Yes, it’s still winter but there are signs of things to come and a good few things for the forager to look out for at the moment, some for now, some for the future.
I’ve seen quite a few of these fungi this winter. Found on dead Elm, Gorse, Beech and other trees they are happy to freeze, defrost and carry on growing. Built in “anti-freeze” is the cause of this and researchers are studying them in an attempt to make a safe-anti freeze that would be edible to us humans and our pets alike! it is the wild form of the cultivated Enoki or Enokitake sold widely, though looks very different as that is grown in cold, dark, carbon dioxide-rich growing rooms. Do check out the identification in several books / web sites. We like First Nature. They could be confused with Funeral Bell, which as it’s name suggests would not be a good thing. A spore print is helpful, with Velvet Shank having white spores and Funeral Bell’s being brown. Velvet Shank are a good edible mushrooms and should always be cooked before consuming. The stems are quite tough so only the caps are eaten, and the cap’s skin should be removed prior to cooking.
Scarlet Elf Cups
Lovely to see these beautiful fungi appearing over the last few weeks. Previous blog post on them here.
Yes, Gooseberries. Clearly it will be months until they fruit but… the bushes are in leaf now (late January / early February) and as not much is in leaf in the hedgerows at the moment, it makes spotting the bushes a LOT easier than later in the year.
Guests on my Spring Course get expert at spotting this. It looks like grass until you get your eye in but actually the leaves are tubes (like the closely-related Chives). The garlicky smell is a good check that you’ve got the right thing. As expected it has a lovely onion flavour. The leaves can be chopped and added to a salad, used as a garnish or put in a baked potato with mayonnaise. Crow Garlic does have a onion-like bulb but it is rather small and as always, it is illegal to uproot any plant without the landowners consent (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). The season for the leaves is Winter to late Spring. Later in the year, the entire seed head can be gathered and pickled while individual bulbils can be added to salads and bread.
I need not say any more about nettles other than in the right place they are already big enough for picking. Lots of ideas including and going well beyond the forager’s classic soup in this blog post.
In Dorset, I’ve seen this in places since the middle of January, but now in early February it’s big enough to use. Dedicated blog post with id, recipes etc here.
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.
While foraging to most people is about food, you can also forage for non-edible items from the hedgerow, wood and shore. My runner bean poles and pea sticks are all hazels out of the hedgerow, bits of drift wood make nice ornaments (or light-fittings – hello sister!) and, as it is the Christmas period, sources of decoration for the house and table can easily be found in the garden or not too far from home. Like wild food, you can buy them already made, but the fun (for adults and kids) is in the gathering and making. Spending money on Pine cones seems as mad to a forager as buying nettles!
What to gather
The usual foraging “good manners” apply – pick a bit here and a bit there, only take some of what is common etc.
Old Man’s Beard
Bare or lichen-covered twigs
Pine or evergreen foliage (Conifers, Laurel*, Holm Oak, Yew* etc).
Garden herbs – Sage, Rosemary etc.
Pine / Larch / Fir cones
Ornamental crab apples – reds, pinks and yellows
Chestnuts – in husks or taken out (not Horse Chestnuts)
*NB – Leaves and berries of these are poisonous (some fatal) if consumed! Do not bring into the house if you have children or pets. Rose hips contain seeds with hairs on that are an irritant (childhood “itching powder”).
Other things you might need
Metallic spray paints or glitter – gold, silver, red or white
Flax cord, ribbon, hessian, raffia or twine for decoration
What to do / make
Tree decorations – spray them or tie ribbons, add a thread or wire loop to hang on the tree
General decorations – make a longer “string” to hang on pictures, the bookshelf, banister etc
Table decorations – fill small jars, glasses or pretty ice-cream dishes with nuts, berries or arrangements
Present decorations – tie around the necks of jars and bottles of home-made jam and sloe gin
Decorate a branch – add lights and tree decorations