Lamb Shanks with Horn of Plenty recipe

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

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: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

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: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

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)

 

Mushroom Season 2017 opens early and spectacularly!

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

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: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk
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: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk
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.

Spring foraging on the Llangollen Canal

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
26/04/2017

St George’s Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa)

I have just returned from a week spent cruising the prettiest of Britain’s canals – the Llangollen, which runs from Hurleston in Cheshire to Llangollen in north Wales. This was my third holiday on this waterway (I love canals almost as much as I love fungi…), but the first time I’ve done it in spring, and I have learned something new about St George’s Mushrooms. This species can turn up in all sorts of places, but it has a liking for some habitats in particular. One of these, apparently, is the towpath of the Llangollen canal. I lost count of how many I passed last week (more than twenty lots), and almost all of them were in precisely the same habitat: the area between steel piling lining the canal, and the path itself. None were growing on parts of the towpath without piling, none were

St George’s Mushrooms. The Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in the top right of this photo is also edible.

on the worn down area that people walk on, and only one group were on the far side of the path, away from the canal. What is it about this precise habitat that they like so much? Are they as plentiful in the same habitat on other canals? I don’t know the answers to these questions and I’d be interested to hear from anybody who does.

Judging by the reports I’m getting from other parts of the country, it is a bit patchy for St George’s this year. The reason is fairly obvious: it has been very dry and in many places the ground is totally parched. We need some rain. I’ve personally seen none at all yet down south, although one or two other people have seen a few. They are more plentiful further north in the British Isles, where it has been a bit wetter.

Cowslip (Primula veris) and Tufted Vetch (Viccia craca)

There was no shortage of other foragables available, of course. Here are some of the best.

A lot of wild flowers are edible. Picking Cowslips is frowned on in some quarters – they aren’t as common as they once were. But they are definitely edible, and used to be popular candied, or even just eaten fresh with cream. The other flower in this picture (Tufted Vetch) is also edible.

Lady’s Smock (or “Cuckooflower”) (Cardamine pratensis)

Ramsons (or “Wild Garlic”)(Allium ursinum)

Lady’s Smock is typically found in meadows, but is happy to take up residence by the side of a lock overflow channel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ramsons (aka “Wild Garlic”) were abundant at the Welsh end of the canal, not so much at the English end. The combination of Ramsons and St George’s Mushrooms works well.

 

 

 

 

St George’s Mushrooms and Ramsons with Lady’s Smock in lemon juice.

Ramsons and St George’s Mushrooms, with Lady’s Smock:

Chop the St George’s Mushrooms and fry for 5 minutes in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then add chopped Ramsons leaves and fry for another minute or two. Allow to cool, then add lemon juice and Lady’s Smock flowers. Serve chilled.

 

 

 

Larch (Larix decidua) needle tea

There are quite a lot of Larch trees lining the towpath of the Llangollen, and these can provide two sorts of food. The soft inner bark is edible, and can be ground and used like flour. In spring, the fresh needles (Larch is deciduous, and re-grows its needles each year) can be made into a tea which has a number of claimed medical properties, including being high in vitamin C and “expelling flatulence”.

 

 

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh Marigolds were also very abundant. This species is slightly toxic and should not be consumed in large quantities, but the young leaves are edible and the unopened flower buds can be pickled and used like capers.

 

 

 

Pignut (Conopodium majus)

In some shady areas there were pignuts on the towpath. These have tasty tubers (the “nuts”), which can be found by following the stem underground. The tubers are frequently not directly under the plant, and the base of the stem is rather fragile, so finding them is not always as easy as you think it is going to be.

 

 

 

Pignut tuber

It is illegal to uproot wild plants without the landowner’s permission, so I left the ones I found last week – the picture of the tubers is from a couple of years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

More St George’s Mushrooms

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

Sorrel is a well-known edible wild plant, and reasonably common along the towpath of the Llangollen canal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hogweed (Heraclium sphondylium)

Hogweed is extremely common on uncultivated land all over the British Isles. It is a bit of an overlooked delicacy, and at its best right now, as it produces its most vigorous leaf shoots. These should be cooked in butter – loads of it. Just keep adding more butter to the frying pan until it doesn’t soak any more up!

 

 

 

 

 

Wavy Bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa) and Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Dinner and death, side by side.

The last plant picture is of two species, growing side by side on one of the overflow channels that carry water past the locks on this canal (the canal is used to transport water from the River Dee to the reservoir at Hurleston, so these overflow channels are always full of fast-flowing water). On the left is Wavy Bittercress – an excellent edible salad leaf, often found in damp places, that isn’t particularly bitter, despite its name. On the right is the most dangerous toxic wild plant in the UK, measured by the number of deaths and serious cases of poisoning – Hemlock Water-dropwort, which can be mistaken for various edible members of its family (Apiaceae), most notably Wild Celery, which also lives in an aquatic habitat.

Even more St George’s Mushrooms

And finally, no blog about a holiday on the Llangollen Canal would be complete without a picture of the most spectacular aqueduct on the planet: Pontcysyllte (“pont-ker-sulth-tee”). With nothing but half an inch of lead between the boat and a sheer 120ft drop to the Dee valley, it is enough to give modern-day health-and-safety officials nightmares. Telford’s masterpiece was already something of a white elephant when it was completed, because it cost so much to build that no money was left to complete the rest of the proposed main line of the canal to Chester, and because in the decade between its inception and completion, cheaper sources of coal had been discovered than those in the hills to the north of the aqueduct. Worth every penny, though.

Urban and Suburban Foraging

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
05/04/2017

Foraging in urban and suburban areas can be even more productive than the countryside. This may seem surprising, given that much of urban and suburban areas are covered with tarmac and concrete, but this downside is offset by two factors. Firstly there is a significantly greater variety of habitats available, especially in suburban areas. A meadow is just grassland, woodlands are more diverse unless they are forestry monocultures, but towns and cities provide many different micro-habitats. Secondly there is the fact that in urban and suburban areas there is a huge variety of introduced plants, both native and non-native. You might argue that this doesn’t really count as “foraging”, but it is certainly food for free (although see below for notes on legality). There are also hazards to be aware of, some of which are common to all types of foraging (you need to be certain of the identification, because poisonous species abound), and some of which are more specific to urban/suburban areas. The most obvious of these is pollution, especially of the canine variety.

Lamb’s Lettuce (Valerianella locusta)

To give some idea of what can be found in a relatively small area, here is what turned up yesterday morning on a 15 minute wander that took me no more than 150 metres from our house. This is not a comprehensive list – just a selection of the best stuff.

Our garden backs on to a backstreet, and the first edible wild plant was growing at the base of the outside of the back wall of our shed (which is at the far end of our garden). This is unfortunately typical of the sort of location you might want to think twice about collecting food from in areas where dogs are walked (and yes that is a fag butt), but you can always wash it! The plant is Lamb’s Lettuce, also known as “Corn Salad” – something you can find on sale in many supermarkets, as a salad leaf.

Magnolia

On the other side of the road is another wall, this one the boundary of a pub garden, and at the end of that garden is gorgeous pink Magnolia tree. Magnolia petals are edible, either raw as a somewhat unusual salad ingredient, or pickled. Taking parts of cultivated plants from within the boundary of private land is theft (if they are growing as “weeds” then it is not theft unless you intend to sell them), but you can take anything that is hanging over the boundary and therefore on public land. Magnolias are very pretty, but they are also super-abundant for the brief period they are flowering, so taking a few petals is not so bad.

Rosemary (Rosmarinum officinalis)

From here I walked about 15 metres to the front of the pub and took a left, and immediately encountered a foragable herb: Rosemary, again hanging over the boundary and clearly on public land so perfectly legitimate quarry for a forager. In the background, across the main road, you can see the local “Gospel Hall”, which boasts a car park that almost nobody ever uses (the gate is permanently padlocked). Foraging from the ground in car parks is generally a bad idea, but a car park that is rarely used is likely to be reasonably free of pollution, including the canine variety.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

And growing from a crack in concrete in this particular car park is another herb: Chives. Very easily mistaken for grass – it pays to pay attention when foraging.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

From the gospel hall I turned right and just another 20 metres is another ecclesiastical building, this time the Victorian church of St Luke. Growing on its front wall is an edible plant that can be found on walls all over the country. Ivy-leaved Toadflax is slightly bitter, and can be used sparingly in salads, but is probably most valued decoratively. Next to the church is another pub, this one closed since the last owners shut up shop at Christmas. With nobody maintaining the plant pots, nature has taken over. Yes, there are some cigarette butts in there, but that doesn’t render the plants any less foragable.

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Smooth Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Of the three in this pot, two are excellent edible species, and high enough off the ground to be out of the range of all but the largest dogs. From left to right, Groundsel is mildly poisonous, Smooth Sow-thistle is a good salad leaf – slightly bitter but perfectly edible – and Hairy Bittercress is one of the very best (it is neither particularly hairy, nor bitter, and can be found growing in an unattended pot or bed near you).

Woolly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum)

I then turned right again and headed back towards my back door, via a different set of side-streets. At the base of a garage wall was a thistle. These can be difficult to identify when they aren’t flowering, but they’re all edible. This one is Woolly Thistle and it is armed with some pretty fearsome spines, but they are easily dealt with.

Woolly Thistle, ready to be tackled.

You need to carefully cut the spines of the base of each leaf, so you can hold it without getting spiked. Then you run a sharp knife down the sides, from the base towards the tip, and the spines will come off along with the leaf blades. You can then use the knife to peel off the skin (and the “wool”), leaving the crunchy centres of the stem and the main shafts of the leaves. This species is slightly more bitter than some of its relatives, and it benefits from being soaked in water for a couple of hours to leach out the bitter compunds (although it is perfectly edible without this preparation).

Woolly Thistle, ready to be steamed. The fat section at the top is the developing main stem, the rest are the middle of the leaves.

It should then be steamed for a few minutes and served with salted butter. A few metres away from the thistle was a thick stand of lush Ground Elder – a plant brought to the UK by the Romans both as a food source and a treatment for gout.

Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria)

Gardeners may hate it for the difficulties involved in getting rid of it, but foragers just see it as a free, wild substitute for spinach.

The next find was the result of a tip-off. A lady had spotted me photographing the Magnolia, and when I told her I was interested in it as food rather than for its beauty she said that there was Wild Garlic growing in the alleyway that runs along the back of her own garden,which was very close. Since this alley is a dead end, I had never been down there before yesterday. It turned out she was wrong – or at least most people aren’t referring to the plant she was talking about as “Wild Garlic”. It is another Allium, usually known as Three-

Three-cornered Leek (Allium triquetrum)

Cornered Leek, or Three-Cornered Garlic. Another one of the very best wild edible spring plants, but there are many better places locally (dog-wise) to pick it than this!

Dandelion (Taraxum sp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having done a mini-circuit from my back door, I then tried from the front. The gardens are well above ground level here, and a few of them are unmanaged. Plenty of scope for foraging, and nobody is going to complain about somebody foraging Dandelion leaves. This plant is sometimes overlooked as a foragable item, perhaps because it is so common, but is has long been a popular wild food in France, where the young leaves are eaten in salads.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

It wasn’t Dandelions I was really after though – my destination was an unadopted road a little further away. Here I was looking for another foraged Spring treat, but an increasingly hazardous one. The plant in question is Japanese Knotweed, the young stems of which are a less sweet but nevertheless perfect substitute for Rhubarb. Unfortunately (for a forager), at least in some areas, people are getting rather efficient at treating this seriously damaging invasive species with weedkiller – industrial-strength weedkiller of the sort you most definitely don’t want to be consuming. It is very difficult to be certain the Knotweed you’ve found has not been treated very recently, but there are some tell-tale signs that show quite quickly. Obviously avoid any plant that is wilting and looks like it might be dying, but also look carefully for two lines running lengthwise up the leaves. The weedkiller is often applied in this pattern. I am not 100% certain these have been weed-killered, but there does appear to be some lines and they will not be on my menu. I have plenty of rhubarb in my garden anyway…

Common Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

So I made my way back home empty-handed on the Knotweed front, but there were still a couple more edibles to be found. The first was Comfrey, growing out of a wall. This species has been used by humans for a long time, both as food and medicine, but has recently come under the spotlight as potentially dangerous due to its content of liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the details of what is a rather complicated debate surrounding the safety of Comfrey, but in summary, provided the species really is Common Comfrey (which has white flowers, not pink or purple), and you are eating the leaves rather than the roots, and you aren’t pregnant, the dangers are so minimal as to be irrelevant.

White Stonecrop (Sedum album)

The last edible plant I found was growing from the gutter of the only derelict property in my neighbourhood. Derelict properties can be rich picking for foragers, but this particular plant can be found growing in gutters all over the place, as well as easier places to get to. White Stonecrop is a slightly hot succulent that can contribute a crunchy component to a foraged salad.

Free food really is growing all around us. You just have to know what you are looking for, and pay attention.