Category Archives: Foraging & Wild Foods

Pine Resin (Part 2: Salve)

As you’ll know from Friday’s blog post about pine resin and rosin, I’m currently exploring foraging potential of pine trees. I’ve been collecting pine resin (this is not the same as tapping for sap as in the blog post I did this time last year about birch tapping) – resin is a fluid produced by pine trees to heal and protect wounds in the tree, whereas sap is a mix of sugars and water found in the xylem and phloem tubes of a tree. Sap is a sugary water, and flows readily, while resin is usually super sticky!

I’ve been reading about a variety of uses for pine resin, which is fat soluble and, as such, will infuse into oils really well. Pine resin salve is a traditional herbal remedy, particularly in the Americas.

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This post on the Mountain Rose Blog says:

“Here in southwestern New Mexico, many people think of Pine resin salve primarily as a treatment for pulling out splinters, embedded glass, drawing out boils, and for general first aid. It’s so common that it’s often sold in gas stations, and most any local logger or farm worker knows about it.”

Heralded to increase circulation to stiff, sore muscles and joints, help to treat psoriasis, eczema, scabies, heal cracked heels and dry skin on elbows, this herbal salve is surely worth a go?

To make it, you simply take a container/jar and pack it with pine resin and include some chunks of beeswax. I used about 100g of beeswax for two jars of wax (filled to about 2/3) and then covered with olive oil. The traditional method at this point is to place your sealed jars in a warm, dark place for a few weeks, but you guys know me – I don’t have the patience for that kind of waiting unless sloe gin is involved! I decided to render down the sap using a bain marie (called a double boiler in the USA).

I balanced the two jars inside my slow cooker on some tiny flan rings (you could use any type of trivet – just to keep the base of the jars off the bottom of the pot). I just PLACED the jam jar lids on – I didn’t seal them as I didn’t want to risk a pressure-induced explosion, but likewise didn’t want any condensation dripping in. I then poured hot water around the jars up to the level of the top of the resin, switched the slow cooker onto low and went to bed! In the morning the debris and gubbins had sunk to the bottom of the jars, and it was easy to pour off the infused (and lush-smelling) oil into clean jars. Stir as it cools, and you end up with a soft pine-scented salve for use on cuts, scratches and insect bites.

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*I want to pop a disclaimer here – many people are actually allergic to pine resin, which can be an irritant to sensitive skin, so you should test your exposure if you’re not sure if you’re one of them, and obviously, if you are, avoid exposure to pine resin, salve or rosin.

I’m still working on a few uses for the rest of my pine resin stash – I’m quite keen on trying pine resin honey (good for sore throats and coughs) and even pine resin tincture (which you have to infuse into overproof alcohol as resin is hydrophobic and ‘normal’ alcohol has too much water for it to infuse properly. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Brining & Smoking Mackerel

So here’s a little project that you can do in your garden, and it’s proof that barbeques aren’t just for summer! I did this for the first time last summer at a camp site, after spending the day fishing. There’s no meal quite as satisfying as one that you’ve caught and prepared yourself, but this is a very close second: Brining and Smoking fish.

I used mackerel (6 fillets), but only smoked 3 at a time. (You can smoke just about any meat or fish.) You’ll also need 1 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of brown sugar and a litre of water for the brining process of brining the fish, and you’ll need a barbeque, some charcoal, and some smoking chips (I used Apple Chips) which you can get on the internet and at garden centres.

1/2 cup of salt mixed with 1/4 cup of brown sugar

1/2 cup of salt mixed with 1/4 cup of brown sugar

The purpose of brining the fish is to help draw out the moisture prior to smoking. It also conditions the fish so that the smoke is absorbed well. I brine mine in a little lunch box/cooler which has a closeable lid, but is water-tight. You could just use a bowl, to be honest, but if you’re brining outdoors a lid of some kind is advisable.

Empty into about 750ml of water & stir well
Empty into about 750ml of water & stir well

This is the easy part – you want to mix your water, salt and sugar together, stirring until (at least mostly) dissolved. The water should be cold. Then you simply submerge your fillets in the liquid and leave for an hour.

Add mackerel (or whatever fish) fillets
Add mackerel (or whatever fish) fillets

After that time, remove and pat dry with kitchen roll. You’ll see that the look and feel of the flesh of the fish has been changed slightly.

After an hour, remove from brine & pat dry
After an hour, remove from brine & pat dry

Next, start a barbeque, but with coals only on one side (or the edges if it is circular). You are going to want the fish to smoke without being directly over the heat of the fire. Once the coals are nice and hot, take about 2-3 handfuls of smoking chips and scatter them over the coals. Place your prepared fillets on a few layers of tin foil (if the foil is lightly oiled that will help the fish to not stick).

Prepare hot coals in 1/2 of your grill, when ready sprinkle wood chips over them to create smoke. fish should be on foil in the OTHER half of the grill
Prepare hot coals in 1/2 of your grill, when ready sprinkle wood chips over them to create smoke. fish should be on foil in the OTHER half of the grill

Pop the lid on, and open the vents so that the smoke is drawn over the fish. With my barbeque, which is the Weber Go-anywhere, I close the vent over the coals and open the one over the fish, and make sure the base vent is open. Keep an eye on it and make sure you’re getting lots of smoke coming out.

Cover, open vent above or nearest to fish, wait 15 mins
Cover, open vent above or nearest to fish, wait 15 mins

Fifteen minutes later, your fish is ready. I ate this immediately, when it was still hot, but took some home for dinner too (which my hubby made into a really amazing pasta dish). Please let me know if you have a go and how you get on!

Fish is ready when golden and cooked through
Fish is ready when golden and cooked through

Bracket Beads

This is a great project for families, forest school, or anyone wanting an excuse to potter around in the woods. I’ve been looking at uses for Birch Polypore (aka Bracket Fungus), and aside from the well-known use as a razor-strop, there are loads of uses! From tinder for fires (which works beautifully, burns hot and long) to using as a field dressing / plaster (it has natural antibacterial properties) – scroll down for more on this! – the Polypore us a super-versatile and often overlooked gem of the woods! After a bit of experimenting, I have come up with an easy technique for making Bracket Beads!

First you need to get yourself some Birch Polypore, which you find on Silver Birch trees! Here’s what they look like:

As with any foraging, don’t strip the whole tree of its fungi; just take what you need – and one large bracket is more than enough for beads! Here’s the tutorial on how to cut & shape the beads:

I’ll be doing some more on natural dyes shortly, but these were dipped (dry) into water that had some red cabbage steeped in it for 10 minutes.  You can see the transformation in the instagram clip below.

Sneak preview of next week's blog! #tw #bushcraft #dyeing

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And here’s the ‘how to’ on making field dressings / plasters from Birch Polypore:

The Crucible. Of Fire Bowls.

Well, not exactly a crucible. For a while now I’ve been using the Grilliput Firebowl for general bushcrafty shenanigans, and although I’ve been delighted with it, and took it across Scotland this summer, one thing was bothering me: the size. The one I got was the XL, which is awesome for camp fire use, and you can get grills that pack flat but pop up over the top to turn the grilliput into a ‘proper’ barbeque. But, if I’m honest, I don’t have ‘proper’ fires anywhere near as often as I’d like, and more often than not, the bowl is used as a nice, stable, off-the-ground base for my Kelly Kettle (which is the Trekker size – 600ml).  So, in the grand scheme of things, the XL firebowl is slight over-kill (and takes up a lot of space in my pack, in spite of the fact that the bowl collapses rather satisfyingly.)

So the smaller ‘standard’ size arrived this week, and my initial unboxing, I’ve got to say, was an excited ‘squeeeee! it’s so cute!’ followed by immense disappointment at its one fatal flaw: The XL firebowl I’d hitherto been using has legs that fold down flat to help it to pack down as neatly as possible. My new, super cute and tiny firebowl has four rather annoying welded-on pegs that don’t fold down, but stick out stubbornly, defeating the object of packing small. You can’t even unscrew them.

I should say, actually, that the standard size is not intended to replace my XL one, which I still intend to use regularly, but in my everyday pack, I’ll be using the standard size.

Anyway, I christened it today and did a few comparison shots so you can see the difference in size, and those annoying feet. (I am still deciding whether to drill them out and replace them with something packawayable – which is DEFINITELY a word.)

So, in the end I’m still keeping both, but will probably end up ‘modding’ the standard, depending on how much the pegs irritate me, and if they rip through the exped I keep it in. To be continued…

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

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I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

Go ahead,Punk!

Thought I’d do a blog about different materials used for fire lighting. It breaks down pretty simply – for fire, you need three things: Fuel, Heat and Oxygen. Heat is created by striking a spark (called ‘percussion’) or the ‘rubbing sticks together’ method (called ‘friction’) if you’re adventurous – more on that in a future post!, oxygen comes from the wind or from you (blowing the fire or fanning it, cowboy-style!). The tricky bit is preparing your fuel – collecting and sorting your material, using the right fuel for the right stages of the fire, not rushing it, and understanding what the fire needs more of. Here’s a quick video of me lighting a fire with a fire steel, using thistle tops and pine needles, followed by tiny twigs:

Lighting a fire with thistle tops and pine needles #tw #bushcraft #ForestSchool

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The thistle tops and pine needles are what’s called ‘tinder‘. Basically they catch the spark and feed it quickly. Tinder is usually dry and often fluffy. Good examples are dry grass, the tops of reed mace (aka Bullrushes or cat-tails), sawdust (you can buy special tinder!). ]

tinder

I use the fluffy stuff to catch the spark and the pine needles to keep it going before I add the twigs, called ‘kindling’.

Kinding

After you have the kindling going – the key is to not add too much too soon or you’ll kill your fire! – you need to add fuel wood – slightly larger sticks.

There are a few materials which are particularly cool and useful – one of my favourites is King Alfred’s Cakes, a fungus often found on ash trees that will catch and hold an ember and act as tinder. You can see this in the video below where I hold a glowing ember and blow the fire until it passes into the cake!

Passing an ember to a King Alfred ' s Cake #tw #bushcraft #ForestSchool

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Another of my favourite materials is Punk Wood (wood from the heart of a rotting log that has lost its rigidity and taken on a spongy texture. Once dry, it makes excellent kindling! – Take a look below!

Punk wood is spongy even when dry. #tw #bushcraft #ForestSchool

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The key thing is, of course, safety – for you and for the environment around you. Make sure that you have landowner’s permission for practicing your fire lighting skills, and ensure the area is clear and safe, and that you have water nearby in case chaos happens! Knowing how to light and manage fire can really add to your enjoyment of the wilderness, and I promise you’ll never get tired of trying out new materials!

Puttanesca Liqueur

A quickie for you – an easy peasy hedgerow vodka (or you can use rum, gin, etc, but if you really want the flavours of the fruits, use vodka – any old cheap stuff will do!)

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Gather some hedgerow goodies (rosehips, cherries, sloes and elderberries are shown here but you can add crab apples, blackberries, raspberries or whatever you find!- I usually have a stash of stuff in my freezer that I gather throughout the year. Freezing is good because it breaks apart the bigger berries slightly so you don’t have to prick them all over with a fork, which can be quite laborious. This is the Puttanesca of hedgerow liqueurs! Here’s the ‘how to’ – just roll over the images. *I used 350g cherries, 150g sloes, 150g rosehips and 150g elderberries to about a litre of vodka and 200g sugar. I will add more vodka to this eventually, but it looks pretty all rammed into one jar!

Sadly, once beautifully layered and filled, you must now shake it up to distribute the sugar. (Sorry!) Shake once a week at least (or whenever you’re waiting for the kettle to boil) and it will be drinkable by christmas. You can keep tasting to add sugar/vodka as you like. As I said, I’ll split this up into two jars and add another 1/2 litre in a couple of weeks.

The Fire Within

I’ve been helping a mate of mine this week, delivering Level 2 Forest School training course (for practitioners). Aside from shelter-building, knot-tying and general Forest School ethos stuff, a large part of this level of training is in fire lighting. Lighting fires is one of those things that, once you learn it, and with regular practice, stays with you for life. Once it ‘clicks’ and you understand the principles of fire lighting, you can have warmth and light always. It’s a proper skill for the apocalypse. And it is a diverse subject.

Kelly Kettle Seen from Above
Kelly Kettle Seen from Above

I’m planning a series of blog posts on fire lighting, looking at different materials, etc, so watch this space, but the interesting thing about it (for me, anyway) is that it slightly shifts your view of the natural world.

You know that bit in The Matrix where Neo has his epiphany and suddenly sees the world in code? A few years of bushcraft and your perspective on your surroundings shifts (okay, perhaps not in such a dramatic way, but certainly in a PROFOUND way).

Being able to recognise plants & trees as you walk – knowing their culinary, practical or medicinal uses – reinforces the BOND between you and the plant. It is that familiarity that is the catalyst for your matrix epiphany. And the best part is that the effect is cumulative – the more time you spend outdoors, the more powerful and deep your experience is. It never gets old.

Now, when I walk around the countryside I see trees, animals,  stones, just like everyone. But I also see fuel, tools, food, natural dyes, craft materials and more. I always harp on about seasonal living, but what I mean when I say this is more than just eating sprouts in the winter and strawberries in summer.

Right now, it’s late September. Even here, sitting at my desk, I know that outside, the last of the blackberries are just about harvestable; thistle heads are dry enough to be collected as tinder; sloes are ready for harvest (but we haven’t had a frost yet, so they will need to go in the freezer overnight before use); autumn fungi will be coming soon…

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The world is breathing out.

This is the time of year when I yearn to be outside more than any other. An hour in the woods is a precious thing, and often an hour or two is all most people can manage from their ‘real life’ responsibilities (I know how lucky I am!) and it’s important to connect with nature as much as you can, even if that is very little. So if you get chance this weekend – pack up the kids and get out to your nearest woodland for an hour. Breathe in the autumn air, look out for turning leaves and swelling berries. Notice as nature rings in the changes.

Season’s Eatings

It’s the time of year when my thoughts turn to the hedgerow – to jams and jellies, apples and sloe gin. But this harvest season I’ve decided to put a lot more thought into seasonal foraging in the supermarket. Of course, when there is a British food available I will always choose that over an imported one, but what would happen if I just didn’t eat food that wasn’t in season? At all?

There are lots of reasons why eating seasonally is good – it reduces food miles and associated carbon emissions (and is usually cheaper!), it supports British Growers and Farmers and even regional/local ones!, and it means that the food you’re eating hasn’t been ‘forced’ in any way and is going to have better flavour, colour, etc. (If you’re sick of anemic-looking tomatoes then this might solve your problem!)

But for me, it’s more about connecting with my environment. I’m lucky enough to be out there in the seasons as they pass, and I think that eating this way will help me to reinforce that connection. Not in a hairy fairy way – I find immense pleasure and emotional grounding in being outside, feeling the rhythm of our orbit around the sun, and it gives me a sense of well-being and, well, just makes me happy.

So, I’m going to give it a try. I’ve been scouring the internet this morning looking for resources to help me, and thought I’d share them with you.

BOOKS

Absolutely indispensable is the River Cottage Handbooks series – each one takes seasonality into account.  (To be honest, all of the River Cottage books do this – especially Meat, Fish, Veg and Fruit. My favourites from the handbook series are Game, Hedgerow and Fishing:

New Covent Garden (Those lovely soups in cartons in the supermarket!) do books!  The Soup for All Seasons is fantastic as is their Soup Every Day – also a seasonal guide but with more recipes. One of my other favourites is Sophie Dahl’s From Season to Season.

WEBSITES

Eat Seasonably has a neat ‘best of this month’ feature highlighting the best 2 or 3 seasonal fruits and veggies. This is nice but not as comprehensive.

Well Seasoned is a comprehensive website – and they are on Twitter (I will do a post in the coming weeks about seasonal people on Twitter and Instagram as I find them)

Eat the Seasons is simple and clean, with a ‘seasonal food of the week’.

What’s In Season is a simple, visually appealing website that is organised by month.

POSTERS

There’s a wealth of seasonal eating posters out there (a google image search will throw up loads – a tip is to change your search parameters to ‘large’ images only, and to include ‘UK’ in your search text!)

If you’re after a single chart to print out, you could do worse than this one from Love British Food, which is sort of cartoony so I guess would appeal to families:

The website wellseasoned.co.uk have an array of seasonality charts, including fish, meat and even hedgerows! This is by far the best (for me) of the posters out there – although it is a SERIES of 9 posters. Though this is a drawback for some, it is by far the most comprehensive I can find:

http://www.wellseasoned.co.uk/seasonality-charts/4586429527

FRIDGE MAGNETS

For the fridge you can get these fab Seasonal Food in the UK Fridge Magnets from NotOnTheHighStreet.com – these are pretty cool and, again, might help you to get the family on board. Plus, who doesn’t love fridge magnets?? (Except my mate Martin).

http://www.notonthehighstreet.com/askingfortrouble/product/seasonal-fruits-and-vegetables-fridge-magnets

APPS

If you’re on iPhone (which I’m not) the main contender is Seasons which looks to have good functionality, but does cost £1.49. If anyone has this and can review it, please let me know!

I checked out a couple of free Android apps.  Firstly, In Season is basic but functional, but a neat feature is that if you click on each vegetable there are tips on how to choose ripe or good quality ones, how to store it, and some recipe ideas. Could do with a few more foods, but nice and easy to use.

My favourite free app (and the one that I’ll keep on my phone) is Seasonal Food Fruit and Veg which is pretty awesome – you set it for your region, and you use either the ‘fruit’ tab, the ‘vegetables’ tab, or the ‘preferred’ tab, which includes all the foods that you have given a gold star. (So you don’t have to scroll though foods you don’t like to find ones you do.)

My main tool is going to be the app, I think. I’m not a meal planning person and tend to be a bit spontaneous in the supermarket, so this will help me to choose while I’m there. I’ll keep you posted on how I’m getting on!

Gangnam Spile

This is soooo late, and I’ve been so swamped with work and BrumBats stuff that I’ve not gotten around to posting this – so file it under stuff-to-do-in-2016…

I’ve wanted to have a go at birch tapping for years. I’d seen the Ray Mears bit on tapping (scroll to the bottom of this post to see it!), and I know there’s a huge culture of maple tapping in the US, but I’d always felt a bit intimidated by the idea of making my own spile, and was determined to have a go this year.

The awesome among you will have seek Katniss Everdeen use a spile in Hunger Games: Catching Fire to get a life-saving drink from a tree, and although I don’t anticipate being in some sort of dystopian arena mode scenario any time soon, I’m still happy to have added it to my repertoire of skills-for-the-apocalypse.

I’d found an awesome spiles kit on Amazon, but it was simply ridiculously priced, so I ordered it from a US site and had it sent to my brother (who lives across the pond) and had him post them to me. Result!

You’ll get the idea when you watch the video below, but basically it involves going during the right two weeks of the year when the Birch Sap is rising (usually the first two weeks in March, but this can vary according to your latitude and the temperature), drilling a hole (I used a 14mm flat drill bit) into the outer bark, and inserting your spile.  Catch the sap in a receptacle (the metal spiles I ordered came with a little hook from which to hang your bottle/pan).  I drank some straight out of the tree – FREEZING cold and just amazingly refreshing.

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So, the verdict: Well, most people say that they can’t taste the difference between birch sap and water, but I have to disagree – I can really taste the soft tannins in it, and to me it tastes like fresh, weak iced tea.  Just lovely!  And of course I followed Ray’s advice and froze some with ice cubes for adding to a nice single malt…