A weekend of exploring fungi, weeds, flowers and wild cocktails on the Welsh borders in stunning countryside with amazingly knowledgeable people. I along with many other people have always picked wild free food since being a kid, generally the easy win stuff like blackberries, elderflower, sloe, nettles and dandelions etc. Like a lot of people mushrooms are a fascinating yet scary prospect on the wild food front. This years birthday present was a weekends foraging with Liz Knight and Mark Williams of Forage fine foods and Galloway Wild Foods respectively. I have known Liz for a number of years and have enjoyed her wild produce for a long time, I have met Mark previously and read his website posts on various aspects of foraging and fungi.
The place for the first days foraging which would be predominantly focusing on mushrooms was Nant y Bedd a 6.5 acre organic garden and woodland located at 1200 feet up in the Black Mountains in the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.
After tea and coffee Mark and Liz gave a run down of how the weekend would run and Mark handed out a small enamel cup to everyone, we would use these over the next two days for various tastings of the many and varied drinks that were in Marks large bag in various bottles, from cordials, to tinctures, to very sloe gin, to whisky sour. The first of these drinks we sampled was Elderflower and Sea Buckthorn champagne, I have tasted many variations on this drink and this I have to say was possibly the best I have had, you can find the recipe on Marks website.
Various sources state there are anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000 species of fungi in the UK. This is about 6 times the number of species flowering plants. About 3000 of these are species of larger fungi i.e. those with fruit bodies easily visible to the naked eye. The table below gives a brief introduction to the fungus families.
|Sub-division||Characteristics and remarks|
|Basidiomycota||Contains the familiar mushrooms and toadstools. Divided into a number of classes including the Gasteromycetes (includes the puffballs and stinkhorns) and theTeliomycetes (includes rusts and smuts). The familiar gilled and pored fungi belong to the Hymenomycetes. All members of the Basidiomycota produce their spores on a characteristic cell called a basidium (plural basidia)|
|Ascomycota||The largest number of species occur in this section. Includes the class Discomycetes (the cup fungi) and the Pyrenomycetes (flask fungi). Members of the Ascomycota produce spores in a sack like structure called an ascus (plural asci).|
|Zygomycota||Mostly microscopic species includes the pin moulds that attack fruit in your refrigerator.|
|Oomycota||Not now considered to be related to the above three sub-divisions. The Oomycota includes the water moulds and some important pathogens such as potato blight. Many have produce motile spores during their life cycle which can swim.|
|Deuteromycota||An artificial sub-division containing those species for which no sexual state has been identified and therefore cannot be placed in any of the above sub-divisions. Most are thought to be derived from the Ascomycota. Includes many so called moulds such asPenicillium|
|Myxomycota||The slime moulds. Very different from any of the above although spores are produced which look like the spores of the higher fungi. Many species include an amoeba-like stage in their life cycle.|
Mark told us of a survey he carried out with one of the UK’s leading mycologists, during the survey Mark said that he could positively identify around 50% of what they found and the mycologist around 70% and saying that many could only be identified under a microscope. So when he gets a picture on twitter of a fuzzy mushroom cap and no other information asking “can I eat this” you understand his frustration. An important part of the identification is the habitat it grows in. Mycelium of the mushroom works with other plants, trees, soils. The word mycelium literally means “more than one”. It is actually a plural form of the word Mycelia. The word has New Latin and Greek origins and was first coined in text in the early 1800’s, and refers to the thread-like body of a fungus. The main part of the fungus is the mycelia, which lives inside the substrate (wood, straw, grain, etc). The mushrooms that we eat are actually just a small visible part of the organism. In nature mushrooms “bloom” much like flowers do. Like flowers, mushrooms bloom during certain times of the year when the conditions are just right. So when you ask for a mushroom to be identified you need to give as much information as possible, size (put a coin etc next to the cap), habitat (trees it’s under, grass, other fungi present), gills, spore colours, always use a guide-book, never trust just one source be it a book or website. For a far more in-depth guide to mushroom foraging visit Marks guide An introduction to fungi foraging.
At the start of the walk Mark said that often on a forage the first mushroom that is found he can not positively identify and that identification of mushrooms is down to probability and that you never munch on a hunch. This year has not been the best for fungi, the conditions have not been ideal for a bumper crop and we were a few weeks past the best time, the walk through the forest under a canopy of various deciduous and evergreen trees, from birch to Douglas fir both of these trees are great foraging sources in their own right, birch trees: tea from the twigs; a tea, spice, and flour from the inner bark; syrup from the sap. The needles of the douglas fir can be used for many things from teas, to adding to marinades and rubs for meat and fish, they have an amazing citrus note to them and can be used to replace lemon and lime in many things. During spring time, pine, fir, and other evergreen trees grow by producing new tips at the end of each branch. The new growth is a lighter, vibrant green, and you can (and should) eat it. The tips have a wonderful citrus-y, woodsy flavor that tastes awesome in all kinds of sautes, seafood, and roasted dishes. But the easiest way to preserve their flavor is steep them gently in a syrup, which will last in your fridge for weeks.
On the walk we came across various fungi from puff-ball to shaggy ink cap both edible. The puff-ball has another name that is far more amusing and when I told Ffion she laughed and will not forget its name of Wolf Farts, on the picture of the ink cap you can just see the tips starting to blacken, again please use a guide-book when identifying, both are edible when young.
Another fungi we found whilst on the forage is the honey fungus, one honey fungus living in the Blue Mountains of Oregon occupies almost 2,400 acres (965 hectares) of soil, covering an area as big as 1,665 football fields.
We also found brittle gill and parasol mushrooms, there are edible and inedible varieties in both families of so identification again is important, use your guide books, look at habitat, cap, stem, gills and spores and remember identification is probability not definitive.
Throughout the walk it highlighted that there are very few easy wins in mushroom foraging, it is imperative that you use guide books and never trust one resource, some fungi will not just give you a dodgy belly but have the potential to kill.
We ended the day with Mark making us a feast of fungi that he had brought with him, there was also breads, fermented wild garlic, wild mushroom pâté, wild garlic pesto, baked apples with wild spices and wild cocktails made by Lottie Muir author of Wild Cocktails from the midnight apothecary
We finished the day eating amazing wild food around a fire next to the wild pool in the garden at Nant y Bedd, to say I was jealous of this feature is an understatement, I told Sue about my jealousy on day two of the foraging and was told I am welcome to visit and have a swim. The first day of the weekends foraging was amazing and I learnt so much from both Mark and Liz.
The second day of the foraging course was to take place at the home of Liz at Forage fine foods, on a hillside just outside Abergavenny looking across the valley to the Cats Back and Offa’s Dyke. Again the day started with a small cup off the fantastic elderflower and sea buckthorn champagne.
To say that both locations for the weekends foraging are stunning is an understatement and I feel blessed that they are on my doorstep literally. The countryside that surrounds where I live be it the black mountains to the Brecon Beacons and the many hidden treasures between them is truly some of the finest in the UK and far further afield. Many take it for granted and do not pay any attention to what surrounds them.
Liz found her home 10 years ago in what was then a ramshackle drovers barn. The allure was not the barn or the area but on walking down the lane that would be the start of our days foraging the scent of wild pineapple weed, at the time Liz did not know what the “weed” was.
We all remember this from childhood and it has both culinary and medicinal uses, you can add the flower heads to salads, infuse in a syrup to make cordials, it is an excellent insect repellent and was used by Native Americans to line their children’s beds for that very reason. This was the first step of our days foraging and Liz had a cordial she had made and shared around among us in our tin cups from the day before, the cordial was made using various wild ingredients that she uses for flu and cold treatment wild pineapple weed can help to lower temperatures.
The format of the forage was to treat going down the drovers lane and hill as a walk and use coming back up the steep hillside as the forage and have stops looking at various things as an excuse to catch our breath. Not long after entering the field we came across a patch of mushrooms and stopped to look, they were growing close to an oak tree and Mark talked about the fungi could be working with the oak and the mycelium be spreading out from that, they could not be definitively identified and were placed in a basket to be checked off in a book later.
A little further down the field I came across a very small mushroom that I was pretty sure on the identity of, my disclaimer here is that I have seen on TV etc etc.
Shrooms, Philosopher’s Stone, Mushies, Magics, Liberty Cap, Liberties are just a few of the names of this mushroom, section 21 of the Drugs Act 2005 made fresh psychedelic mushrooms(“fungi containing psilocybin”), a Class A drug. Prior to these laws being passed, possession and use of psilocybin and psilocin is prohibited. There is research into the use of psilocybin in the treatment of mental health issues but that is another post on my other blog.
Though day two of the course was to predominantly focusing on the hedgerow and plant side of foraging we had found various fungi the next to be found was a large specimen of bracket fungi growing on a gate post, The Chicken of the Wood.
Another edible fungi but not in this late condition. The young Chicken of the Woods is “succulent” and has a mild flavor. Older specimens tend to change color as they develop, as well as become brittle. The young mushrooms have bright yellows and oranges; in age they dull to yellow and then pure white.
We all tend to walk along looking straight ahead and not observing our surroundings, it is only 10,000 years since our ancestors became growers and not hunter gatherers, they would not have stayed long in a place and would have gathered as they migrated from place to place, we import and store so many herbs and spices when with just a little effort we could be collecting native alternatives, common hogweed seeds are an amazing spice, we had parkin with the seeds in the seeds have a ginger, cinnamon back note to them, the green seed pods have a real kick to them and Mark collected some that we would use later in the day with supper. Picking hogweed should be done with caution as chemicals in the sap can cause phytophotodermititus – especially in strong sunlight. And never mix it up with its big brother Giant Hogweed which is inedible.
At the bottom of one field which was to be the end of the “walk” we stopped and gathered around what looked like just any other part of the field, nettles and dock two plants that everyone knows grew to one side, on a fallen tree hairy bittercress grew at the base. We played nettle roulette, the secret is to pick the top young leaves with confidence, take a piece of dock fold this and the nettle and place between the molars and chew, contrary to popular belief the dock leaf is not the best remedy for nettle stings, plantain which was also growing nearby is far better and a poultice made from nettles themselves is a lot better than the dock.
Stinging nettle has shown promise in reducing sneezing and itching as results from hay fever. This use as an herbal remedy for hay fever is successful due to the nettles ability to reduce the body’s production of histamines in relation to the allergen.
Used as a medicinal herb to treat respiratory issues such as asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis and allergies. Stinging nettle is thought to be an effective histamine blocker as well as an inflammation reducer, and it has been used to treat allergic rhinitis without the side effects of popular allergy medications. If you have access to fresh plants, you can simply dry nettle leaves in the sun for your cup of nettle tea. Each cup of nettle tea contains vitamins A, B, and K, riboflavin, niacin, folate, carbohydrates (71.33%), fat (2.36%) and proteins (25.8%). It is also rich in minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, copper and magnesium.
As we started the journey back up Merlin’s hill and upper brooks we started making stops along the way to look at and learn about various things we had passed on the walk down.
On the banks of the gully were 2 different fungi growing on the bank, one a coral fungi the other surprised Mark with its habitat choice as it was a meadow wax cap.
Quite why a meadow wax cap was growing in a shaded gully was a bit confusing.
Along side the brook was one of the foragers most common choices an elderflower tree. Elder has many uses for the wild food gatherer one of which has been mentioned several times already and that is elderflower champagne. The recipe below is from Marks website where there are many more fantastic wild food recipes.
4 Elderflower heads in full bloom – if you can pick them on a sunny morning, so much the better. Shake them free of insects or other bits but don’t wash them.
- 4.5 litres (1 gallon) cold water
- 1 Lemon – it’s juice plus it’s skin quartered. A really nice variation is to add 5 tablespoons of sea buckthorn juice instead. It gives a slightly tropical tang to the affair.
- 650g (1.5lb) white sugar
- 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Dissolve the sugar in a little of the water – it will help if you warm it then allow it to cool. Then simply mix it with all the other ingredients in a large jug or basin. Leave covered for 4 days (preferably somewhere cool or you run the risk of the lemon going mouldy). Strain and pour into clean screw-top bottles – plastic fizzy drink bottles are ideal. Leave at an ambient temperature for 4-10 days, testing after 6 to make sure it doesn’t get too fizzy. Its quite important to check the bottles regularly as they will explode if you you forget about them. Gently unscrew the lid every few days to decompress. In cooler places it may need another week or so to get going, so be patient – the natural yeast in the flowers is doing the work and can take a wee while to get going. he longer you leave it fermenting, the stronger it will be in alcohol. Once you are happy with it, keep it in the fridge to slow down fermentation.
Another fantastic elder recipe is elderberry vinegar, take 500 ml of white vinegar and 350 g of elderberries( stripped from stalks ) Add the berries to the vinegar and leave for 5 days, shaking or stirring occasionally. After 5 days strain the liquid and add 350 g of sugar to every 260 ml of liquid, bring to boil to dissolve the sugar simmer for ten minutes, then leave to cool before bottling, this makes a great alternative to balsamic and at a fraction of the cost.
Eldberry has a substance that in recent studies has been shown to more effective in the treatment of flu than tamiflu. The substance in question is Sambucol, extensive trials have taken place in Norway and Israel where the symptoms of two strains of flu were cured in two days where as tamiflu took four days.
On a warm sunny day pick a few kilos of elder berries, take home and place in a large pan and just cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer until the berries are soft ( around 30 mins ), strain through a sieve to remove the seeds though harmless they have a bitter taste. For each 600 ml of liquid add 450 g of sugar the juice of a lemon and 10 cloves, return to heat and add a 2cm piece of ginger, simmer until the sugar has dissolved, boli hard for ten minutes, once cool take out the ginger and cloves. An excellent way to store is in ice cube trays, a few ice cubes melted in hot water make an excellent hot toddy. I am going to investigate alternatives to the ginger and lemon, maybe fir needles for the citrus and hogweed seeds for the ginger.
As we moved further up the hill and admired the stunning views across the valley the sun broke through the clouds and lit the valley.
The next stop on the journey was along side the humble hawthorn a favourite of the birds at this time of year, when the Hawthorn, Ash and Oak grow close to it is said to be steeped in fairy lore and since we are on Merlin’s Hill who am I to argue. The young leaves can be used in salads and from the book the Hedgerow Handbook they are said to be exceptional in a new potato salad with a vinaigrette dressing, the leaves can also lower cholesterol. The berries are a great source of vitamin C and Haw syrup is a great way to use the berries, take 1 kg of haws and mash in a pestle and mortar do not use a metal tool as this will lower the vitamin C and this is what we are looking to extract, place the mashed haws in a large fireproof pot, earthenware if you have one, cover with 3 litres of boiling water, simmer for 20 minutes, strain the liquid and discard the haws. Pour the liquid back into the pot and add 450 g of sugar bring to boil until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is a syrupy consistency. Pour into sterilised jars or bottles. If you have a cold dilute 1 part syrup with one part hot water add a squeeze of lemon ( douglas fir tip syrup could be an alternative ) add a tot of brandy for a great hot toddy. In the book hedgerow handbook there is a hawberry brandy recipe. Another fantastic hawberry recipe is hawberry ketchup and Liz makes an amazing version of this, I will definitely be having a go at making some this autumn.
Talking of alcoholic drinks without doubt the most famous foragers drink is sloe gin. Of the people on the days foraging over half had made sloe gin in the past.
I will point you to another post by Mark for all things sloe gin related as his sample I had on the weekend was simply sublime. This brought the actual foraging to a great conclusion, a short walk back up the field to Liz’s home where a feast was awaiting us and where Mark would create the drink of the walk, during the walk mark had collected berries, seeds and many edible plants that he would infuse to make our own bespoke drink of the day, mark added the various edibles into a cream whipper topped with gin and infused, our very own wild cocktail to toast what had been a fantastic weekend. While we had been out on Merlin’s Hill collecting various magical wild things Liz’s husband had cooked us muntjac deer, served with this was a fantastic dhal cooked by Liz’s friend Emily, to which we would add various wild things we had collected during the forage, to mine I added nettle leaves, fermented wild garlic, and green hogweed seeds, the main was followed by a pear and acorn crumble that was stunning.
Well that brings to a close what I had intended on being a quick post on my foraging weekend. We as people in general have the majority of our food in packets from the supermarket and have lost touch with the abundance that surrounds us, we can not possibly continue to live and eat as we are, factory farming and gmo food is not in any way sustainable or ethical. I have posted, tweeted ranted and raved that we must change and getting back to nature is the first step, we are surrounded by our own native herbs and spices, fruits and seeds, the sooner we make use of these resources the better. When foraging there are some basics to take in mind there are various laws that you need to keep in mind and you should check with the landowner where you are foraging.
Guidelines for responsible foraging (taken from www.woodlandtrust.org.uk)
Seek permission from the landowner
We allow foraging for personal use on in our woods, but there are areas where foraging is not permitted, particularly on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) or nature reserves. Always check before setting out.
Know what you’re picking
Never consume a wild plant unless you are absolutely certain of its identification and that’s its safe to consume. Use reference books to identify. Fungi can be notoriously difficult to identify, so if you’re unsure it’s best to leave alone.
Only collect from plentiful populations
Only collect flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds where they are in abundance. For fungi, only take mushrooms that have opened their caps (so are likely to have dropped their spores). Do not collect small ‘button’ mushrooms.
Leave plenty behind for others and for wildlife
Wild food is vital for the survival of the UK’s wildlife and it is important to forage sustainably to ensure there is enough left for birds and others, and to allow the plant or fungus itself to produce seeds and spores that grow into the next generation.
Beware poisonous species
Make sure you know what you are collecting before setting out.
Do not collect rare species
Only take plants and fungi where you are certain you know what they are. Take a good field guide to confirm species in the field and avoid confusion. Some species are protected by law, so know what not to collect. Ancient woodlands in particular can contain many rare species so take special care.
Minimise damage to the nearby habitat and species
Do not just collect everything you see and sort it out later, and take care not to trample down areas you are collecting from.
Take no more than those you plan to eat
Uprooting plants is harmful so pick leaves or berries with care and moderation and avoid damaging the plant’s roots.
Wild plants and the law
All wild plants are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It is illegal to dig up or remove a plant (including algae, lichens and fungi) from the land on which it is growing without permission from the landowner or occupier. Some species are specially protected against picking, uprooting, damage and sale. A list of these can be found on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).