“Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App ‘Potentially Deadly'”

This recent headline is from the US. Someone has developed an app that is designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a smartphone photo.

There is a growing trend for foraging apps but this one is just down right dangerous. However, a few are good.  In Denmark, a recent one is a comprehensive and free resource for the public to learn about and sustainably explore wild food. The initiative comprises an app in Danish and in English, a website, a curriculum for Danish schools, and foraging workshops offered by fifty rangers (“naturvejledere”) across Denmark.

Roger Phillips is one of the world’s leading mushroom specialists with over 40 years’ of expertise of studying fungi in the wild. His excellent book ‘Mushrooms’, has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. You can get an app version of the book, but rather getting the app to tell you what the mushroom is, you are lead through an electronic version of the key from the book. Lots of mushroom books have these, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. They are easy to use and a really valuable tool – give them a go.

Keys are not just used for identifying mushrooms but also for wider species identification. They usually ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. They can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one questions answer leading you to the next. Here is an example, okay not mushrooms, but it shows the principle.

Branching key
Branching tree example This tree could help you identify a new vertebrate. For example, if it had no fur or feathers and dry skin, you would follow the right-hand pathway at the first and second junctions, but the left-hand pathway at the third junction. This would lead you to identify the animal as a reptile. Copyright © 2017 BBC.

On our mushrooms day courses and walks we teach guests how to use keys. In fact, everyone who attends takes a turn at leading an identification. You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings – habitat, trees etc., then examination of the specimen – cap, spores (including colour), gills, / tubes (pores) / spines, ring, stem, colour changes, smell etc. Then you use your key, before checking the answer with pictures or descriptions in several other sources too. Does it all agree? Note you shouldn’t trust every mushroom photo caption on the web as accurate!

Yes, identifying mushrooms can be difficult. Individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go.

Meadowsweet – Queen of The Meadows

If you’ve walked anywhere a bit damp recently (June to September) – road verges, ditches, rivers or canals or through damp meadows, you can’t have failed to spot or smell Meadowsweet. The tall (1- 2 m) cream-coloured dense clusters of flowers have an aroma described as sweet almond, hay and honey with a hint of something medical, especially when crushed. In Tudor times, it was used as a strewing herb – thrown on the floor to be walked on and mask unpleasant smells. The original name was “mead wort” as it was used to flavour mead. Numerous herbal uses include treating colds, respiratory problems, acid indigestion, peptic ulcers, arthritis and rheumatism, skin diseases, and diarrhoea. It can also be used in many culinary ways by today’s forager.

Meadowsweet
Meadowsweet

This plant contains the chemicals used to make aspirin – named after its old botanical name Spiraea ulmaria. Unlike Aspirin, it does not have the caustic side effects on the stomach lining, however, if you are allergic to Aspirin (or have alicylate or sulphite sensitivity) you should avoid consuming it.

Culinary Uses for Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet can be used in almost any recipe that uses Elderflower. With that season coming to an end, we have a replacement. Pick the flowers on a sunny morning for the maximum flavour and don’t wash them. Just give each head a good shake to remove any insects. The flowers can be dried then stored in paper bags to retain their flavour as well as pollen and natural yeasts. Some recipes use the leaves, others the flowers or either.

Drying Meadowsweet
Drying Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet Drinks

Making Meadowsweet Champagne
Making Meadowsweet Champagne – follow an Elderflower Champagne recipe substituting Meadowsweet for Elderflower

Meadowsweet Puddings

Meadowsweet goes very well with summer fruits like Peaches, Raspberries and Strawberries. If you live in northern parts of Britain, you can add Sweet Cicely to replace some of the sugar.

Meadowsweet and Wild Strawberries
Meadowsweet and Wild Strawberries

 

Meadowsweet Rice Pudding

 

Meadowsweet Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulois
Meadowsweet Panna Cotta with Blackberry Coulois

Others

  • Vinegars
  • Jams – the flowers can be added to jams made with summer fruits (Strawberry, Raspberry, Apricots etc.), giving them a subtle almond flavour.
  • Turkish Delight

Summer Cordials

While Elderflower cordial is a very popular summer drink, both homemade and commercially produced, it is not the only cordial that can be made at this time of year. We made four in recent weeks.

SummerCordials_640x480px
Undiluted cordials. From left – Pineapple Mayweed, Hawthorn, Nettle. Missing from this photo is Pine Needle Cordial.

Nettle

stinging-nettle-785292_640

I’ve eaten nettles many times in dishes such as soup and curry, and drunk them in beer and tea, but Nettle Cordial has been on my to-do list for a long time. For eating you want them young, using just the tips, but the ones I picked last week had gone to seed, and I stripped the leaves from the stems wearing thick gloves. I followed Robin Harford’s recipe on his Eat Weeds web site.

It takes a few days to steep and I was amazed at the flavour, this is straight into my list of favourites.

You can read an earlier blog post on nettles here.

Hawthorn

hawthorn-373219_640

It’s probably too late for this year, but one to make next May. Delicate floral scents are difficult to capture into drinks, so I followed the Wild Flower Syrup recipe in John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook – Hedgerow. I’ve used this for Dandelion Syrup in the past (also very worth trying). You layer sugar and then flowers in a jug and leave overnight. Next day you add water in proportion to the amount of sugar you used (100ml water / 55g sugar) and heat until the sugar dissolves before straining and bottling. Again, very nice.

Pine Needle
spruce-504637_640

This is an old favourite, I’ve written about before (here). You expect Toilet Duck but get a lovely citrus flavour.

Pineapple Mayweed

matricaria-discoidea-846635_640

This was another new cordial to me. I know Pineapple Mayweed, no points for guessing what it smells of! The recipe I found online was:

  • 1 pound pineapple weed heads
  • 1 sliced lemon
  • 2 pounds sugar
  • 5 pints boiling water
  1. Wash Pineapple Mayweed thoroughly…change water a couple of times
  2. Mix everything together in a bucket
  3. Cover with lid or teatowel
  4. Leave for 4 days stiring twice a day
  5. Pour into bottles through muslin

Best diluted 1/3 cordial to 2/3 sparkling water with a few ice cubes.

I did it in a slightly different order, covering the Mayweed in warm water, leaving it to soak, straining it, then adding the sugar / lemon and heatign it to dissolve the sugar.

It wasn’t my own favourite, but some that tried it thought it was great.

 

 

Vermouth on a booze walk

Booze Walk – 13/05/17

On Saturday we were delighted to host our first Booze Walk. This was a walk to introduce people to some of the common plants that grow at our feet and the amazing concoctions that can be made with them. Yes, there was plenty of sampling and top tips. The walk was lead by Andy Hamilton who is one of THE experts on wild booze. He is the author of the best-selling Booze for Free and Brewing Britain: The Quest for the Perfect Pint, writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph amongst others and frequently appears on TV and Radio talking about foraging and booze.

Drink 1 - Bertie’s Fairy Haw (Haw Syrup, Cider Vinegar, Gin, Pastis)
Drink 1 – Bertie’s Fairy Haw (Hawthorn Blossom Syrup, Cider Vinegar, Gin, Pastis)

 

drink_2_SotonCraftBeer_Vermouth
Drink 2 – Wild Rose Vermouth (photo courtesy Matt Ince)

 

Drink 3 - Treegroni - Vegroni with Cedar Vodka (Cedar and Pine buds) instead of Campari
Drink 3 – Treegroni – Vegroni with Cedar Vodka (Cedar and Pine buds) instead of Campari

 

Drink 4 - Chocolate Blossom - Crème de Cacao, Elderflower and Lime flowers
Drink 4 – Chocolate Blossom – Crème de Cacao, Elderflower and Lime flowers

 

Drink 5 - Épine (Blackthorn leaves in a red wine with Brandy)
Drink 5 – Épine (Blackthorn leaves in a red wine with Brandy)

After the final, “Secret Drink” (I’d have to kill you), a selection of home-made drinks that the guests had brought with them appeared and were passed round for critique including from the expert. These included a Cider, Sloe Gin and a selection of vodkas (Rhubarb and Ginger, Fennel and Damson, Quince and some of my own Japanese Knotweed)!

Bring a bottle (or two) (photo by @sotoncraftbeer)
Bring a bottle (or two) (photo courtesy Matt Ince)

Thanks to all that attended for being a great group and to Andy for his enthusiasm, humour, knowledge and amazing concoctions.

Seashore Foraging Walk 29/04/17

Thanks to all the lovely folk that joined us on our seashore foraging walk on the spectacular Jurassic Coast in Dorset last Saturday. The sun shone and we found a good range of seashore plants, seaweed and had good luck on the crustacean front. We are back again on 27th May (fully booked), for Coastal Plants on 15th July and seashore again on 23rd September. Thanks to those that sent in some of their photos.

The fiery Black Mustard - horseradish meets wasabi!
The fiery Black Mustard – horseradish meets wasabi!

 

Sea Beet - my favourite wide vegetable. Makes great soup amongst other things.
Sea Beet – my favourite wide vegetable. Makes great soup amongst other things.

 

Seaweed selection - some of the 10 edible species we found.
Seaweed selection – some of the 10 edible species we found.

 

Definitely something in this one
Definitely something in this pot

 

I'm staying here!
I’m staying here!
Lrts get another pair of hands
Lets get another pair of hands

 

Edible (Brown) Crab. Undersize (just) so back it went.
Edible (Brown) Crab. Undersize (just) so back it went.

 

Flounder (slightly surprised no other temporary residents of the pot hadn't eaten it!)
Flounder (slightly surprised no other temporary residents of the pot hadn’t eaten it!)

 

Feisty Velvet Swimming Crab grabs my finger.
Feisty Velvet Swimming Crab grabs my finger.

 

So glad I had thick gloves on!
So glad I had thick gloves on!

 

There's something interesting in this one.
There’s something interesting in this one.
A beautiful, but undersize Lobster, so back it went.
A beautiful, but undersize Lobster, so back it went.
Morels

Mission Accomplished

Morels are one type of fungi that I (and  lots of others) have struggled to find. They are a spring fungus and prize-eating; only truffles go for a higher price. There fairly picky about where they live and not that common. One fungi expert I know took 20 years to find his first. I’ve read so much about them, the habitats, the trees they are found with, the plants you might find with them and the soils they prefer.

I first saw some about 8 years ago, over 15 years after I started picking any wild mushrooms. A generous soul had found them and had an inkling what they were but wanted a second opinion. They were in the bottom of a hedge, I don’t recall what trees, probably Ash, but definitely on sandy soil. They were rather dry but no doubt, Morels. I returned to that spot the next spring and found … a few St George’s Mushrooms in the very same spot! Subsequent annual pilgrimages to check have all failed too.

Morels
Those first Morels c. 8 years ago – dry but still wonderful.

The fungi forums and dedicated morel discussion groups (yes, really) have been buzzing for a few weeks, the mild weather bringing their arrival forward by a month or so. In them, people show their finds or tell stories of failures, others plead for help. Each set of photos I saw raised my desire to find them again.

There are two species and two main types of location to look. One likes woodchips. I’ve heard stories of people filling their car boots with these Morels from Tesco car parks, motorway service stations and business parks. Every patch of wood chip I have seen for weeks has been scoured (or scanned as I drive past). But, not a single morel to be seen.

The other species preference is for sandy soils, often over chalk. Usually its scrubby Ash woodland with disturbed soil from rabbits or badgers. Plants include Celandine, Dog’s Mercury, Wild Garlic and Bluebells. They also like golf courses and orchards. I live near chalk, so evening dog walks for a couple of weeks have been scouring likely spots, again without success.

All the failures, rather than making me give up, made me even more determined; this pursuit was turning into an obsession. If the Mrs had a pound for every time I said “woodchip” in recent weeks, she would have been rich!

A weekend away to the Cotswolds got me thinking. Limestone produces alkaline soils, like Chalk does… The first evening’s stroll looked promising, lots of Ash scrub and Wild Garlic.

On the next day’s wander, there was plenty of good looking spots, Bluebells and Wild Garlic both just starting to flower, but no morels. Our walk nearly done, we emerged onto a grassy bank with a few Primroses, “semi-garden” , fringed by a hazel hedge with an Ash tree and an Elm. The grass had recently been mown carefully avoiding the clumps of Primroses. As we stopped near a stile to check the map, I spotted a bit of white on the grass. Close inspection showed it to be a tapering, hollow stem. Could it be….? I wandered around and soon found the mown bases.

A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.
A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.

More searching and a few broken pieces of several Morels, the honeycomb-like structure of the pieces of “cap” were unmistakable. Further searching found lots more but all had by the darned mower! Curses! so very close, probably only cut a few hours before – drat!

I remembered reading if you find one, mark the spot with a stick and search up and down wind based on the prevailing direction. A bit more scouting and an intact stem, getting better. Spotting a mound of leaf litter nearer the hedge, I gently cleared it to reveal a truly beautiful sight, a very fresh looking, intact Morel about the size of my fist.

Morels
That first intact Morel after so many mower demolished pieces. Dog’s Mercury and Lords and Ladies around, hedge of Hazel to left.

More searching found more bits and a few “babies”, each new find having it’s photo taken before picking (leaving a good proportion and the “young”). Thinking that was it, I peered over the stile and exclaimed “Oh my God”, there were about a dozen “lumps of honeycomb” beautifully golden in the bright sunlight.

Morels
Golden beauties basking in the sun. Plants include brambles, Wild Garlic, Cow Parsley, Dock, Ivy.

I should have been better prepared – no mushroom basket, no rucksack that always has a paper bag and mushroom knife, no hat that could be brought into emergency use, just a few of those multi-purpose little black bags us responsible dog owners carry at all times! Designed with one purpose in mind, I’ve used them for carrying home an unexpected wild food bonanza on a good many occasions. Also no decent camera, just my phone. No quick fix to that (and as I now see almost every close up is out of focus – double-drat!).

Morels
Emergency wild food carrier (Dog poo bag) stuffed with Morels

Being away and already having shopped, lunch was half of the 700 grams, simply fried on toast – delicious. The remainder are heading home, there I’ll be checking out Roger Phillips’ recipe for, my memory says, a dish with chicken, cream and the Morels.

Morels
The whole catch – c. 700 grams!

So, is the desire satisfied? Sort of, I now want to find some more!

Nettle Beer

The name doesn’t shout come and try me, sounding in the same league as a “Tom and Barbara” concoction such as Runner Bean or Parsnip wine, but, trust me, it’s darn good. I’d describe it as a bit like Ginger Beer. I’ve given it to hundreds of people over the years on my Spring Greens foraging courses and it always amazes people how good it is leading to requests of “where do I get the recipe”. If that praise has tickled (as oppose to stung) your fancy (whatever your fancy is), then here is the recipe. I’ve just got some underway and am looking forward to it being ready. I am no homebrew expert – it’s really easy to make, doesn’t require any special equipment, and (most important) is ready to drink in about a week, so give it a go – you will be pleasantly surprised. So get your gloves on, and go and pick yourself some nettles while they are nice and young.

Stinging Nettles
Stinging Nettles

It is taken from Roger Phillips’ excellent book “Wild Food” (every forager should have a copy).

Ingredients

Scale the below proportionately based on how many bottles you have!

Nettle Beer Ingredients
Nettle Beer Ingredients
  • 100 nettle stalks with leaves
  • 12 litres (2 1/2 gallons) water
  • 1 1/2 kg (3 lb) granulated sugar
  • 50 g (2 oz) cream of tartar
  • 15 g (1/2 oz) yeast (I use dried baking yeast)

Method

  1. Boil the nettles in the water for 15 minutes.
  2. Strain, then add the sugar and cream of tartar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well
  4. Cover and leave for a day
  5. Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment and bottle.

Do use strong bottles as it can get rather excited; you don’t want exploding glass bottles! I use swing top homebrew bottles, but empty, plastic, fizzy drink bottles will do the job too.

Seaweed

Seaweed was on the television last night as part of “Back to the Land with Kate Humble“. This series champions the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs. In last night’s episode she met a seaweed collector who left an office job in Swindon for a life working on the beach and is now running a successful business selling Welsh seaweed products to a global market.

The company is called The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company and Jonathan gathers a range of seaweeds on the Pembrokeshire coast continuing a tradition of hundreds of years. There is reproduction of a seaweed drying hut nearby, there were many in this area once . The company uses seaweed in:

* takeaway food sold at his beach café (street food outlet) and many outdoor festivals (e.g. Laver relish on burgers / gingercake with Laver etc.)

Amazing Gingerbread - dried laver flakes being a special ingredient.
Amazing Gingercake – dried laver flakes being a special ingredient.

* in products – dried flakes, seaweed salts, butter, “kelchup” (yes Kelp Ketchup!) and more – sold globally including to the Japanese (“coals to Newcastle” eat you heart out!)

480x640px_beach_cafe

I visited the café on holiday a few years ago and the Gingerbread was stunning. I did email Jonathan for the recipe, he replied:

That is a top secret recipe, but to help guide you we use extra ginger (i.e. ginger powder and fresh ginger), Welsh Stout and Welshman’s Caviar (his dried Laver product name – apparently a phrase coined by the Welsh actor Richard Burton).

You can watch the episode (if you are in the UK) here – forward to 21:12 (to 28:26).

My only criticism is I disagree with pulling seaweed directly off the rocks, I recommend cutting it.

Scarlett Elf Cups

Scarlett Elf Cups - an edible winter fungus
Scarlett Elf Cups – an edible winter fungus

There are lots of these beautiful Scarlet Elf Cups fungi about at the moment in damp deciduous woods. The contrast of their deep red colour and the dusting of snow last week made me reach for my camera.

Fungi are listed in the books as edible, poisonous or inedible. The latter usually means they are either tough, like trying to eat your shoe, or have no flavour. Some books put these into the inedible camp, but I, and many others, think they are rather good (not too far from a raw Field Mushroom). Some mushrooms, in the same way as Kidney beans, need to be cooked before you can eat them. However, I am unaware of any problems from eating these raw. As with any wild food take a nibble first to make sure you don’t have any adverse reaction. Frying quickly retains the colour – so throw into a stir fry at the last minute. You could serve with white fish to show off their colour or sprinkle on top of nettle soup. They can be added to stews though the colour goes. Raw, the shape lends itself to being stuffed – cooked egg with any of other spring wild foods such as Three Cornered Leek, Wild Garlic flowers, Pennywort, Hairy Bittercress or other herbs. You could also poach them in a reduction made from onion or chicken stock.

New Forest Fungi – “no-picking” code – Part 2

For a 2017 update see here.

Part 1, written in early September can be found here. This post brings things up to date and gives our interpretation of the situation.

Some media coverage:

1. Radio 4’s PM programme (Saturday 24th September) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vjxj4 . Go forward 27 minutes.

2. Radio 4’s “You and Yours” (Friday 23rd September) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vjxdc. The relevant part starts at 23 minutes 33 seconds in. It is about the New Forest fungi situation and includes:

  • Sandy Shaw – A New Forest Keeper
  • Jonathan Spencer = Head of Planning & Environment, Forest Enterprise (national, not just New Forest)
  • John Wright – Forager

Below is a transcript of part of the programme:

Shari Vahl: Is this a ban?

Jonathan Spencer: We are not permitting the picking of fungi at any level, so it’s technically a ban but we are only really trying to reign in the over-exploitation of what we see as a common resource.

Shari Vahl: “Technically a ban” – it’s either a ban or its not?

Jonathan Spencer: We have discovered that we have not been able to introduce mechanisms by which restraint can be enforced in any way. By not permitting the collection of fungi at any level, we are then in a position to choose who to pursue under the Theft Act and The Wildlife and Countryside Act and there is no doubt in my mind that we are obliged to do that as part of our responsibilities to look after this wonderful, ancient, biologically rich forest.

3. The Times (Saturday 24th September)
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/4bb13e82-81c9-11e6-8d70-b369ed513749

A far more truthful view of the situation than the smoke and mirrors peddled by other newspapers. Sadly you need a subscription to read it all (though you can sign up for a free limited access version).

A key phrase “A commission spokesman later admitted to The Times that it was not against the law to pick for personal consumption.”

 

My understanding

You have 3 categories of fungi picker:

1. Organised educational forays – run with permission from the Forestry Commission – like mine – https://www.hedgerow-harvest.com/. Strict guidelines apply e.g. 1.5 kg total for the foray (NOT per person).

2. Commercial pickers – has been and is illegal under The Theft Act 1968 (without landowner consent).

3. Foragers picking for personal consumption – a common law right.

The Forestry Commission  “ban” is an “appeal” (their word on posters, leaflets, web page) not to pick. They are trying to stop / scare the commercial pickers but the “easiest / most cost effective” way of doing this is an outright ban. THIS BAN HAS NO STANDING IN LAW FOR PERSONAL CONSUMPTION.

Are there commercial pickers? Yes.

Are there many? No.

How do you know? I have access to the data of 150 “incidents” of fungi related activity in The New Forest for the period 08/10/15 – 06/11/15. When you take out the duplicates, the ones not in The New Forest (yes!), parked cars (but no evidence of fungi picking) and 2 groups of youths picking “Magic Mushrooms”, that leaves:

127 “incidents”, of which per person they had the below weights of mushrooms:

  • Weight not specified (e.g. “1 XXX reported to NF Keeper by MOP. Not spoken to”, “Their bag was checked and they were spoken to about the code..”) – 53 (42%)
  • No mushrooms 19 (15%)
  • <= 1.5 kg (the advisory limit under the old New Forest Fungi Pickers Code) 43 (34%)
  • >1.5 kg 12 (9%)

So 12 incidents with over the then advisory limit of 1.5 kilos.

If you look at these 12 incidents:

  • 1.5 – 2 kg – 3 incidents
  • 2 – 2.5 kg – 2 incidents
  • 4 – 6 kg – 2 incidents
  • > 1.5 kg – exact amount not specified – 3 incidents
  • “A basket” – 1 incident

So, allowing for picker error (say 2.5 kilos) in only a handful of incidents did the amount of fungi per person exceed the 1.5 kg limit for personal consumption.

 

Extract from a letter from The Forestry Commission re The New Forest Fungi “ban”:
(my emphasis)

I’d like to reassure you that we are not seeking to prosecute individuals that are picking for themselves – it is not illegal. … Our main aim is to tackle commercial collection of fungi, which has always been prohibited – it is an offence under the Theft Act 1968 to do so without the permission of the landowner. .. also, in the case of persistent offenders, tools such as the Stop Notice may be issued.

Is that the message their signs, leaflets, press release, web site (2018 link, 2016 link not present) etc. say ?

New Forest "No Picking sign
New Forest “No Picking sign

Clearly not. Their “campaign” has been completely misleading. It eventually transpired there are no new laws or bylaws. It has cost me and many others, a lot of time and money (reduced bookings etc.) and the local economy has lost out too. I cancelled hall bookings, B&Bs, didn’t eat in local pubs, similarly I have had less guests doing the same. If only the Forestry Commission had met foragers after last season (rather than at the opening of this), to discuss this like adults:

This is what we perceive to be an issue and this is the evidence we have. Working together as conservationists and foragers (a big overlap as most foragers are actually conservationists caring passionately about the natural world) how can we all work together to address the perceived issue?

What we have we actually had is “smoke and mirrors”, opinions not evidence. The public have been stirred up by the media’s pretty much one-sided, repetition of the same old guff, with the hint of racism thrown in. There have been cases of verbal abuse of people legally photographing fungi and legally picking fungi. As far as Joe Public are concerned there is a ban as they read it in the paper whatever the actual situation. All completely unnecessary. I saw a quote from a Washington University study the other day, my what a different world to what we have here (most unlike me to praise anything American!):

“Mushrooms are a wonderful way to engage the public with its natural resources and the environment. It could be an opportunity for the National Park Service to encourage a different demographic of visitors to value, understand and engage with the natural world.”

#NewForestPickingBan