Once again, life other than the reality that is the internet has forced me to neglect The Gravel Farm, but I do have reasons.
I have been doing stuff. Mainly stuff involving work and nappies, but stuff nevertheless.
I've also been away!
Last week, as a sort of well done for not eschewing my responsibilities by being there for some children I allegedly fathered, I got to escape for a couple of nights down to East Devon to spend some time with the denizens of River Cottage.
For those of you not familiar with River Cottage, it is essentially a telly programme where a tousle-haired single-minded chap called Hugh guilts people into killing animals and eating every last part of them, only nicely and in such a way that the animals die with smiles on their faces, happily whispering "This is how I dreamed of going" as they expire.
Not only is it a form of entertainment, but it is also a working concern, a smallholding that developed into a business which concentrates on farming and cooking, with particular emphasis on growing their own ingredients and local sourcing of sustainable foodstuffs. And it's set in a pretty corner of Devon:
As a christmas present, I had been given a day out with John Wright, who is the River Cottage seashore and mushroom foraging expert. He has a blog.
I've been a fan of Mr Wright's since having been given a copy of his superbly written book Edible Seashore, which is both entertaining and informative, tricking you into learning things by being fun to read. Sneaky really.
I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing which natural habitat we would be taken to, which remote corner of the wild we would visit to glean the secrets of potentially edible vegetable species.
Straight away, we had a look round a car park.
Er . . .
John explained that car parks were often full of interesting plants, possibly due to the "edge effect" of management, where spaces are created (presumably for cars) which allow varieties of vegetation to grow that might otherwise be shaded out by other, more dominant species.
For a moment, I became concerned that the day out was to be one of convenience for the coach driver, and we would spend the entire time scouting the car park like vegetarian doggers, but John explained this was just the start and, from then on, the shore line beckoned!
We listened eagerly for advice on what we could safely snaffle.
The first plant he took great delight in describing to us was Water Hemlock:
Now, forget your deadly mushrooms with suitably terrifying names like Destroying Angel, Death Cap, Fly Agaric and Nasty Colin (possibly). Although they can turn your liver and kidneys into little more than interesting purple lumps for the coroner to identify after 3 days, water hemlock makes the toxins in these fungi look like Maltesers by comparison.
Even if eaten in relatively small amounts (e.g. a bite) it can cause a bit of a tremor, a bit of a seizure, and then a substantial amount of death in just a couple of hours.
A. Couple. Of. Hours.
And this stuff grows all over the place.
That's okay, I thought. Nature provides. It will no doubt be brightly coloured and vivid, like poison arrow frogs and various species of snake that let you know eating them is likely to be both bad for you and them, so why not come to a mutually beneficial arrangement and steer clear of each other, thank you very much.
Yep, show us this strange deadly plant, I thought, and I will commit it's dazzling foliage and obvious warning signs to memory.
So John showed us some:
And it looks like parsley.
Water Hemlock is obviously more of the "eat me and I'll teach you a lesson that neither of us will be around to learn from" school of natural wonders. It might not survive an attack by the committed or suicidal vegetarian, but this egregious salad ingredient will damn well take you with it.
After showing us what not to eat, John then moved on to more comestible sorts of plant life, including one of which no bad can ever be said of it; wild hops:
We momentarily bowed our heads in respect to this awesome plant, giving silent thanks to the glorious gift bestowed on us by its more domesticated descendants; beer.
As promised, we then made our way to the beach so John could tell us what things were good to eat and what weren't.
To tell the truth, there's not much in the way of poisonous seaweeds, and most things are probably edible on the seashore if you're adventurous enough and haven't got a sense of smell. Or taste. Or touch. John was there to show us the more appetising things we could get our teeth into however.
That's right, gutweed.
It's the green stuff on the rock that looks like Shrek sneezed on it.
Apparently, that is the source of genuine crispy seaweed, not the shaved cabbage or spinach usually offered by chinese restaurants. We collected some and had it prepared for us later that day, and it really was very good.
Seaweed is marvellous stuff, and there are lots of edible types other than just lava bread. One type we tried straight from the rock was called pepper dulse, and it really tasted like peppery mustard, or mustardy pepper maybe. Whatever, this unassuming little plant paid for its tastiness as we kept nibbling at it for the rest of the day.
Another useful seaweed is carrageen, valued for it's use as a setting agent in puddings, like a sort of vegetarian gelatin. I was given the post of Officer In Charge Of Carrageen Acquisition and the appropriate accoutrement (a big white bucket). An hour or so later and I examined our haul:
Mmmm . . . tasty.
Okay, so it looked more like Tina Turner's wig than a viable foodstuff, but when it had been boiled up (or down, or out, or something) and used to make our pudding later that day, none could complain when it appeared in a delicious panna cotta:
The day was not all about plants, for they are restricted in their ambulatory ability and therefore of limited challenge to the skilled huntsmen and dedicated forager.
For this reason we moved on to the big game, and went hunting animals:
The bucket on the left contains numerous brown shrimp we caught by swishing a shrimp net through the sands in thigh deep water, and the bucket on the other left (your right, as the crow flies) contains a couple of shore crabs and a velvet swimming crab.
Now, I've been fishing for these critters since I was a child, and became adept at using a crab line loaded with bacon rind, hauling them up and comparing size and numbers with other like minded children before declaring myself the winner (invariably) and releasing them back into the sea, happily full of pig fat and half trained to get caught again the following day.
It's a good job I didn't realise just how palatable these poor buggers were, because if I had I wouldn't have let many of them go, I can tell you. They would've all ended up the way these ones did:
The crabs have a decent amount of meat on them, considering their size, and the shrimps, although tiny, are extremely tasty. Because they're small, you can forego the peeling and just eat them whole, but I felt it better to peel their faces off in order to remove that accusing look common to most crustaceans after they've been boiled.
You know the look.
We retired back to River Cottage HQ for a cookery demonstration (which I didn't need because I live near a supermarket and have a microwave), a superb dinner, punctuated by samples of our own collected ingredients only cooked by proper chefs who really knew their way around the Very Hot Cupboards that all kitchens seem to have.
Apparently I've even got one in mine.
The day was hugely enjoyable, and shared with lots of people genuinely interested in flora and fauna of the seaside, as well as how to eat it for free. The staff were knowledgeable and attentive, and seemed to genuinely enjoy having us around, which might just demonstrate an astute grasp of customer service but was appreciated nonetheless.
An agreeable conclusion was finishing the day off with a beer made specifically for River Cottage by one of my favourite breweries. Stinger is crafted from nettles and leaves a slightly disconcerting but nevertheless pleasing tingling sensation on the tongue:
More importantly than that though, is the fact that it's beer.
That evening, I did a spot of fossil hunting in Charmouth, had a bath at my B&B, took my book and walked into Lyme Regis, found a small quiet pub and wallowed in what can only be described as the splendour of solitude.
These sorts of days don't come along very often, so it pays to make the most of them.