Sunday, 15 February 2015

Tastier than Bear's 2: Beacon Hill

I am trying to cook a foraged meal each week that is tastier than the ones that Bear Grylls cooks up for the celebrities he takes into the wilderness with him. Last week's jelly ear mushroom, dandelion root and nettle soup was edible, and probably nutritious, but unfortunately rather tasteless - the main flavour being soil :-( Was it tastier than Bear's wormy omelette though? Not the best start, but now at least I know that jelly ear mushrooms don't taste like mushrooms and are better for absorbing the flavours of the other components.

Photo of second group of Oyster Mushroom, looking down - Pleurotus ostreatus

This week I decided to look for some really flavourful mushrooms - oyster mushrooms. I set off to Beacon Hill for a long walk and to scout around. I really don't know very many mushrooms, but all of the tasty ones I have spotted before at Beacon Hill. Apart from oyster mushrooms, I have seen ceps, bay boletes and chicken-of-the-woods...none of which are in season. Well you never know, I might get lucky.

Beacon Hill in Charnwood Forest, is the 2nd highest peak in Leicestershire, though only 248m (814ft). It still whips up a fair wind at the summit and gives spectacular views in all directions.

It was the site of a bronze age hill fort, and during the summer the upper part is grazed by rare breed sheep, pigs and cattle (and alpaca to protect the sheep from dogs), to maintain the natural heathland habitat.

Lower down the slope is covered with woodland, and more recently some natural play areas and a labyrinth have been added for kids. There is even a woodcutters shed where there was some chainsaw carving in progress.

Beacon Hill is the site for the National Forest's Woodfair which is held on the August bank holiday. It is an opportunity to see the woodcarving and other woodland skills in action and buy some locally crafted natural products (like the chopping board I bought last year).

Below is the 'Old Man of Beacon Hill'.

This theme has been introduced in many of the carvings around the hill. There are also carvings of little fairy houses in the labyrinth, but I can't go in there with my dog.

Instead we walked through the woods and admired some of the shelters that have been built by visitors. The one below was the best.

There is only one thing that irritates me about Beacon Hill and that is the strawbale shelter that has been built.

It looks lovely with it's stone base, thick curvy walls and green roof, but as a demonstration of the benefits of building with strawbale it is a bit rubbish.

The main benefit of strawbale is the super-insulating properties, but anyone visiting this shelter wouldn't notice those because it is an open shelter and even has large gaps in the walls.

Secondly, on the wall inside is the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf who blows down the house of straw. This re-enforces a message of a weak and vulnerable building, because a clever pig would build his house of bricks!

If you continue reading it explains why this strawbale structure is strong and how it is built, but I don't feel this is the best way to get this across. I need to do a post on some real strawbale buildings soon.

The ground under the beech trees was covered in leaves and empty beech nut cases. When I was a kid at primary school, my friend and I used to walk past a big beech tree each day. We would collect handfuls of the tiny little triangular nuts to take to school, and sit at our desks picking the shells off and munching on the tiny but tasty morsels. Really beech nuts are small and fiddly and other than showing them to my kids, I have never bothered with them since.

But the prospect of having just a few tasty nuts for my foraged meal was worth a bit of a hunt through the carpet of leaves. I knew that there were still some nuts about, because every flat stone or tree stump had the remnants of a squirrels dinner on it (The beech nut is top right in photo below). But every little triangular nut I picked up was empty and could be squashed flat between my fingers. It is only the fat ones that have a nut inside.

I soon gave up and focused on mushrooms, but really there were very few to be seen. Plenty of hoof fungus which isn't edible.

However I found a small cluster of oyster mushrooms. I wasn't sure they would taste great fried without butter, and didn't want to waste them, so I just picked two smallish ones. I also gathered the tops of some sticky weed, with a plan to make a salad. For the rest of the ingredients I decided to use the weeds from my garden. Apart from the fact that it is illegal to dig up the roots of plants without permission, it just makes sense to combine a bit of weeding with dinner.

My back garden is very shady and home to plenty of wood avens, The roots smell and taste mildly of cloves. Given how flavourless last weeks meal was, I wanted to find flavourful ingredients this week. I had a munch on a wood aven root and it was really rather pleasant and made my mouth feel very fresh. I might try making the recipe for mouthwash in one of the books, but for today I decided to make tea, as the roots are tiny, so won't be filling. I found a couple of small dandelions too. The roots don't taste too bad raw, but I decided to fry them with the mushroom for added flavour. The leaves went in the salad.

My front garden is sunny and the weeds are mainly red valerian (above) and my most hated weed, ground elder. It turns out that the leaves of both of these are edible too. What luck! So I weeded harvested a bucket of them. It is a shame that the ground elder roots aren't edible as it would have looked like a bowl of noodles.

The red valerian and a really lovely texture, but for me it tasted vile, so that was taken off the menu. The ground elder was great though with a mild parsley flavour. According to John Wright, in 'River Cottage Handbook No. 7: Hedgerow', ground elder was introduced to the UK as a popular vegetable, but then despite growing out of fashion it continued to grow regardless. The flavour should help mask the bitterness of the dandelion leaves, as I have no dressing to add.

I started chopping the oyster mushrooms and out crawled some little white maggots. Now Bear Grylls may think 'Great - extra protein', but for me it was not what I had planned for the menu! So I ended up discarding one of the mushrooms and finely chopping and inspecting the other.

In the photo above clockwise from the top right there are wood aven roots, sticky weed tips, oyster mushrooms, dandelion root, ground elder, dandelion leaves and more dandelion in the centre. Once the mushroom hit the frying pan the smell was divine. Frying with water worked, except that it evaporates very quickly, so you have to keep adding more. I decided to add a little extra liquid to give a bit of mushroomy sauce for the salad, and a sprinkle of salt.

Ok so it may be a small portion this week, but actually it tastes great. I could really eat this. The dandelion roots were thinner and straighter, so easier to clean and took on the mushroom flavour. The salad had flavour too because of the ground elder, although the bitterness of the dandelion wasn't completely masked. Obviously frying in butter or adding a dressing would really make this, but I am sufficiently happy :-) What do you guys think? Better than Bear's?


  1. Amazing! Again, it looks like a fabulous dieting plan:) That is a lot of hours work for a tiny salad, but I can smell those mushrooms from here! What is great about what are doing is you will come to know which of the weeds around your garden and woods are actually tasty. I am wondering if you will find any that you are going to add to your regular meals - that would be brilliant. I don't eat many weeds from the garden, although I am cultivating a patch of what I think is an edible nightshade (will double check before I partake!). I have an old recipe book which talks of going to a French market which turns out to be the weekly weed market, where bundles of greens are brought in from the countryside and used for tisanes and medicine and flavourings or soup, like nettle soup. I am very inspired by your edible weed experiment, and might toy with it in my own kitchen. I know I have wild sorrel all through the back garden. I might as well eat it as weed it..

    1. I am certainly learning to recognise more of my weeds and have a nibble to taste them. But at the same time I am appreciating why we learnt to cultivate the tastiest ones and they have become our regular veg. Mind you, I don't think I'll bother with parsley anymore, as ground elder serves just as well and it is one weed I am never going to be able to get rid of completely!