Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wild food from the Park - March

Our wild food project proceeds into its third month, as March saw generally rising temperatures and lengthening hours of daylight encouraging the first green shoots of growth of plants that will form future meals. This month, though, most of those are still too small to be worth harvesting. Young nettles, however, are a wild foodie's Spring delight! And they abound in some areas of Stirling's King's Park, especially in patches enriched by the rotting down of regular disposal of grass cuttings from the golf course's greens or tees.

Much loved by the caterpillars of red admiral butterflies, young nettle tops are also a bit of a seasonal delicacy for us, but must be used before the nettles grow too big as they toughen and roughen as they age. So, wearing gloves, we picked a couple of ounces of young nettles (they still sting, even when newly grown!), rinsed them and then made a nettle rissoto, with Italian arborio rice and some home-made stock from a free-range turkey. The nettles break up gradually as the stock is stirred in a ladle-full at a time, so the green colour escapes a little and the nettles end up as little fragments (they don't sting once cooked!). We added, at the end, some cooked frozen peas, a generous grating of parmesan and some ground black pepper.

I'm sure nettles will feature again in the next couple of months, while they remain edible.
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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #11

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

We’re for the laird’s wuid,
Geordie speels the tree,
Shakes aa the conkers
Doun on me.”

J. K. Annand (1908-1993) (from: "Conkers", in Bairn Rhymes, Mercat Press, 1999)

(Copyright:Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 11
Wow – what a festival of chestnut colours on show here – conkers from the horse-chestnut, with a beautiful little chestnut-coloured weasel, And still more autumnal fungi, with some purple-coloured wood blewit mushrooms (yet another delicious edible species).

The horse-chestnut is not a native tree in Britain, but is widespread and naturalised. We’ve looked at it previously here and now we reach the fruiting stage, with the basis for the world’s finest nut-based children’s gladiatorial game, conkers, scattered all over the ground! Just in case you've never played... look here! This is what I spent a considerable percentage of my childhood Autumns doing, collecting for and preparing conkers for. I was never any good though but I still remember the excitement at finding a big conker - would this be THE ONE? The one that is unbreakable, unbeatable and can be retired a champion of many smashed conkers? I suspect officialdom's risk aversion masquerading as supposed health and safety concerns will have stolen the joy of conker fights from many of our playgrounds. But happy to be proved wrong about that!

Wood blewits (Lepista nuda) can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and gardens. They are up there among the best of our edible mushrooms. As with previous pictures showing fungi, I’m unable to comment on how well this species has done in the past few decades, as we have no reliable long-term data on trends in populations of fungi like the wood blewit.There is more interest now, though, in understanding what is happening to our fungi and you can pick up a flavour (no pun intended) of the enthusiasm for fungal recording, conservation and gastronomy on this newish fungi site for Scotland, Scottish Fungi. I recommend that you take a look!

The weasel (Mustela nivalis) is Britain’s smallest member of the mustelid family of carnivorous mammals (otters, badgers, polecats, martins, stoats, etc). Small but fierce! Like other members of the mustelid family, weasels are highly active hunters, with sharp teeth and keen senses of sight, hearing and smell, even seeing well in the dark. Weasels will live anywhere that there is suitable cover and prey, from coastal dunes to woods and uplands. Most of their diet consists of voles and mice and weasels eat prey equivalent to about a third of their body weight EACH DAY! They will also take over and live in the burrow of a prey item, lining it with the fur of their prey.

In terms of the status of weasels in Britain over the past 50 or so years, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s review of British mammals indicates a possible British population of about 450,000, of which around 106,000 are in Scotland. At the start of the 20th century, weasels were extremely common In England, Scotland and Wales. The outbreak of myxomatosis in rabbits in the early 1950s led to increased vegetation growth and a great abundance of small rodents in 1957-1958. This led to a record catch of weasels on game estates (I refer you here back to my rant about the downer we seem to have on predatory mammals in Britian - see the second half of that post). There has been a progressive decline in the number of weasels killed since 1961, most marked in East Anglia and the East Midlands but barely noticeable in the south-west and Scotland. The gradual recovery of the stoat from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s was accompanied by a substantial decline in the number of weasels, perhaps due to competition. Since the mid-1970s, however, the number of stoats killed by gamekeepers has declined again, but there has been no apparent increase in the number of weasels killed.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #10

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Wha saw the tattie howkers?
Wha saw them ga'an awa'?
Wha saw the tattie howkers,
Comin' ower the Barrow Raw?

Some o' them had bits an' stockins'
Some o' them had nane of aw
Some o' them had a wee bit whisky
Just to keep the cald awa.'"

Traditional Kilwinning song, to the tune of The 42nd

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Autumn Picture 10
This another picture that shows me how much some things have changed in 50 years. It shows a fairly manual harvesting process for a potato crop, with a little grey Massey Ferguson tractor with a rotary “spinner” which unearths the potatoes so that they can be lifted by hand by pickers with baskets (women in headscarves and, again, men in flat caps!), a back-breaking task. At the top of the picture, a larch tree is covered in golden cones. To the right, a hawthorn hedge has a vine of black bryony, with its bright red berries, entwined through it, and a flock of lapwings (peewits) is circling in the far distance.

I looked at hawthorn previously, here, and the larch tree here. Lapwings or peewits have also featured in a couple of posts previously, here, and in this picture we see them exhibiting their winter flocking behaviour, something I saw often when growing up in East Lothian. The long-term decline in the lapwing population has probably resulted in fewer people seeing this wonderful sight in the 50 years since these books were published.

The black bryony (Tamus communis) is a native vine species, found in southern and central England, and in most of Wales. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora says that is found: “mostly on neutral to calcareous, well-drained soils, particularly those overlying chalk and limestone, but also on clay. It can be luxuriant in hedgerows, woodland edges and along paths and in waste land”. It grows from a large tuber and the text in the book speculates on how good the tuber may be to eat! Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, however, points out that it is actually the only member of the yam family to grow in Britain, and is a poisonous irritant (so not a good candidate for our wild food project!). The New Atlas indicates that there has been no change in the overall distribution of black bryony since the previous Atlas was published in 1962.

The image of the potato harvesters reminds me of the itinerant Irish workers, in the early 1970’s, who came to our village in East Lothian each Autumn to work in the potato harvest. Backbreaking work indeed, not helped by the squalid little “bothy” they lived in on the edge of the village (On the Mair road) for the duration of the harvest, which sat empty for the rest of the year. It must have been damp and I am certain it didn’t have running water or plumbed toilets. On the farm we lived on, potato harvesters would occasionally come to the door asking us to fill a large water bottle. We used to collect leftover tatties from the fields too, once the harvest was over, something we’ve done more recently around Stirling (shame to let them rot on the ground...). Even in the 1970’s, however, the potato harvesting equipment employed around us was much more advanced than the relatively primitive mechanised digger shown here!

Signs of the times: Autumn #9

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

Their mass rotted off them flake by flake
Till the thick stalk stuck like a murderer's stake,
Where rags of loose flesh yet tremble on high
Infecting the winds that wander by.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Cancelled stanza from: “The Sensitive Plant”. Omitted by Mary Shelley from all editions from 1839 onwards, and thought to refer to the shaggy ink cap mushroom)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 9
This picture illustrates yet again that Autumn is the best time of year for finding the fruiting bodies of fungi, i.e. mushrooms and toadstools. Here, we see a mouse, specifically a long-tailed field mouse (as it is called in the accompanying text) now known more commonly as a wood mouse, running past some shaggy ink cap mushrooms, towards a clump of Autumn crocuses, or meadow saffron. At the top of the picture, we also see some fallen sycamore leaves dotted with the black spots of tar spot fungus (more fungi!).

The wood mouse (Latin name: Apodemus sylvatica) is a native, and very common, rodent species widespread on mainland Britain and some of the islands (although usually accidentally introduced to those). I have some living behind my compost bin in the garden. Sometimes, when I lift the lid to pour the next load of green waste in, there is a panicked flurry of activity as one or two wood mice flee up and over the edge of the bin to safety. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of British Mammals, this mouse species is “highly adaptable and inhabit[s] most habitats if they are no too wet, including woodland, arable land, ungrazed grassland, heather, blanket bog, sand dunes, rocky mountain summits and vegetated parts of urban areas”. The JNCC reports a possible UK population of about 38 million wood mice, of which maybe 15 million live in Scotland, and the UK population is thought to be quite stable (other than for significant and normal annual peaks and troughs related to reproduction, predation on young, as well as the effects of the grain harvest on populations in arable areas, and mortality from extreme winters). The JNNC also reports from one study that: “A reduction in the use of herbicides, e.g. to produce 'conservation headlands' around the edges of arable fields, leads to an increase in the abundance of both floral and invertebrate food supplies and hence to increased populations of wood mice”, so the development of agri-environment schemes through such means are good for wood mice, as well as all the species of birds and mammals that feed upon them.

The shaggy ink cap or Lawyer’s Wig mushroom (Coprinus comatus), which grows in grassland, verges and rubbish tips, is described in the book in the following terms: “no living things, except maggots and insects, are rash enough to eat the ink-cap toadstool”. Which is a bit odd really, as it is a perfectly edible mushroom , so long as you eat it when the gills are still white. In fact, in that state, my Mushroom Guide (Roger Phillips) describes it as good to eat. As it ages, however, the gills go black and begin to drip inky black liquid. That process can happen very quickly, over the course of a few hours.

The Autumn crocus (Crocus nudiflorus), also described in the picture’s accompanying text as “meadow saffron”, is not a native species in the UK. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora describes it as “naturalised in meadows, pastures, amenity grasslands and on roadsides. It spreads vegetatively by means of rhizomes.” It was introduced in the Middle Ages apparently, and in his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey collates information that suggests that the present scattered shotgun pattern of its distribution is strongly linked to its introduction by certain orders of monks and by Knights Templar, who all grew it to provide themselves with a cheap form of saffron. In Scotland, it is only recorded from a couple of unconnected locations so this picture could, just conceivably, be Scottish as everything else in it can also be found here!

Steampunk stylee comes to Stirling

Spotted in The Junk Rooms in Stirling (a new cafe), this rather Steampunk-style menu holder. I think it would fit rather nicely in the Matt Smith Dr Who-era TARDIS.
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Monday, 21 March 2011

"Now is the Solstice of the year..."

[* Silly nature boy - while I was busy blogging about the summer solstice below, it was of course THE VERNAL EQUINOX! The solstices are the longest and shortest days and the equinoxes, as their Latin-originating name suggests, are the two days in Spring and Autumn when the day and night are each 12 hours long. I was wishing away the Spring, clearly, in anticipation of Summer's delights - apologies to any confused readers. In fairness to my friend Mark, it was him who noticed... smarty pants... Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the Jethro Tull! *]

"Now is the Solstice of the year": So sang Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull's track "Ring Out Solstice Bells", from their album "Songs from the wood", a pretty unashamed celebration of nature. not surprisingly, it is one of my favourite rock records. As last night was the Summer Solstice, it seems a fitting time to share the video below, even although it is about the Winter Solstice...).

According to the comments about this on YouTube, it was produced by the BBC to support showing of this track on some long-forgotten TV rock show. We, however, can still enjoy the mighty Tull, lie back and think about the increasing day length and encroaching Spring (I heard a chiffchaff this morning, a little summer visiting warbler, fresh arrived from Africa!).
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Sunday, 20 March 2011

Fence post mini gardens on Loch Venachar-side

We found these delightfully "colonised" fence post tops today along the shore of Loch Venachar in The Trossachs. Given the absence of a water supply other than rainfall, these little clumps are surely testament to the high rainfall of the area, and the richness of mosses and lichen is indicative of the high air quality of Scotland's first National Park.
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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Bittern? Sitar? No, I said CITTERN!

At a friend's daughter's third birthday party recently, another of the adult guests had brought a rare and unusual musical instrument, on the off-chance that he might have a chance to play it. But the general mayhem of a room full of partying 3-year olds was very unconducive to performing (what WAS he thinking?). After the departure of said gremlin pack, however, Alastair was persuaded to let me have a go at playing his cittern. I confess I thought he said he had brought his sitar. He had cycled over to the party with what was clearly some form of stringed, necked instrument in a gig bag on his back. When he said it was (I thought) a sitar, I thought that it must be a very small one! The cittern, however, is an old European, rather than Indian, precursor to the guitar. Also known as the cither, the cittern is a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance period.

A more accurate description, to my mind, would be that it is like a mandolin, with paired strings, but with five pairs rather than the four pairs on a mandolin.

The tuning is different too, tuned to fifths (and having already switched from guitar to ukulele, I am still trying to get my head around what that means...). After a few minutes of playing around, I began to enjoy knocking notes out of it, although it never sounded anything like the following performances (my fault rather than the cittern's!):

I want one of these! Next musical acquisiton, I think...

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Thursday, 17 March 2011

Solid ground. Lucky us!

My thanks to my friend Mark W who pointed out this interesting article by the British Geological Survey. In the week of the horrendous and cataclysmic earthquake and consequent tsunami in Japan, the article looks at the likelihood of a similar event here in the UK. We are located in the stable middle of a tectonic plate, unlike Japan, so the earthquakes we experience (daily) in this country are many thousands of times weaker than last week's Japanese quake. We, have, however, experienced tsunami-type events here in the historic and prehistoric past. Read the article below to learn more.

Could a Tsunami hit the British Isles? | British Geological Survey (BGS)
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Monday, 14 March 2011

Wild food from the Park - February

Our year-long local wild food quest continued last month with another way of using the Jew's ear or jelly ear fungus that also served as the key ingredient of January's meal. This time, as our tame elder thicket had produced another excellent fungal crop, we made a mushroom tart, รก la "30 minute cook" recipe by the lovely Nigel Slater.

We also found the first young leaves of this season's wild sorrel growing in the rough of the Park's golf course, so we picked some of those to garnish the tart and add another wild harvested element to the meal.

So, finely chopped Jew's-ear mushrooms were lightly fried in olive oil and butter with finely chopped garlic, sliced boring white supermarket mushrooms and some wild Stirlingshire chanterelle mushrooms that we preserved in hot vinegar in 2009, before draining and storing in olive oil. Some puff pastry was rolled out and laid on a baking tray, then scored with a knife all the way round about an inch in from the edge. The mushroom mixture was spooned out evenly across the pastry inside the scoring, and parmesan grated over the top. After baking in the oven for 20 minutes, it looked like this:

We served it garnished with the wild sorrel, topped with a wee fried quail's egg, and with fried wedges of Scottish Maris piper potatoes:

Lovely grub! I wonder, however, if we can manage not to base March's meal on this same fungus...

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