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Archive for April, 2013

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).

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Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

[UPDATE: Check out new info page HERE and video HERE]

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!

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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.

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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

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