By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 26 August 2015
“Therefore I give my simple advice unto those that love such strange and newe-fangled meates, to beware licking honey among thornes, least the sweetness of the one do not countervaile the sharpnes and prickling of the other.”
– John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597
There are few people out there who will share my enthusiasm for the gathering grey skies that have come to define the last couple of weeks. As balmy summer days picking canalside raspberries give way to the familiar damp of insolent British drizzle, my mounting excitement has been difficult to hem in. Pulling on my wellington boots, I know that the arrival of rain after a warm summer can only mean one thing: mushrooms.
I am what Lorna Bunyard once referred to as “a confirmed toadstool eater”, always keeping half an eye out for these mysterious fruits of the earth. It is no wonder that Mrs Bunyard’s chapter on mushrooms should follow a chapter entitled Strange Meats, however, as this is, historically, how they have been perceived by the British. John Gerard, perhaps our most revered botanist, was certainly not a fan, affirming that they “do hunger after the earthie excrescences” – an association he makes more than once – whilst noting their habit of popping up on the “rotting bodies of trees” in “dankish”, “shadowie”places. Gerard dismisses fungi as “unproffitable” and “nothing worth”, repeatedly warning the reader that they are “full of poison” and “deadly”.
By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website, 23rd May 2015
No, I should love the city less
Even than this, my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.
– The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins 
It is the end of May, and my kitchen is alive with bubbling decoctions of blossoms as the hawthorn starts to fade and elderflower sprays take its place. The pale blush of oak apples teases in the distance; the inedible galls a cheerful reminder of the bounty to come in the months ahead. The season of abundance is upon us, and, it seems, many kitchens across the country are keen to make the most of the nation’s newfound love for wild food.
My first forays happened in childhood, inadvertently trampling blankets of alium ursinum on walks with my aunt, and being astounded by the pungent smell of garlic that rose up from the woodland floor. I felt as though I had discovered a great secret, and wanted to learn how I might cultivate it for myself. Then I started to learn about the habits of plants, their seasons, their stories, and how to read the land – town or country – by the types of plants that choose to grow there. The outdoors became a movable feast in the truest sense; a series of little treasures to be enjoyed within reach of whence they sprang, or stowed with squirrel-like jealousy – dried or in jars – for the months ahead.
Wild garlic is perhaps one of my favourite plants to forage, and was certainly one of my first. The leaves are wonderfully versatile, and can be used in anything from salads to lactoferments (the latter of which I use as a vegan-friendly ‘trotter gear’ to flavour soups and stews). For me, they are the true flavour of Spring. It is worth noting, however, that the leaves are not the only part of the plant that can be used, though they are, arguably, the most sustainable.
The first time I stumbled upon a quince tree, I thought that I had discovered the Holy Grail of pears. Golden against grey Cambridgeshire skies, they looked like the juiciest, sweetest fruit that I had ever come across in a city. Frustrated with my diminutive stature, I realized that there was no way that I would be able to reach them (despite numerous attempts with the crook of my umbrella), and began to concoct a plan for how I might.
Several weeks later, walking through the streets of South London, I came across the mythical fruit once more. Ever tempting (and ever out of reach) I was beginning to understand why the fruit was believed to be the temptation of Eve.
I returned with the aid of two strong arms and a picking device, crudely and ingeniously fashioned from the remains of an invasive buddleia plant and a plastic bottle. To our delight, the device worked, and while we worried about our merry missiles bouncing off car roofs, we savored the sweetly-ripe smell that arose from their downy, waxen skin. But this is where the magic ended. As I sunk my teeth into the flesh and brought the fruit around my tongue, I was met with a fluffy, floury texture and thought that I had in fact bitten into some kind of deceptively delicious-smelling fruit hybrid. Despite my sadness at the hoard of bad apples, I kept the fruit, deciding that they would probably work well in a pickle or a preserve irrespective of the texture. I was right.
A little reading revealed that the fruit I had picked were in fact quinces, and that my instincts to pickle them had been correct. The quince does not yield its gifts willingly, and the heady bouquet of flavors that tempts us in the first place needs coaxing from its flesh. We owe the name of one of our most prized preserves—marmalade—to the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo, derived from the Greek μελίμηλον (melimēlon, or “honey fruit”). It was the Greeks who first discovered that cooking quince over a low heat with sugar or acid would cause the resultant reduction to set, and it is from this point that we can trace most modern jams and pickles.
The vinegar has passed into its second month, and it seems that all is going well. The ‘mother’ is starting to form at the top of the jar, which lets me know that everything is working as it should be. I’m quite excited about the presence of this strange, ethereal substance, as it will have a lifetime far longer than this vinegar if I play my cards right.
Once the vinegar is finished to my tastes, which may be another few months yet, I will be able to remove the mother, wash it, and use it as a starter culture for other vinegar projects. I am quite keen to make some attempts experimenting with wine and berry vinegars next, as it will allow me to have greater control of the flavours. Equally, I intend to incorporate some foraged herbs in the process to see how that affects the results. I will update with my findings.
For more information about how the vinegar was made, click here.
For many people, the New Year heralds a sigh of relief with its promise of clean slates and forward-thinking, yet for me, the month of January is always filled with frustration. Its etymology contains happy nudges towards the actions associated with the New Year: namely, rejuvenation and reflection. Specifically, January is related to both the double-headed Roman god of new beginnings, Janus, and the fearsome warrior-goddess Juno [*for those interested, see P.S. for etymology/history]. But for me, January is a waiting game lodged between the two of them. Having reflected on last year’s successes and failures, and having planned most of the whats-and-wheres for growing in 2015, I am very eager to start getting my hands dirty.
Although there are still things to be foraged at this time of year — from tansies to incredibly tardy apples — the excitement of the heights of the mushroom season has died down considerably, and I find myself like a child counting down to Christmas thinking about the seas of wild garlic that will soon surface again from the deep. Happily, the relative quiet of the outdoors has had me creating all kinds of fermented concoctions at home: from staples such as sourdough to yoghurt and delicious beer.
People are often surprised by just how much it is possible to forage in a city, even in the depths of winter. The above pictures are the fruits of a recent foray in Leicester with M and R, and there were a lot more left on the trees. Many cities – London especially – have built over and around former orchards, and it is not hard to find trees that have risen from discarded apple cores along the roadside or the banks of canals. I was delighted to find one set of trees in Lincolnshire recently that I initially thought had been decorated with Christmas lights, but were in fact laden with apples. Often, it is just a case of looking a little closer.
Unfortunately, supermarket conditioning has left us wary of fruit that isn’t uniformly shaped and coloured. I use ‘uniformly’ over any other adjective, as I believe a fruit can be described as ‘pristine’ or ‘perfect’ even if it does not adhere to supermarket standards. It worries and angers me in equal measure to see kilos of fruit left to rot at the base of a tree on a street, only to see people buying them at an extortionate price from the supermarket. If you are lucky enough to have such a resource in your community, please use it, and encourage others to do so. There are few things more lovely than to see a box of fruit left out with a notice encouraging people to take some home with them.
A floral salad of calendula, jasmine, borage, land cress, broad beans, mustard greens and winter oriental greens
No matter how limited your space, provided that you have access to some sunlight, there is always something that you can grow that will taste as beautiful as it looks. These photos are from a salad that I made during the summer, composed entirely of things that I had grown, or that were already growing, in my garden. A number of the greens can be easily cultivated in pots, however, such as cress, mustard and oriental winter salads, including baby pak choi.
Calendula, also known as marigolds, are incredibly easy to cultivate, and when I was living in my bedsit, I always had some growing on my windowsill. They would flower throughout the winter months and provide a lovely dash of colour to the darker days of the year. Their petals are also edible, and make a wonderful addition to salads. They are a useful natural dye much in the way that saffron is, and make a pleasant addition to teas.
Borage, which grows considerably taller than calendula, is also incredibly easy to grow, and can even become a little invasive if you don’t pay attention! It is very good for the bees, who produce a wonderful, clear honey when they are provided with it as forage, and is thus a useful pollinator in community gardens and on allotments. The star-shaped flowers are absolutely delightful, and look wonderful wherever they are added. They can also be frozen into ice cubes to be enjoyed year-round, making a very impressive addition to cocktails.