Foraging Friday: Comfrey

Comfrey is the name of one of the very loveable main characters in William Horwood‘s “Duncton Chronicles” series of fantasy novels about moles. From an early age, these books in many ways shaped my love for the English countryside and the things that grow in it as well as the powers that lie under it.

Symphytum x uplandicum

Image via Wikipedia

Comfrey is a very special plant. It would seem that there is nothing which tradition has not held at some point that it cannot heal. Both the roots and the leaves have been used for centuries for their reputed medicinal properties.

However, if you are not an apothercary, this humble plant at least deserves a place in your next sandwich. The leaves have a distinctive flavour and make a versatile vegetable, raw or cooked. The flowers are sweet and delicious, too. For me, this plant tastes of riverbanks in the summer (which is where it is generally found) and I would often wander off to find some when out picnicking because it works so well just by itself, between two slices of bread. Yes, the uncooked leaves are hairy but this makes for an interestng texture and shouldn’t put the forager off.

Delicious fritters can be made by dipping the fresh leaves (stalks and all) in a light batter and quickly frying on both sides. I think it makes a great substitute for “seaweed” in some recipes that require seaweed as it has seaweedy slipperiness about it when cooked.

It is worth noting that Comfrey has been one of the plants at the centre of a long running debate among herbalists about the potential harmful effects of pyrrolizidine alkaloids and it should probably be avoided for caution’s sake by anyone with a liver disorder. I would encourage people to read up on it if they are concerned and to make an informed decision about eating a lot of it. To err on the side of caution, I limit to occasional use and go for younger leaves which contain lesser concentrations of. In any case, it has been eaten by humans for many more years than Big Macs have.

So, it’s hairy, it goes slimy when you cook it and it may contain some pyrrolizidine alkaloids – why touch it? Because it’s yum. At least try it once.

Comfrey – The Facts. Nice informative overview of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids debate from Garden Web.

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Foraging Friday: Chicken … of the Woods!

Pic of Chicken of the Woods

You might have to climb for these!

One of the most exciting things to find and eat at this time of year is Laetiporus sulphureus, commonly and aptly named “Chicken of the Woods”. Appearing from April and sticking around into November, this bracket fungus grows mainly on dead and dying Oaks in the UK. It is nice and easy to recognise but may be inaccessibly high for foragers without crampons. Look for the distinctive clusters of overlapping fans that are bright yellow, turning more orangey as the specimen matures. It takes a good while to establish itself before the fruit actually appears, but once you have located one of these, you will generally be able to revisit it for several years.

Eating

This is a great eater and it really does behave and taste a little like chicken when you cook it. It is important, though, if it is your first time, to try a small quantity as it has been known to cause stomach upsets in some people – and it must ALWAYS be cooked. When gathering it, make sure you pick the younger yellow fans as older parts of the fruit are more bitter and tough.

A lot like chicken

When you get them home, clean them up and chop into slices. The mushroom will keep well in the freezer for later use. I generally blanch them before cooking them, to be sure that they are well cooked and to take any bitterness off. My favourite way to eat these is to make up a fairly heavy batter to dip them in and then fry up some “chicken nuggets” using oil that has been sitting for a week or so with some lemon rind in it to give it a citrussy edge. You can use it as you would use chicken in any recipe but make sure that it is always well cooked.

Disclaimer

Please don’t use my Foraging Friday posts for identification purposes, get a couple of decent books to double check your identification. You are responsible for what you eat. Follow the guidance in my article on “Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms“. I won’t be held responsible for people falling out of trees, either (ahem).

"Chicken (of the woods) Nuggets"

Foraging Friday: My Foraging Library

While most of the UK is under several inches of snow, there’s not much opportunity for foraging but people might be thinking of their Christmas wish lists so here’s a quick guide to the books on my foraging shelf.

Food For FreeRichard Mabey

Probably the most essential and popular book on wild food in the UK. Originally published in 1972, it has certainly stood the test of time. I have a very early hardback edition, from 1973 with a few colour plates and comprehensive line drawings. The more recently available editions of this classic are illustrated with full colour pictures that are more than adequate for identifying foods, although I would still recommend supplementary books if edible fungi is what you are after.

Mabey covers absolutely everything that you might want to forage, cut, dig, wade or climb for, including: shellfish, nuts, fungi, roots, herbs and vegetables, seaweed, spices, flowers and fruits. There’s a handy appendix on poisonous plants, too. He includes insightful comments on the history of the wild foods he describes and their uses as well as plenty of anecdotal material that will enrich any foraging expedition. All the usual suspects are there, from Samphire to Ceps, but this is a great book for the more adventurous who might like to try for Monk’s Rhubarb or White Mustard.

The book is a handy rucksack pocket size. The only things missing from this are more details on cooking and preparing and maybe some photographic plates – but you can’t have everything.

Wild Food For Free – Jonathan Hilton

This is a treasure and bang up to date, published in 2007, and packed with full colour photographs that show the foods in their typical settings. A double page layout is given to each food and the sections are helpfully divided by typical location, i.e. Woodland Plants, Riverside Plants, Garden Visitors and so on. The 250 pages cover plants primarily, although there is a well illustrated Woodland Fungi section.

The layout is very easy on the eye and each entry covers what, where and when to look for the foods as well as comments on taste and use and any cautions to be taken. A handy little blue box for each entry contains a “foragers checklist” of the most essential features to look for. The prize, though, is a recipes section to get the mouth watering with visions of “Watercress Soup” and “Parasol Platters”.

The New Guide to Mushrooms – Peter Jordan

Peter Jordan is the foremost mushroom guru of the British Isles and I would consider any one of his excellent guides (there are several) to be absolutley essential. This volume got me started in mushroom foraging. It contains over 300 colour photographs to aid identification and the book is divided into edibles and poisonous sections, with a thorough introduction to fungi foraging, picking, storing and equipment in general.

About 35 edible species are covered, with at least two pages for each entry, that will provide an excellent starting point in the repertoire of a forager. There are a couple of odd items that you are unlikely to find in the UK, like the truffles and matsutake, but this book is not exclusively for the British Isles. It is also too big to lug around in the field, but perfect to keep at home for consultation.

This book is full of sound advice that comes from a lifetime of safely foraging for and eating fungi. Peter Jordan’s sound motto was “if in doubt leave it out”. The species covered in The New Guide to Mushrooms are generally among those that would be easiest to identify for a beginner and he always includes some caution about specific poisonous look alikes to avoid.

An Illustrated Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Britain and Northern Europe – Geoffrey Kibby.

With a mouthful of a title, this book suggests that it is more of the kind of scholarly guide that I would recommend every forager keeps at home to check identification. It is still not completely exhaustive but this is more of a mycological work.

The species are divided by family and genus and details are included in each description such as the microscopic properties of the spores alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are not sufficient to get a positive identification but a book like this is vital to gaining a broader understanding of fungi and identifying less well known, yet often very abundant, species – edible or not. It is not written with the forager in mind but does indicate ediblity.

Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe – Roger Phillips

I don’t own this and it is hard to come by but I did have a friend who had one and it is worth its weight in gold. If you see one second-hand, snap it up!

Links:

Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms – my handy guide for beginners, please check this advice.

Other “Foraging Friday” Posts.

Foraging Friday: The Field Blewit

I have been delighted to find some of these in the field edges and verges this season as I have not seen them for several years. However, a word of caution: these mushrooms must always be cooked, never eaten raw, and some people do have an allergic reaction to it so try a small quantity if it is your first time. Nevertheless it is a popular mushroom and relatively easy to find and identify.

Field Blewit

Field Blewit by Girl Interrupted Eating on Flickr

You need to get out early to pick the Blue Leg or Field Blewit (Lepista saeva) because it is equally popular with grubs of various kinds. You are likely to encounter it growing alongside footpaths, on the edge of woodland, fields or roadsides as well as on waste ground – basically anywhere a bit “marginal” and a bit grassy. They will tend to appear repeatedly in the same place so you can go back for more if they suit you.

They are distinctive, large mushrooms, with a lilac, streaked tinge to the stem, which itself can be fairly bulbous, and a grey to brown pale cap. The gills are fairly dense and white. I need to stress again that these details alone are not enough to get a positive identification and it is imperative that a good field guide and preferably two guides are consulted if you have not picked these before. See my article on Picking and Identifying Edible Fungi for some more general guidance of staying safe. Blue Leg can be muddled with the poisonous Livid Agaric (Entoloma sinuatum) which has a much paler cap and a reddish/brown spore print and which will cause sickness.

Don’t be put off trying for this mushroom if you are prepared to take the right precautions, though, as the taste is exceptionally good and well loved by foragers. There is a good chance you will be able to find a local person who can show you these as they are so popular. You will notice a slightly perfumed and somewhat un-mushroomy aroma when you cut the fruit bodies and a nice nutty taste when cooked. Cleaning well, chopping and frying in butter with some onions is a good way to bring out the best of the flavour.

I’m indebted to Girl Interrupted Eating for the photograph, check out her Girl Interrupted Eating blog for some great Blewit recipes and other fabulous wild food resources.

You could also try cooking them The Traditional Nottinghamshire Way.

Foraging Friday: Dandelion Roots

Dandelion roots

Dandelion Roots (via Wikipedia)

As the Autumn wears on and the berries are over, some of the most exciting foraging is to be accessed with a trowel, notably horseradish, wild parsnip and dandelion. Dandelions are easy to find, you may not even have to go further than your garden, and at this time of year, the roots are at their fattest. You will need to dig them up as they can plunge downwards some 30cm below the surface.

Dandelion Coffee

The most popular use for dandelion roots is to make dandelion coffee. It has a good, nutty taste, very much like coffee but without the caffeine, so makes a good coffee substitute. To make dandelion coffee, clean the roots thoroughly and chop them into short lengths of about a centimetre. Place them on a baking tray and dry in the oven for about 30 minutes on a low heat of about 50 centigrade; then roast them for a further 20-30 minutes or so at about 150 centigrade. Keep checking during the roasting process and take them out when they are crisp and browned through without burning. The roasted root pieces can then be ground in a coffee grinder and used as normal coffee grounds.

Dandelion Roots

A bad picture of a delicate side dish of dandelion roots

Dandelion as a Root Vegetable

Dandelion roots can also be treated like a root vegetable, something like a “very poor man’s parsnip”. The flavour is quite bitter but also has something of the artichoke about it. Dandelion roots are not to everyone’s taste, due to the bitterness but the best of them can be brought out by careful preparation.

Clean and scrub the roots but do not peel them. They will cook quite quickly if roasted under the grill for about 5 minutes with a little olive oil. They can also be gently boiled for about 5 minutes until tender. Serve with melted butter and pepper as a delicate side dish. After they have been coocked the roots are very easy to peel and would make a good addition to a root vegetable mash with sweet potatoes or  turnip.

Foraging Friday: The Hedgehog Fungus

Spiky underside of Hydnum Repandum

Hedgehog Fungus - Hydnum repandum

The texture of the hedgehog fungus (Hydnum repandum) is a lot like chicken and it keeps its “meatiness” very well when cooked. It is a wonderful mushroom and it is one of the highlights of the Autumn for me to go and pick these from my secret location.

The fruit bodies grow as big as your hand and could just about pass for a chicken breast in your cooking pot.

The hedgehog fungus is very distinctive because the spores are secreted by “spikes” rather than gills – hence the name. It belongs to an odd squad of toothed fungi called Hydnaceae that also includes a few other edible species. The caps can be pure white to slightly pink or gently orange, depending on where it is growing. They tend to take on the flavour of the leaf litter in which they grow, too, so I am accustomed to finding them slightly bitter and piney – but delicious.

As big as your hand

As far as guidance on where to find them goes, I can’t offer a secret formula. I have tended to find them in established pine forest and in damper conditions. Try to see where water is seeping down a slope. If you find them in one place, look directly up and down hill for more because the spores will be water borne. Where they do grow they should be quite prolific and will reliably return year after year, the caps getting anually bigger as the fungus gets established. I have picked them in the same place for ten years now.

A bit like chicken, really.

Be sure not to uproot the fungus when picking it, but cut away the the caps leaving the stems in the ground to improve the chances of the mushroom continuing to flourish. Please also read my general advice about Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms and remember to be 100% certain of your identification with all mushrooms – use a good photographic field guide.

These mushrooms dry very well and are reputed to store well; but they always get eaten pretty quickly in my house.

Foraging Friday: Shaggy Ink Caps

Shaggy Ink Caps (Coprinus comatus) are a wonderfully “mushroomy” mushroom in both taste and appearance but you need to pick and cook them quickly before they collapse into an inky mush of spores.

Shaggy Ink Cap or Lawyer's Wig

Coprinus comatus - Yummus yummious

The distinctive appearance of this mushroom has earned it the common names “Lawyer’s Wig” and “Shaggy Mane”, both of which are apt descriptions. What can be offputting about them is that as they mature, the margins begin to break down and dissolve into a black liquid that contains the spores – that’s where the “ink” bit comes from. In fact, the whole mushroom disappears into a self digesting black mush within a few hours – nice.

Thankfully, shaggy ink caps are quite common and  have turned many a futile foraging expedition into rich pickings for me. Keep an eye open for these beauties, particularly on roadsides and on waste ground as well as under pines. They have been around for several weeks already and will continue to appear late into autumn.

When picking them go for the younger specimens as always although if you intend to cook and eat them within a couple of hours, a little bit of raggedness around the edges won’t hurt; i.e. if the caps have started “inking”, you will still be able to eat them.

frying mushrooms

In the pan, where they belong!

These mushrooms have a lovely flavour and I enjoy them enormously, fried with onions or liquidised in a soup.

Be aware that although they are a pretty distinctive species there are a number of “inking” mushrooms some of whom it is not advisable to eat at all.  In particular, the much darker Coprinus picaceus can resemble young ink caps. Use a couple of field guides to confirm your identification, preferably consult a friend who nows what to look for, don’t eat anything you are not 100% sure of, cut the mushrooms at the stem rather than pulling them up … blah, blah … please read my more detailed article on Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms for some general advice on foraging.