Will's Wild Food Diary

 Wild food diary

Fresh, organic and free! Of all things bushcrafty, nothing gets me more excited than a foraging adventure.

From time to time, I update this page with a different wild food that is in season- gradually building up a kind of seasonal diary to some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: There's loads of good stuff to eat out there and much of it is fairly easy to identify. Unfortunatly, there are also some plants and fungi that can make you seriously ill or worse. This diary is a brief overview intended to inspire and not a substitute for an indepth field guide and/ or skilled teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 percent confident you know what something is then leave it alone! Please also be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

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  1. A recent walk in the white winter forest got me pondering- what wild food can I forage when everything isPine snow buried in snow? Looking around, the first thing I saw was pine needles.

    I've been wanting to experiment more with these health packed little beauties since making my first cup of 'woodsmans tea' some years ago. This is basically pine needles steeped in hot water and was a drink once consumed by the Native Americans and intrepid explorers of the boreal forests. The taste varies depending on species but, generally, it has a citrusy, slightly tangy taste and is very refreshing. Bruise them up a bit for extra flavour.

    Pine teaThe Native Americans, masters of herbal medicine, used pine needles (and resin) to treat, amongst other things, illnesses of the mucous membranes and respiratory system- take a good sniff on a bunch of crushed needles and you may notice an opening of the sinuses and lungs. European herbalists also utilised them as a powerful flu and cold buster. Undoubtedly this is partly due to their very high vitamin C content but in 2010 researchers, in America again, made the breakthrough discovery that pine needles also contain significant amounts of shikimic acid. In simple terms, shikimic acid prevents flu from reproducing, thus reducing symptoms and duration, and is a key ingredient in Tamiflu- an antiviral drug used in the treatment of swine, bird and seasonal influenza. The research was mainly focused on white pine and some spruces but it is presumed other pines contain it in varying amounts and research is continuing with a view to extracting it commerically.

    For my research of a more culinary nature, I sourced needles from a couple of different trees, the first was a young scots pine in the New forest and the second was a maritime pine from the nearby park. 
    My first concoction was needle vinegar, I have sung the virtues of vinegar already (see dandelion post) so I will simply say that a good quality vinegar, as well as being Pine vinegarhealthy and balancing in its own right, is an extremly effective way of drawing out the nutrients from whatever plant is soaked in it. I will leave this concoction to do it's work for a month or so before adding to dishes for an extra vitamin C kick- according to my sources, it should end up with a taste similar to balsamic vinegar which, if that's true, will be a great compliment to the stash of various dried mushrooms from last autumn. 
    Pine needle and honey rum was my second experimentation and I think it may be rather unique. There are a number of recipes on line for pine needle vodka (unsurprisingly a russian recipe in origin), but since I had a small amount of rum left over from making rowan berry rum, I decided to exchange this for the vodka- plus a couple of good dollops of local Dorset honey. I'll leave this a few months to 'mull' but I remain hopeful that it will bring me fame and fortune. Along with the vinegar, I'll update this post when a verdict is passed. (Jan 2014: both turned out well, the vinegar does indeed have a balsamicy taste and the pine needle rum gives an interesting, slightly medicinal kick- I shared some of it with Claire's hen party last summer. I've since made it with gin too, this has a 'cleaner' taste and is my preference over the two). 
    Foraging considerations:
    Do not consume yew leaves- they bear a superficial resemblence to pine but are deadly poisinous. Pines are generally easy to Pine- close upidentify, look for spaced out bundles of between 1 and 6 long thin needles (see pic right) coming out of the same place on the branch. In contrast, yews have small flat needles that run continously up a branch. The smell test is also useful here, yew does not have the citrusy smell of pine. You can be extra safe by making sure there are cones- most have dropped by winter but it's usually possible to find one or two trees with a few hanging on *. 
    Also, common sense here, never actually swallow pine needles as they are too tough and prickly to digest- the emphasis is on harnessing the goodness within them.
    Flavour varies quite a lot, there's around 6 fairly common pines within the UK with dozens more planted as ornament **. A good way to decide if it is worth picking is to take a needle or two and chew for about 20 seconds. This is actually an ultra simple and effective way to utilise the goodness of the needles without any preperation- spit them out of course! 

    It is also worth briefly mentioning that, as a wild food source, pine trees have a lot to offer. The seeds are edible and packed with protein as is the yellow pollen of early summer while the inner bark was sometimes ground up by the Native Americans to make into flour. There are also some interesting recipes online for needle flavoured honey, needle infused olive oil and needle cordial.

    * There is some discussion whether pine needles may be harmful to unborn babies. This is a nutrient source that has been utilised by humans for millennia without any recorded problems. However, it is known that some pines contain a toxin called isocupressic acid. This is poisinous to livestock and there are occasions when pregnant cattle have eaten large amounts of the needles and aborted. There are so many other sources of food out there that, if you are pregnant, it is probably best to be ultra cautious and avoid.
    ** Pines (Pinus) are actually members of a genus called Pineaceae, this includes the likes of spruce, fir, conifir and larch. As far as I can find out, any needles from these trees can be used but, as with all foraging, only do so if you are 100% confident with your ID skills.





  2. Sea beet- HengistburyIt's mid-winter, but on the coast one of my favourite nutrient rich greens is still braving the elements- Sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima). 
    It's a regular feature of the cliffs and harbours around Dorset and is fairly common along much of the UK coastline (generally if a plant has vulgaris in it's botanical name it means it's common- hence snobby Victorians refering to the masses as vulgar).
    And we have a lot to thank this humble plant for as it is the ancient ancestor to popular garden veg such as perpetual spinach, chard and beetroot. Even sugar beet, which supplies the UK with around 50% of its raw sugar, has it's origins in this unassuming plant. 
    The leaves can be eaten raw but I find them quiteSea beet,chanterelle,bean in creamy cheese tough .* However, a few minutes light steaming and they're transformed into a succulent veg- very similar to a rich, full-bodied spinach. And like spinach, the culinary applications are virtually limitless. The pic to the right was tonights meal- sea beet, winter chanterelle mushrooms and kidney beans in a light cream cheese sauce.
    Foraging considerations.
    Some books will tell you this plant doesn't grow through the winter but I find it year round. The top pic is on the edge of Christchurch harbour a few weeks ago- although I would be careful about gathering here due to the large amounts of passing dogs. 
    The leaves vary quite a bit in size from around 5cm in length up to 20 cm but, once you've 'got your eye in,' they have a pretty distinct apperance- they are a dark glossy green in colour with a thick succulent texture and always grow from a central rosette. In summer, sea beet produces tiny flowers in tall dense spikes which can further aid identification- these are also edible. It's presence close to the sea is another helpful ID point.
    sea beet leafI must finally mention that Sea beet contains oxalic acid which can inhibit the body's ability to absorb calcium and other minerals and, in frequent large amounts, may contribute to kidney stones. For someone eating a balanced diet, there should not be cause for alarm as most green vegetables contain oxalic acid The fact that Sea Beet is uncultivated and has a fairly strong taste suggests it probably has quite a high amount but, from the research I have done across various sources, unless you are eating it very frequently in large helpings it should not be an issue- let us not overlook the fact that this humble little green is incredibly rich in essentials such as folic acid, potassium, magnesium and vitamin C and K.
    * Cooking also helps to break down oxalic acid.
    ** Some medical professionals advise, as a precautionary measure, avoiding all vegetables with oxalic acid if you suffer from kidney disorders, gout or rhematoid arthritis.
  3. As autumn fades into winter, the mushroom season is drawing to a close (sniff). There's still a few fungi hanging around though and a recent meander amethyst decaround a local Dorset cemetry (often great places for wild food due to old grassland, abundance of wild corners and lack of passing dogs) convinced me there was just enough time to squeeze in a post on Amethyst Decievers (Laccaria amethystina).

    I realise the name and appearance probably does nothing to encourage their consumption, but this is a common and tasty mushroom. It's very good at blending into the forest floor but if you spot one, stand still and slowly scan around- chances are there will be dozens of them scattered nearby.
    am dec salad
    Unlike many wild fungi, these can be eaten raw. They have a mild aniseedy flavour, a slightly crunchy texture and look great in a salad- perfect for scaring nervous dinner guests, as mushroom guru John Wright points out. Of course, they can also be cooked but unfortunatly the colour fades a bit.
    Foraging considerations:
    Amethyst decievers can vary quite a bit in size and cap shape, hence the second part of their name- although it seems a bit unfair as this is the case with many mushrooms.
    Young specimens are quite convex in shape and can be just one or two centimetres wide while older specimens will flatten out, become more convex and grow up to about 8cm wide. The colour can also fade with age and rain so, to be on the extra safe side, I always choose ones that still have the rich purple colour. The gills should be the same colour and quite widely spaced while the stem is tough and hollow.Amethyst dec gills
    They also dry very well which is ideal as, during autumn, there is scarcily a walk in the woodlands where I do not spot a few patches.
    Potentially, there is one poisionous lookalike that can harm the careless forager and that is the lilac fibrecap. However, the colour is much more faded (one good reason for choosing the more vivid amethyst decievers) and it has creamy gills and a brownish nipple on the top of the cap.

    I should also mention the closely related deciever that is basically a brown version of the amethyst deciever. It is also edible and tasty, however, much more care should be taken as there are plenty of little brown mushrooms out there that can do harm. My advice would be to become confident with identifying the amethyst deciever first before considering the brown version- in its favour, the deciever is the only mushroom I know with a cool gangster rap nickname that even the most serious of mycologist will sometimes use- Lac Lac (short for Laccaria laccata).

  4. I’ve been running around the fields of Dorset in a slightly manic frenzy the last couple of weeks. Parasol baloo

    It's probably alarmed a few countryside users but to a sufferer of WFOD (wild food obsessive disorder) a field of parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) is an intoxicatingly exciting sight-and this year seems particularly good.

    Those of you who get my Facebook posts may have caught a recent short movie filmed near Corfe castle.  I drove past a nearby field a few days later and found even more- 100 at a conservative guess although I was very good and left plenty to spread their spores.

    parasol matureAnd yes, they make great eating- perhaps even approaching gourmet status, with a rich mushroomy taste and a succulent, slightly chewy texture even after cooking (mushroom expert John Wright of River cottage fame compares them to roasted chicken thigh).

    My favourite way of dealing with most wild mushrooms usually involves a frying pan and bit of butter and garlic. However, with such a glut, I have also been busy drying, freezing and of course giving away-  I reckon it’s good to practice wild food karma- share the abundance and it always comes back one way or another.

    Foraging considerations:

    There’s a lot of fear around wild mushrooms in this country- yet go to the continent and they are a celebrated part of rural culture. There are some species that are tricky to identify. However there are also plenty that, with a bit of dedication, can be easily recognised- the parasol is one of those.

    This blog is intended as a basic introduction so do some reading around the subject. However, there are a number of key points that are regularly used for most mushroom identification. To simplify it, I will list them here with reference to the parasol:

    Habitat: open grassland and heath- it seems to prefer fairly acidic soils.

    Cap: (see first pic and a rather confused Baloo the dog). Between 15-30 cm in width, always with a little bump at the top, cream coloured and covered in brown scales. In its parasol drumstickearly stages it is a drum stick shape (see pic to the right) this then opens up- like a parasol. It is edible at either stage although the flesh is most delicate when it’s young, it can also be stuffed and baked in the oven at this point. The photo bottom left shows some delicious stuffed young parasols using tomatoes, sweetcorn and herbs as a filling with some grated cheese on top (the other mushroom is a little bit of delicious cep/porcini but more about that another time).

    Stem: Long, up to 25cm by about 2 cm wide, with snake skin markings (this is quite tough and is usually discarded or added to a stock pot). Another good ID point is the 'cog' that slides up and down the stem (see pic above and left).

    Gills: Creamy white, if they are turning a browny colour it means the mushroom is getting past it’s best.

    Smell: This is often useful when identifying mushrooms, in the case of the parasol it has a beautiful, warm, milk smell- particularly in the really fresh specimens.

    parasol stuffedIt should be noted there is also the shaggy parasol. As always, do more research but it differs in a few basic ways- the main one being it’s cream coloured stem without any snakeskin markings and it propensity for bruising orangey/red. It is generally considered edible but has been known to cause dodgy tummies in a few people.






  5. ruth roserose hip- close upA recent foray in the New Forest yielded, amongst other things, a decent haul of beautiful red rose hips.

    Our main focus was on the iconic rose hip syrup. This became famous in World war II when supplies of fruit and veg were low and the Institute for Food hatched a plan to harness the high vitamin C content of the rose hip and collect and process it on a grand scale (450 tons a year at its peak). The syrup was then distributed at a fixed ration price with priority given to young children.

    From a medicinal point of view, rose hips (and rose petals in the summer) are a powerful wild rose hip syrupmedicine for treating colds and flus. Firstly, their rich vitamin C content strengthens the immune system, secondly they have a cooling quality that brings down fevers and sooths inflammation and thirdly they are a mild but effective diuretic- assisting the body in the elimination of wastes through the urinary system.

    We gently heated the rose hips for about 20 minutes in a pan with a little water until they were soft and mushy. We then tried straining them through a jelly bag but  did not get a lot of juice so we resorted to pushing them through a sieve exactly as I did with the hawthorn berry in the last post.

    It was then simply a case of melting in 50% brown sugar- it has to be high in order to help preserve the fruit and sealing into sterilised jars. It's delicious and I’ll be dipping into it over the next few months, drizzling some on my morning porridge on cold winter mornings or mixing a teaspoon full with some hot water for a soothing drink should any colds or flus start to rear their head.

    While we were at it, we also made some rose leather, taking some of the juice, melting about 20% sugar into it and then laying it out in the dehydrator. Unfortunately, my mobile dehydrator (the car) is no longer a reliable option now the days are getting shorter and cooler but an airing cupboard or oven on a very low heat will do the job almost as well.

    rose hip vinegarFinally, just a few days ago, I made some Rose hip vinegar with a fresh batch of hips gathered from a hedgerow near Arne. I delved into vinegar in the July dandelion post so will just remind you here that using a good quality vinegar is a super healthy and simple way to harness the nutrients from many wild plants. In a few months time the vinegar will be infused with the potent health giving properties of the rose hip and I’ll be adding it to all sorts of dishes to get an extra vitamin C kick. Assuming vinegar was reasonably easy to produce, I think this would have been a more practical and potent way of utilising rose hips during the war- no heat involved to damage the vitamin content.

    Foraging considerations:

    As mentioned in the previous post, there are certain red berries that are very poisonous so no complacent foraging please. The two most common native roses are the Field and Dog rose. There are another 12 native wild roses in the UK plus naturalised escapees and various hybridisations but for the wild foodie it is no great concern as they are all edible and have similar medicinal qualities.

    Two of the best ID points for all the wild roses, and the two things to be cautious of, are the hooked thorns which love to tear at skin and clothes and the mass of small hairy seeds inside the hip which would be extremely irritating to the digestive tract if eaten- this was the itching powder par excellence of childhood.

    Rose hips will often hang on the hedgerow into early winter, giving a welcome splash of colour to a muted landscape. Once they have been bletted by the frost (softened and it seems sweetened) they can actually be eaten straight of the branch. Pinch between the fingers and, with a bit of practice, you can squeeze out some of the soft sweet flesh and leave the seeds where theyare.

  6. hawberries- close upHedgerow Hallelujah! It’s early autumn and the land is bursting with wild food goodness!

    Last week, I was experimenting with the, often overlooked, hawthorn berry (Crataegus monogyna).

    Some of you may remember my post in late March regarding the rather tasty leaves and flower buds of the hawthorn tree. Well, a summer of growth later and now it’s the turn of the berries. Generally they are not considered a wild food treat due to the large stone and rather starchy flesh but this year I thought I would overcome that by making haw leather.Hawberries and me

    And so last week I headed out to a favourite hawthorn patch near Wareham. I regularly ride past this hedgerow on my way to work and it feels like an old friend now. Its early spring blossom warms my heart and, as the months pass, I watch the hard green berries form and gradually ripen until, before I know it, they hang dark red and heavy in the early autumn air.

    There’s a great section in Ray Mear’s Wild Food Britain series where he and Gordon Hillman make the leather the true bushcrafty way (see link at the bottom of this post- it makes for fascinating  viewing). I tried this approach last year and found it messy and hard work so this year I utilised a few modern luxuries and stewed it very gently for 20 minutes in a saucepan with a tiny bit of water before mashing and straining through a sieve. It was then simply a matter of spreading very thinly on trays and drying- I used a combo of a car, a shed and the oven on a very low heat.

    The resulting nutritious and tasty fruit leather was cut into strips that potentially can last for Hawthorn berries- panyears. I don’t have a pic to hand but the one below is some hawthorn and crab apple (or possibly wilding apple) leather I subsequently made just a couple of days ago with Ruth and her posh dehydrator. hawberry and crab apple leather

    From a medicinal point of view the hawthorn has many positive uses. Its main application is as a heart strengthener and balancer- making it a gentle tonic for both high and low blood pressure (it’s been highly endorsed for this purpose by Commission E- the branch of the German government that studies and approves herbal treatments). There is also evidence to suggest it is effective in breaking down calcium and cholesterol deposits in the arteries, making it helpful for arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also rich in Vitamin C and anti-oxidants.

    hawthorn leafForaging considerations: There are some seriously poisonous red berries out there so, as always, be sure you know what you are picking.The hawthorn is a sub-species of the apple tree (which in turn is part of the rose/ rosaceae genus). If you look closely at a berry you may notice it somewhat resembles a red apple in the texture and markings on the skin- the taste is also reminiscent of a starchy over-ripe apple. It is a very common tree of hedgerow and woodland, normally not growing more than 6 metres, with a small and simply lobed leaf - the hawthorn post from March has some more detail. 

    At this time of year, there tend not to be as many thorns as earlier in the season and any still present grow at a 45 degree angle away from the trunk. The advantage of this is that you can run your hand along a branch from base to tip and collect a good handful of berries with very few prickles- I picked around a kilo in twenty minutes and didn't worry about a few stalks and leaves ending up in the mix as they were strained out anyway. It's also worth being a bit fussy as the trees vary in the quality and amount of berries they produce. 

    Autumn spirit

    Finally, a fun thing I like to do at this time of year is to make an autumnal spirit to warm up the cold winter months. Last year I used brandy, this year I’m using whisky- mainly because the neighbours gave me a big bottle for looking after their cat! Here’s the start of it- hawberries and elderberries. I’ll add some blackberries, rose hips and sloes soon and then, come the depths of winter, test it out on some guinea p… er, friends.


    Ray Mears and Hawthorn- hawthorn berries are about a minute into this section: