friday September 1st, children under 16 go free (up to 6 per group, so the maximum group size would be 12, including 6 under 16s), and the price will also include a free signed copy of my new book (RRP £20). Additional copies will also be available for just £15. Price applies anywhere in Kent or East Sussex.

 

Mushroom Season 2017 opens early and spectacularly!

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

04/08/2017

Giant Puffballs. This photo was taken in very wet weather last week. There were about 25 of them in the same field. It is a classic year for this species.

WOW! What a stunning start to this year’s mushroom season. I have seen it start with a bang in early September before, but I have never before seen anything like what I’ve seen today. Penny Buns a-plenty, loads of other boletes including two I’ve never found before, masses of Russulas (Brittlegills), all sorts of members of the Agaricaeae, plenty of Amanitas and a lovely selection of other stuff including some that don’t normally fruit until the start of October. I have no idea why things have gone so crazy so early – perhaps something to do with two unspectacular previous years, or perhaps the fungi just like this year’s weather. The plants are early too – things like blackberries and plums in fruit earlier than normal. What this indicates for the coming autumn I do not know. Maybe it is going to be an absolutely storming year for mushrooms. Or maybe this is a flash in the pan and it is all going to go very quiet in the autumn. Either way, NOW is the time to get out there if you want to find some good late summer fungi. The situation in Kent and Sussex is better for fungi than I have seen it at any time since the peak of the 2014 season in October that year. Given that the season has started early, I have very few bookings for what might be the best time to go mushrooming this year. Please contact me if you want to get a group together, or arrange some personal tuition. I was with somebody from northern Italy today, who told me it was the best day’s mushrooming he’s ever experienced.

The first of these photos was taken last week (by journalist Sophie Haydock – thanks Sophie!), and perhaps the torrential rain on the morning it was taken has helped with the current flush. All the other photos were taken today. This is not a complete record of what we found today, just the most interesting from a foraging point of view.

Good old Field Mushrooms

Meadow Puffballs, growing on an industrial estate in Hastings

Bilious Bolete, growing beside a road in Hastings. Poisonous, beautiful and rare.

Penny Bun (the first of many)

Horn of Plenty. At the start of August!!! More typically this species fruits in October. The best of the best. Woo-hoo!

Bay Bolete – a superb edible and very unusual to see them this early in Sussex

Fiery Milkcap – edible, but very hot.

Larch boletes. We saw many hundreds of these today.

Yellow-gilled Brittlegill / Olive Brittlegill. A big, meaty proposition. Excellent edible species.

Charcoal Burner – an enormous one. I must have seen a hundred of these today, probably more.

Green Brittlegill. Good edible, but can be mixed up with some poisonous species if you don’t know what you are doing…

One of the small Xerocomus species. Not so many of these today, and hardly exciting as edible fungi go.

Tawny Grisette. A few of these popping up – they are due a good year.

Snakeskin Grisette. Wrongly believe to be poisonous by many people, including Roger Phillips. Excellent edible species (must be cooked), but for experts only (too similar to a Deathcap).

Deathcaps, knocked over, probably deliberately by some **** who thinks destroying poisonous fungi is a socially acceptable pastime.

Deathcaps (unmolested)

The Miller. Mmmmmm. But do not confuse with Fool’s Funnel!!

Stinking Dapperling. Not for the pot! Although unlike some of its relatives, this one won’t kill you.

Grey Spotted Amanitas – edibility disputed.

Chanterelle – looking rather lonely and out of focus. We saw a few of these today, but not worth picking. I found a better patch last night while walking the dog and ate them for my breakfast this morning.

The Blusher. Fruiting in abundance right now. Excellent edible if you can avoid mistaking a Panthercap for it.

Spindleshank. Widely dismissed, but not bad, actually.

Purple Brittlegill (probably atropurpurea or xerampelina)

Blackening Brittlegill in edible state, but hardly worth bothering about when there’s such a bounty of other stuff available.

Rooting Shanks. Edible, but not worth collecting when there’s so much great stuff around.

Blackening Waxcap. Edibility disputed, and too pretty to disturb today.

Hazel Bolete

Brown Birch Bolete. Plenty of these around at the moment.

Parasol Mushroom, past its best.

A rather shaggy Sticky Bolete. Uncommon, and though  edible it is not worthwhile and should be left to multiply.

 

Anthropocene

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
06/07/2017

Anthropocene

Homo what? Oh, sapiens, yes
Chimpanzee in fancy dress
Then one day it started farming
And ecologically self-harming
Millennia passed; it never learned
Fiddled while the planet burned
Cleverest ape there’s ever been
Anthropos of the Anthropocene

Cue battlecries, Silent Springs
Summers of Love and hippy things
Environmentalism’s birth
Jonathan Porritt’s “Save The Earth”
Save the Earth? Save it from what?
Whatever’s in danger, Earth is not
Ah, back in the day when I was a Green
And nobody mentioned the Anthropocene

Times have changed, we have to admit
It’s far too late to dodge this shit
Stare the monster in the face
Karma for the human race
There’s a whole new era dawning
Old one’s over, I’m not mourning
Come to terms, feeling stoic
Not Anthropocene but Anthropozoic

Cleverest Ape there ever was
Caring, sharing Anthropos
Didn’t want to read the runes
Sowed the wind and reaped typhoons
Environmentalism? Empty shell
Green-blue planet? Terrestrial hell
Rock and hard place, in-between
Anthropos of the Anthropocene

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.