Milk Monday: Dairy in the Days Before Pasteurisation and Refrigeration

In Biblical times, what was a land “flowing with milk and honey” given that that land was very hot and they had no fridges to store the milk? It sounds pretty smelly to me.

For thousands of years before the invention of pasteurisation and refrigeration, nomadic peoples had found ways of storing dairy in a hot climate and while moving from place to place. Among cultures such as the Masai and the sheperds of the Caucasus, these techniques are still the only way to keep milk. For such people, the word “milk” never means the homogenised cold white stuff we love to quaff by the glass and pour on our cornflakes. Rather, it is some sort of sour, fermented derivative that is nutritionally enhanced and partially digested by the bacteria it contains.

Lacto-fermentation and Kefir

Culture complexes of yeasts and bacteria are used the world over to create kefir, yoghurts, and cottage cheeses – each region historically developed their own unique cultures. When added to the milk, these cultures go to work, in some ways speeding up the decaying process of milk but keeping it safe to drink. The growth of the “good” microorganisms is vigorous enough to repress the development of other harmful ones and often renders the environment too acidic and hostile for the “bad” bacteria. Many products now available in western supermarkets and marketed as health drinks with “friendly bacteria” or “probiotics” are simply derived from these traditional cultures and can easily be made at home.

Photograph - 90 grams of kefir grains in a dis...
Kefir Grains (via Wikipedia)

Kefir is a “grain” treasured by shepherds in the caucasus region and enjoying a resurgence among health food enthusiasts. The culture itself can be divided and passed on from one person to another, often taking on unique regional characteristics. Added to milk, kefir grains cause fermentation, acting on the sugars to produce acidic by products and alcohol. Kefir drinks can be made and kept at room temperature, varying in thickness and alcoholic content according to the specific culture and how it is treated. It is often mixed with salt or sugar to make a refreshing drink.

Lacto-fermentation is also the process that results in yoghurt which can also be made on the windowsill in a warm climate but using a different starter culture that usually includes Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Lacto-fermentation has been described as “the poor man’s refrigerator.”

Raw and Curdled Milk

The Maasai people of Africa are one of the oldest pastoral cutures on the planet and their entire life revolves around their cattle who provide milk and blood and, only very occasiaonally, meat. In spite of consuming more fat than would be healthy for a westerner, cardiovascular disorders are virtually unheard of.

For the Maasai, the primary way of storing milk is in the cow. A Maasai is never far from the source so can just squeeze out some raw milk and drink it on the spot, sometimes mixed with blood. To preserve it, milk is kept in hollowed out gourds that are blackened inside with smoke that may go some way to keeping the contents. The milk is then allowed to curdle and is still different to the foul smelling lumpy stuff we get if we leave the milk bottle out, by virtue of it having a rich complex of microorganisms in it to begin with. I have spoken to people who have had the dubious pleasure of drinking this stuff and by all accounts it is not to everyone’s taste, although highly nutritious and prized by the people themselves.

Slate and Teracotta Fridges

In the pantries of old victorian houses it is still possible to find a huge slab of slate on which dairy would have been stored. In temperate climates, the cooling properties of slate were sufficient to keep cheeses and milk at a low temperature for every bit as long as in our modern refrigerators. The victorians also made use of terracotta pots that had been soaked in water. As the water evaporated off from the porous material it would carry heat away, keeping the contents cool.

A “pot-in-a-pot” fridge is simple to construct using unglazed terracotta pots and sand, and this technique has been used in arabic countries for hundreds of years to preserve vegetables and dairy products. The Arabs call this type of refrigerator a “Zeer” pot.

Given that the refrigerator is only an invention of the last sixty years in human history and that it consumes up to 20% of our household’s energy, we could do well to learn how to live without it for the sake of the planet and discover a range of new tastes and techniques in the process.

Should I live Without a Fridge?

The Pot-In-A-Pot Fridge: Zeer from goselfsufficient.co.uk

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.

Foraging Friday: The Amethyst Deceiver

These beautiful little mushrooms must be called “deceivers” because their bright purpleness probably screams “poisonous” or at least ” hallucinogenic” but, of course, they are neither. In fact, they are tasty and delightful, raw or cooked.

Amethyst deceiver Mushrooms ? These appear to ...
Image via Wikipedia

Start looking for these now in the leaf mould at the base of beech trees and chestnuts, but also keep an eye open for them in coniferous woodland. The very distinctive purple colour is instantly recognisable but not as easy to spot among fallen leaves. Where they do grow they are likely to be fairly abundant (growing in troops) and recurrent throughout the season; but I have rarely had luck with them in the same place for more than a year.

The Amethyst Deceiver is a small mushroom, the largest specimens being up to 2 inches accross. As they get older, they will become paler and it is best, as with all mushrooms, to try and go for younger and firmer examples for cooking. These mushrooms also need to be well cleaned before they are cooked as a lot of matter can get caught in their broad gills.

Mushrooms
Deceivers

A very similar close cousin of the Amethyst Deceiver is also tasty and useful and called simply “The Deceiver”. It has all the characteristics of its lilac relative but is a red-brown colour. I recommend becoming familiar with the Amethyst Deceiver before adding the Deceiver to your foraging repertoire because the latter has more deceptive look-alikes.

Before heading out to pick mushrooms please remember the GOLDEN RULE of only eating what you are 100% sure of identifying correctly. You will need at least one very good illustrated mushroom guide to do this and preferably someone who knows what they are doing to supervise. Please read my last Foraging Friday post on Saffron Milk Caps for more advice or consult my article on Picking and Identifying Edible Mushrooms for some good guidelines. I won’t be held liable for any reader who poisons themselves.

Having said that, please enjoy wild mushrooms responsibly and I would encourage anyone to step out into the woods this weekend and discover what nature has to offer.

Foraging Friday: Saffron Milk Caps

Wet and horrible today but I am hoping this weather will bring out the mushrooms and I’ll be able to visit a favourite spot for collecting saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus).

Saffron Milk Cap
Perfect Specimen

I love showing people these mushrooms and then declaring that they are not only edible but delicious. The way that they bleed bright orange is quite offputting for some and most people would instinctively think that this indicates that they are poisonous.

When foraging for mushrooms I would insist on this general advice:

  1. Preferably go out with someone who knows what they are looking for who can show you the mushrooms in the field and talk you through or show you the inedible or poisonous look-alikes.
  2. Invest in at least two books. Get one photographic field guide to carry with you and keep at home a large and thorough mycology book that will go into much greater detail. It is not likely that a field guide will show you everything you can find and you will need another book to double check identification. A photographic guide is very useful but you cannot depend only on outward appearances.
  3. If in doubt about a specimen, take a few home and analyse them. Get a spore print at least and look it over very carefully before comitting to an identification, or show it to a friend who is more experienced.

Thankfully saffron milk caps are very distinctive and you can be pretty sure of them. The features to check for are the carroty orange colour and the concentric ring-like effect on the top of the cap. The cap margins are slightly rolled in. When fresh and cut they will bleed an orange milk and when bruised, the flesh and gills will turn blue. The gills are decurrent, which means they extend down the stem. Many people can also detect a slightly fruity, apricot smell to these mushrooms.

Picture of Saffron Milk Caps and Various Boletus.
Saffron Milk Caps and Various Boletus Ready for Cooking

Look for them in pine woods where they will return frequently and you will be able to find them consistently from September onwards until late November. When picking mushrooms, use a knife to pare them off at the bottom of the stem, leaving the root in the ground as pulling them up will destroy the mushroom and spoil its chances of fruiting again. Remember most of a mushroom consists of tiny threads under the ground and what you are picking to eat is just the fruiting body.

With saffron milk caps you need to be out early before the critters get to them because they are loved by grubs, too. It is worth cutting the body in half when picking so you can see if there is any infestation that will show up as dark blue speckles and tunnels in the flesh. As the fruit bodies mature they will go pale and can get quite large but older specimens are certain to be full of grubs and virtually tasteless. You need young and firm specimens.

Wild Mushroom Risotto
Wild Mushroom Risotto

Not all milk caps are edible and be sure that you are not picking brown roll rims (Paxillus involutus) which look similar and also bleed although tending to be brown, or woolly milk caps (Lactarius torminosus) that are pink or red and have a woolly margin. Use identification guides and be sure.

These mushrooms keep their texture well when cooked and I just like to fry them with a bit of garlic infused olive oil, add them to a risotto or a mushroom salad.

Disclaimer: the author will not be held liable for any ill effects resulting from misidentification of mushrooms based on this post. Please take responsibility to get a positive and accurate identification before eating any wild picked mushrooms.