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Archive for October, 2012

Fancy some foraged urchin roe (Centrostephanus rogersii)? Abundant and free when it looks like this, or more than $100/kg at the market cleaned up and not as fresh.

A recurrent theme with so many of the best of the forageable species is the frequent surprise that they remain unknown (or at least vastly underappreciated) right under our noses. Sea lettuce, weeds, kangaroo tails, urchin roe, bonito, wild mushrooms, the list goes on. The more thought I put into it however, the less odd it eventually seems. Fear of new things – neophobia – is natural, particularly as we age (and according to some, once we become parents). At the same time we have picked up a great many of our culture’s food aversions, even though we may be unaware that we have done so. We have, in Marvin Harris’ words, largely formulated and populated our concepts of ‘good to eat’ and ‘bad to eat’ (Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture being Harris’ wonderfully readable 1985 book – although not so much about neophobia as cultural food taboos). It is a fundamental way that we learn to engage successfully with our environment. It is an issue that would be useful to consider if you might be put off foraging simply on the basis of being put off a particular few foods. You can’t stomach the idea of a boil-up of the three known mucilaginous ingredients of garden snails (Helix aspersa), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and mallow (Malva spp.), all slimy and disturbingly on the brown side of green (albeit all good in their own separate ways)? Fair enough, but that is no reason to head back to the big supermarket for a jar of ‘we’ve made it toilet-ready’ sauce.

As infants we stick almost anything in our mouth and equally then spit a whole lot of it out in a long, messy, confused session of trial and error to categorise good and bad; and we also keenly watch our parents for cues in building up these categories – going some way to explain the amount of grinning, gaping, ‘yum-yum-yum’ performance that goes into getting infants to eat some things, as well as the ‘no-no-no!’ of stopping them eating others. If an infant is offered a food that is repeatedly rejected, they might change their mind not because it has finally come in on a mimed choo-choo train but because the love and sense of safety that the mime may embody somehow tips the balance in the infant head to ‘good to eat’. And they can also easily learn avoidances, like not to eat a common poisonous berry, without having to get sick first because they are told in a firm way that gets their brain to stick the label ‘dangerous’ on it – ‘bad to eat’. Then, rather than work our way through all the species we might experience, we then tend to create a rather large grab-bag for everything that hasn’t been labelled good; the risk of something delectable ending up in it given preference over the alternative possibility that something poisonous slips through on the other side.

You may have heard tell of people and other animals having innate fears of certain species, memorised somehow genetically – the fear of snakes for example. It turns out that when tested with naïve caged monkeys, there was no innate fear, but a great capacity to learn fear from others. It took just one monkey who had already learned to fear snakes to be introduced to a new group ahead of the snake, to then go nuts when a snake arrived, for its reaction to catch on forever after. Contagious snake-phobia. Though trying to couch it in terms of avoidance rather than hatred, I have successfully taught something similar to my 3 year old son (red-bellied black snakes being common enough on the bush block to warrant it). In such cases, when a snake is a properly dangerous one if trifled with, it is a useful lesson and the ability to learn it without recourse to bitter experience, it is obviously a very useful adaptation (and such a shame for that bloke and his girlfriend with a naked carefree life in Eden on the line who lacked a predecessor to provide the warning). But if it leaves people making a mixed association and unable to grapple with the idea of eating an all-too-similar eel – like a beautiful hot-smoked short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) with a creamy horseradish sauce or freshly made unagi [eel] nigiri sushi – then it has all backfired on you.

As Australians, we tend to be told not to eat a lot of things – like weeds, snails (land and sea ones), insects. These are all ‘bad to eat’; and we keep this concept strongly even after we learn that some are quite the opposite. When beginning foraging, unlearning can be harder than learning. So we should start with small steps. I took a friend out a while ago who was interested in adding some foraged plants to his life. Ten species into it I recalled the issue described above and realised I would do him no favours by sending him home to plate them all up, season, and trust me. Instead I suggested starting with 2 or 3: Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes, what he had come asking about in the first place), chickweed (Stellaria media, snuck into salads to start) and sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca, he is a health nut, an ocean swimmer who commonly walks past the stuff, and in my view has been deprived by not knowing about dried sea lettuce as a home-made foraged condiment).

Some, who see the challenge of urban foraging as a challenge of learning how to eat weeds they don’t really want to, may find themselves rejecting foraging altogether on the basis of a disinclination towards (quite frankly) some of the most boring parts. For all that weeds are the ignored opportunity that always surround us, foraging writing seeking to engage novices tends to focus disproportionately on weeds rather than the potential delicacies out there. I think that is a shame; when people might have more easily and gradually come in on the delights of wild berries (mulberries, blackberries), feral herbs (rosemary, fennel) as a flavouring in cooking but not itself eaten, or just one easy weed (amaranth, native spinach) backed with its specific background knowledge and easy-cooking utility rather than the whole book of weeds. Whatever you do (In Australia at any rate), don’t start with dandelions (perhaps the most discussed edible weed) – you are too likely to be bittered back into the corner and give up.

To not like a food because it is unknown is different to a food aversion that comes about from a personally experienced negative reinforcement. You ate a dodgy pie, spewed for 2 days, and cannot face another pie no matter what is in it. The aversion needs only have a cause, it does not need to be rational. Although that is not to say that a food aversion can never be rationally undone. My points with food aversions and foraging are twofold: 1) You may want to avoid a wild food because you are actually avoiding something different but can gradually reason your way to sense; but also 2) you don’t want to go so far as to force yourself to eat something that you fear, however irrationally, if that is only going to reinforce the aversion.

The things that your brain is doing when it pulls you up before some foods are adaptations that have probably saved the life of an ancestor somewhere along the way, so without them you mightn’t be here; but the thing that your brain is doing when it challenges itself to experiment with new foods is undoubtedly an adaptation that has saved the lives of many more. Food neophobia is worth acknowledging, perhaps a nod or even a tip of the hat, as you walk on by towards more interesting experiences. If it won’t let you past, here are some tips for knocking it on its arse: 1) Start with foraged food that you may already know and love (like blackberries in autumn, mulberries in spring, roadside plums in the country); 2) mix the foraged food in with known and loved ones (like starting with a mild wild green like amaranth in with spinach, kale or familiar Asian greens); 3) chop it, mince, hide it (like sea snails or watercress soup); 4) nibble at first (a few leaves of chickweed, purslane or nasturtium flowers browsed here and there or (see point 2) sprinkled in a salad; and 5) perhaps most potently, do it with someone who you know and trust on the matter – Diego Bonetto uses the term a ‘foraging uncle’. You are not trying to actually fool yourself and you are not being timid, you are just giving yourself time for your normal food psychology to adjust the categorisation of a food from ‘bad to eat’ to ‘good to eat’.

You are being just as human to resist foraging as to undertake the adventure of it, the difference being a choice about what you are in the world and who you choose to be as a person. With experience and knowledge, the environmental engagement can become sublimely rewarding in the appreciation of yourself as a natural creature; the nutritional rewards in a world of processed food might induce you; or perhaps the delicacies far exceeding shop bought imitations that may await. The urchin roe polishes up alright in the end and could never taste better than salted with the sweat of your brow.

They say it was a brave man who ate the first oyster, or in this case, urchin roe. It was then a foolish man who chose not to be the second one.

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Feral celery (Apium graveolens)

Feral celery (Apium graveolens) is something that I didn’t really expect to find while foraging, but there it was in the same patch of damp bush as the asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) that I didn’t expect to find either. In contrast to the meagre asparagus harvest, the celery is there in huge quantities.

The spot is a reserve in Quakers Hill, in the damp soil where water backs up in a swampy spread, queuing to get through a single culvert under the railway. Decent clean bush this, unlike a nearby celery source at Seven Hills that I’m told surrounds a wetland created to hold back heavy metal laden sediment – and yet the story goes that a local restaurant harvests there regularly. Goes to show that you want to know the history of where you are foraging (and perhaps dining in Seven Hills). The convenient thing with the recent spot at least is that I was there for an archaeological assessment that I had preceded with research on land use history. I trust this dirt.

Feral celery seems to prefer what Australians would nearly call a swamp; in wetter parts of the world they probably just call it soil.

The challenges when faced with more of something than you know what to do with are twofold: First to think of new ways of using or preserving it; and secondly, to resist the temptation to take more than you need (or, as is too often the case, can find the time to process). Perhaps I could have been more imaginative, but with a good bay tree (Laurus nobilis) closer to home also pushing out wonderful fresh growth, stock seemed easiest. With this wiry strong flavoured wild celery (almost like lovage (Levisticum officinale)), and in the absence of the sweetening buffer of carrots or onions, it is an almost bitter kind of stock carrying a strong herbiness.

A simple stock of celery and bay (Laurus nobilis)

And here is the twist – with the stock portioned out for freezing, I opened the chest freezer to find a meltdown. The freezer switch is at ground level and has a light, normally covered and hidden, but not when the 3 year old Boy appears to have found it some days previously and so not when I found it in the off position. With a lot of mass in there, everything was still half frozen, but some of it too long in there already for me to want to risk re-freezing. One roo tail and one roo leg to be precise; the fruit will be fine; 2 fish were consigned to bait; the last of Autumn’s dried  mushrooms (slippery jack (Suillus luteus) and saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus)) could have stayed in but came out to join the stew.

Stew for which a rich herby stock, conveniently enough, was ready and waiting. And for which everything but the passata was foraged.

Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) leg and tail meat (or possibly red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus))

Kangaroo and forest mushroom stew in celery and bay stock and passata

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My (Homo sapiens) manure, ten months composted and giving a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) a good start in life

A composting toilet is a wonderful thing. I say this both as someone who has twice in the last two months had raw sewage from the ‘conventional’ type of system back up in our office making it uninhabitable, and as someone who has recently emptied out the first rested drum of humanure from the composting loo at our cabin. It was a surprisingly clean and odourless experience.

The composting dunny outhouse

The composting dunny interior – the bucket of sawdust is for ‘flushing’

It all starts in a little outhouse with over a metre of underfloor space, a pretty normal looking pedestal and toilet seat at the top of a chute above a poo drum. The solar panels, on the outhouse roof with the batteries down below next to the drum, power a 12 volt fan that keeps it aerobic and odourless. A big bucket of sawdust, gathered in plentiful amounts from chainsaw work for the woodpile, sits in the corner and is used to dust every deposit. It’s what you do instead of flushing. When the drum gets about as full as you think you can comfortably carry, you seal it up, change it for an empty one and pop it under a tree to rest and fully break down (in our case in the shade of an ancient thicket of quince where it can seep any liquid to good purpose).

A hole is dug, a sugar maple planted, humanure spread

Six months later, the next time you want to plant a tree, you do so in humanure – odourless, friable nutrient enriched broken down sawdust by this stage. A sugar maple (Acer saccharum) for us, a thin whip of a sapling with as good a start as we can offer it with fairly scant maintenance in a clearing in the bush. The Squeeze wanted some autumn colour, and I like the idea of one day maybe tapping some sap for syrup or wine. If this one prospers, we’ll aim for a proper grove of it, in the meantime pooing with a purpose.

Update: The neighbours cattle broke in and munched the budding maple (and the top of the mulberry and messed up the dam); perhaps the maple will survive, perhaps I will replant, perhaps I will boost the soil fertilisation with the uneaten portion of a duffed calf if he doesn’t fix the fence, a duffed steer if the beehive is knocked over…

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Mulberry cordial – my take on the Lebanese delicacy, sharab el toot

Mulberry (Morus nigra) – another haul from the foraging ‘mother lode’

Before I started fishing around for mulberry preserving recipes beyond jam (post here) and wine (post here), I’d never heard of mulberry cordial, or sharab el toot, but then I’m not Lebanese. But I am a Sydneysider and so are a lot of mulberry trees and so are a lot of Lebanese; and so let the fusion begin.

When you search online recipes for mulberry cordial, the preponderance of Lebanese ones for sharab el toot almost demands that it be given a go (my favoured are from Lebanese Sydneysider Fouad Kassab and the UK-based Bethany Khehdy whom he cites). Why Lebanese, you may ask. Well, apparently mulberries were grown in large numbers in Lebanon for leaves feeding silk worms and thence a silk trade to France. The silk trade may have faded, but not the love of the second crop – the berries themselves, and the syrup that they adore from it.

The recipe is fairly simple – juice mulberries one way or another, heat with rather a lot of sugar, and bottle – the greatest variation being in the proportions of the two ingredients. Knowing that my tooth is nowhere near as sweet as a Middle Eastern one, and that honey is a faithful Middle Eastern alternative to sugar (as the once-revered product that sugar rather mundanely replaced), I have omitted the sugar altogether in place of my own honey. I also added lemon juice and a pinch of tartaric acid; perhaps this means that it isn’t even sharab el toot anymore; but I can assure you that it is nonetheless wonderful.

A mulberry foraging tip: As you pass by a mulberry tree you often see mostly unripe fruit and think that it is not ready, but it is probably is; the ripe black fruit are usually hidden up under leaves and out of view. By the time you think that they must be ready, you may well find that the season is over.

Ingredients

  • 2kg Mulberries (becomes about 1kg, or 1 litre, of juice). On an average scrumpable tree, this may be not be achievable in one picking, so you can scale it as needed or freeze batches until the season is over.
  • 800g honey
  • 3 or 4 lemons, juiced

Instructions

I have come across two ways of juicing, one with a food mill and the other with a fine mesh bag (which would be a ‘wine bag’ in my kitchen). I went with a food mill. I clipped the green stems so that I could retain the skins for turning some unknown future white fruit wine (probably apple) into a red; but otherwise you could spare yourself the hassle and just chuck the soft mulberries through in batches of about 400g, depending on the size of your food mill. With a food mill, the stuff out the other end then wants a final filter through a fine sieve. In the end I found that I got pretty much half the weight of juice as the original weight of fruit – bearing in mind that I didn’t try too hard to squeeze the most out as I am using the by-product anyway.

Ripe mulberries go through a food mill in batches

After the food mill, a further fine sieve filtering is needed

The by-product from food mill and sieving seems perfect for freezing and later use in fruit winemaking (yet to be tested)

A proper Arab sweet tooth sharab el toot is then made simply with the addition of twice that weight again in white sugar, brought to a boil and bottled. For mine, it was just a little under the same weight in honey, plus the juice of three big lemons. Traditional recipes boil this to thicken a little, but I boil only as much as I need to properly sterilise for long storage in a bottle (surely there are some vitamins and the like in here that would diminish with long heat). Which is the next step, swing top bottles boiled to sterilise, filled, back in for a little final steam bath for extra hygiene, and onto the shelf. Refrigerate after opening.

It is no secret, it is canner’s lore (law even) that you can’t do too much sterilising with boiling water – when glass is emptied, when it is washed and when it is filled. Too much work and hope goes into a foraged product like this to be giving it away to bacteria or yeast.

The first thing that I did with my new delicacy was to mix it with some gin and soda and experience a wonderful cross-cultural revelation. The thing in the glass before me, I decided, was Sydney’s answer to sloe gin – a drink that during my few years in England was a forager’s Christmas ambrosia (because that is about when it is ready after an autumn harvest after first frost). Here, where sloes (Prunus spinosa) are rare or absent and would in any case be 6 months different, but where mulberries flourish before the silly season and where British and Lebanese cultures meet (albeit with the latter not nearly as fond of a tipple as the former), that warming traditional drink can now be reborn for me.

And for the Boy, the recently frequently purple mouthed mulberry munching boy, there is a syrup to mix through yoghurt and ice cream. Seriously, I like this stuff, this sharab el toot, this drink not yet dear to Sydneysider’s hearts, but that one day should be.

Sharab el toot as a long drink with soda, or a short with gin (with or without a dash of soda)

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A meagre asparagus harvest – those that weren’t eaten on the spot

When a Sydneysider talks of asparagus growing wild, it is usually ‘asparagus fern’ (Asparagus scandens) that they mean; and if not is likely to be ‘ground asparagus’ (A. aethiopicus), or ‘ferny aspargus’ (A. plumosus). Elsewhere in Australia they may also mean one or three other species (Asparagus asparagoides, A. africanus, or A. declinatus); all of them exotic and problematic bushland weeds and none of them as far as I know good to eat. So it was with some surprise that in a damp overgrown patch of bush in a park in western Sydney’s Quakers Hill that I came across the real thing, feral Asparagus officinalis. To be honest, I didn’t think that we had it around here. It doesn’t come up in the Cribbs food foraging bible (Wild Food in Australia), but Weeds Australia maps it as fairly widespread. Perhaps I actually have seen it before but just assumed it was one of the problem weeds, but now two years into having a cultivated asparagus bed I was quicker off the mark.

A single elusive spear amid the feathery foliage of asparagus

A particular delight with this find is that it puts me in the footsteps of the late great Euell Gibbons, whose much-loved book that pretty much marks the dawn of modern American foraging is titled Stalking the Wild Asparagus. In it, Gibbons finds a mesmerising nexus between a first person experiential narrative and an informative text that later mimics have struggled to match. This is not for want of better writing skills as much as usually simply not having as fascinating a life or as deep a knowledge. That the chapter on wild asparagus gives the name to the book is no doubt partly because it is catchy, but it is also surely how much that particular foraging quest is a metaphor for the deeper wants of those seeking to engage with the natural world, foragers especially: The experience of elusive, ephemeral delicacies; whose arrival is awaited and not created, but true to their season; the season when life is new; which is all too soon past, but sure to come again.

It is said that wild asparagus comes with a greater intensity of flavour that the commercial crop. Western Sydney’s is no exception, and not without relief as I managed to find a meagre five spears on my first discovery. Called back to the site the next week, rather than just being able to pluck a few as I went about my business, I took the opportunity to turn up early and search on my own time. Even so, it was just a few more slender pickings; but still not disappointing, as I find myself agreeing with many on this plant – that it is more a cherished treat that heralds the Spring best simply partaken off rather than gorged on as a feast.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

You might also like a great blog post on wild asparagus in America here

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Manure foraging

‘You are what you eat’ it says somewhere above in the blog’s banner – and in a similar vein, the fertiliser from your worm farm is all about what the worms eat. Then the vegies ‘eat’ that, and you eat the vegies… as unsavoury a direction as this may be taking, it is pretty important stuff. I have previously written on the wondrous stuff that comes out of the worms with my feeding them kelp gathered off the beach (here), and now I have knocked it up a few more notches with simple buckets of cow manure.

Men returning from a successful hunt

To get to our cabin, we drive through a few paddocks where cattle graze, congregate near gates, and dump (in doing so also pushing up some decent field mushrooms). While I appreciate that the manure is a key part of the nutrient cycle for the pasture, thus back to the cattle and therefore for my neighbour, it remains that these same cattle keeping ending up through the fence and stomping around my otherwise clean dam. The silver lining to that cloud is a right to cow poo. A bucketful of dry pats flung in a bucket (a game the Boy happens to love), brought back to town and then into the worm farm goes an amazingly long way.

The harvest

It’s not just that the worms seem to adore it and that manure in itself is obviously good fertiliser, but perhaps mostly that the worms multiply like crazy in it. With a teeming population of worms, everything else in there works better too: The kitchen scraps, the kelp (that also seems to have its gelatinousness balanced by the well munched grass fibre); and since I moved the worm farm to the office salad garden, a fairly healthy dose of coffee grounds and a bit of the shredded office paper. Altogether it pumps out a worm juice that makes that salad garden go nuts plus plenty to spare. Although this may all read like another gardening post, don’t forget that it really begins out in the countryside, foraging. For poo.

Prolific worms, the reason for it all

Caveat: Cows are often treated with Ivermectin as a drench, primarily as a treatment against worms, so you don’t want their manure in your worm farm if they have had it recently (28 days withholding periods apply for milking or slaughtering for human consumption as some kind of guide). You may want to ask the farmer before you go taking any risks with it.

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Ripe and ready black mulberries (Morus nigra)

Resolving to make a bumper Spring of this year’s foraged mulberry (Morus nigra) crop, means a bumper Spring of ways to preserve them. They are thin-skinned, picked ripe and sticky and already incubating the wherewithal for mould and decay on the tree; so they will only last a day or two in the fridge. Freezing is obvious enough and the first solution; the next cab off the rank is mulberry jam. Mulberry cordial (sharab el toot) posted here, and mulberry wine here.

When picking mulberries for jam you can get a little extra acidity and pectin by taking a few unripe red berries as well.

When it comes to using mulberries for jams, they seem to lack some of the acidic sharpness of things that you might otherwise use. For this recipe using 1.5 kg of fruit, I added lemon juice (Citrus x limon), some quince (Cydonia oblonga) pulp (cooked down to mush but not all the way to the ruby wonder of quince paste) that was hanging around in the freezer and (perhaps most importantly to the recipe) honey instead of sugar. The lemon acidity needs no explanation, the quince has good pectin and quite a sharp tang that I would guess to be malic acid, and honey is naturally more acidic than the pure sucrose of cane sugar (some even suggest adding bicarb to buffer acidity when substituting honey for sugar). With only half a kilo rather than the sickly sweet usual jam recommendation for equal weight as the fruit, the combined tang of all of this has ample opportunity to come through. Last year I used rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) to bump up the acid tang, another good Spring crop, and will probably use that for the mulberry winemaking.

The ‘brewing honey’ – delectable enough, just not as pretty as some

The honey was my ‘brewing honey’ the stuff that came out lacking the golden clarity of my best stuff (see here), seemingly because I froze whole combs for a couple of weeks until I had time to process them. Until now it has been used for making alcohol. The quince was from a roadside forage somewhere out near Blayney (on the road from Bathurst to Cowra) and the lemon I would like to say was foraged over a fence, making the whole thing a foraged product. But I’ll admit that it was from the shops.

Mulberries are low in pectin, generally picked very ripe when that small amount has lost its gelling properties, which then combined with the low acidity means that you have to add pectin to get a jam to set well. I used the store-bought stuff, which came with some citric acid and a little caster sugar as a carrier for it all.

The start of a mulberry jam

Ingredients:

1.5 kg mulberries

0.5 kg honey

Juice of 1 lemon

1.5 cups of cooked quince pulp

2 packets of pectin (‘Jamsetta’) – use at least half again as much as the packet suggests

Directions

Combine all in a thick bottomed pot and bring to boil. Mash the berries as they soften. I keep a fan blowing on the pot to add to the evaporation (using honey instead of sugar makes things moister). Keep a bubbling boil without causing anything to stick on the bottom and keep stirring for 5-10 minutes. Test dollops on frozen saucers until it crinkles when you push a finger through it. Pour into sterilised jars. Promise yourself that next time you will forage some lemons and also use them to home-make the pectin, so that it is 100% foraged (I argue that honey is foraged, even though it is done by my bees and not me).

13 jars of mulberry jam. Our foraging year is likely to have at least 3 jams in it (out of mulberry, fig, blackberry, plum and strawberry with various additions of crab apple, quince and rhubarb), plus it competes with our honey at the breakfast table; so I now favour small jars that work for having a few flavours open at once and which can be doled out as little gifts.

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