Author Archives: Geoff Dann

About Geoff Dann

Foraging teacher and author

Rooting Bolete

11/09/2020

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

Rooting boletes (Caloboletus radicans)

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

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

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

 

Russian chilled blackberry soup

17/07/2020

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

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

Ingredients:

500g fresh blackberries, finely chopped herbs (50g coriander, 5g mint, large sprig of fresh thyme), 1 small onion (finely chopped), 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 1 small cucumber (peeled, seeds removed and diced), 1 tsp wine vinegar, salt to taste and sour cream to serve.

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

Reedmace rhizome flour

30/03/2020

Reedmace in late summer

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

Reedmace rhizomes (March)

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

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

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

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

Reedmace rhizomes cores

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

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

Ready to be pounded or blended

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

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

the authentic route, you now need to pound the

Filtered Reedmace starch suspended in water

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

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

Reedmace flour (partially ground)

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

27/03/2020

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

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

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

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

2019: memorable year for fungi

10/11/2019

There was a hard frost across the whole of the UK on Saturday (yesterday) morning. This will signal the beginning of the end of this year’s autumn fungi season, a full month earlier than it ended last year. It has been a memorable year, of the sort that occurs only once or twice in an average decade.

Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera)

It started late. There was a fairly typical selection of late summer fungi around in mid-August, but September was dry and for some reason I won’t even speculate on, the fungi suffered even worse than normal for a dry period. By the middle of that month there were absolutely no fungi to be found apart from the woody perennials which are always present. This caused something of a backlog of species waiting to fruit. Then in the last week of September the rains came. And it rained, and rained, and rained some more.

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

About a week into October, a wide variety of species started fruiting in spectacular style. This included a number of the larger, well-known edible woodland species, as well as some of the most visible grassland species, especially Parasol Mushrooms. This meant they got noticed, even by people who don’t usually pay any attention to our fungal friends. It was a particularly good autumn for the most famous edible species of them all: the Penny Bun (Cep/Porcino). I was still finding these today, though well past their best for eating.

Some other species had a bad year. Notably there has hardly been any Chicken of the Woods. When this species failed to turn up in the spring, I did wonder if it would fruit more enthusiastically than normal in the autumn, but I’ve not seen it at all. It had a good year in 2018, so it seems it was taking a year off. Horn of Plenty has also been very patchy, and absent in many areas.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Until very recently, it was also looking like a dreadful year for the most famous poisonous species.  I found a few Deathcaps on my first private session of the year, on August 24th, but they then disappeared. Deathcaps are typically an early autumn fruiter, and so when I still wasn’t finding any at the start of November, I figured they too had decided to give 2019 a miss. Then on Thursday (Nov 7th) I was just on my way home from a session and glimpsed some fungi growing on a bank. I didn’t immediately recognise them as Deathcaps because they were enormous. Probably the biggest examples of that species I have ever seen. Today was my last session of the year, and we found another huge patch of them (normal-sized this time).

Winter Chanterelle (Craterullus tubaeformis)

All good things come to an end, but there’s still one species out there to be found in great abundance and it will probably survive the frost. Winter Chanterelles are the last of the famous edibles to have a great year in 2019.

 

 

Parasol Mushrooms going absolutely mental

11/10/2019

Every autumn some species of fungi have a good year and others have a bad year. Sometimes we get a mass-fruiting of a particular species, or a particular group. In 2017 it was Horn of Plenty and its relatives. Last year it was Fly Agarics. This year, in truly spectacular style it is Parasol Mushrooms and all the other species in its genus (Macrolepiota). I cannot recall ever seeing a mass-fruiting of Parasol Mushrooms (M. procera) as the one that has appeared in the last few days. I’ve also seen the biggest mass-fruiting I can remember of its much smaller relative M. excoriata (no common name). This is true all over Kent and Sussex, and reports from elsewhere in the country suggest it is the same as far away as Devon and Northamptonshire.

A large ring of Parasol Mushrooms

Why they do it — why this year it is the year of the Parasols and not something else — is anybody’s guess. It isn’t just down to conditions right now. It might be something to do with the weather over the previous 12 months, or if they had a particularly bad year last year (for example). It isn’t just the parasols either. A lot of other grassland species are currently fruiting in numbers, including Agaricus species and various sorts of puffballs, both of which are members of the same family as the Parasols (Agaricaceae),

Second huge ring of Parasol Mushrooms, in the same field

as well as unrelated species like Fairy Ring Champignons (Marasmius oreades) and Entoloma species.

There are also some woodland species doing well, especially the saprophytes, but a lot of the symbiotic woodland species are having a very bad year. I’ve seen very few Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they are usually very abundant. The same is true of most other Amanita species (with the exception of Fly Agaric), and a lot of the Russulas.

I’m not even going to try to predict what is going to happen next, but I will let my readers know as soon as there’s anything worth blogging about.

Massive glut of fungi in southern England

06/10/19

Larch boletes, The Miller and a Penny Bun

Well, that was a while coming. Two weeks ago, for only the second time in ten years, I had to start cancelling events because of a lack of fungi. There were no ground-fruiting species at all, and not much wood-fruiting species either. Then it started raining, but not much happened. By last weekend there were Fly Agarics in some places, but very little else. On Wednesday I took a group out and in three hours we found a grand total of two Hedgehog Mushrooms and one Bay Bolete. I postponed Thursday’s session.

Then, some time between Wednesday night and Saturday morning, the fungi exploded into life. Masses of boletes, parasols and many other species, and the biggest glut of Field Mushrooms I’ve ever seen. So it seems now I have a very good measure of how long it takes for the ground-fruiting fungi to respond to a major soaking after a drought-induced mushroom famine. The answer is between 11 and 13 days.

Penny Buns and Chanterelles doing well.

26/08/2019

Mushroom season 2019 has started with a slow ramp-up rather than a spectacular burst of activity. After last year’s weird weather, something resembling normality has returned. We’ve had enough rain over the summer to ensure that the summer-fruiting fungi have been appearing continually since June, though rarely in large quantities until now.

Penny Buns (Cep, Porcini, Boletus edulis) are having a particularly good year, although I am not finding anything like as many of the other large boletes. I’ve seen a handful of Dark Penny Buns (Boletus aereus) and Summer Boletes (B. reticulatus), but nothing like the torrent of these two species that were around this time last year. Quite a few Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) patches are also fruiting prolifically, and I came across a mass-fruiting of Amethyst Chanterelles (C. amethysteus) on Saturday. Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopiodes) are just starting to come through in some places too, although it is too early to say whether it is going to be a bumper year for those. There’s also a decent selection of Brittlegills (Russula sp.) and Amanitas fruiting, including Deathcaps (Amanita phalloides).

Hopefully we aren’t going to have any record-breaking temperatures in September, and can look forward to a more typical mushroom season than we’ve been subjected to recently.

Your child has just eaten a wild mushroom? Don’t bother calling the NHS.

19/07/2019

At least once a week during the summer, much more frequently in the autumn, I am contacted by desperate parents worried about their child (or dog) having eaten a wild mushroom. Quite a few of these people have already tried phoning 999 or 111, and got an inappropriate and unhelpful response. I’m not talking about the situation where a child is showing worrying symptoms and the parents think they might have eaten a mushroom. These people know this has happened, and they’ve got a photograph of the offending fungus.

Taking a photograph is exactly the right thing to do, because in the unfortunate case where the mushroom in question in one of the really dangerous ones then responding quickly with the correct medical procedure is crucial to minimising the damage. Unfortunately, the NHS response is the wrong one. I’ve tried googling it myself, and this page illustrates the problem. I’ve also phoned 111. The person I spoke to tried to help, but was only able to quote/follow the same inadequate procedure.

The problem is that the NHS responds by asking questions about symptoms of poisoning instead of attempting to visually identify the fungus from the photo. The worried parents are often making this call immediately after consumption has taken place, but even the most fast-acting mycotoxins take at least thirty minutes to kick in. The most lethal of all can take several hours, even though those toxins are being absorbed into the bloodstream. If you wait until the victim is displaying symptoms of poisoning, or even worse, until there has been positive result in a toxicology test, then damage may already have been done. It may be too late to save them. And yet in many cases, if you can access somebody with the correct knowledge, the fungus can be identified from the photo in seconds. This can either end the emergency (99% of the time it turns out the mushroom is harmless), or confirm that the mushroom is indeed toxic, and provide accurate information about which toxins are involved and what the response needs to be. Immediately.

So what can be done about this?

Doubtless people will continue to contact me, and I will do my best to help them, but I am not an emergency service and I don’t always answer my phone. There is a helpful Facebook group called Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants, though not everybody uses Facebook or owns a smartphone. There are many other places online where mushrooms are identified, but not reliably. The internet is full of bad information, and sometimes it takes an expert to tell. There are too many people who over-estimate their ability to identify fungi from photos, or confidently misidentify things having failed to even ask where in the world the photo was taken. Mistakes are frequent, including both toxic species misidentified as edible and edible ones falsely condemned as poisonous.

There really does need to be a change to the procedures followed by the staff who man the 111 lines, and anywhere else in the NHS where people are going to receive this sort of enquiry. The rule needs to be this: if a photo has been supplied then your first response, after establishing that there aren’t any immediate symptoms, must be to attempt to accurately identify the species involved. The NHS should have procedures in place so they know how to do this, instead of telling callers to 111 that they have no idea how to help. If your child has eaten a Deathcap, you shouldn’t have to end up having to navigate your own way through the murky and confusing world of internet mycology, and hope that you end up in contact with somebody who is able to help. As things stand, avoidable deaths or permanent and serious organ damage could very easily occur.

Here are four of the most dangerous toxic mushrooms found in the British Isles:

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa)

Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum)

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

 

 

Edible Seaweeds of the Welsh Wild West

09/07/19

The stunning Pembrokeshire coast

We have just got back from a week of Welsh sunshine on what is arguably the most spectacular coastline anywhere in the British Isles. It was a busman’s holiday for me, the main reason we were there being that I could search for seaweeds I can’t find in south-east England. Pembrokeshire is a seaweed forager’s dream: crystal clear water, large tidal ranges and a wide variety of different rocky habitats from sheltered to very exposed. And it is these most exposed areas which provide a home for species I don’t find at home. This post covers three of them.

Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata)

The first of these – Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata) – I do occasionally find washed up after stormy weather when walking my dog in Hastings, but I have no idea where it has come from, and it is not advisable to eat detached seaweeds, because you can’t tell how long they’ve been dead. The nearest place on the south coast I have ever found it growing is 150 miles west at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and travelling anti-clockwise round the British coast from there it is rare or absent until you reach Yorkshire, only becoming common near the Scottish border. Sea Spaghetti is an almost hypnotically beautiful species of seaweed, because of the way its long fronds twist and turn with the movement of the water. I could watch it for hours, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is only fully visible when the tide is very low. In the kitchen it is usually used as a substitute for real spaghetti, either completely or 50/50. As such it provides a naturally gluten-free alternative to wheat spaghetti. Like most seaweeds it dries well, and in this case you should make sure it also dried straight, which makes for easier storage.

Flattened Acidweed (Desmarestia ligulata)

There are no poisonous seaweeds – at least not in the sense that we normally think of “poisonous”, but the second of my threesome is about as close to poisonous as a seaweed gets. It belongs to a genus (Desmarestia) that are sometimes called “Sea Sorrels”, which might mislead you into thinking they are good to eat. The land sorrels are excellent salad vegetables, with a tangy, lemon-like taste caused by the presence of oxalic acid. Desmarestia have another common name which might mislead you into thinking they are psychoactive: “Acid Weed”. Unfortunately, the acid in question is the sulphuric variety. Yes, you read that right, these seaweeds contain battery acid. Their internal pH is around 0.5, and if they break open in a container with other seaweeds, they will wreak havoc, destroying everything in the container, including themselves. I’ve never found and identified any of them before, but on one location near an old slate quarry, there was quite a lot of what I believe to be Desmarestia ligulata (which has various common names, such as “Flattened Acid Weed”).

Atlantic Wakame or Winged Kelp (Alaria esculenta)

However, I didn’t travel to the other side of the country to find Sea Spaghetti or Acid Weed; I was there to find the only significant edible native British seaweed I did not have a book-quality photograph of (I am currently working on a book on edible plants and seaweeds). Its Asian relative Wakame (Undaria pinnatifida) is very important in Japanese cuisine. Alaria esculenta has a confusing collection of English common names, including Badderlocks, Dabberlocks and Winged Kelp, but I shall call it Atlantic Wakame. It is reasonably common on exposed rocky coasts from Cornwall, all the way around clockwise to the equally-wild north-east coast of Scotland, but absent on the south and east coasts of England. What makes these Wakame species different from other kelps, both biologically and in

Dorothy inspection

terms of their food use, is their midrib. The midrib is perfectly edible (it is sweet and crunchy and can be eaten raw), but it is the other parts of the blade that are use for salads in Japan. The midrib provides structural support for the blade, which means the “wings” (the rest of the blade) are considerably more tender than other types of kelp, requiring less cooking (or less chewing).

Atlantic Wakame is at its best from early spring until about now. We just had some in a salad for our lunch. Recipe is described below.

Japanese-style Atlantic Wakame Salad

Ingredients:

  • 4 large blades Atlantic Wakame

    Atlantic Wakame Salad

  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp finely grated ginger
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • pinch of sea salt
  • one thinly sliced small home grown cucumber
  • two thinly sliced shallots
  • sprinkle of yellow and black sesame seeds.

Method:

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Add the seaweed, bring back to the boil, then remove saucepan from the heat and let the seaweed soften for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the rice vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce, honey, oils and and grated ginger. Whisk in vegetable oil and toasted sesame oil and season with salt. Drain the seaweed, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Remove the midribs and slice. Mix the seaweed well with the sliced cucumbers and scallions, then spoon the dressing over it and garnish with toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately.