Looking Forward to Foraging in 2014 – Five Blackthorn Recipes

Gentianella ciliata, the fringed gentian

Gentianella ciliata, the fringed gentian

It took some time to re-acclimatize after a month in the mountains. Berlin is grey and dreary, actually not that bad weather to be sat at the computer planning the foraging calendar for 2014. As announced on the shiny new Facebook page, I will be offering foraging courses, walks, workshops and events for the duration of the year. I am excited about stuff like foraged business cards and terrified about stuff like foraged business plans. There is simply no other way to expand and explore the possibilities of foraging here without consolidating my energy within it. I look forward to the experience of this adventure as it unfolds. So there has been a lot of administrative stuff and not a lot of actual foraging. The ominous march to the blasted heath to collect sea buckthorn is still a week or two away. Luckily, the sloes were still faithfully on the branch as I came back down from the mountains of Valais. When the winter is interrupted by a promising warm spell only to plunge into cold again, this usually spells doom for many wild stone fruit. Despite that, this year there has provided a great haul.

If you happened to stumble across the blog this time last year, you may have read about my discontent that sloes tended to get a bit neglected in terms of their uses. Since then we have gone full circle, and to process the abundance of sloes in interesting ways, I have experimented with traditional foraged recipes, while producing a few foraging-meets-delicatessen variants of my own. The first of five is a repeat of last year’s blackthorn biscuits, this time produced with mushroom-shaped cookie cutters bought on the flea-market. The one that’s not supposed to be a penny bun is either a stylized parasol, or, if the intention was right, a mature Amanita. Strange choice of mushroom for a cookie cutter, in that case!

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Experiment number two was a slight variant on the sloe gin recipe. Over in Valais this winter I often found lonely juniper bushes on my walks in the mountains. The berries of juniper take two years to mature, but even so I never found a shrub above 6,000ft bearing berries. At lower altitudes they were regularly pretty-well laden, and I took as many as I could before the snow crept down from the peaks (a phenomenon I often watched over the course of the day. Another natural quirk was that as late as December on the mountain the elderberries were still hanging in heavy clusters. Suddenly, on one day, there was a shrill chirping as the jackdaws came down from the extreme colds of the peaks. They stripped the elderberries in one sitting, flitted about a bit to ease digestion, and flew on down to lower climes).

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Using Shetland gin as the basis for sloe gin, you already have a strong aromatic flavour to work with. The only problem is that producing upwards of 5l (or any amount you’re likely to be fine sharing with anyone), this becomes an expensive little production, 5l costing 157€, the cheapest I can get it here in Germany. I chose to go for a quality gin without the Shetland tag, and to infuse the alpine juniper in the mix to provide the extra flavour. Not stirring the gin, it was possible to see the essential juniper oils leaching out from the berries. The scent of the gin has improved greatly. All the same, back in with the cork, and I’ll report on its virtues in summer.

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The third experiment is a fruit leather recipe to celebrate one of my strangest memories of working on the alpine farm – harvesting quinces at the edge of a gorge. The farmer’s solitary quince tree had borne fruit for the first time, and there were nine sizeable fruits to pick. The tree was at the top of a snow-drifted slope running down to the mouth of the gorge. Each time I picked a quince, the next one on the branch would come loose, start barrelling down the slope, and I had to dive and ‘ski’ after it as fast as I could. I fumbled almost every fruit and had to go back downhill with the grace of Eddie the Eagle. The pastoral Valais version on the Sisyphus myth.

Pit about three cups of sloes and put them in a pan with a heavy base. Add to this three cups of quinces, or, if you can’t get hold of them, the most fragrant cooking apples you can find. Keep the cores and pack them into a large tea-strainer, add this to the mix. Boil this up with as little water as your pan can deal with, and add honey or sugar to taste. Leave the lid off. When the mixture is completely mushy, remove the strainer, blend the mix, take it off the heat and allow to cool. Add nuts and dried fruits, about three cups in total, and mix well. Pour the contents onto a parchment paper-lined tray, smear the mix as thin as possible, and place it in the oven on the lowest setting, with the door open, overnight. When fully dry, cut into slices or roll the whole sheet up into a baton.

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The fourth is a way to turn sloe juice into something quite special, a kind of savoury jus that has spice, sweetness, acidity, and a bit of the old umami too. Use it like Worcester sauce. Boil up three cupfuls of sloes and sweat them with the pan lid on until tender. Add to this four cupfuls of white wine or apple cider vinegar. Keep boiling. In a frying pan, strain a drop of this mix and heat, adding to it two cupfuls of finely shaven shallots. Cover and heat. When this is looking like a balsamic reduction of onions, add it to the main pan. Now haul out your most stomach-ulcer generating spices. I went for ras el-hanout (Moroccan spice mix including paprika, tumeric, pepper, fenugreek, and coriander), allspice, cloves, mixed peppercorns, and shredded ginger. Add these to the mix and stew on a low heat for as long as possible. The jus will hopefully reduce a little. Now taste. If it is inhumanely piquant then add a teaspoon of brown sugar – but don’t over-sweeten it; you’ll be using it in small doses. Strain the finished jus into a sterilized bottle, allowing it to cool before you cap it. Do not throw away the stewed shallots – eat them bruschetta-style bristling with spices and all, and a bit of soured cream.

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Bad ju-jus.

And, as luck would have it, experiment the fifth is not yet finished, and is still gurgling away happily to itself, taking its sweet time. I imagine it will still be fermenting into the new year, but actually it’s a race against time to find enough of my favourite half-litre swing-top bottles to rack it off into, so perhaps the timing couldn’t be better right now.

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So, until the night calls me out to bring in the sea buckthorn, that’s the extent of my research with the fruits of the forager’s winter. Until then, a Happy New Year to all.

UPDATE:

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The sloe wine finally stopped fermenting, and was ready for bottling. I managed to finish up with exactly eight half-litre bottles, having added about 300ml to the original must so as not to take up the sediment and all into the last bottle. The young wine was buoyant and strong, so I didn’t prime the bottles on racking it off. I’ll give them a bit of time to round the flavours off. While that’s happening, I’ll have a new batch brewing to stagger things out. The fermentation was ‘gentle’ but consistent, and I think I will be easing a little pressure from each bottle twice a week just to be safe. A very easy and relatively ‘pure’ foraged wine – just water, sloes, sugar, citric acid of some sort, and yeast.

Photo by Nikolas Bleak

Photo by Nikolas Blenk

Mushrooming: a Mycological game of “Whac-a-Mole”

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Photos by Rebecca Lahl.

This year the mushroom hauls have come in a perfectly regular sequence of hit-miss-hit-miss, and I have thought a lot about just how much it is possible to ‘know’ a particular spot’s capacity for pushing up the mother lode. My first serious forage of the year, at the end of August, was supposed to be my way of introducing a friend to the thrills of foraging by jumping in at the deep end, with earthy handfuls of rich late summer fungi. The spot I chose was a well-known chanterelle/bolete nest, where I have regularly been able to quite nonchalantly spend the afternoon taking only the very best specimens, trusting in the consistent fruitfulness of the forest floor. This time, however,despite near-perfect weather, we found nothing conventionally edible, and a sorry guide I must have seemed to my fledgling forager.

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One week later I was foraging the ingredients for a pre-booked dinner with the urban farm’s head chef Pierre. The guests had been promised wild mushrooms and we absolutely had to come home with something. We went to a different site than the aforementioned one. Half an hour of quite frenzied searching among some very regimented but beautiful Scots pine was unrewarding. Then, on the fringe between pine and deciduous trees, a rich seam opened up, and clusters of bay boletus seemed to be everywhere. Where there was a gentle upward slope, the mushrooms seemed almost to be pouring down the hillside in droves. We took two rucksacks of bays and didn’t see another choice edible in over two hours, which was no problem at all, seeing as we had more than enough for the dinner course.

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Bay boletus – get them while they’re small and firm in the cap.

Roughly two weeks after that, I was called up by Seb and Dylan, two young ‘pop-up’ restaurateurs from Vancouver, who wanted to spend the day foraging for wild edibles, which they planned to cook in an improvised session at their restaurant that same evening. Again, the weather was all but faultless, and I imagined on the strength of the last forage and the similarity of conditions – though at a different site – that we were in for some choice stuff. In conclusion we spent about three hours in the woods coming across the most various fringe-edibles – nineteen species according to Seb’s assiduous note-taking, including deer shield (Pluteus cervinus), plums and custard (Tricholomopsis rutilans – edibility contested), hen-of-the-woods (Grifolia frondosa – to which certain people can be allergic), witch’s eggs (embryonic form of the stinkhorn Phallus impudicus). The variety would have been great, were it not for the fact that a small percentage of the population could be potentially allergic to more than half of what we found – not exactly the kind of thing Seb and Dylan could offer their guests. Though both were very enthusiastic about the diversity of fungi we had found, it was disappointing to know they would have to skip the wild mushroom segment of their event. I was at a loss to explain the absolute absence of ‘choice’ fungi on such a vast area of forest.

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Even when not directly ingested, some mushrooms can trigger bouts of extreme good temperament, and happy crow’s feet.

I noted down the area we had covered and planned to come back with a camera, to get some good photos of the more obscure of the edible fungi that had made Seb’s list that day. Yesterday, on the 29th September, the carpet of questionable edibles had been whisked away, and in its place, an eiderdown studded with ceps and other boletes. The whole forest was as if transformed since the last visit, which must have simply been in a different cycle in terms of fruiting species. Due to the sheer number of perfect ceps and bays, it required no great effort of will power to simply leave every third mushroom to hopefully drop its spores and fulfil its destiny for the two in the basket. Next year I plan to revisit these sites with much more frequency to see if any patterns of activity emerge: flirting with a logical pitfall? numerology? a game of mycological ‘whac-a-mole’? One of the above, at the very least.

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Fräulein F. with the ‘Schniedelwutz’ Cep. Stick that one in yer Google Translator.

Mesolithic Kicks – Birch Tar

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If you pursue the art of foraging for any amount of time, sooner or later you begin to unearth some of the lost techniques that people used (and still use) to process, prepare and preserve wild food. Inherently linked with these techniques are those used to produce all the non-edible daily things we prefer not to do without.

A few things become apparent when experimenting with any long-tried ‘lost’ technique: firstly, that the means of making or obtaining even the most fundamental of household ‘things’ (for example yeast, lye, charcoal, vinegar, etc.) are beyond the common abilities of most of us, though with a bit of research, we could probably produce them. That said, for the longest part of human history the production of our day-to-day consumables required a level of skill and intimate practical knowledge far more developed than those obtained since man began to work the land.

Secondly, in a pre ‘cottage industry’ set-up, the effort people were prepared to put in to produce something reflected how indispensable that thing was. Picking, drying, crushing, threshing, winnowing, cleaning, roasting, and other such techniques were often carried out not because of absolute necessity, but because once discovered the finished product could not ‘comfortably’ be done without.

Thirdly, that the people responsible for coming across and developing these techniques must have been some of the most creative, curious, patient, persistent, and above all ‘normal’ people who ever lived, and stumbling upon, or finally managing to perfect a certain new technique, they must have experienced a kind of elation and joy and sense of mastery of their world that we can perhaps only dream of. Unless we attempt to recreate it from Thursday to Friday afternoon.

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A good friend of mine went to a ‘museum village’ near Berlin where traditional skills are still practised and the products sold to visitors. He brought me back a small jar of birch tar.

Put simply, birch tar is a thermoplastic (re-malleable) material extracted from birch bark using heat. At its simplest it can be used as an adhesive, and as it can be remoulded after solidifying, it is almost completely reusable. In the middle stone age it was used for fixing arrowheads and fletchings onto arrow-shafts (see www.continuas.org/texts/benozzo_distillation.pdf). Later it was used to caulk boats (see http://anthropology.tamu.edu/papers/Franklin-MA1985.pdf), and for waterproofing, sealing, and gluing, and due to its betulin content it has been used as a kind of ointment for the treatment of skin diseases, though little information is available as to exactly how or by whom it was used in this way. The jolly curators of the museum village in Düppel, where my friend found me the sample birch tar, seem to rate its medicinal value quite highly; the label reads as follows: Wenn Pech, Schnapps, und Sauna nicht helfen, führt die Krankheit zum Tode (“If birch tar, schnapps, and sauna do not help, then the illness is fatal.”)

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As has already been said, birch tar is created by heating the bark, importantly in an airtight vessel, comprising of a drum for the bark and a smaller and a smaller vessel underneath it to collect the tar itself. Researching the methodology, we (or better to say my friend) came across various techniques, and ours ended up a combination between elements of different methods, with a bit of common sense and a willingness to learn from having things go wrong the first time.

As said, our method was the double-pot method. The bark container on top can be made out of anything that will withstand a roaring fire. We opted for a pail which we stuffed with birch bark and turned upside down to fit onto an old paella pan, mainly because those were the materials we had to hand. We packed a full travel rucksack’s worth of bark into our container.

The bottom of your bark container will need to be pierced to allow the birch tar to collect in the lower container. Do this while holding the sides so that surface becomes slightly concave; this will hopefully help the run-off of the tar. We also pressed a chicken-wire insert into the bucket to keep the bark in place as to stop pieces of charred bark blocking the hole, but this might not even be necessary.

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Your tar collector can be at least one-third smaller than your bark container, and should be buried in the ground to just above the soil level. We fitted our bark container, container lid, and tar collector together with clay, as we had some lying around, and as we believed it would harden sufficiently in the fire to create an air-tight seal. It would be possible to use many other types of sealant so long as they would withstand the fire.

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So, to assemble your tar kiln, bury the tar collector just short of ground-level deep, fix your bark container to it (if it isn’t already), and build a fire around this based with coal and then loaded with wood. We found it easiest to use the shell of a burned-out oil drum, which we also had lying around. This made it easy to control the fire and keep it evenly burning around the kiln.

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Allow the fire to burn for roughly three hours at a steady temperature. We were using dried oak cut-offs from a sawmill, so we reduced the final time down by at least half an hour, but most sources say three hours is sufficient. This amounts to about a fully-stacked wheelbarrow full of good dry wood. Protect from the rain and allow to cool overnight. The next day, carefully dig out your tar collector, making sure no dirt, char, ash or anything else falls into it. It should look like axle grease mixed with water, and there should be quite a lot of it.

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Raw birch tar. Note the charred birch bark in vessel below

Tip out the water that simply runs off the surface, and set the collector back over/next to the fire to boil off the rest. This could take some time, but the initial moisture bubbles off relatively quickly. The longer you do this, the finer the product. The boiling pitch now readily bursts into flame if the fire is too well-stoked, so have a kind of lid ready to extinguish the pot. In our experience it is best to trap something between the lid and the pot at this point – the pressure change inside the pan when the fire is snuffed out caused our ‘lid’ to be vacuum-sealed until it reached an adequate heat again.

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The top of the kiln (bark container) doubles as a smaller fire bucket for refining down the tar

The museum village sample seems to still have retained some water, and at least in the jar is by no means completely ‘set’. When you are happy, allow the tar to cool gently, at which point it will begin to solidify. Before this it will reduce down only marginally, so don’t worry about the consistency until the temperature is easing completely off. Boil some jars, dry them and fill with the slowly cooling tar while it is still pourable. Alternatively, twist a length of wood into the mixture smoothly and consistently to make a kind of oversized birch tar match-stick, which is easier to use and somehow looks more convincing.

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Birch Tar Technician #1 demonstrates the inedible nature of the product, no matter how much it resembles a lump of Blackjacks

We forgot to weigh the birch bark before we started, the pot before we buried it, and the containers before we finally filled them up with birch tar, so we cannot say with any accuracy what the ratio of bark to tar is (we were far too excited for any of this). A full 35l rucksack stuffed down with birch bark produces about 350g tar, including the stuff that is tricky to get out from the pot before it solidifies again. Furthermore, by treading a middle road between the highly contradictory information on birch tar production with common sense for a crutch along the way, we managed to produce a birch tar that was completely thermoplastic, i.e., one which sets rock hard on cooling, and therefore one that we believe a mesolithic man would have actually been covetous of.

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What’s more it is mid-September, and the hops have been ripening up beautifully, especially as they clamber over the derelict brick railway buildings north-east of Berlin. The area is of course not a hop-growing region; that’s done down in the Hellertau of Bavaria, where they regularly produce more hops per annum than the United States do. In these regions male hop plants are destroyed as not to compromise the harvest by pollination. Despite their beauty many of the wild hops found at the ripening period have already been pollinated anemophilously (the wind did it.), and these are not as good for use as non-pollinated hops. Luckily we have been growing aroma hops as an experiment this year, hardly wild, in fact a U.S. cultivar, ‘Cascade’, which are being dried on sheets of the financial section as I write.

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Pyramus and Thisbe

One thing about foraging is that, the longer you have spent practising it, the more chance there is of a ramble, a bike-ride, or even a lake swim to provide the means and the inspiration for a wild food experiment.

July is a month laden with fruit, but this year, as the weather has been so extreme in the early months, several sources have already been carried off by the birds, including the Cornel cherries and serviceberries, which are usually so prolific in my area. Besides, the relatively dry heat of summer is not my ideal weather for foraging, and with the mushrooms still a few weeks shy, plans had been to do lots of lake swimming.

Krumme Lanke, 8th July

Krumme Lanke, 8th July

A few days ago a friend and I took a long ride south-west to Krumme Lanke lake, swimming and watching the great crested grebes. This friend had been asking after my copy of The Metamorphoses which I had finished over winter (the more astute of my many readers (har har) will note that Ovid seems often to haunt my foraging), and we took turns reading episodes to each other out loud in the shade of the alders by the water. I eventually chose the story of Philemon and Baucis, the pious aged couple who are rewarded for their hospitality to the gods by being turned upon death into two neighbouring trees. We thought about reading Pyramus and Thisbe, but the mosquitoes were coming out, so we took off back towards the city. As I should be writing about foraging and not poetry (and in case you don’t remember it), that unread tale goes in brief like this:

Pyramus and Thisbe in forbidden love, plot a lovers’ tryst. Flee from their respective parents, agree to meet in forest by white-fruited tree next to fountain; enter lion, recently and well-fed, seeking fountain.  Exit Thisbe, running, losing cape. Lion nuzzles cape with bloody mouth. Enter Pyramus, sees cape, thinks worst, commits suicide. Enter Thisbe, sees lover, does same. Blood stains white fruit of tree (and ground beneath tree) blood red. Pyramus and Thisbe forever linked with tree whose white fruits turn blood red – the mulberry tree. End.

We ended up getting slightly lost on our way to the station, and were directed to walk over a small park to the road. On the way we found a piece of white-and-pink gingham cloth caught on some newly sprouting brambles. A few steps ahead the path at our feet became stained a rich crimson with trampled fruit, and we looked up to see clusters of white and red mulberries hanging from the branches. This coincidence pushed me to the absolute limits of my own rational scepticism, and I had a baffled climb in the trees shaking down the massy fruit to be either eaten or bagged by my more-than-patient friend. After I found a way to get myself up to the higher branches we took about seven-hundred grams, just picking the choice fallen fruit from the grass.

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As it is more accustomed to the warmer, milder climates of continental Europe, I have only ever found one other mulberry around Berlin in my three-and-a-half years here, that being at the Schöneberger Südgelände (see previous posts), and it was such a pleasure to find the avenue tree of The Silk Road at the edge of a quiet park in the district of Zehlendorf. I got home and was wondering what to do with the fruit when I started thinking about the leaves, which I’d not bothered to pick. A great fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, some time ago I’d been talking about Israeli food with a friend who had been in Tel Aviv. He told me about the herb Za’atar, which can be the name for thyme, oregano, summer savoury, hyssop, or all four mixed (in Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem he declares Za’atar as simply hyssop). He also told me that instead of stuffing vine leaves, they stuff mulberry leaves. So it was back to the spot to get the leaves I could have gathered in the first place, this time with another friend and minus the literary preamble (after all, who knows what tangent that might have thrown us off at?)

Signornina A. hard at work checking for scale insect

Signornina A. scrutinizes quality of the leaves

Having not come across the tree very often outside of books, I could only recall the beauty and variation of the lower, latent leaves, which could have given a clue to their potential use as vine leaves had I known they were edible. The lobes and margins seem to define their shapes and limits however they see fit, often distinctly asymmetrically:

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Eccentrically lobed

Simple toothed margin

Simple toothed margin

After getting the leaves back home and experimenting with them a little, it was easy to see how well-suited the mature ones were to the job, and as I’ve not experimented much with leaf parcels in the wild food kitchen, I thought I might store them in brine to make my own semi-wild dolmades at a future date. Preparing the whole bag of them turned out to be really satisfying work, as they yielded up the best method of folding; once from tip to base, then the outer margins together along the leaf vein, I bettered this technique by dipping them in the brine first to make them stick. This way they can be packed down into a mason jar in spirals, the folded margins facing out, the veins facing in; this way, they interlock and tend not to float up to the surface where they could become exposed to the air. This also looks better than a mass of leaves held under the brine any which way.

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Going through the leaves, cleaning each one with a damp cloth before packing down, you really see the beauty of their varied margins – it seems to me the work of luthiers (or string instrument makers) reaching from Europe to China is recurrently grounded in work surrounding leaf patterns: whether it be simple ornamentation, or the whole form of the instrument (think of the cut-away forms of guitars, lutes and dulcimers), some echo of the leaf is almost always desired in the wood’s final aesthetic.

Finally, after the last forage walk I did, where I was a bit over-enthusiastic about giving out samples for the foragers to try, my wild drinks trolley was looking a bit on the famished side (especially that the last of the elderflower champagne was successfully polished off before it exploded – the same could not be said for the nettle beer). I decided that something other than fingertips and the suicide spots of mythological lovers could be stained mulberry red…

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Late Spring Come Early

Two weeks ago there was still ice in the lakes in the north-east, the forest floor was bare of green shoots due to the lack of the spring rains, and the migratory birds (notably the storks) were conspicuously absent, waiting for wind and weather more favourable for the flight back north. Now the season has arrived, and has hit the ground running, so to speak, tearing along with the speed at which it got here.

From a hobby-naturalist’s point of view, things couldn’t get much better; for a forager, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the task of keeping up with it all. The coltsfoots are already gone to seed (having had to push their flower-heads through a foot of snow), the nettles are at their absolute most tender and there are rumours on the online mushroom forums that the morels are out in Brandenburg. This last bit of information is perhaps most personally distressing, as the already-ephemeral-enough morel season might be even shorter this year if the conditions for the mycelium don’t favour pushing up masses of fruit-bodies.

It is true that the esteem in which the early mushrooming season is held varies from culture to culture; in North America they seem to be fanatical about their morels; in the UK, France and Spain we canonize the good Calocybe gambosa with the name of St George. In Germany I’ve not heard the morel praised very highly or even considered as choice outside of the realm of mushrooming guidebooks, and linguistically the St George’s mushroom is deprived of its saintliness, being known merely as Maipilz (May-mushroom). For me the early season has its own maddening vernal allure which seems only to intensify from year to year.

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Part of the magic has roots in the archaic remnants of the joy of the hunt; you are in no danger of morels jumping out and biting you. Even getting close (or positioned, as I think of it) requires a basic knowledge of the ground and its underlying geological make-up, and quite possibly the relationship of the dominant plant species. Local knowledge is important too, and difficult to come by: one Brandenburg morel enthusiast with an internet connection swears that cleavers (Galium aparine) and birch trees over a good amount of sandy soil signal the mother lode for him each year, and he has the photos to prove it. The sheer complexity of conditions and factors mean that often even seasoned mushroomers have never once in many years of seeking had the rare pleasure. Neither have I, for that matter, and on that particular day my suspected morel spot turned out to be far too dry to produce what I was looking for even if it could have done.

So the search continues, and as I have said elsewhere, for me foraging is about adapting to your surroundings, and there is plenty to miss right now by desperately hallucinating morels out of pine-cones. A recent forage brought home a massive list of edibles; lesser celandine, common sorrel, wood sorrel, ground ivy, bristly oxtongue, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, hairy bittercress, hop shoots, perennial wall-rocket, charlock, and, of course, lots of nettles.

Marine biologist, lover of Asiatic poetry and Gregorian chants, and minor existential theorist Ed Ricketts once said that we should interest ourselves not in the rare but in the most commonplace species we encounter, because their proliferation is more astounding than the scarcity of the other. Often it seems that with foraging, the goal is toward seldom-encountered plants and fungi, whereas logically the successful forager would have been the one who can make best use of the abundant resources. If there were one single plant that could be said to lend itself to this propensity, it would have to be the stinging nettle.

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Though for the sake of research and the thrill of novelty it should be otherwise, there is currently no better plant to be gathered than the ‘humble’ nettle, which altogether doesn’t have that much reason to be humble. On the last forage I packed a jute bag full with pressed-down nettle tops, and getting home I wished I’d spent another hour in the field when I got to cooking, having several things I wanted to do with them. I have come to the conclusion that, if you come home from a forage with nothing more than a bag of nettles, it was a good day all the same. Current plans for nettle-related fun are right this moment ‘brewing’, so to speak, so more about those at a later date.

The persistent cold weather up until recently has held back more than a few plants, and I managed to catch the dreaded Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) just as it was sprouting, having decided I fancied dessert to go with my foraged Sunday dinner. The tender stems are crunchy, sour, and distinctly rhubarb-like when cooked (the plants belong in the same family, so one could say that Japanese knotweed is a kind of unwanted feral rhubarb), and are well worth gathering. One consideration is site: only harvest Japanese knotweed from areas where it is highly-unlikely that the plants have been sprayed: that means unassuming, sheltered clumps far from agricultural land, roads or towpaths; the possibility of glyphosate or other herbicides having been used to tackle these plants in certain areas is relatively high. Having taken that into consideration, a good harvest can be gotten in no time at all, and, unfortunately for the native plants, it is likely to be an inexhaustible resource for some time to come.P1080378

So, adapting from the very-much-desired morel hunt of a forage that I had been planning, I decided to enrich the end of the day’s rummage with a bit of wildlife, and stopped off in Chorin where I had seen a huge towering stork’s nest while visiting with a friend in the depths of winter. On the rolling pasture-land it was much easier scanning the skies than scanning the forest floor for mushrooms, and sure enough the enormous birds were wheeling around with their inimitable slow and gravid flight.

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I must have wandered under the circling storks for about half an hour when I realized that I was first quite dizzy and second quite dehydrated from the pouring sun, so I made for the shade of some birches at the edge of the larger pasture. As my eyes were adjusting from the glare I noticed some stone-like spheres embedded in the grass, and had to give one an exploratory prod before I would believe my sun-beaten brain: a perfect cluster of puffballs!

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As can be seen from the photograph, they were rather on the small side but plentiful, and I filled a paper bag with about 500g of the whitest and most plump-looking of the lot, and did my bit to help the future generations by kicking around the dried fruit bodies. I hadn’t been overly-hoping for much fungi in my basket after the habitual lack of morels, so I was doubly happy about being able to put on the menu:

Spicy Nettle Soup

Mushroom Burger with Puffballs and Wild Leaves

Wild Salad with Beetroot and Pine Nuts

Japanese Knotweed and Apple Crumble

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Afterword: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, goes the saying. Last autumn I experimented with the beautiful elfin saddle (Helvella crispa), a ‘false morel’ in the Ascomycetes group which contains the ‘true morel’ morels. These I took through the standard MOT test (Mushrooms On Toast) employed to assess any ‘edible’ but non-choice mushroom for viability. They were fairy good, with a fine texture on cooking a bit similar to cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa), and there were no symptoms of any kind of poisoning. Doing further research, it turns out that the ‘edible/poisonous’ qualification usually given to this family is justified: mushrooms of the Helvellaceae family apparently contain a chemical called monomethylhydrazine, which can also be found… well, in rocket fuel! Despite no retro-propelled experience on the first try, this is a family I will be steering clear of from now on.

H. crispa close

Foraging in the Snow-laden Hedgerow

The beginning of December and it’s minus 6 degrees. It’s normally the quietest time of the year for foraging; the mainstay of the mushrooms has finally vanished, the fresh shoots and leaves of spring feel a long way off indeed. Thoughts of summery wild beers and showers of autumnal nuts are past fancies. But even on the snow-heavy branches of winter there is something to be found for the basket, provided you have a little patience and time.

The one winter foraging treat on everyone’s lips is of course the persistent sloe, which doesn’t mind even the vagaries of repeated frosts, remaining on the branch well into the depths of winter. At my sloe spot there were plenty of dusky fruits to be had, while the thrushes landed to inspect the fallen fruit dislodged by my efforts. In the end I took about three kilos of fruit, thinking it would be more than enough. At this point, you might be thinking ‘ok, I like sloe gin as much as the next man, but how much is he planning to make?’

"Pint of sloe gin, landlord please!"

“Pint of sloe gin, landlord please!”

In my opinion, sloes have enjoyed a reputation as a bit of a one-trick pony for too long. The only two common uses seem to be the ubiquitous sloe gin and occasionally sloe wine. When I read ‘recipes’ for sloe gin, I always* feel a bit cheated – ‘steep fruit in alcohol and sugar’ is not a recipe, it’s a method of preparation, no matter how you word it. For this very reason you wouldn’t write a recipe for boiled potatoes, because it’s not a recipe to say ‘cook potatoes in salted water’. I have a plan to let my sloes star in a recipe, yes, a real recipe.

So, I got to grips with some other hedgerow berries. First up was the matrimony vine, or Tibetan Goji Berry, wolfberry, boxthorn, you name it (Lycium barbarum). This is definitely a plant where long term observation is important if you want to harvest it – the traffic-light coloured fruit on the naked stems could be reminiscent of bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), and in my opinion even black bryony (Tamus/Diascorea communis), though these all have different growth habits. Still, they are poisonous and should not be confused with ripe or unripe wolfberries.

The raw fruits are bitter and unpleasant, but after drying, they have an interesting texture, and look exactly like the packaged, extortionately expensive Goji Berries available from health food stores. The Tibetan Goji Berry moniker is very likely nothing more than an exotic-sounding marketing name – it was introduced from China to Europe in the mid eighteenth-century, and as it can spread vegetatively with little encouragement, it is not likely to have been scarce from that time onward.

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There is a lot of writing on the internet about the health benefits of Goji berries, but, at least in my case, it would be difficult to harvest enough to make a significant difference to one’s diet; they lose a lot of weight and mass on being dried, and conditions are not suitable for gathering what will become a few handfuls of processed fruit. Still, it is satisfying work trudging through the snow, scouring for the bright berries, which are strung like lanterns along the boughs (to be very un-botanical about it), so they’ve paid for themselves with pure enjoyment more than anything else.

I also found a good number of barberry bushes (Berberis sp.), which, although even smaller than the Goji berries, can be stripped at a much quicker rate (provided you’ve got gloves), and which don’t need to be bake-dried to be used. The plant is marked in my field guide as mildly poisonous, but this applies to leaves and woody parts, another good example of how you can’t pigeon-hole a plant with poisonous properties. I know from reading recently about Middle-Eastern cuisine that fresh barberries are used to give a sour tang to salads and rice dishes.

But I promised a sloe recipe, so, I’d better deliver. After a bit of trouble with getting the biscuit dough down from clay pigeon thickness, I think these work quite well; the sweetness of the oatmeal takes the astringent edge off the pureéd sloes, and the dash of gin keeps them moist and crumbly on drying. Use a doubled-over piece of baking paper to ensure the undersides don’t get scorched:

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Blackthorn Biscuits (makes between 20-25)

250g unsalted butter

200g wholemeal flour

200g medium-fine oatmeal

¼ cup crushed foraged hazelnuts

1 cup pureéd sloe berries

100g cane sugar

½ tsp. Salt

Tsp. Baking powder

Dash six month old foraged sloe gin

Barberries (optional)

Wolfberries (optional)

Go back in time one whole year, gather sloes, put sloes in gin. Leave to steep until now. Return to sloe spot, pick sloes. Stone two cups fresh sloes, pureé, and refrigerate. Mix flour and oatmeal, work butter into the mixture. Add salt, baking powder and sugar, work further. Add hazelnuts, sloe berry pureé, dash of anachronistic sloe gin. Shape into a ball, cover and refrigerate for half an hour. After this, pre-heat oven to Gas Mark 4. Flour and roll out dough, adding broken-off pieces back to centre. Roll thinly, under 1cm thickness, as thicker biscuits will burn before cooking. Bake for 10-14 minutes until lightly brown and still moist. Stud with barberries and wolfberries if desired. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Store biscuits in an air-tight container for up to a week.

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*That said, I am a little particular about my sloe gin, but that’s more to do with the gin than the sloes, as they’re always fantastic, whereas you’ve got to be careful with your gin. For a few years now I’ve been using a certain Shetland gin made using the wild aromatics most abundant in each year of distillery – this year’s gin will be made with a four-year-old specimen where sea pink, meadowsweet and angelica root are predominant. A gin with wild pretensions for sloes with semi-wild heritage.