Archive for October, 2011

Wild Food

One of the things that drew me into this research was the River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and especially, the chapter in this cookbook entitled “Hedgerow,” which addresses all sorts of foods one can find in the wilder places of the landscape: animal, plant, and fungi.  In Britain, the hedgerow really is the beginning, and sometimes the end, of what we might call “wild” landscapes, since there is relatively little untouched land, virgin forest, or un-managed grassland, making the hedgerow a sanctuary for birds, insects, plants, and mammals, and a resource of wild food and wood for people.  Since I’ve been here in Britain, I’ve been told by several people about the upsurge in the culinary popularity and interest in wild food, and I’ve wondered, what is the draw?  While working at a wwoof farm down in Devon, I helped my host tear out burdock plants, the burrs of which were matting the fleeces of her alpaca herd, and she described how restaurants were apparently paying top dollar for the burdock root.  While I have yet to dissect the popular adoption of wild food in urban foodie-ism (though I have some ideas about that), I’ve been diving into the appreciation of wild food out here in the countryside.

I went on my first mushroom foray here in Bishops Castle after seeing a poster advertising it in the windows of the local baker and the grocery.  I drove up to the car park for the Bury Ditches, a local hill fort, and met up with a group of about 15 or so people, children, parents, middle-aged folks, a few of whom I recognized.  We assembled, and our leader John Hughs, a local guy from Shropshire Wildlife Trust.  We began our walk going down through a field, heading towards some woods.  John had instructed us to call out if we found a mushroom, but not to pick it.  Soon enough, we all crowded around and watched as John deftly dug out the entirety of the base of the mushroom and explained the important points of observing all parts of the mushroom for proper identification.  Our first mushroom was the common field mushroom.  Our hunt brought us through a piece of property called Walcott Wood, part of what was once an old deer park, and home to an astounding collection of old oak trees dating from Elizabethan times.  John, and some of the other more experienced mushroom hunters, found an astonishing variety of fungi I had no previous knowledge of and which I never would have noticed: from waxcaps to parasols to the honey mushroom.

My second mushroom foray took place at none other than River Cottage Headquarters itself.  Together with my intrepid friend Challey visiting me from the States, we had travelled down to Dorset to make the pilgrimage to River Cottage and take a day long Mushroom course.  We arrived at 9:30 in the morning in the car park overlooking the River Cottage Headquarters farm and were greeted by boisterous Steve, the events manager, and John Wright, our mushroom expert, and a sweet strong apple brandy drink to fortify us for the day’s forage.  We boarded the bus with about 20 other participants, mostly middle-aged folks who looked like they were used to good hike.  From the conversation boarding the bus, it seemed some were serious mushroom hunters too, although some were complete novices.  We got off the bus a few miles away and ventured down a lane into a mixed woodland owned by the forestry commission.  Though conditions for mushrooms were not ideal, due to the dry fall weather, John estimated we would find at least 35 varieties of fungi.  I was sceptical, but indeed, by the end of several hours of foraging and several times getting a bit lost in the woodland, we had assembled examples of 44 different types of fungus.  I have to admit, I am not so great at spotting the fungi, and as others called excitedly to alert us to a new find, I grew somewhat frustrated that I was coming up empty.  But then, as we fanned out through the wood, and I ducked under tree branches and through brush, there it was: a beautiful red-capped toadstool, serenely perched on a rotting log, dappled with sunlight falling through the forest canopy.  Fly Agaric, the famous hallucinogenic toadstool right out of fairy tale illustrations.  I felt like I had found a rare jewel.

Back home in Shropshire, Rob Rowe, one of my fellow mushroomers from the Walcott Wood foray called me up yesterday and said conditions were perfect:  it has rained several times in the past few weeks.  The weather looked clear.  A crisp bite to the damp air.  I joined him in Bishops Castle, and he led me out on a walk he has taken frequently, following public footpaths through pastures and down into a little valley south of the town.  We found loads of field mushrooms, and I spotted at least one waxcap, passing on the way a majestic 300 year old oak tree perched on a hillside which Rob had recorded as part of a survey of Ancient Trees for the Woodland Trust.  On one particular hillside far back in the valley, which seemed to be on pasture that was older, unimproved grassland, we stumbled on ring after ring of mushrooms, filling the bag and walking until dusk started to set, and we ventured back to town.  Walking down in the fading light felt almost surreal, watching the lights of the houses burn softly against the delicate lush textures of darkening foliage, and the shadows fall over the outlines of the hedges and the hills, layers of the landscape before me in shades of dove brown, charcoal, and umber, tinted with the smokey rose purple of the last light in the sky.  This was the feeling I can only partially bring up in my mind when I conjur up nostalgic notions of the English Countryside, which can only really be felt in the moment.  The crisp damp smell of the air and wafts of woodsmoke, the mysterious sounds of night birds hooting and calling over the hedges.  It is the feeling of being outside, drifting into the dark, your senses shifting into new muted palettes of sound and color.

Driving home through the evening mist, I spied a large white sphere beneath a hedge by the side of the road.  Excited, I turned the car around, got out, fumbled for my flashlight, thinking maybe I had found one:  a giant puffball!  I walked down to the hedge and shone my flashlight on the glowing orb, only to find a white soccer ball.  Alas, it would have been too good to be true.  And the wrong place to find a giant puffball anyway.

Here at home, I have been studying my new mushroom handbook and succumbing to both the fascination of the fungi world and a slight twinge of fear of the poisonous varieties with names such as “Death Cap” and “Destroying Angel.”  The serious mushroomer, however, seems to know them by the latin names: Amanita Phalloides, Amanita virosa.  I look from the page on “Death Cap” to my plate full of recently gathered field mushrooms with trepidation – did I pick the right ones?  They seem in every way NOT to be any of the poisonous varieties, and conform to the entry for “Field Mushroom,” or Agaricus Campestris.  And my experienced friend Rob seemed to have been sure they were fine and had eaten mushrooms from those fields before.

Now I think I have it.  A small and partial understanding of the wild food phenomenon in a country with a landscape so manicured and managed: Thrill seeking. The WILD half of wild food.  A small feeling of danger, of entering in some way into the life of the uncultivated realms of nature that elude the constant human effort to control the environment.  It is the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, planted only by the hand of God, tempting, myseterious, alluring, full of insight into another world beyond our daily cultivated toil. 

Many more wild foods and medicines remain to be discovered.  “Hedgerow Medicine” sits on my bookshelf waiting to be perused, and I intend a foray soon for sloes in order to make some Sloe Gin.  And then there is honey, but that is a post for another day…

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The Hatch


This past week, I was visited by a friend from Stateside, and for my good fortune, she also works in agriculture, making her visit an opportunity to talk over many of the things I’ve been thinking through here.  After some leisurely days showing her around my new home, we got in the car and headed south , through some of my favorite spots.  First, however, we rolled into a place called The Hatch, for a couple of days of wwoofing. We arrived just as dusk was falling, driving along the River Teme valley in far southeastern Shropshire, crossing over into Worcestershire, and passing by fields full of frames for growing hops.  Turning off the main road at the sign for the Nags Head Pub (converted at some point in the past to a now-defunct Indian restaurant), we climbed up a little hill and wended through a tree-covered drive until coming up to a rather splendid assortment of buildings, including a brick house with a cupola, and a timber frame building, also with cupola.  It seemed empty.  We knocked.  No one answered.  We walked around to some of the barns encountering the headlights of an oncoming tractor chugging out of an orchard with several tons of apples in the trailor.  We waved.  He waved, but chugged on without stopping.  Puzzled, we waited in the car, until an older gentleman stepped out of the timber frame building.  Dressed in old-fashioned corduroy trousers and cotton-linen shirt, he looked vaguely like what you might expect an agricultural laborer of yore to look like, but when he introduced himself to us as Robin, his accent was obviously very educated.  We asked if he was Ben, who ran the place, and he said no, but he was in charge of Ben.  He led us into the large brick house and went to search for Ben, while we marvelled at the interesting mix of grand antique furniture, quirky coloful modern art, and children’s toys jumbled together inside the house.  The large foyer contained a baby grand piano and some old but comfortable chairs and sofas, a baby carraige, some amplifiers, several pairs of wellies, and a table full of jams and preserves neatly lined-up, labelled, and priced.  Down came Ben, a man in his late thirties, who greeted us with a mixture of cheerful confusion, surprise, and enthusiasm that had less to do with his expectation of our arrival and more with his general character.   Satisfied that we were here, he brought us into the enourmous kitchen, introduced us to the young woman from France who had been wwoofing there for over a week, asked her to make us tea, and rushed out to pick up the two Israelis who were also due to arrive at the bus station.  Thus began our brief but extremely interesting visit to the Hatch!

Robin, who is also a family friend of my friend Bea (yurt-dweller from Old Chapel Farm), turned out to be an architect who had designed and built the deceptively ancient-looking timber frame house himself, and who had moved to the farm back in the 50s with his parents after their return from living in a former British colony in Africa.  Robin described finding the place while canvasing with his mother for votes (she ran for local public office).  It was, at that time, derelict, falling apart, without electricity, and inhabited by a lone old woman whose husband had died some time ago.  Sometime in the past, it must have been a hop farm, as one of the buildings, now incorporated into the living space of the house, was an old hop kiln.  But Robin described the farm as totally overgrown with trees and brambles, and that they had to hack their way through it like one would have to hack through a jungle in the tropics (a bit of an excessive description perhaps, but Robin has a distinct talent for drama).  The place did have an old cherry orchard, which his parents kept going while they rebuilt the house and his father commuted to Birmingham to work as a civil engineer.  Over the years, Robin took over the place, raised his family there while working as an architect, and continued to tend the orchard, replanting it with cider apples when the cherries grew too old and started to die.  His son Ben, now with his own family and three children, now live in the main house and run a recording studio out of some of the old barns and host performances in the large room of the house that was converted from the hop kiln.  His wife Nada, having grown up in the country with gardening and animals, tends an impressive vegetable and flower garden in between corralling three children under the age of five.

The next day, we followed Robin out to the orchard, where we spent the day harvesting the apples and pears.  Robin shook the trees with a long hooked pole, nudging down the individual fruits that resisted the gentle shakes.  And we followed after, picking up all the fallen apples and piling them into empty feed sacks.  Of course now, commercial orchards have mechanical tree-shakers and pnuematic devices that sweep the apples into one of the huge tractors we had encountered on first arriving at the Hatch (one of the neighboring farmers).  But walking through the orchard on foot and watching Robin gently wrestle with each individual tree impressed on me an idea of how like people trees can seem, and how short a step is towards the seemingly strange rituals I have been fascinated with in wassailing.  Beating the evil spirits out of the trees on Twelfth night is a rather physical analogy to shaking the apples out at harvest, just as singing to them with wassail must at some point have countered the chatter and work songs of laborers in the orchard.  The physicality of the work experience suggests some interesting links to the ritual and festival experience.

Robin himself blew off the idea of wassailing when I asked him if he knew of it, saying it was something that city people liked to do to get a feeling of the quaint countryside.  Robin’s views of the incursion of city values into the countryside were many and vociferously expressed, are most generally illustrated by his dislike of barn conversions and his disdain for people who move into the countryside, park their fancy cars outside their houses, commute to the city, come home, close their doors, and never participate in the life of the countryside itself – working the land, patronizing the local shops, and contributing to the upkeep of local institutions, like the church.  He told me that he used to work as an architect advising on the upkeep of the local churches himself, and was greatly frustrated not only by the church bureaucracy, but by the increasing financial burden for their upkeep on smaller and smaller congregations, incomers only showing up when there was a funeral or wedding required.  Luckily, I had brought my recorder with me, so Robin graciously agreed to let me interview him about his many thoughts on the nature of the countryside today.  It is always rather thrilling to find someone who can articulate generalized but amorphous opinions.

The next day, we went to the nearby market town of Tenbury Wells in search of the Apple festival, only to be disappointed to find it had been the previous day.  However, many store windows were decorated appropriately in celebration!  Including many posters opposing the incursion of supermarket Tesco, which according to Robin, threatens the very fabric of economic and social life of the countryside.

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Bead House of the Fleeces

Caring for Gods Acre – Dry Stonewalling at Bettws y Crwyn

I drove over to Bettys y Crwn for the first time, turned off the main road after Newcastle, and continued to follow the little road up and up the hill, till I saw a line of cars parked outside the churchyard.  The churchyard was surrounded by a plantation of two rows of trees, perhaps yew?  A group of about 8-10 people assembled around the back of the churchyard, and Andrea, the leader from from Caring for Gods Acre gathered us up and introduced Bob Marpole – local stone-walling expert who does landscaping for a business.  He introduced himself by saying that working with stone had been in his family for generations.  He talked for a little bit about the process of dry stone-walling, but instead of giving a full lecture, he and Andrea said they had found it worked better usually if we got to work in small groups and David went around to individually advise us.

We introduced ourselves, and many of the other participants were locals, several of whom attended the church, and who had specific interests in learning how to do dry-stone-walling for projects on their own properties or to be able to apply it in their own work or small businesses.  One man who was recently laid off from many years in the car sales business with Mercedes was looking to build up a small self-employment business in handywork.  One of the local ladies was a woman from Cow Hall Organic Farm.  And another father and daughter team, as well as a man who lived down the hill at Ladywell.

David Marpole took the whole group around to see three particular places where the walls were in a state of disrepair – not really noticeable to the untrained eye.  But on a closer look, you could see the walls leaned to one side a bit or bulged out, meaning they would eventually fall over if not repaired.  The men decided to take on the major job, which was going to be a lot of “hard graft” of digging out a pile of grass clippings, soil, and roots in order to repair a peice of bulging walls that tree roots had started to topple. The two ladies took another section of wall, and Andrea and I took and third section.

We started by taking off the coping stones, or the stones set in a cock-and-hen pattern on their sides to top the wall.  These we laid out together in a pile, so we knew which ones they were.  Then we started dis-assembling the main part of the wall, laying out the stones in piles organized by roughly similar shapes and sizes, with large flat stones, small stones that comprised the inner fill, and then some large stones that just sort of didin’t go anywhere.  Eventually, one of us had to go around to the other side as the wall came down.  We called David over to see where we should stop tearing down and starting rebuilding.  we had taken down a section about three feet tall and nine eight feed wide.  Once we started building up again, he advised that we work opposite each other, one on either side of the wall, working horizontlally accross the wall to build up even layers.  Working together, we needed to make sure the stones fit together from both sides of the wall, in-filling with small stones and creating an even level for the next stones to rest upon, as well as creating occasional overlapping sections with “through stones” that would hold both sides of the wall together and create greater strength and stability.

Andrea and I were a great team, and the work was incredibally satisfying, more so than I ever would have expected.  Looking down at our piles of stone, searching for one of just the right size and shape to fit into the growing puzzle of the wall was very meditative.  It also happened to be a beautiful warm sunny day.  Andrea explained to me more about the Caring for Gods Acre charity and its work with conservation in church yards and burial grounds http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk

It is so interesting how Church Yards have become areas for ecological conservation, since, as she said, they are patches of ground that have never been ploughed or improved, thus becoming areas of grassland where wildflowers, birds, insects, animals, and lichens can thrive.  Lichens are particularly interesting, as they live on stones.  And since headstones in burial grounds are often brought from a variety of different quarries, they bring with them their various unique lichen species as well, which then continue to grow in the churchyard, making churchyards havens for many more lichen species than other places.  And according to Andrea and David, some lichens apparently grow very very slowly, thus their presence in churchyards can represent hundreds of years of growth. As we rebuilt the wall, we also took care, when possible, to re-set the stones with their coverings of lichens and mosses facings outwards, so that they could continue to grow.

We broke for tea and for our packed lunches on the spongy carpet of moss covering the churchyard, and while we ate, I asked what Bettws y Crwyn meant.  The man who lived at Ladywell House gave his explanation that Bettws was a welsh borrowing of a saxon word meaning bead-house, a chapel where monks from a nearby abbey would say the rosary.  Crwyn apparently means fleeces, thus making it the bead house of the fleeces, which is a rather pastoral name for a church!  This land had once belonged to one of the larger monasteries, though they weren’t sure exactly which one, which explained why the church was built in such a remote area.  Later it came to function as a parish church.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bettws-y-Crwyn

We finished around 4:30pm, and David seemed quite confident that the rebuilding work could be finished tomorrow afternoon.

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