Archive for March, 2012

My beehive amid tea tree in blossom as though dusted with midsummer snow

As a forager you tend to view much of the world with your eyes wired to thoughts of eating it: ‘That one will fruit soon’, ‘the sea is calming down well for fishing’, ‘this rain will germinate my planted seeds or bring on the mushrooms’, that kind of thing. Different things zoom in and out of focus depending on their utility. Once you get a beehive, countless flowering plants join the list, because you are now working with tens of thousands of foraging friends who can use things beyond your reach and tongue size. With a previously reasonable interest in botany, I am now determined to know all my local eucalypts better, right down to the first (by which I mean Latin) names and their season.

I am now slowly working out how to forage alongside them, albeit of no assistance. Sitting quietly by the hive I watch them come and go, moving every so often to improve my angle of view to catch glints of them at as great a distance from the hive as I can, trying to map the direction of their flight. And then I walk, scanning the gum tree tops with binoculars in hope of finding them enjoying a good eucalypt nectar flow. Although any one bee will likely only net me a few drops in her lifetime (a 12th of a teaspoon I have read), whenever I see a bee on a flower, that flower ceases to be just an ordinary blossom and enters my foraging world and the future of my larder.

I have yet to harvest from my bees, but when I do it will be foraged food to me; from beyond my boundaries, beyond the species which I can otherwise eat, beyond many things that I know. And I will take a lesser part, the rent if you will, leaving the majority with my 50,000 foraging friends for their winter’s nights.

UPDATE: The first harvest described here.

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Eating leafy green vegetables is no doubt good for you, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. With any food or medicine, herbal or otherwise comes the potential for contraindications or overdose – something  I find Ted Manzer addresses well in his blogging. The question also arises as to whether you need the helpful properties in the first place. When I looked into the peculiar absence of records of Australian Aboriginal people eating native spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides, also known as warrigal greens, New Zealand spinach and Botany Bay greens), something that I have used a lot of in recent years, the evidence stacked up in favour of them actually being better off without it. The text below is largely taken straight from an academic style abstract (for an archaeology conference last year) and might be a bit dry (and academically referenced rather than hyperlinked), but I’ll leave it as written anyway. Many of the conclusions could be applied to a number of other oxalate-rich greens commonly in forager’s salad bowls. If there is any foraging take-home from it, I would say it is that while we should utilise tetragonia and other oxalate-rich greens, they should not be staples, but rather always with diversity in the dish. I don’t think that this observation is new – few on food ever are – and in fact it seems very much in line with traditional approaches to weed-eating that I have looked into (like those of Crete and elsewhere in the Mediterranean).

Tetragonia tetragonioides, known as warrigal greens, New Zealand spinach and Botany Bay greens

When the British off the First Fleet struggled with the challenges of the Australian landscape in Sydney, among the first native foods they embraced were the wild greens for their ability to combat scurvy from the bleak diet of ship stores (Low 1989, Mann 1811). The best known of these was tetragonia (Tetragonia tetragonioides). At the time, David Dickinson Mann (1811) noted that ‘Botany Bay greens’ were gathered in Sydney in large quantities and ‘esteemed a very good dish’ by Europeans ‘but despised by the natives’. In fact, there is almost no documented use among Aboriginal people anywhere in Australia (Low 1988).

This same plant was eaten across the Tasman by Maori and its use has spread to many parts of the world as the only widely grown Australian vegetable. In the process it has been assumed to have good nutritional qualities just as other spinach-like plants do (but see Kawashima and Valente Soares 2005). That Aboriginal people did not apparently eat it may at first seem either a dietary mistake on their part, or a failure on the part of ethnohistorians to record that they actually did. This is however reliant on an assumption that because it is believed to be good for some, it should be good for all.

The conclusion of our research was that tetragonia, although known to be edible by at least some Aboriginal people, was adaptively avoided because any benefits were outweighed by the potential costs. Tetragonia offers few calories and only some important micronutrients in minimal amounts. The leaves must be cooked due to the high oxalic acid content, but in removing this some nutrients are lost as well (Kawashima and Valente Soares 2005). What little remains is otherwise adequately provided in traditional Aboriginal foraging diets with their great diversity of roots, fruits, seeds and often lightly cooked meat and seafood (see also Kuhnlein et al. 2004). The remaining oxalic acid further prevents the absorption of other nutrients such as iron and niacin (B3) in the leaves and would extend this effect to other foods eaten at the same time (see Anderson 2005:47). Oxalic acid is also associated with kidney stones and the risk would be exacerbated by dehydration – a presumably recurrent condition for many Aboriginal people.

Overall, eating tetragonia may be beneficial if you are a scurvy struck convict, starchy-dieted horticulturalist (e.g. some traditional Maori) and probably most people on modern western diets. But, for a person on a diverse traditional Aboriginal diet exposed to common dehydration, you are almost certainly better off without Tetragonia in your diet; and this, somehow, seems to have been known throughout Aboriginal Australia. The same might be said of a number of other greens not eaten by Aboriginal people, especially Portulaca oleraceae – eaten almost globally as a vegetable but largely only used for seeds by Aboriginal people (Latz 1995).

References: Anderson, E.N. Everybody Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. New York: NYU Press. Kawashima, LM and LM Valente Soare. 2005. Effect of blanching time on selective mineral extraction from the spinach substitute commonly used in Brazil (Tetragonia expansa). Ciência e Tecnologia de Alimentos 25(3): 419-424. Kuhnlein HV, Receveur O, Soueida R, Egeland GM. 2004. Arctic indigenous peoples experience the nutrition transition with changing dietary patterns and obesity. J Nutr. 134 (6): 1447–53. Latz, P. 1995. Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia. Alice Springs: IAD Press. Low, T. 1988. Wild Food Plants of Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Mann, D.D. 1811. The Present Picture of New South Wales. London: John Booth. Symonds, M. 1984. One Continuous Picnic: A History of Eating in Australia. Adelaide : Duck Press.

A modest forage of tetragonia for mixing in with others like amaranth, fat hen, watercress and cultivated greens

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The slippery jack, Suillus luteus

Wingello State Forest, the ‘Please be careful’ sign not as ominous as at Belanglo

[Update: Check out new info page HERE and recent video HERE]

Having picked up mushrooming fever this autumn I have ventured out to broaden my horizons, considering slippery jacks (Suillus luteus) as the most likely candidate as they get the most mentions online (example). Heading down to visit a mate in Wingello for lunch and some fishing, I stop at Belanglo on the way for some saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) and in the afternoon we head out for the nearby Wingello State Forest. If I were I hunting the poisonous fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), Wingello would appear to be the place to go.

The fly agaric, Amanita muscaria

… and if I knew what these were and knew they were edible, they would have offered a huge haul. Maybe it is an edible oyster mushroom (Pleurotus spp.) but it remains more likely that it is a ghost mushroom (Omphalotus nidiformis), in which case it would make me sick, so pending any expert guidance out there just one new mushroom safely at a time for me I think.

Delicious or deadly?

Saffron milk caps were not as abundant as in previous outings in other forests, but the positive side was that the slippery jacks  did indeed come through. In retrospect, the trees I was searching under were probably too young for milk caps as I have since read that trees over 10 years old are best, but I had to learn that at some stage and now I have.  For the developing novice, slipperies seem to be the best next step after milk caps, being reputedly common and similarly easy to identify. For one thing, they are really are slippery, positively slimy in fact (at least in the current wet); and the undersides have a very characteristic pored structure.

More slimy than just slippery

The pored underside of a slippery jack

At the first stop we gather a few and head deeper into the forest for more. Passing some grey nomads camped in a clearing, we stop to ask if they are mushrooming in hope of pointers to a good spot. They weren’t, but were interested in seeing what we were after and I show them the slipperies and some of the milk caps from Belanglo, before heading off. Driving back past them 20 minutes later with nothing more for our efforts, they flag us down to ask if what they had gathered around their camp were the right ones. And they were – a good haul of both types. I tell them with complete confidence that the milk caps are fine to eat, but that having not yet tried the slipperies I wasn’t prepared to vouch for them with certainty. So they gave theirs to me. I reckon now that the camping areas in the State Forests – nothing more than grassy clearings with a toilet – might generally make good targets as they seem often to be ringed by some very old stands that are probably left alone longer by the loggers. We suddenly have a respectable enough load to call it a day, with a 2 year old boy in the back seat already being called on for an unfairly long spell in the booster seat.

Peeling a slippery jack seems easier than some say

Home, with the internet at hand, I peel, slice and fry one and am not enormously impressed. With butter, garlic and parsley it could no doubt be fantastic, as they turn out be quite absorbent little sponges of things, but that says more about those additions than it does for slippery jacks. The peeling is something that some seem to recommend because the skins are said to be a purgative, while others seem not to bother and feel it is too much effort. I found it very easy with a paring knife so I peeled the lot. Apart from the taste tester, I then sliced them for drying. Lacking (but coveting) a dehydrater, I did it in the oven.

Slippery jacks drying…

… and slippery jacks dried

Being related to boletes, of which Boletus edulis (cep or porcini mushroom) does so well dried, drying for later use in soup or at least rehydrating in stock seems the best way to go, particularly with the more palatable saffron milk caps likely to be on offer for fresh mushrooms whenever you might be getting slipperies.

Slippery jack, suillus luteus

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The chilli surplus

Some roadside crab apples

Any land I cultivate tends to oscillate wildly between pride inducing order and unruly wildness; each may be as productive as the other when the weeds are right (as in my amaranth harvests), but I have yet to achieve that permaculture style of bounteous shoulder to shoulder polyculture. I garden too much like an occasional labourer and not enough like a reliable custodian, I know it.

Surpluses seem to always come as a surprise – like the birdseye chillis out the front of the apartment at the moment. To be fair, they aren’t mine, but planted by my downstairs neighbour who is my informal collaborator on the building’s herb garden. She is busy with baby, so I took the liberty of getting some in a jar for future use for both of us. With wildly varying spice palates in our family, loading chillis into dinner isn’t an option for me, so I favour a hot condiment that I can then inflict only upon myself.

The other extra ingredients lying around were a green tomato from a community garden working bee, two roadside crab apples from a recent country drive and honey (a recent passion that comes with starting beekeeping whereby I have box filled with 30 different varieties to learn that world and which I keep obsessively adding to). This is only very slightly a foraging effort, and I don’t much intend to post on vegie gardening and cooking, but it is an original (I think) and successful enough (I think) recipe to share (I think).

Chilli jam, the finished product

Recipe: In a small pot, cook 2 crab apples sliced and with just enough water to not burn them until mushy. Then blend the mush with 50 small birdseye chillies, 1 green tomato and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar and add a star anise pod. Return to simmer and occasionally stir for another 15 minutes then strain through wine bag (or cheesecloth, muslin, etc); this may take a while or leave overnight or through the day at work. Return liquid to pot with 200g honey, a couple of spoons of brown sugar, a couple of pinches of salt and heat to melt it all in.  Pour into sterilised jars. If setting fails, either redo to boil and add some pectin or call it a sauce. Serve, for example, on toasted homemade bread with foraged fried saffron milk caps (today’s breakfast). It could perhaps be improved with some other herbs and spices like cardamon and coriander and some finely chopped deseeded chillis for appearance.

Chilli jam on toasted homemade bread with foraged fried saffron milk caps

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The yabby, Cherax destructor

Heading down to a friend’s farm to fish for trout yesterday I was warned that they may have been fished out. Because they don’t breed there, success can only come so many times on the stock of 100 fingerlings that went in a few years ago; and successes are now quite firmly believed to be over, at least until new stock arrives and has time to grow. The excuse of ‘no fish to catch’ may normally be a poor one coming from a fisherman, but in this case it may well be true. Trout or no trout, a lunch had been scheduled and a lunch would be had. Luckily I had picked up some saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) on the way, and ever better, he had thrown in some yabby (Cherax destructor) traps overnight. They were purging in the sink when we arrived.

Purging in the sink to lessen the amount of ‘poo-vein’

Cherax destructor sounds more like a Japanese manga character than a food, but for whatever reason it is so named, the destructive part can be applied to its effect on dam walls. It will burrow deeply and with just one dam that already leaks, it is for this reason that we haven’t put any in on our land. In fact we are lucky not to have them already really, given their ubiquity in most southeastern Australian waterways and ability to spread by simply marching off overland (especially during floods like our recent ones). Wild harvesting of them can be problematic as the traps usually used can also trap and drown platypuses and turtles and they are now banned in many places. You certainly wouldn’t want to use traps in a river where these bycatches might be a risk, but a farm dam known to be platypus-free can be trusted to get nothing but yabbies. The last time I had traps was in England, where their efficacy on the reviled introduced American signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus) served me so well I had considered quitting work and going commercial with them.

The cooked yabbies

Parboiled and thrown whole on a barbecue to finish works well. Boiled, shelled, ‘poo-vein’ removed and sizzled in a pan with butter and garlic or as an ingredient in something more complicated is also pretty fool proof. Or in our case yesterday, shelled at the table and into a lemon, garlic and mayonnaise dipping sauce. Another species eating first for the Boy (along with a two year old’s delight watching them alive in the sink), and one of those memory-stirring meals for me.

Update: They have now been found in our dam, for better or worse.

For more crayfish tales, I’ve come across a great American one here

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A brace of Otago bunnies

My last hunted rabbit was from our bush block, a once-ever hard-won trophy of hours of twilight stalking a place with few rabbits and just a bow and arrow to do it with. Not that I’ll give up on it; the twilight walk with bow is a beautiful way to take a stroll and bowhunting rabbits is a great challenge, relatively humane and one thing that hunting with firearms is certainly not – quiet, peaceful even, despite the mortal intent. That was a few years ago, before a child took away much of the ability to wander off at meal/bath/bedtime with the bow.

My last rabbit that was not strictly ‘hunted’ was in the rabbit capital of the world as far as I can work out – New Zealand’s Central Otago. It was ‘harvested by automobile’ (roadkill) on the way back from a fishing trip with no fish to claim for it. The front end of the bunny went under the wheel, the back end went in a pot. That was a year ago.

One month ago I was back in New Zealand (something of a second home) and was able to go after rabbits with considerably more intent on an outing with a cousin of mine. While still largely a bowhunter at heart, I am also now something of a convert to hunting rabbits with a 20 gauge shotgun. This is smaller version than the typical 12 gauge, and my cousin’s one a beautiful Turkish Huglu, accurate, light on recoil and relatively quiet. And my cousin’s godfather’s property is an even more beautiful high country station of more thousands of acres than I can work out.

It’s hard not to look like a redneck with a gun on your hip and dead animals in hand

In central Otago, rabbits are so abundant that you harvest them more than hunt them. All you need is somewhere to do it and something to do it with and you just start filling up a box. Where they scatter across steep slopes in front of you it is like an arcade game where you are more likely to fail by not choosing one in time rather than through poor aim. The time to stop harvesting is likely to be when you have about as much as you either want to process or eat. 7 rabbits in our case, as they were all basically for me, and with two weeks before returning to Australia. That said, the time to stop for others at the nearby annual ‘Easter Bunny Hunt’ was more than 23,000 in 2011 which, for charity, the local Boy Scouts then composted. I have mixed feelings about this carnage, my greatest reservation being the knowledge that hunting always treads a delicate balance between a noble approach to a respected prey solemnly killed and a descent into an instinctive bare-toothed bloodlust that can lie within any man. My insistence on eating any prey that I kill is much a discipline to keep me on the nobler side of that equation as it about any ethic held for the sake of the animal. It seems inevitable that bloodlust runs high in the Easter Bunny Hunt.

The bunny box fills

Rabbits, in both of the countries where I am a citizen, are remarkably unpopular as both wildlife and food. In Australia they still bear some of the stigma of ‘Depression food’. In the first half of the twentieth century two wars bled the countryside of too many of its young men, the Depression took farms from the smallholders, the continued industrialisation of agriculture pitted profit margin against intergenerationally improving land management, and rabbits were compounding it all by running rife in their stripping of livestock forage. Theirs was one of many contributions to the enormous loss of topsoil from which the country will never recover. Their meat was a small compensation. Hunters toiled and men rolled carts through poor city streets with their cry of “rabbitoh!” selling cheap meat; canneries shipped tonnes of the stuff to Europe; and the now-iconic Australian felt hats were pounded from the skins of one of our worst environmental disasters.

Countless miles of rabbit fence laced the country; poison baiting, gassing, warren-ripping machinery and explosives were a cost borne in billions by farmers and the state; country children kept ferrets with which they could join the fray. Eradication was the passion of many and the success of none as no amount of hunting could ever get rid of them entirely. A prey as small, numerous and fecund as rabbits in Australia and New Zealand will always rebound from the populations left when hunting returns dip to levels too low continue. Biological control from Myxomatosis in the 1950s, then Calicivirus in the 1990s, each brought significant temporary respite but were then followed by resistance that is still growing.

A Southern Highlands rabbit warren

Rabbits, it must be said, are not now problematically common in the parts of Australia I am most often in – the better watered east coast and highlands – but many parts of the country (and surprisingly large parts of cities) would consider themselves plagued. In Central Otago, rabbits are a problem by which one could almost define the region. On my land in the NSW Southern Highlands I have previously felt, I shamefully admit, that it was a problem which I could actually do with a bit more of. There, our cheap dirt is so badly structured, thin and all-in-all crappy that rabbits struggle to burrow in it, relying instead on the rocky country and scrub for meagre cover. I have noticed them on the increase in neighbouring areas (around Wombeyan Caves) with soil to dig in and perhaps just a slight rise on our place. But after my New Zealand bounty I am no longer secretly wishing for more – I am in Otago often enough these days to get my fix there.

Coming back to the Otago recent haul, an eternal truth reasserted itself: big harvests mean big processing times. Although a redeeming feature of the rabbit is that from whole rabbit to clean carcass is a pretty quick turnaround. When fresh, the skin is pulled off like socks with just a few knife cuts along the way. The head and feet cut away with that skin, then a clean slit up the belly allows the guts to be pulled away fairly neatly with an extra cut through the pelvis to get the last of it clear. If there is bruising from shotgun pellets, sections may be cut away, the meat poor front legs and ribs in their entirety if it is at all messy up there. Then washed, sectioned (maybe 6 pieces per animal), browned and stewed, that simple. I favour whatever takes shape with other available ingredients and googling ‘Spanish rabbit stew’, doing my best with stock, oil and mushrooms to replace calls for chorizo sausage. And I cook low and slow (<150 degrees and >5 hours). And then in this case at least, I eat so much rabbit over the next week that I can probably go without until the next time I am back in New Zealand. Actually, mum if you are reading this, I have remembered that there are four legs still in the freezer there that you might want to do something with.

Prepared rabbits

Rabbit stew

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Donax deltoides: The pipi, eugarie, or Goolwa cockle

Pipis are a thing of childhood memories for many southeastern Australians. Beach holidays, camping and the gritty crunch of sand as you chewed them. For me the memories are also of bodysurfing; feet shuffling around in shoulder high water feeling the hardness of the shell underfoot and diving down to scrabble around for it, then putting it away for later if it survived in pockets or speedos through any subsequent surf dumpings. That and the ‘pipi shuffle’; doing what is best described as ‘the twist’ in shallow water, hunting with your toes, usually in company and always in competition with them. It was only in later years that I spent more time on bigger flatter more northern beaches where pipis give themselves away with little lumps in the sand.

Such memories will be less commonly formed these days, with more people and far fewer pipis to be encountered. Blue green algal blooms have closed fisheries here and there and scared people away from eating them in some places, while increased market prices have led to stock depletions by commercial harvesters (sometimes through a black market) in others. In New South Wales we have a Department of Primary Industries that would usually prefer to restrict recreational harvesters than commercial operators in pretty much all fisheries, and have for a long time prohibited collecting them for anything but bait, unless by commercial harvesters. But now even the pros have been shut down with a closure until June 2012. The government custodianship of the resource has been woeful, but I will reserve my ire for them for if I ever post on fishing licenses or abalone.

It has been 2 years since I last got into some pipis and I have no qualms in admitting knowing that it was illegal. The regulations state that you can harvest up to 50, but only for bait, and only on the beach you gathered them on. The ones I ate were far fewer than 50 and I ate them, if not on the beach, then a pipis throw from it. I was up on the north coast for a job where I had to fly up, stay the night before an early survey the next morning followed by a flight home. The trip up left me just enough time to drop some extra rental car money on a 4WD (made up for by camping instead of a grim Grafton motel) and head straight to a beach stopping only for a bottle of white wine and some bread. I checked the tide chart, I knew exactly where I was going right down to the tent spot and had a firm plan. It all fell together with the ease and predictability of drive-through fast food.

The sinful pleasure of beach driving

On the beach, the tide was low, the weather right for the sand to do what it needs to do for guaranteed success; which is to get dry enough to lump and crack above the buried molluscs, but not so dry that that lump can or settle blow away. So I started to wind down, and slowly drive with eyes peeled. Four-wheel driving is usually more of a utilitarian than a recreational thing for me, and I might at other times be quick to condemn those who like to guzzle gas over fragile environments for the hell of it, but there is undoubtedly something truly joyful about driving along a huge empty beach. And then the lumps start to appear – the size of a fifty cent piece, unmistakable and infallible. Each with a pipi lying a few centimetres below in wait.

The pipi lump

The pipi harvest

I gathered two dozen, turned around and rolled happily back to camp. In lieu of a bucket, a soda water bottle with the lid cut off allowed a brief attempt at letting the pipis purge some sand, but mostly I was just ready for some crunch. It was a National Parks camp with a fee paid, fitted out with gas barbecues, so there was no more to do than pop up the tent, push the red button, chuck on the pipis and open the wine. The pipis, steaming away on the hot plate, were obliging enough to open themselves.

Pipis cooking

In my view the pipi fishery is something over which Native Title will eventually be found to exist for most of the North Coast. It occurs on land without other extinguishing title and represents a traditional activity that is continuous among people with clear traditional ownership. If the Yaegl people choose to ban me from gathering pipis in their country I will, albeit with some sadness, desist. Until then I am sure I will break the law again. In fact I am really looking forward to it, no apologies.

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