Category Archives: Foraging

Watersports, the golf course, wild mushrooms, and a superbly moody sky

Often when I walk on the beach in the summer, looking north to Tywyn there is a big blue sky with little fluffy white clouds and when I turn round to look back at Cerdigion it looks like the coming of Armageddon, with dark clouds gathering in an unbroken, uncompromising line.  It was just like that yesterday, and it made for some  dramatic colour and light contrasts.

I came down Gwelfor Road, emerging on the coast road by the Post Office, thereby bypassing what I always think of as the family section of the beach, the stretch leading away from the lifeboat station, handily close to all the facilities.  It tends to be fairly jam-packed at this time of year.  I usually like to wend my way through the melee to enjoy people having fun, but given the ongoing risks I thought I’d give it a miss.  I headed straight into the sand dunes, which were only being used by others as a thoroughfare to cross from the road to the beach.

There was a stiff and slightly chilly breeze that occasionally developed into a fairly strong wind.  Although most people were in shorts, as I was myself, most also wore jackets and fleeces, and on the beach there were a lot of colourful windbreaks erected.

A giant inflatable pink swim-ring making its way apparently under its own steam across the dunes, one of the more surreal things that have caught my eye this year.  Eventually the owner became visible as he and his swim-ring, still held aloft, proceeded down the beach towards the water’s edge.  I assume that a child was following on somewhere behind.

There wasn’t much in the way of wild flowers and I eventually walked down to the beach and along the water’s edge.  The sea was fairly turbulent for the time of the year, and the combination of a good wind and waves seemed to be ideal for some watersports.

Watching one sailborder wading with his kit into the sea, it seemed to me that one needed a fairly impressive amount of strength just to get it out beyond the shallows, never mind to climb on board, stay on board and direct the thing.  Very skillful, and so much more rewarding than thundering around on a jet ski.

 

When I reached the Second World War pillbox (about which I have previously written here), I crossed the dunes to take photos of the Trefeddian Hotel for yesterday’s post about the hotel’s  architectural changes.  It was looking quite dramatic in the full sunshine against the dark hillside.

There were a few people using the golf course, but not very many, so I wandered back along one of the water courses that wend their way through the course.  I know nothing about golf, but in spite of the blatant artifice I have always found the undulating landscape and the manicured greens of a golf course rather soothing.  Or at least, when not at risk of being hit in the head by a golf ball.  The water courses are thriving ecosystems in their own right, with incredibly clear water and a remarkable variety of plant life.  They appear from and disappear into underground conduits.  There must be a direction of flow, but no current was visible today.  Most of the plant life likes shallow, slow-moving water, like the great swathes of water cress, and full sunshine, like the patches of duck weed and blanket weed.  There were several  red damsel flies darting around, only occasionally settling.

One of a number of rich patches of watercress (above and below), just where the stream disappears again.  Not to be eaten without treatment due to the high risk of liver fluke.

Amphibious bistort, above and below (Persicaria amphibium).  Sorry about the fuzzy image of the flower above – it was seriously windy and it simply wouldn’t sit still for long enough for me to get a clear shot.  It did, however, show the leaves clearly.  Between that and the one below, which shows the flower a little more clearly, but not much of the leaves, I think you can get the idea.  It’s a perennial and flowers in slow-moving water from June to September.

Water crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) and blanketweed (Spyrogyra)

A beautiful orange weed, that probably does the stream no good at all.  It lies on the bed of the stream, but this was floating slightly clear of it.  I’ve tried to find out what it is to no avail.

A very poor photo of a damselfly, right at the limit of my lens’s reach

Nearby in a hedge, was a curtain of purple, which turned out to be tufted vetch (Vicia cracca).
Patches of Ccommon centaury (Centaruium erythraea) were on the edges of the sand dunes and the golf course.  Centaury is named for the centaur Chiron who used it to cure wounds inflicted by the multi-headed Greek Hydra, but it has been used as an improbable cure-all for all sorts of diverse conditions.

Walking back along the golf course, I was lucky enough to find both a puffball and, the absolute highlight of my nascent foraging activities, two enormous parasol toadstools!  They were both about 10 inches tall and around 6 inches across.  Absolute beauties.  The nearby fennel has now gone to seed, but I picked some of that too, as it makes a great base for a stock.

Parasol mushrooms, a puffball and wild fennel, with my iPhone in the background for scale

Wild fennel.  A few weeks ago it was covered with feathery green leaves, but now it has gone to seed.  The stems and seeds are still wonderful in stock, and the seeds can be dried out and ground into and over all sorts of things, imparting a delicious, slightly aniseed flavour.  Where I group up in Spain it was known locally simply as “anis.”

And here is one of the parasol tops sitting on a handy diffuser, ready for the frying pan.  The stalks are too tough to eat, but I put it in a bag in the freezer for making a stock for a beef dish on another day.

I had the puffball sliced and fried in a little butter with a sprinkling of parsley on a side dish as a starter.  I saved one of the parasol mushrooms for my father and served the other fried almost the same way in butter, parsley and a little garlic, with streaky bacon and a poached egg on top.  It looks a bit like very flat burger in the picture, but that’s just the colouring from the butter and bacon.  Dividing the two mushrooms into two dishes allowed each one to be appreciated for its own particular virtues. Wonderful.  God I was stuffed!

Early July dune flowers, more foraging

July already.  How on earth did that happen?  A sunny day today, and a welcome change from the recent wet weather.  The day before yesterday it wasn’t actually raining in the afternoon, although it had all morning, and the feeling of going stir-crazy after all the rain was immense, so it was a relief to go and see what else had come into flower in the sand dunes, which seem to be changing all the time.

 

The sea holly is just coming in to flower, one of my favourites (Eryngium marititinum).  There seems to be less of it in the dunes than in previous years, but that may just be an impression.  The leaves are a lovely silvery-blue colour and the flowers are a stunning powdery cornflower blue, forming little domes.  It loves full sun and dry coastal and rocky habitats.  Surprisingly, given its appearance, it is  a member of the carrot family.

Common/yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) looks so exotic, like an orchid, but is relatively commonplace.  It is a perennial that flowers between July and October.  Narrow leaves grow spirally up the stems.  The flower is two-lipped and only large long-tongued bees can push the two closed lips apart to reach the nectar.  Colloquial names include squeeze-jaw and bunny-mouth.  It likes open fields and sandy soils.

 

Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale) is new to me.  It has many small dark crimson flowers, each with five petals, on hairy stems.  After flowering, the fruit is a spiked nutlet that starts green and goes through deep purple to brown.  They hook on to the fur of a passing animal.  The ones in the dunes were courteous enough to have both flowers and nutlets on show.

Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) grows on the wasteland and the edge of cultivated land and footpaths, with a preference for semi shade.  The toothed leaves look rather like nettles.  They grow up to 1m tall.   It was renowned from the 16th Century for its healing properties, and it has proved to be mildly antiseptic.  White markings on the lower lip of the two-lip flower guides bees to nectar.

Rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) is a spreading perennial up to 1.5m tall.  It colonized bomb sites during the Second World War and became known as “fireweed.”  It spreads both by rhizomes and by seed, so where it is found, it is usually widespread, and the the rhizomes mean that a whole patch may actually be a single plant.  Delicate Four-petalled pink flowers with white stamens that climb the stem go over first at the bast and continue to be in bud at the top, meaning that they may stay in flower from June to September.  Its leaves used to be used as in infusion to substitute for tea.

Before flowering, old man’s beard, or traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) looks just like clematis and is probably the next most widespread plant in the dunes after marram grass, hugging the lower lying areas.  It spreads over everything, and provides a natural protective home for the wild pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) that grows in the dunes.  The name old man’s beard refers to the hairy, air-born seed heads that appear in autumn and extend into winter.  The flower begins as a tiny, spherical white bud and bursts into lovely, starry white flowers with four white sepals and a burst of stamens.

Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) is common in the area,  in the hills, fields, wasteland, and in the dunes.  It is poisonous to birds, horses and cattle, particularly when dry, but for some reason sheep seem to be immune.  It may be either biennial or perennial.  Although it can be mistaken for goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) from the flower alone, the leaves are very different.  Where goldenrod has long, thin leaves, common ragwort’s leaves are untidy, dissected and multiple-lobed.  Senecio is almost the only specie that can be used for food by the day-flying red and black cinnabar moth’s (Tyria jacobaea) caterpillar, striped bright orange and black, absorbing the plant’s poison as a defense against birds.  In spite of the fact that they can be seen between May and August, there were none on view that day.

Broad-leaved everlasting pea (Lathyrus latifolius) is a French perennial that has colonized many other countries.  A vigorous scrambling plant that uses tendrils to colonize hedges and shurbs.  It was brought from France to Britain as a garden plant and has gone native.  The flowers are larger than most of the other pea family of flowers, up to 3cm across, with shades of dark pink and purple.

Marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) is very similar to the more widespread wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris), but grows in marshy areas, whilst wall pennywort grows, as the names suggests, out of walls (and is widespread in Aberdovey).  This particular marsh pennywort was growing out of the side of one of the drainage streams on the golf course.  It is less waxy and succulent than wall pennywort, as it doesn’t need to store as much water.  Both are edible as leaves in salads and as garnishes with much the same flavour.  The flavour can be variable, so although it tastes a bit like cucumber, it can be bitter, and a leaf should be tasted before picking more.

White stonecrop (Sedum album) has now spread over huge areas of the lower parts of the sand dunes, particularly near the road where the sand is mixed with soil, its succulent leaves forming mats, and its white star-like flowers clustering at the top of the short, slender stems.  Drought tolerant, thanks to the succulent leaves that store water.  Like Sea rocket (Cakile maritima) it has apparently benefited from the lack of people around, colonizing areas that would otherwise be used for reaching the caravan park, the golf course and the beach.

The perennial sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) and the orache are side by side at the edge of the dunes, both huge clumps, both common at the edges of sand dunes. Sea beet has a tall, spiky clumps of flowers straggling across the top of the plant.  Sea beet is both drought and saline tolerant.  It is the wild version of a version that was cultivated in the Middle East for its roots and leaves.  Sea beet is easily confused with fat hen (Chenopodium album) and both are members of the Chenopodiaceae, but the leaves have very different edges.  Sea beet leaves have a smooth, untoothed margin, whereas fat hen leaves look more like orache, with a toothed margin.  Sea beet is a popular foraging ingredient, with smaller, younger leaves used in salads and bigger leaves spinach in a tiny amount of water for a few minutes, like spinach.  Squeeze out the water, return to the pan with some butter, and you have a much tangier version of spinach.  On my to-do list.

 

Artemisia absinthium or wormwood seems to come in a variety of forms, many with a lot more foliage than this, but there are a lot of photographs of it online looking just like this.  Small fdsfsfas of tiny yellow flowers tit on a network of silvery stems with silvery leaves.  I haven’t put it to the test, because I didn’t know what it was when I took the photograph, but it is the primary flavouring of absinthe, much beloved of Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries.

The last triumph of the day was the discovery of some field mushrooms and some baby puffballs.  I had the puffballs tossed in butter and added at the last minute to a slow cooker stew with French smoked sausages, onion, garlic, dried ceps, savoy cabbage and peeled baby new potatoes.  The puffballs were mushroomy but delicate, a real treat.

Orache – locally foraged greens that seriously improved three meals

When I finished my Eating Well During Lockdown series, I said I would only post a cooking commentary if it was based on ingredients that were locally grown or produced, and you really cannot get more locally grown than the Aberdovey sand dunes!

A few weeks ago, attracted by a large area covered with lovely Viper’s Bugloss on the edge of the sand dunes, spectacularly on the turn between pink and blue, we spotted a substantial clump of a green plant with distinctively shaped leaves, no flowers.  The leaves were robust and very slightly rubbery to the touch, because they are slightly succulent, and they had a faint shine on the upper surface, dull on the underside.  My friend Caroline thought that it was probably orache (pronounced “orac” or “oratch”), Atriplex patula, and after leafing diligently through a few books, that’s duly what it turned out to be.

So what is orache?  I had no idea, so a little research was necessary.  The photo above right shows as it is on the edge of the dunes, not particularly prepossessing, but as the photograph of the leaf shows, it is fairly distinctive.  It is an annual member of the Atriplex genus in the Amaranthus family, and is also known as saltbush.  Its leaves are edible and commonly used by foragers.  Edible does not always equate to delicious, but orache turns out to be both.  The salad leaves are only viable when young, because they become too tough, but they become a useful substitute for spinach when they mature.  Because they are succulents, retaining water in their leaves, and they live in a salty habitat, the water within the leaves is also slightly salty.  It’s worth remembering that when seasoning anything that you cook with orache as a component.  The roots are mildly toxic so should be avoided.  Atriplex littoralis looks similar but although it is not poisonous it has an offensive smell and tastes awful, so the two are easily differentiated.

When Caroline produced a glorious bunch of orache, having gone on a foraging expedition, I had a lot of options.  Now fully mature it was a lot greener and a lot larger, but retained its slightly rubber texture.  I immediately put the verdant bunch into a jug of water, to keep it fresh, and started plotting.

Caroline has been treating it both as spinach, wilting it slightly to serve as a vegetable, and using it raw in salads, and I also liked the look of the suggested orache tortilla-pizza on the Wild Food Girl website.  In the end I decided to use half of it for soup, some of it to replace spinach in my frequent mushrooms, dice courgettes, pancetta and spinach on toast, and the last of it to liven up a chicken rendang curry.  So here are three meals that I made with some of the bunch, with many thanks to lovely Caroline both for providing the orache and for expanding my horizons.

Wednesday’s soup became an orache-and-asparagus-with-a-few-leftovers soup, because I had a pack of six small asparagus tips that were hiding at the back of the fridge and needed using up fairly imminently, but the orache was dominant.  Other odds and ends were an inch of courgette (how, I wonder, does anyone end up with a leftover single inch of courgette?); 2 small Maris Piper spuds, very finely sliced to help it break down quickly; the floppy outer leaves of a little gem lettuce; half a purple onion, roughly sliced; three spring onions, chopped; the edible parts of the tops of two leeks; and some mint.  The main ingredient, by far, was orache.  I put all of it in a saucepan and tossed it to heat through in some butter for between five and 10 minutes, added water to cover, added some chicken stock and simmered it for another 10 minutes.  Once the potato had broken down I lobbed it into the food processor for a few minutes, in two batches.  I then put it back in the pan, re-heated it slightly, stirred in a big dollop of crème fraîche, a big squeeze of lemon juice, heated it through again gently and poured some of it into a soup bowl to serve.  Heavenly!  The orache tastes a bit like something between curly kale and spinach, full of personality, with bags of flavour released by the cooking process.

On Thursday I made mushrooms, pancetta, courgettes and orache on toast, with a poached egg on top.  The mushrooms and courgettes are fried in butter until the begin to brown. The finely chopped garlic is added with some fresh thyme, and after these are stirred in, some flour is sprinkled over the top to take up the fat from the pancetta and thicken the liquid.  It is stirred into the mixture until it is invisible, and heated for a few minutes to make sure that the flour is incorporated and cooked through.  At this point, a little water goes in, accompanied by the orache, chopped parsley and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of sherry at this stage.  When the orache begins to wilt, some cème fraîche is added and reduced, and when the orache is fully wilted the mix is served on a piece of toast with a poached egg on top.  The basic formula is a favourite, and of course it can be varied endlessly.  In the photograph, the wilted orache can be seen either side of the egg, a very dark green.

Yesterday, Friday, I was cooking a sort of ersatz chicken rendang curry, but using yogurt instead of the usual coconut (which I detest).  Also added into the mix were aubergine chunks, fresh green chilies and mushrooms.  I left it in the fridge overnight to develop the flavours.  When I slowly reheated it tonight, Saturday, I added a good handful of the last of the orache 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time, when it was simmering very gently.  It was an excellent addition, giving real balance to the rich sauce, with more than enough flavour to stand up for itself against the heat of the chili, and providing some much needed greenery as a contrast to the orange-coloured sauce and the bland solids.  In the photograph, the bright green leaves are coriander, but underneath them, the dark green wilted leaves are orache.  To complete the happy extravaganza I had a piece of garlic and coriander naan bread (not home-made).

Orache is a great plant for cooking if you like curly kale, spinach and similar flavours and textures.  I changed the water in the jug ever day, and it remained super-fresh.  Finally, I chopped and simmered the stalks with some chicken stock, leek and onion to make a well-flavoured thick soupy base for a future soup or stew, and froze it down.  The aromas as it simmered in a covered pan were wonderful.

Wild flowers in the sand dunes, a week on

As occasionally happens, I wrote this and then forgot to hit the Publish button, mainly because I meant to do more work on trying to find what the hawkweed-like plant actually is.  These photos were take on on the 20th June, just one week on from a previous visit.  If it ever stops raining, which seems doubtful right now, I’ll go and see what’s there now that we’re into early July.  Hopefully the sea holly will be in flower soon.

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria) is a perennial grass, reaching up to 120cm tall, each leaf touch and rolled, sharply pointed.  Ammos means sand, philos, loving in Greek; arena is latin for sand.  It is one of the most important sand-stabilizing species, forming large clumps with matted rhizome roots that help to prevent sand dune drift. They attract the Shore Wainscot moth (Mythimna litoralis), whose larvae feed exclusively on Marram, and the L-album Wainscot (Mythimna l-album) whose larvae feed mainly on Marram. The leaves were once valuable in local craft activities, woven into mats, used to make barn roofs, and to produce fishing nets.

Dune Brittlestem.  Psathyrella ammophila.  I often see these toadstools in the sand dunes, and these were two of a dispersed cluster of seven that I spotted, plus some very tiny ones. They have very dark brown gills. They grow at the base of marram grass, but in the absence of any other type of plant life.  Over time the cap begins to turn upwards, as shown here.  Apparently not poisonous, but has a very unpleasant flavour.

Sea bindweed (Clystegia soldanella) is a member of the convuvulus family.  The lovely pink and white striped flowers look like field bindweed, but are much bigger, and the kidney-shaped, slightly fleshy and waxy leaves quite different.   They spread from a rhizome that not only helps to fix them in the sand, but helps them to gather water, and helps to fix stabilize sand dune.  This was part of a fairly vast network very near the top of a very exposed sand dune, on the sheltered side.

Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae).  Lovely blue-back wings and bright red spots make this very easy to see when it is moving around in a flower.  There are two types of Five-Spot Burnet as well (Zygaena trifoli and lonicerae).  The rear wings, hidden hear under the forewings, are red with a black fringe.  They particularly like bird’s foot trefoil but can be found between June to August in most grassy areas and sand dunes, although I don’t recall seeing one in the dunes before.

Sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias).  An upright perennial that inhabits sand dunes and rocks.  The tiny yellow flower is protected by large greenish bracts.  It has slightly succulent evergreen leaves that march up the stem and which, like all succulents, minimize water loss.  It’s poisonous.

Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum).  Well adapted to grassland, scrubland and sand dunes, it spread along the ground, its flowers sometimes slightly upright.  The leaves are distinctive, growing in whorls around the slender stems.  The flowers form in small branches of clusters.  Apparently it gets its name because it was used to stuff mattresses.  In Germany it is called Mary’s bedstraw because the Virgin Mary was supposed to have given birth on a mattress of bedstraw.  They have a slight aroma of honey, but when dry they small of hay.  It was used in cheese making in the past, as it contains an astringent that curdles milk.

The pyramidal orchids that were dotted around earlier in June, had spread widely through the lusher parts of foliage at the base of sand dunes, and were easily spotted.

Hawkbit, Hawkweed? They are all so similar that it’s impossible to tell, even with photographs of the underside as well.

Sea rocket (Cakile maritima).  An annual member of the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae Mustard) family, which is happy in very barren areas, and can grow in unprotected sand, colonizing large areas if left undisturbed.  They combine succulent leaves that retain water with long taproots which search for water deep beneath the surface.  Flowers can be lilac, pink or white.  It does not object to being buried in sand for extensive periods, and its seeds can float unharmed on the sea.  The leaves, stems and flowers are edible and are rich in vitamin C but have a very bitter taste, so if using the leaves in salad, they are best used young.

Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre).  An evergreen perennial that forms mats with strong stems and short, thick and waxy succulent leaves that retain water.  It is drought tolerant, and is perfectly happy in inhospitable sand dunes and rock cracks.  Not poisonous, but not edible.

I always like to walk up Balkan Hill on the way back home, because the verges are an excellent mix of escapee garden plants and true wild flowers.

Gardeners will be very familiar with Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), which has a small, pretty flower and red-tinged leaves, but is ruthlessly invasive.  Fortunately it pulls out very easily with the root attached, but it spreads like crazy.  The leaves are slightly scented.  The name geranium derives from the Greek word Geranos, “crane,” referring to the long, beak-like carpels.

Dove’s Foot Crane’s-bill (Geranium molle).  An annual member of the geranium family, with explosive seed pods that spreads widely on wasteland, verges and sand dunes.

Great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).  A common garden weed, as it spreads both by seed and rhizomes, giving it a great advantage.  It likes the damp, and in this case sits  where water runs down the side of the road into a drain.  the “hirsutum” in its botanical name refers to the tiny hairs on the stems.

A typical mixture of feral garden flowers growing along the edge of the road on Balkan Hill, with hydrangeas in a hedge growing outwards over a patch of evergreen Brachyglottis/Senecio, an import from New Zealand, attractive to gardeners because of its lovely silvery green- grey leaves.