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Archive for the ‘Autumn’ Category

If patience was indeed a virtue, a great many more fishermen and women would be saints. And if persistence was instead the virtue, almost all of those who keep on fishing through most of their lives would be candidates. Because that is what fishing so often seems to call upon. I know one bloke who heads out to catch live bait in the afternoon to fish dusk in one place, the turn of the tide in the night at another and has been known to catch a few z’s on the floor of the dinghy before trying another tide change or dawn, only to go home empty handed. When many, including me, might have been more inclined to take the squid from the bait catch home for a meal at a decent hour, he is after Sydney Harbour’s game fish and only its game fish – kingies (Seriola lalandi) in the day and jewies (Argyrosomus japonicus) in the night. For others, the persistence is a fierce refusal to be beaten by a particular fishing spot or method; returning again and again because they know that sooner or later the fish will be ‘on the chew’. For me, it is trout along the shores of the outlet of New Zealand’s Lake Wanaka where the Clutha River begins.

No fish

Not catching fish, but with a wonderful view on Lake Wanka

As a younger man, going back some 20 years, I did well there. ‘Tassie devil’ lures were the go at the time. Later, there was a decent run of hooking up on diving hard bodied lures with rattles in them. Soft plastics were also tried, but despite being the rage of modern fishing, they are a recurrent disappointment for me. In fact, for three years running, everything was. The closest I came to a feed was a rabbit that the car got the better of on the way home one evening

But I persisted. I recognised that a lot of the time I was fishing with the sun too high because with a kid, twilight was an increasingly difficult time to get out fishing. Or that I was I running lures too high in the water because they cost too much money to risk busting (another one) off on the lake floor. And I knew that I had started to often fish… perhaps ‘ambiently’ is the word, just casting and retrieving mechanically with the consoling pleasure of simply being there, perhaps on my own, perhaps with the boy along for the outing, a play and a splash. The place I am talking about objectively presents a scene that anyone would call beautiful, but which for me has somehow become some sublime treasure as one of the key touchstones of the Kiwi part of me (an Australian for the most part).

HaweaFishing

Still not catching fish, but still with a wonderful view on nearby Lake Hawea

But as far as the actual core purpose of the activity goes – trout (or land-locked Quinnat salmon as an outside chance) – nothing. For close to three consecutive annual trips. And then finally, this year, one long skinny jack-jawed old male brown trout (Salmo trutta). I was, quite simply, utterly joyous with my prize. If you had asked me, when that fish was securely on shore, if I was content to simply fish for the sake of wetting a line in paradise, I would have laughed disdainfully in your face. When push comes to shove, there is inevitably one core and utterly dominant reason why I fish, and that is to catch fish and eat it. If you had come to me with an insistence that I put it back because you have bought into the cruel perversity of catch-and-release, it would more likely have been you taking a swim (seriously, if you want them to remain in the water instead of a pan, then don’t give them a hook in the face to start with). There was nobody there to see me walk back to the car that evening, nobody to see a two metre man feeling like a three metre one walking with a two foot fish feeling like a three foot one.

BrownTrout

Brown trout (Salmo trutta)

For all that this fish was destined for the plate and completely guaranteed a welcome reception when it got there, a big old seemingly half-spent male is still not the ideal animal for it. But thankfully, there is possibly nothing wrong with any of the salmonid fish that a hot smoker can’t fix. A mix of manuka and apple wood sawdust, 30 mins in the hot smoker (one full load in the methylated spirits burners that drive it all plus some time finishing as the box cools down), some decadently expensive horseradish cream and some crackers, and it was all worth it. Perhaps as many as twenty outings (albeit some very cursory) over three years, more than $300 in fishing licences, maybe $200 in gear and a great deal of salivating expectancy; all down to what was essentially a pretty simple feed. And all of it worth it.

BrownTroutSmoker

SmokedBrownTrout

Hot smoked brown trout with horseradish cream and capers

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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

 

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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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Holm oak (Quercus ilex) acorns

It has been called the ‘forager’s dilemma’, the problem of procuring, even in a world seemingly bursting with wild food, the energy-rich foundation of a carbohydrate source that almost all human diets rely on. In most traditional foraging economies, most Australian Aboriginal ones included, this quest for the daily bread was the biggest labour demand in the community, reliant on often labour-intensive gathering and processing of plant seeds and roots. It was the process of finding ways to influence the abundance and distribution of these plants that gave rise, not through any ‘agricultural revolution’ but by a gradual human-plant coevolution, to farming and the type of cultures from which most of us descend. Among those plants that could be farmed, a relatively small suite now provide the vast majority of human food energy. Among those not so easily farmed, many once-treasured species have become largely forgotten. Like oaks, and their acorns.

Harvested acorns

Across much of the northern hemisphere, acorns, the fruit of oak trees (Quercus spp.), are believed by many to have been so fundamental to the human diet that people speak of ‘balanocultures’ (see here), being those of people for whom the oak forest and its products was the home, the hearth and the daily bread. In a few places, remnants of balanoculture survive. In a few parts of Italy, acorn cakes remain (notably using holm oaks), some Native Americans still treasure their balanophagy (acorn-eating) as a tradition (see here and here), and it is alive and well in Korea. In Spain, while acorn eating by people is largely gone, a landscape called dehesa is still treasured in places; being open oak woodlands with holm oak (Quercus ilex) and cork oak (Q. suber) as the dominant trees over meadows grazed by cattle. The trees directly provide firewood and cork and the acorn crops are hoovered up by pigs, whose consumption of them gives their meat a special quality, revered and central to the finest Iberian hams (jamon). Dehesa was traditionally often communal land, both a grazing commons and a public oak woodland in which wild greens and fungi were also foraged and small game hunted. I like the idea of dehesa.

Holm oak (Quercus ilex) tree

My nearest big park has more than 300 holm oaks (Quercus ilex), a peculiarly large number for a tree not otherwise at all commonly planted around here. It is about as close to dehesa as probably exists in Australia. Picnickers, joggers, cricketers and dogwalkers replace the grazing animals – but there is nothing really there to treasure the acorns. A few rats may be doing ok out of them, and then for a first time, last autumn, there was me. From a fairly random collection of ideas from books and the net I came up with a fairly random experimental approach (mainly from here and pages on the same blog, here and here and (surprisingly from a fellow-Australian) here). The big challenge, and probably the big obstacle to modern balanoculture catching on, is that acorns almost invariably come with tannin levels that make them inedible without some long and quite complex processing – more than enough to make most people quit and head down to the shops for some flour and/or almond meal.

But should you decide to give acorns a go yourself, and it will probably need to be more for the adventure of it than any realistic need to solve your own ‘forager’s dilemma’, you will get most of the way to learning how from the weblinks above. But truth be told they will also include some advice that doesn’t work, or at least won’t work when you try it. I don’t know if it is differences in oak species, preferences, or simply that these are all partly experimental rediscoveries of balanoculture rather than the refined detail of an established culinary tradition, but no advice that I have found to date is fool-proof or complete. Anything offering a shortcut is the most likely to be wrong. I have altogether removed from this post almost any and all advice that I had previously written, thinking perhaps that by next autumn’s harvest I might have something more than another journeyman’s reckonings to offer. Still, the photos below give some indication of the direction I ended up with.

With as many as a half of all the acorns gathered spoiled in one way or another after 4 months storage: 1) I won’t store them that long again; and 2) Those that were picked straight from the tree rather than gathered off the ground had a better success rate.

I started out with acorns from different trees separated and regret not keeping it that way, having repeatedly read that part of the challenge is to find those rare trees with the sweetest acorns needing the least leaching

Although I think I lost a few too many by trying to store the acorns too long, they can become easier to shell with a bit of drying.

I have read of hammers, knives and nutcrackers all being put to the task of shelling acorns, but found that for mine, a mortar and pestle with the mortar overturned worked very well.

After a few months, the acorn meat becomes oxidised, brown, often peppered with mould and occasionally crumbled by grubs (probably a weevil), but I pressed on with all but the worst looking.

Some may shy at the idea, but leaching acorns in a bag soaking in a toilet cistern is pure simple genius – after all, you want clean, cool water changed a few times daily including first and last thing of the day.

It will undoubtedly vary from tree to tree, let alone species to species, but it took 6 days for the water to run clear when leaching my holm oak acorns

Once leached, drying the acorn meat (both oven and dehydrator worked for me) allows the papery, bitter skin to be removed. I then gave them another soak overnight to soften them before grinding in a food processor into a gritty flour.

I tried roasting a few acorns for a few hours to get them very hard and dark, aiming at an acorn coffee – I had limited success but have confidence that it can be done.

While the acorn coffee was not superb, mixing acorn meal in equal parts with self-raising flour plus honey, butter and egg yolk, the egg whites then beaten and folded in, made a lovely, nutty acorn honeycake.

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