wild food: beware of hemlock

We camped out on an island on Lough Corrib the other day. There is a myth that Lough Corrib has 365 islands – one for each day of the year, but in reality there are probably over 1000 islands. Some are homes to huge heronries in spring and if you are lucky you might see something like this peaking at you from a nest:

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This is a young black-crowned night heron from the BBC Wildlife magazine spring issue. Ireland has grey herons but they look just as scary as babies.

Islands are magical places especially on a rain-free spring evening.

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While on this island I quickly tried to identify plants around me. I found nettles and water mint and then another plant that looked and smelled like celery or parsley. I had my Food for Free guide and I identified it as Alexanders – an edible herb similar to parsley. I was very close to tasting it, but then decided to research more. When we got home the following day I did a quick search and discovered that in fact I was close to eating the deadliest plant in Ireland -Hemlock Water Dropwort. A tiny amount can kill you in a few hours.

Apparently this plant was used in the ritual killings of elderly in the Phoenician Sardinia. People who were too old and could no longer take care of themselves “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death”. Fun fun fun. The plant is called “sardonic” because one of its side effect is so-called “sardonic grin” as it paralises face muscles. Oh dear…

And this case study describes how eight young adults on holiday in Scotland cooked a curry that included water dropwort roots. Of course it was all party time after a few hours when one in the group experienced a “grand mal seizure”, whatever that felt like. Pure evil. 

So for now, I will stick to wild garlic and water mint because they are easy to identify.

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I’ve also gathered a lot of nettles to make nettle wine.

I used store-bought yeast this time, but wild fermentation works really well too if you want things to progress more naturally. One of my favourite books Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is fantastic if you feel creative and would like to experiment a bit, make unusual but tasty food and rewild your gut.

At the moment I have mead, blackberry/apple, and banana/coffee wines during various stages of fermentation.

 

Safe foraging to you!

 

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wild food

There is a brilliant book by Richard Mabey called Food For FreeIt’s an absolute treasure if you like foraging and eating wild food. It inspires me to look under my feet when I am out and about in the woods and there is so much edible stuff around.

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Wild garlic is in abundance this time of year. It’s hard to miss large colonies of this tasty herb in the woods. The smell is unmissable as you approach the area and get your nose closer to the ground.

Wild garlic can be used raw or cooked and has a mild taste when raw. I add it to everything I eat. It also makes a delicious pesto.

And sometimes conventional food items can go wild when cooked or consumed outdoors. For example take bananas and chocolate buttons, add to burning logs in a splendid clearing in the woods on a sunny day and voilà – you have a bananachocolatebuttons gone wild and out of control tasty. 

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This was our breakfast a few days ago when we spent the night bivvying in the local woods. As chocolate melted and bananas got softer the whole thing turned into a gooey sweet delicious mess. It tasted absolutely divine.

Growing food can also turn wild when you have a full-time job and little time or energy to look after the plants. They just grow while rain and sun look after them and what looks like neglect can be also labeled as some kind of fancy unintentional experimental gardening.

For four years I’ve had various plants growing in small containers with a different degree of success. I’ve grown tomatoes, salads, peas, beans…

This year I am planning a proper serious garden with plenty of space to experiment thanks to my diy-savvy husband Ed who put together four beautiful raised beds.

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My friend Magda helped me fill one of them with last year’s compost and it’s ready to receive tenants. Those pretty Sungold and Tumbing Tiger tomato plants will be moving in as soon as they are tall and strong to battle through the rainy Irish weather.

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We shall see how this year’s experimental gardening turns out and whether I will retain a degree of control over the unruly plants or whether my garden will continue to be a little bit wild.

Happy foraging and experimenting!

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