Monday, 2 January 2012

Wild food from the Park – Look back in hunger... a review of 2011

And so we’ve finally reached the end of our year-long attempt to find wild food from our local park, the King’s Park in Stirling, every month of the year, and to produce some edible (or drinkable!) produce from what we collected. And, if you’ve been reading my intermittent (and usually extremely late) posts on this project through 2011, you’ll know that we managed it. Furthermore, some of what came out of the efforts was surprisingly tasty and we’ll be revisiting a number again next year. There were some good “do-ers”, available throughout the year or appearing as expected, when expected, such as the ever-available jelly-ear fungus, and the ever-reliable wild sorrel, elderflower and raspberries, the latter two of which we’ve been gathering for many years from the Park.

Some of our high points were:

  • using 30 plant species (including 12 wild plants) in a wild spring green soufflé
  • discovering the nectar of the gods that is honeysuckle cordial (more please, more!)
  • wild garlic and walnut pesto and, for that matter, hazel and beechnut pesto too
  • the golden honey smell of lime blossom on one warm July morning
  • finding previously undiscovered wild plum, greengage and crab apple trees and bushes
  • making new ‘things’ like sloe and apple cheese, and Autumn’s end jelly (my own creation!)
  • coming home to O’s chardonnay jelly with wild raspberries, a real warm summer’s evening treat after a long day sitting about in a green room at BBC Scotland with the Heart of Scotland choir, waiting to be filmed with John Barrowman (two new experiences in one day!)
There were a couple of things we won’t be repeating – especially our meadowsweet cordial recipe – more medicinal than enjoyable – and we probably won’t be bothering trying to gather hazelnuts locally as these were more trouble than the efforts and returns merited, thanks to the Park’s highly efficient grey squirrels.

So, how did the year pan out in terms of the use of different wild foods in each month? The following table shows how the availability of different food sources changed as the year rolled on. Red boxes show where we collected and ate something, and blue boxes where we found, but didn’t collect (e.g. for reasons of time that month, or to avoid repeating experiences from previous months - variety is the spice of life, whether eating wild food or blogging about it!). Clicking on the table should open a larger version:

It’s an interesting pattern, showing that there’s real variation of opportunity. The weather also had a significant effect on this. In January, for example, everything was frozen solid during the most extreme winter for decades, including the jelly ear fungus that was our only successful find that month. By April, lots of fresh greens were available, but by July, many had disappeared or matured into poorly-edible fibrous toughness; edible blossoms had appeared by summer though, and Autumn was full of nuts, berries, hips and haws. The extremely wet Autumn greatly shortened the season for, and the crop of, blackberries – many went mildewy or rotted quickly.

The absence of edible fungal species in the Park is a big disappointment, with the honourable exception of jelly ear fungus on dead elder wood. There are many oak, beech and birch trees in the Park, all of which can and should host edible fungi that we would trust ourselves to identify. I think we may need to go a bit deeper into some of the denser areas of woodland next year to see if there’s more safely edible fungi available than we know of.

There were a couple of opportunities for which we ran out of time– the first, I’ve tried before and which is a little underwhelming, would have been acorn coffee. I still have some left from last year, and it is a bit like a malt drink with most of the flavour removed. The other failed opportunity was to try to make the drink, dandelion and burdock, made from the long roots of both plants in autumn after a summer of storing energy and flavour. Maybe next year!

One thought that struck me often throughout the year, and one which drove me back to read Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman's BBC book: ‘Wild Food’, was how difficult it would be to have a properly balanced diet from what we found to be available – protein was in relatively short supply for most of the year, although mycoprotein was available every month from the fungi. But I don’t know how much of a healthy diet’s protein is available from fungal sources. Of course, a true ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet would have included birds and their eggs, fish, shellfish and mammals. In the case of the Park, this latter option could have included roe deer, rabbits and grey squirrels – indeed, the King’s Park is a remnant of the much larger original deer park (forest) where the high and mighty residents from the Royal Household and Court in Stirling Castle would, in medieval times, have hunted for roe deer and, maybe, wild boar. But we weren’t hunting (it’s almost certainly banned in the Park, even for rabbits) and most of the birds are now protected by law, along with their eggs! Hazelnuts would have provided a good and readily storable protein source if they hadn’t been taken by the grey squirrels first.

Perhaps even more difficult to identify than protein sources, however, are obvious large-scale sources of complex carbohydrates, such as starch. Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman do, however, describe how many wild grass species (after all, the wild ancestors of our few domesticated grain crop species) were collected, processed and eaten by the early pre-agricultural peoples of Britain. A number of the grass species they describe can be found in the Park, for example the tufter hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa . There are also plants with complex carbohydrate storage ‘organs’, such as the pignut, distributed widely in the Park and which we’ve previously collected there and eaten. We just ran out of time during the late-Spring season for pignut, and didn’t really think about the grasses until it was a bit too late. Also, I suspect the grasses might be a lot of work for a poor return. At least the berries, wild plums and greengages would provide fruit sugars in a form that could be dried and stored as dried fruit, and blossoms provide some light, fresh, sugar-rich food during their season. Also, our ancestors would have braved wild honey bee hives for the honey – but I’m not going there!

But despite all the missed opportunities, the nutritional gaps that total dependence on the Park would have created, and the time and effort involved (although most collecting was actually done on dog walking excursions, much to Ella’s impatient disgust), I hope it was obvious from the blog posts that we had a lot of fun with this. We made some really interesting discoveries, both in recipes and wild food sources in the Park, and we have picked up some new culinary experiences and cookery skills. We’ll definitely be carrying on with an expanded range of wild food that we collect and eat, though I won’t necessarily be blogging about it in quite as much detail as I have this year!

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