Author Archives: Geoff Dann

About Geoff Dann

Foraging teacher and author

Geoff’s Homesteading and the Search for Ecocivilisation?

03/02/2024

This is a more accurate description of my life these days, so it is now the name of this website, after over a decade of being “Geoff’s Fungi and Foraging”.

When I created this blog/website over a decade ago, fungi foraging was an experimental new career for me, after escaping from software engineering and making myself otherwise unemployable by studying philosophy as a mature student. Not long after that I moved to Hastings, which is one of the best places in the UK if you’re interested in fungi, surrounded as it is by pockets of diverse woodland, much of it ancient. There I wrote two books on foraging (Edible Mushrooms has now sold well over 20,000 copies and its sales increase every year), and eventually got to the point where I was just about earning a respectable living from running foraging courses in Sussex.

The problem with south-east England, of course, is that the property market is insane and there’s far too many people everywhere. When my mother died, and I inherited some money, we had to decide where we were going to move to next. Had we chosen to stay in south-east England, our budget might have stretched to a decent three bed house on a plot of half an acre. A step up from a terraced house with a 5x20m garden, but not enough to seriously change your way of life (I’m old enough to remember the original broadcast of The Good Life). So we looked at many different options and eventually homed in on Ceredigion because it is pretty much the only place in England and Wales where smallholdings are reasonably abundant and relatively affordable. Foraging potential wasn’t on the list of things we were looking for.

As you have probably guessed by now, Ceredigion cannot compete with Sussex and Kent for fungi foraging, and it can’t compete for coastal foraging either (though Pembrokeshire can). It is simply not possible for me to run the sort of courses here that I ran there. I’ve also run out of things to say — when you’ve written two 500+ page books on foraging, and blogged and posted about foraging for over a decade, then it is hardly surprising that there is not much you can say without repeating yourself.

In future I shall therefore be focusing not just on foraging but the much wider topics of smallholding with the goal of resiliency and self-sufficiency, and also the philosophical and theoretical foundations of Ecocivilisation. Much more on that to follow!

St George’s Mushrooms in West Wales!

28/04/23

Fungi never fail to keep me guessing. Usually at this time of year I am out and about in search of St George’s Mushooms (so called because they traditionally come out on St George’s Day, which was 5 days ago). I made no effort at all this year, because there are very few records in West Wales, and none at all in our part of Ceredigion (we moved here last summer from Sussex). And so I was absolutely delighted to find some this morning, by the side of a footpath no more than 20 metres from where our main drive meets the public road. The downside is now I am going to have to spend considerable time trying to find out where else they grow around here!

For any readers not already familiar with this famous mushroom, it is very safe to collect at this time of the year, because so there is very little chance of confusion with dangerous lookalikes. You do need to be aware of the Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum), which can looks similar and occasionally fruits in spring, but the smell of that mushroom is much less pleasant — it smells more like cleaning fluid than the melon rind smell of St George’s.

As for what to do with them….their strong taste means they pair well with strong-tasting partners such as offal or oily fish. They also work with goose and duck eggs.  Speaking of which…our first three domestic ducks are teenagers now (more due to hatch tomorrow). Sadly for my hopes of St George’s and duck eggs they are not laying yet, and we now know that two of them are drakes.  Doubtless St George’s mushrooms would make a fine accompaniment to roast duck too.

Wildlife pond system restoration

14/03/2023

This post has nothing to do with either foraging or fungi, but I hope at least some of my readers will be interested in what I have been doing since we moved to a smallholding in West Wales. As well as turning an ad-hoc equestrian property into a food producing holding, I have been restoring a system of three wildlife ponds which had been totally neglected for years – decades maybe. When we moved in in July the top two ponds were silted to the top and totally obscured by fallen willows and brambles. When I had hacked my way through to the top pond, I found it had a trickle of water flowing over deep mud and disappearing over a partially-collapsed dam I couldn’t access at all. The middle pond had a tiny pool of water in the centre, and the bottom pond was bone dry. The previous occupants told me that the bottom pond clay liner was cracked, but the real problem was the water supply.

I have now (just) finished the restoration work and the whole system is ready for wildlife to come roaring back in the spring. The story of the restoration is best told in pictures. A five minute video taken today of the fully restored system can be found here.

29/07. Bottom pond is to the left, obscured by grey willows.

29/07. Bottom pond, completely dry.

29/07. Middle pond from the side.

29/07. Middle pond with a tiny puddle of water in the centre. The mud is more than half a metre deep under the puddle.

17/08. Exit of the top pond cleared. I have started to dig a new channel in the bottom of the leat so water can reach the middle pond.

17/08. Top pond. The mud is deeper than it looks!

1`7/08. Top pond from below the dam. This was my first attempt to rebuild it. At this point I just wanted all the meagre water to go the other way. We were in a drought at the time.

17/08. Looking towards the top pond from half way down the leat to the middle pond, showing the new channel.

17/08. Water starts reaching the middle pond in drought conditions for the first time for many years. I’ve just started the job of clearing the bur-reeds.

17/08. Middle pond from below the waterfall.

17/08. Bottom pond from the bridge. I’ve had the first big fire, so this was the first time there was easier access in this area.

17/08. Far end of the bottom pond.

03/09. The drought had started to break at this point, but still no water in the bottom pond.

07/09. The water level in the middle pond has now reached the pipes for the first time. I later replaced the pipes with a slate “ford” and raised the water level, but at that point I wanted the bottom pond to start filling.

07/09. Water starts to collect in the bottom pond.

16/09. Attention now turns to the major task of clearing the willows from the top pond. This involves clambering around on branches, over 1 metre deep mud, with a pruning saw. I was too scared to use a chainsaw in these conditions (having never used one before).

29/09. Ducks arrive for the first time. Water still just trickling over the waterfall.

14/10. The willows are now mostly cleared from the top pond, and it is just beginning to look a bit like a pond again.

14/10. Top of the dam taken down again in order to lower the water level because I have started dredging the top pond (entirely by hand).

21/10. Dredging complete apart from the topmost section, which I will dredge later this year. Plenty of water coming down the stream, and two bridges installed.

30/10. The first large contingent of ducks arrive. They will come and go throughout the winter. Only one pair have set up permanent residence.

01/11. The stream is in full flood for the first time, and I realise I am going to have to change the dam so that when it floods like this, most of the water goes the other way!

01/11. Water flowing out of the bottom pond like this will cause serious erosion in no time at all. First I need to reduce the flood flow, then I’m going to have to think about this outflow channel.

18/11. Reedmace and willow at dawn. Bottom pond looking towards the outflow.

18/11.

11/12. Winter arrives. Top pond looking very tranquil.

Macro Mushroom mass fruiting and news of next year’s events

10/11/2022

I haven’t had much to post about this autumn, having taken the year off running fungi foraging events because I have just moved to Ceredigion in Wales, and I’ve spent most of my time since then getting our smallholding up and running, and restoring a neglected system of 3 wildlife ponds. Which meant I didn’t even bother checking what was going on in the field beyond our top field, and didn’t realise there was a bonanza on offer. Until today the only Agaricus species I’ve seen growing in our new vicinity was moelleri (aka “Inky Mushroom”) — a relatively small species that smells of TCP and gives people headaches and stomach aches. But today, on a hunch, I decided to go in a direction I hadn’t been for weeks, and I was treated to the biggest mass-fruiting I have ever seen of the biggest Agaricus of them all – the Macro Mushroom (Agaricus macrosporus syn. urinascens).

Agaricus is a relatively tricky genus. None of the 30-odd British species are seriously poisonous, but working out which species you’ve found is frequently rather difficult, since they all look like relatives of cultivated mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus, in all its domesticated forms). A handful are easier to be sure of, and this is one of them — it is one of the few fungi that can be distinguished from its many otherwise-lookalikes by size alone. The largest fruit bodies can reach 30cm in diameter. See 50p for scale in the last photo. This species is a very close relative of the much more common (and smaller) Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) and has the same mild aniseed aroma. Found in grassland throughout the British Isles, often in rings (in this case about 20). My freezer is now full of perfect, grub-free specimens, and there are several large mushrooms lodged in the branches of trees on the other (upwind) side of our property, in the hope that this species will colonise our fields.

I also have some good news regarding events for next year. I have found a great location to run fungi foraging events — a 420 acre sheep farm near the village of Talley in Carmarthenshire. There is plenty of woodland, both deciduous and coniferous, and a grassland ridge that was covered in waxcaps when I visited in late October.  Dates and booking information here.

 

 

 

 

Apple and wild fruit leathers

30/09/22. Note: This is a guest post by Cathy.

How do you like them apples?

We have apples coming out of our ears. There’s a beautiful Bramley apple tree here at our new place, with another non-cooking apple tree next to it.

Back in Hastings, if we had a surplus of anything, it was easy to find someone who wanted it. Here, we nearly got laughed out of a meet-the-neighbours group for even suggesting it; everyone else has too many apples too!

Dora has started school and they did a cooking lesson where she learned how to make a blackberry and apple crumble, so we’ve already made a few crumbles at home using her new-found skills.

Frozen apples

This week, I’ve started devoting some time to preserving some of the Bramleys for the longer term. Firstly, the obvious: freezing. You peel them, core them, cut them, toss them in lemon juice and spread them out on a baking sheet to ‘open freeze’ them. Then you transfer them to a bag. The advantage over putting them straight in the bag is that they don’t stick to each other, which makes it easier to defrost the right amount when you want to use them. So far 30 apples have met their demise this way.

Dried apples

A further eight apples have been dried. Peel, core, thinly slice, then put them into a bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon while you finish the rest. (I skipped the lemon for the second batch and can confirm, you need the lemon to stop them going brown.) Drain them and put them into the dehydrator, where they take a good eight hours or so to dry. You can also use a low oven.

They’re sweet, sour and chewy, and the internet tells me they should last six months stored at room temperature.

Fruit leather

Twelve more apples have gone into chewy fruit leathers, and I’ve made three different flavours: (apple and) rosehip, elderberry and sloe.

The basic recipe is the same: peel, core and chop four apples (this makes two baking trays worth of leather), bring to the boil in a saucepan then simmer for 5-10 minutes until soft, then remove from the heat and drain off the water. Make sure you drain off the water before the apples disintegrate into mush (and I speak from experience here). Then put the lid back on for a few minutes to let them soften a bit more. Then add any other fruits you’re using, and a spoonful of sugar or two if you like.

In each case I used about two cupped handfuls of the ingredients below per four apples.

Sloes: Nice and easy – just simmer with a little water until soft, allow to cool, then pick out the stones.

Elderberries: Also easy, just remember it’s important to cook them because they are toxic raw. Remove all the green parts, add the berries to water, and simmer for 15 minutes. I also strained mine, but only to avoid lumpy leather.

Rosehips: It’s important to get rid of the seeds and irritating hairs from the insides. I did this by halving, scraping and rinsing, but I am a patient person! You can also cook them whole then strain them really well, though you get more wastage that way. Either way, simmer them in water for around 15 minutes.

Blend your ingredients to a smooth paste. Line two baking trays with paper and spread out the paste to about 2-3mm, then dry in a low oven for 2-3 hours. To save energy, you can time it to coincide with dinner and use the top oven above whatever you’re cooking, or put the trays near/above a woodburner, in an airing cupboard, or in a sunny spot. Just make sure it’s a fly-free area.

I’m expecting these to last around a month at room temperature, or much longer in the fridge (we previously made some that was still good at least six months later), and it can also be frozen.

What’s next?

Wine. Wine is next. I used to do a lot of wine making, but I haven’t done any since becoming a mum and not being able to devote areas of the house to bubbling glass containers. But now we have space, I’m going to dust off all the gear. Apparently Bramleys make a dry white, which sounds good to me and much more enticing than cider.

Also, there is a Latvian apple cake recipe in our family that I need to rediscover. It has a kind of meringue layer that rises to the top, which I remember being pretty amazing, if only I could find where I put the recipe.

Apple veterans, what do you do with yours?

A new life in Ceredigion, in Wild West Wales

17/08/2022

Our new home in Wales, the day after we arrived

This blog has been very quiet in recent months, and the reason was my life has been on hold as my family prepared to move from a small terraced house in Hastings (East Sussex) to a 6 acre smallholding on the Welsh coast, not far from the charming seaside village of New Quay. Having lived in urban south-east England for the whole of my 54 year life, this has been transformational for us. We have not moved for the foraging; there’s no way Ceredigion can compete with the ancient woodlands of Sussex and Kent when it comes to fungi, and if it was seaweeds I was interested in then we’d have gone further down to Pembrokeshire. The reason we’ve moved is because we believe big trouble is coming, and we wanted to get as far away from the overpopulated hinterland of London as possible, without having to face the dark winters and harsh climate of northern Scotland. This “cost of living crisis” is misnamed, because “crisis” implies it is temporary. We fear it is really the start of something much bigger, much worse, and permanent. We therefore plan to spend the coming months turning this land from an unorthodox “equestrian property” into both a place for producing food, and a haven for wildlife. It has plenty of potential for both, given that it has three long-abandoned wildlife ponds, along with a “canal” and a dam, plus a truly gigantic pile of well-rotted horse manure.

Totally overgrown wildlife pond, about the size of three tennis courts and currently dry because the “canal” which is supposed to feed it is silted up, and the dam partially collapsed. We have much work to do!.

Whether or not I start running public foraging events will depend on whether I can find a suitable location to do so. I have one experimental fungi foraging event scheduled near Newcastle Emlyn, but this is is already fully booked and I cannot add any more until I see how the first one goes (I am currently yet to visit the woodland where it will take place). I intend to spend much of this autumn exploring Wales in search of suitable places to take people fungi foraging, and I will be attempting to introduce all sorts of wild plants of foraging interest into our own land next year, but it is too early for me to plan any public events.

I will, however, be available for private foraging events in Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, though this will be on the understanding that I have no detailed local knowledge — I have no “spots” I can take people to. It is more likely to involve people suggesting to me places that they would like to go foraging than the other way around, although I obviously have a list of places I am planning to visit. If you might be interested in booking a private event then please email me and we can work out the details (I am not expecting to make much money out of such activities, since they will all be experimental).

Also, if anybody reading this has some land they think might be suitable for running foraging events and would be interested in collaborating, please do get in touch.

 

 

Ogonori (Gracilaria) salad

21/03/2022

Gracilaria is a genus of red seaweed much better known as food in Japan and Hawaii than in Europe, where in some places they have been foraged out of existence. In Europe there is no history of consumption (even in these post-foraging-revival times). The English name is the unattractive “wartweed”, so I generally use the Japanese common name of ‘Ogonori’. There are a number of very similar species, mostly found in sandy areas, especially where there is running

Gracilaria gracilis (Slender Wartweed / Ogonori)

water when the tide is out, and in areas only exposed during very low spring tides. They can be found all around the British coast, from spring to autumn. All of them consist of long, straggly annual strands, which grow from a perennial holdfast (so cut them off instead of pulling them up!). They should not be confused with the many red seaweeds which have much finer hair-like strands, or are more branching and angular. Although this is only a matter of taste and texture — there are no poisonous lookalikes. The species used here is Gracilaria gracilis (Slender Wartweed).

The recipe included here is taken from my recently published book Edible Plants. It has proved a firm favourite on my coastal foraging courses. It started out as a fusion of traditional Japanese and Hawaiian recipes, but has been evolved and refined sufficiently over the years to the point where I can claim it as my own recipe. If you would like to try it then I am planning on serving some at the book signing event at City Books in Hove at 6.30pm on Thursday March 31st.

Ogonori (Gracilaria) salad

For the salad: 100g fresh Gracilaria, 3 escallion shallots (peeled and sliced as thinly as possible with a mandoline), one quarter of a cucumber, 1 fresh fleshy red chilli (sliced), fresh grated root ginger, black sesame seeds.

For the dressing: 3tbsp rice vinegar, 2tbsp light soy sauce, 1tbsp toasted sesame oil, 1tsp clear honey.

Method: Slice the cucumber thinly, cover with salt, leave for 20 to 30 mins, then drain and pat off any excess salt. The goal is to get rid of as much water as possible – gently squeezing will help. Mix the rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey to make a dressing. Optionally chop the Gracilaria into 4-5cm lengths (this makes it easier to eat using only a fork, which is what we do when this is prepared on the beach). Blanch the ogonori in boiling water for 40 secs (it will turn green), then immediately rinse in cold water, to keep it nice and crunchy. Place a layer of salted cucumber, sliced shallots and chilli in a circle on a plate. Mix the ogonori with the chilli and ginger, and place in the middle of the circle. Pour the dressing onto the mixture, and garnish with sesame seeds.