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Goat river dawn

This is a place where dawn arrives and is utterly insistent upon you knowing how beautiful it is. But still it is goat (Capra hirca) country; which is to say that it is rough back country with soil poor enough for profitable farming to have given up on it. It is a quiet pocket of rural New South Wales, all scantly managed marginal grazing land or bush blocks either resided upon by lovers of a simple life or occasionally visited by city owners. High on a hill behind our riverside camp site, a friend of a brother of a friend has given us the nod. We are free to roam his wonderful slice of nowhere, free to hunt his land.

Goat river panorama

Although this land is more accustomed to a cloak of ragged dry brown, after decent autumn rains, it is wearing splashes of lush green with remarkable ease. This may mean that goats can feed well all over the mountainsides and eschew the necessity of the river where we are taking our walk, but it is so spectacular a route that we stick to it as first choice, leaving traipsing steep hillsides and gullies as a last resort. As it turned out, the hunt got down to business only once. With only one rifle between us, there is only one shooter, behind whom I was trailing by some 50 metres to be neither seen nor heard by his quarry. I got the signal that a mob had been seen, sat down and covered my ears. When the bang is as loud as it is from our .243 rifle, I even cover the deaf ear. The noise, unsettling as it is still is to me, is bizarrely comforting, because it is the power that makes sure that kills are as quick and certain as we can make them.

Goat hunting country

Way up a hillside, a young billy lay down with a heart shot. We retrieved, bled, gutted and hung him over a stick for ease of carrying, and then with little fanfare we retraced our spectacular walk along the river with our prize. Along the way, the rifle was dropped, damaged, and that was that, hunt over, but successful.

Goat toting

It is on the one hand very satisfying to be returning successfully from a hunt, but there is still a sombreness in the weight of a load comprised entirely of dead animal. As a relatively infrequent hunter who is essentially a (fish-eating) vegetarian except for my own meat from occasions like these, I sometimes think that I may be softer in this regard than most. But then I think that I am probably wrong when I find that my meat-loving companions observe the kill with no less respect. There we are, three men from the city who all happily and frequently leave the concrete and wires behind to go bush, completely affirmed with one of many reasons why. Walking up a river in the middle of nowhere, armed and toting a fresh carcass, we are not alien townies out of our comfort zone and out of our depth. We are just three men. Perhaps you never really love where you are and what you are doing until it is imbued with this sort of meaning; that is both flatteningly simple and at the same time loaded with much of the moral complexity of life. There is no whooping and punching the air to proclaim the kill, but neither are their regrets or pangs of guilt. This, to me, is where meat comes from, with all responsibility taken personally for the fact that the ingredients label reads ‘100% dead animal’. Not from a supermarket, but from the middle of nowhere.

Goat hunters' curry

With a quality bag of curry mix (not available in big supermarkets – go to an Indian one and tell them it is for goat), the off cuts from breaking the carcass down to freezer-ready portions become a wonderful take on the traditional camp oven hunter’s stew

 

Urtica incisa, the Australian 'scrub nettle'

Urtica incisa, the Australian ‘scrub nettle’

My first nettle (Urtica spp.) recipe, made in England and taking on the traditions there, was a potato and nettle potage (either a stewy soup or soupy stew in my understanding). Back in Australia, where Greek and other Mediterranean food is more embedded in the culture, the next was cheese and nettle pastries. Along the way, I have chucked it in fairly indiscriminately as a ‘spinach substitute’ (although I use ‘substitutes’ so much more often than spinach, it is not a very fair term).

More recently it has been nettle tea. The flavour is mild and mixes in easily with whatever concoction I have on the go (currently lemon myrtle, ginger, strawberry leaf, fennel and lemon grass). Health claims (some proven) abound, none seem to be contraindicated by any issue or medication of mine, and so I figure that small doses in mixed tea are going to beneficial (but check for yourself, especially if you are going to consume a lot and are on blood sugar, blood pressure, blood thinning or psych drugs).

Out my way we have an Australian native ‘scrub nettle’ (Urtica incisa), although the European introductions of Urtica dioica (large leaf) and Urtica urens (small leaf) are also about.

You can sometimes get by picking nettles without gloves – but never without some regret

You can sometimes get by picking nettles without gloves – but never without some regret

Gloves are highly recommended, either leather work gloves or rubber dishwashing gloves being my preferred protection when picking. Sometimes I don’t fuss much about a few stings and other times they annoy me; picking nettles is like managing boundary-pushing naughty kids – it can bring out patient benevolence and suffering with a smile, or a lip-bitingly restrained frustration, depending on how it catches you. And so with the same analogy, you don’t want to approach it by sizing up the enemy, but with a well thought out engagement with something that may try you but which you actually love.

Once picked, the leaves and stems begin to wilt and with that the stinging hairs largely wilt too – after a day or so they can be dealt with in bare hands, giving just a few dull stings to the fingertips that feel somehow more numbing than painful. Nettles are commonly host to a fair few bugs hiding among the stinging protection, so it is useful to give them a chance to abandon the wilting pile while you are at it. Tie them in bunches, give them a rinse and hang them somewhere breezy, then come back to pluck leaves (the child-rearing analogy ended with last paragraph by the way – just so we’re clear). You then have something for dinner, for steaming and freezing (ice cube trays are handy for setting aside little doses that can go in anything taking cooked greens) or for the dehydrator. Once dried, I don’t suppose it matters whether it ends up in tea or food (or a hair rinse for that matter).

In more temperate parts of the world, nettles are often a spring thing, but with our native version, it seem that like many plants, the flush of new growth normally associated with spring can come any time after solid rains. This makes them just as likely to be an autumn or winter harvest in the areas that I go after them.

Drying scrub nettle leaves

Drying scrub nettle leaves

I think that nettles are one of those forages where neophobia can quite reasonably make for a limited and tentative start – these are leaves that you won’t touch after all, and so might not easily take to eating. But when you wrap your head around the idea that the stings are a defence behind which they don’t then have an added deterrent of inedibility (or unpalatibility), you may, like me, become quite fond of them as a vegetable or tea. After all, there aren’t too many plants that can do both (while also cutting it as allergy medication, dandruff shampoo and enough other things to get someone to settle someone down to write a book of 101 uses).

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

There is an idea among some mushroom foragers that one should not take the smaller specimens because they will be bigger for the next person. But what if there isn’t likely to be a next person in your ‘secret’ deep corner of the forest? And if there is no rain on the way and they won’t be getting much bigger anyway? With these justifications added to few options other than going home empty handed, I came home recently with a modest haul of button versions of saffron milk cap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

Harvested button saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciousus)

Harvested button saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus)

Where I went wrong to start with was assuming that heavy coastal rain in the week before would have carried through more than it did to my inland destination of Belanglo State Forest (the right information was just the internet away and I didn’t check). Instead, they had had light showers that hadn’t soaked in enough to prompt much of a fruiting frenzy among the fungal mycelia in the soil and pine roots below.

It was a good learning experience though, and here is the tip from it – drainage lines and south and east facing gentle slopes where moisture holds better for the forming fungal fruiting bodies will still yield a few when only minimal rain has been through; and fire trail verges where drains get carved by graders into the forest edges achieve the same effect of concentrating limited water and bringing forth some mushrooms. Truth be told, there was one more option of getting out and covering far more forest that I did, but my fellow forager wasn’t quite up for that – largely on account of being three years old.

Button milk caps transport well - you can't stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

Button milk caps transport well – you can’t stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

The end result is that I would definitely back the harvesting of small saffron milk caps during drier times or when rainfall has been only quite recent. While I suspect an Iron Chef jury would, I can’t stand up and say the flavour was that different, but my feeling is that the win for buttons would really be on texture and being able to integrate better with other ingredients as a tight package that shows off the colour and exoticness of the saffron while being able to be enjoyed separately but not as the exclusive focus of the dish (they are good enough to do it, but not good enough to warrant it every time). Other thoughts:

  • They don’t get huge anyway when it is dry; the few that were giving fruiting a go weren’t getting much over 10cm diameter (compared with >20cm in good wet conditions) without being hard, dry, insect-chomped and no good for the basket anyway;
  • As buttons, saffron milk caps store and keep a lot better than as big open caps. These are mushrooms that bruise easily to an unappealing green, and while the gills are still a little tucked under, they will refrigerate well and unblemished for twice the time (maybe 6 days instead of 3 at good quality, more as simply edible); while they freeze (once slightly cooked) and dehydrate well enough, fresh remains best;
  • You don’t actually gain as much weight with cap diameter as you would think – a 5cm dense little saffron milk cap is not far off the same amount of mushroom as a 10cm one, just with more consumer-friendly packaging (probably why buttons and larger flat commercial mushrooms are often similarly priced despite being the same fungus).

We remain blessed in Sydney to have an under-appreciated mushroom bonanza every autumn an hour or two from town; such that it is more a function of rainfall than foraging pressure that determines our chances of success. Perhaps when the crowds catch on, picking buttons might be rude, but for now, it is a delicacy that the resource can bear and that foragers can freely savour.

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

Note: This was written a couple of weeks ago; if you go the forests over a week following big autumn rains it would be a very different (and better) story in terms of getting big mushrooms (and probably more slippery jacks (Suillus luteus). As it happens, that means right now!

Stewart Town pear (pyrus sp.)

Stewart Town is now just the dusty remains of a few mid-nineteenth century rammed earth and stone miner’s buildings up a hillside above the junction of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers between Cromwell and Clyde (Otago, NZ). Where mountainsides weren’t sluiced away in search for gold, historic relics sketch out a hard-working past: The stone lined clay walls of a hugely impressive reservoir bigger than a football field, made by hand with stone and clay, up a punishingly remote mountainside; water races, stone lined and still partially intact, hewn into the slopes; and the gnarled old relics of an orchard. I imagine these sweet pears (Pyrus sp.) and apricots (Prunus armeniaca) punctuating the miners’ diet of dry stores and mutton like rare gifts from the stern kind of god favoured by hard Presbyterian Scots in Central Otago back in the day.

For my visit, the apricots were just pips on the ground and the pears just a little while before their best. Not to worry, they were bound for the cooking pot in my plans and that way could at least be gathered ahead of the possums, wasps, grubs and whatever else was likely to mar them. Such natural losses aside though, I am also sure that there are local pickers who head up there and sociably pluck their local heritage in its season, so I took only a few.

Stewart Town Otago

Pear (Pyrus sp.)

The next day, on the road back from the village of Cardrona, where at least one Gold Rush building survives intact in the form of its famously quaint pub, elderberries (Sambucus nigra) joined the hamper. I always assumed that when I posted on elderberries that it would be about elderberry wine. But being on the road at the time, I was pretty sure that they would not let me on the plane with a batch of fermenting wine as carry-on luggage. And so they joined the Stewart Town pears and some local thyme honey in a jelly. Mixed together, the pears’ pectin-fuelled setting ability and fruitiness offset the elderberries’ depth and tannin-like edge. It was all simmered with a little water until soft enough to mash and strain through cloth and set in the fridge (with a little added pectin from a packet to be safe (which was only available as pectin-enriched ‘Jamsetta’ sugar)).  Reducing it all down this way also had the added benefit of cutting down on the luggage weight of bringing it back to Australia. Where it now sits awaiting pancakes to lie upon with the ruby richness of a late summer Otago forage.

Cardrona Valley roadside elderberry foragers

Cardrona Valley roadside elderberry foragers

Elderberries (Sambucus nigra)

elderberries, pears, honey

The recipe used is more pear than elderberry and comes together pretty easily from posts and associated comments here and here.

The recipe used is more pear than elderberry and comes together pretty easily from posts and associated comments here and here.

A Sydney offshore autumn bumper harvest of (left to right): snapper (Pagrus auratus), blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii), trevally (Pseudocaranx sp.), pike (Dinolestes lewini), pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus), bonito (Sarda australis), Chinaman leatherjacket (Nelusetta ayraudi), flathead (Platycephalus spp.), nannygai (Centroberyx affinis)

A Sydney offshore autumn bumper harvest of (left to right): snapper (Pagrus auratus), blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii), trevally (Pseudocaranx sp.), pike (Dinolestes lewini), pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus), bonito (Sarda australis), Chinaman leatherjacket (Nelusetta ayraudi), flathead (Platycephalus spp.), nannygai (Centroberyx affinis)

Presented with the idea of an autumn harvest, one generally thinks of fruit (including the ‘vegetable’ kind like pumpkins); the store of summer’s growth set into the hope of seeds sweetly wrapped for spring sprouting. Or perhaps mushrooms, or summer-fattened hunted game. In my world, and for slightly different reasons, most of which I am not certain of, offshore fish are perhaps one of the greatest autumn gifts. Warm waters on the cusp of change, seas rich with summer’s phytoplankton growth and nutrient delivery running off the land to boost it, better chances at calm seas to access it in a mate’s trusty small boat, the feeling of summer’s end pushing you out to fish before winter’s slow down. Somehow or other, this time of year has provided my best fishing. With an early start, it all came together this time, with diversity as much as volume, and 28 keepers between three of us.

One fish: The first of 5 good bonito (Sarda australis)

One fish: The first of 5 good bonito (Sarda australis)

Two Fish: Two pigfish (sp) in a double-hook-up (a fish on each of two hooks on a rig) among 5 for the day.

Two Fish: Two pigfish (Bodianus unimaculatus) in a double-hook-up (a fish on each of two hooks on a rig) among 5 for the day.

Red fish: A nannygai (Centroberyx affinis), the only one for the day.

(more) Red fish: A nannygai (Centroberyx affinis), the only one for the day.

Blue fish: One of three blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii)

Blue fish: One of three blue morwong (Nemadactylus douglasii)

So it has been pigfish and snapper for dinner for the family, the fridge charged for a few days and the freezer for a good few more after that. When the chance arises, and the sea is calm, and the season is right, and you know just enough of what to do, and the fish are biting; this is what ought be meant by the stars aligning; when to live in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times becomes something true – accepting full well that it is contingent on luck, your own effort and leaving a lot of the contradictory truths of the world behind you on shore.

The bastion walls behind which the city is left behind

The bastion walls behind which the city is left behind

Snapper (Pagrus auratus). the glistening jewel of offshore table fish

Snapper (Pagrus auratus). the glistening jewel of offshore table fish

A degraded Otago valley near Bannockburn carpeted almost entirely with wild thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

A degraded Otago valley near Bannockburn carpeted almost entirely with wild thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

I have long struggled to grow thyme (Thymus vulgaris) in my herb garden, but now I know the answer. The trick is to start in some tough dry mountains that swing from baking heat to bitter cold, erode your land with huge scale sluice mining right down to lifeless rock scree, infest it chronically with rabbits and leave it be for a century. This is the setting for some stunning expanses of introduced wild thyme in New Zealand’s Central Otago.

The last remnants of thyme flowers in February, the nectar flow over and one of the world’s under-appreciated great monofloral honeys extracted and jarred for another year

The last remnants of thyme flowers in February, the nectar flow over and one of the world’s under-appreciated great monofloral honeys extracted and jarred for another year

I also now know how beekeepers here can honestly claim to be producing reliably monofloral thyme honeys – wonderfully rich with strong, mineral and herby bitter flavours. It is the recently visited Bannockburn Sluicings I have most in mind; a historic site preserving the remains of 19th Century hydraulic sluice mining for gold, where water was used to intentionally erode an entire mountainside away. Here the thyme is practically a monoculture and is similarly prolific in other areas across much of Central Otago where little else will grow or survive the rabbits as well.

Gnarled thyme stems scattered across bare ground look like a bonsai artist’s triumphant recreation of a desert scrubland

Gnarled thyme stems scattered across bare ground look like a bonsai artist’s triumphant recreation of a desert scrubland

It is hard to appreciate the scale of the land disturbance where the tops of the cliffs are the former 19th Century land surface with everything below taken away in search of gold

It is hard to appreciate the scale of the land disturbance where the tops of the cliffs are the former 19th Century land surface with everything below taken away in search of gold

It is a peculiar landscape of peculiar scale. You may look at the big view and struggle to imagine the former landscape where clifftops mark an original level over crinkled badlands surfaces that were tens of metres underground only 150 years ago, reminiscent of the mesas and buttes of an American western. Then at the macro scale, the gnarled tough trunks of these hardy survivors look most of all to me like a miniaturised southern Australian desert scrubland – mulga (Acacia aneura) shrunken to a 1:100 scale.

Dried Cemtral Otago thyme

Dried Central Otago thyme

So I tip prune off a modest crop, reminded by the pea sized mulch of droppings left across the land that I might get out hunting and be up for a rabbit stew. A taste test on a batch of breakfast hashed potatoes is delicious, strong and earthy; resisting the temptation to overuse some of the abundance of it proves wise, with just a small pinch giving a wonderful lift. It then sprinkles on some roasting pumpkin destined for soup and similarly gives a subtle herby lift. I leave stunned by how I have managed to hitherto not realise how good this wild herb is; and by how ridiculously abundant it is.

The Boy, not actually picking but pretending to be a giant in a forest.

The Boy, not actually picking but pretending to be the Giant of the Wild Thyme Forest.

 

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

The call it ‘belt and braces’ when you undertake two control measures where one should do; but small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) is a complex ecological problem in the complex dynamics of a beehive and not just a matter of keeping your trousers up. The complexity then couples with desperation, and frankly, an inexperienced mug like me will give anything a go. To extend the belt-and-braces metaphor, I’m in overalls, with an elastic waist band and then the belt and the braces. On top of that, I’m learning to accept that low hanging trousers might be confronting but not obscene, and that mostly what I am after is that they don’t fall down altogether (by which I mean colony collapse).

While the lowlands around Sydney have some of the highest densities of SHB of anywhere in the world (supposedly higher than in its original African homeland), there was some hope that my mountain hive might be spared. Basically, it is in the sort of country that commercial apiarists retreated to when beetle smashed the Sydney Basin industry in the 1980s – higher and dryer than the squelching mid-summer humidity on the coast that beetles thrive in. And mine is about as remote as a hive can be in terms of other managed hives. But I am not spared, and so here, in order of my (as yet only slightly informed) view of effectiveness, are the defences.

Defence #1: The bees themselves

The European honeybee  - Apis mellifera

The European honeybee – Apis mellifera

Clearly beetles can live in my area, but perhaps not ideally. When coupled with the ‘natural beekeeping’ of a Warré hive, this presents Defence #1 –the bees themselves. With husbandry that aims to be more supportive than exploitative, bees could be the best managers of their own colony health. When bees are disturbed they produce stress pheromones. Beetles, the all-too-well adapted buggers that they are, smell it and come to capitalise. Every time you open a hive you stress the bees, so even though you might have their welfare in mind, opening the hive if just to curse the beetles might do more for them than the bees. That said, if you leave the hive uninspected, unattended stores that you are going to take later anyway may be a haven for beetle – while bees cannot kill beetles they do harass them when they can, and can do so more effectively with higher ‘bee to comb ratio’. Comb that the bees don’t patrol is the crazy wild west where lawless beetles have their way. The other thing on my side is some proper freezing winter nights and cold days during which beetle numbers should fall more so than the bee numbers.

A lot of people in Sydney with Warré hives are finding that they can co-exist with beetles, just as long as the numbers can be kept low. Without supers, queen exclusion and other interventions, the bees organise their comb as they see fit, and this seems to provide for them to more diligently harass beetles. If you get rid of them altogether they will only come again from somewhere else, so it is a matter of helping the bees rather than toxically taking over the fight for them. This means traps, most of which rely on the beetles being smaller than bees and having a habit of hiding away in nooks and crannies.

Defence #2: Beetletra

'Beetletra' hive board

‘Beetletra’ hive board

Garden lime, hive junk and dead beetles in the Beetletra trap insert

Garden lime, hive junk and dead beetles in the Beetletra trap insert

Beetletra ‘beetle boards’ was my first order when I discovered that I had SHB. It took some time to get a hold of as they are made specifically for Langstroth hives rather than Warré  and I needed to wait until the only guy who adapts them (Tim Malfroy) had some ready. It went in this Spring and seems to be working. Instead of timber, you have a steel base with laser-cut slits that the beetles take as an ideal cranny to hide from the bees in. Once inside they find that it contains oil, lime or diatomaceous earth, any of which will mess with their breathing gear, suffocating or drowning them. When I had all three traps going at the same time, the Beetletra trap seemed to catch the most.

Defence #4: ‘Die Ya Bastards’

'Die Ya Bastards' small hive beetle trap

‘Die Ya Bastards’ small hive beetle trap

You have to love the name – if you’ve had them mess with your bees and your honey at least. This is an easy to use trap that is simply a plastic envelop with beetle-sized slits and diatomaceous earth inside. You just slip it in the hive entrance so that it sits on the bottom board. Beetles hide, beetles die. It is perhaps redundant if you have the Beetletra board in, but it still caught some when I used them simultaneously.

Defence #4: AJ’s Beetle Trap

'AJ's Beetle Trap' - to be filled with oil or diatomaceous earth

‘AJ’s Beetle Trap’ – to be filled with oil or diatomaceous earth

'AJ's Beetle Trap' inserted between Warre frames

‘AJ’s Beetle Trap’ inserted between Warre frames

When you open a hive with beetles in, you will often see them scurrying away in that first second or so. After that they often do a good job of staying hidden from you and you can easily get the impression that the top of the hive is beetle central, possibly just because that is where you tend to see them.

Maybe these will work for you if you are a very frequent hive-opener, but if not, they have a down side – the bees build comb onto the traps and then every time you take it out you damage some comb. Bees get annoyed, get some extra work to do and presumably get stressed; which is then a slight tip in the balance towards the beetles. If it turns out that the other traps are doing a reasonable enough job of catching beetles, this suggests to me that perhaps the AJ’s Beetle Traps are not ideal.

Defence #5: Everything else but poison

Of course I will kill a small hive beetle on sight for one thing. I have also tried to put my new hive location on a hard substrate so that it inconveniences the beetle larvae who hatch out and bury themselves to pupate (siting a hive in a chicken coop is said to be good because the chooks stand a chance of nabbing them during this process). And I don’t do any composting near the hives because I have heard that beetles will live in compost bins – this may have been people seeing similar beetles in compost, but like I say, I’ll try almost anything. Except chemicals.

And then I will just keep on reading, listening to others and picking up on whatever else I can to give the bees the best chance I can. It is not too much of them to ask of me – I’m going to steal some of their honey after all. Any further advice or comments are more than welcome.

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