Wild food update

Ooh, so now we’re onto the good stuff, the tender nibbles of early spring have given way to more robust vegetables – something you can make a proper meal out of!

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The best spring vegetables! Sea Kale (L), Rock Samphire (R) and Sea Beet (centre)

On tonight’s menu: A coastal veg trio of steamed sea kale flower shoots, rock samphire and sea beet tops.

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From shore to table within an hour, with a juicy mushroom and fried egg of course!

Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) shoots are a dream for someone who loves purple sprouting broccoli as much as I do. The flowering stems are tender and sweet, although as with most wild foods, they do have a stronger, more bitter flavour than their cultivated cousins.

Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is perfect as a vegetable at this time of year, with the fresh new growth crisp and not at all fibrous. It has a strong aromatic flavour and is another edible member of the carrot family. It is very different from Marsh Samphire which grows in salt marshes and estuarine mudflats.

Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima) is the wild ancestor of a range of modern beet cultivars (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) including beetroot, sugar beet, chard and mangelwurzels (great word!) which is an animal fodder crop. It makes a great vegetable when the leaves are treated in the same way as you would spinach or chard.

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All three growing within the same square yard of shingle beach

In other wild food adventures I have pickled some Three-Corner Leek and  Ribwort Plantain flower buds. Pickling is a great way to preserve foraged goodies and also to completely change the way they can be used. I will most likely use these to add to salads for an extra kick of flavour.

Another of my favourite spring vegetables is Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) shoots. Known as warabi in Japanese it is a popular vegetable in East Asian countries. To make it palatable, it needs to be treated by being blanched in boiling water with bicarbonate of soda and then rinsed and soaked in a couple of changes of cold water with bicarbonate which removes the bitterness and toxins.

Although it doesn’t have much flavour, bracken has a great (to the Japanese palate anyway) slimy texture and is a good absorber of flavours from sauces and other ingedients. One of my favourite ways to serve it is simply cooked, sprinkled with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) with a bit of soy sauce poured over.

Another good Japanese vegetable for this time of year is Burdock (Arctium lappa) root. Known as gobō in Japanese, it has a sweet earthy and mild flavour. The roots should be dug in the first year of growth for this biennial plant as second year roots become very tough and fibrous. The most popular way to prepare gobō is as kinpira gobō, matchstick size pieces of burdock root and carrot are cooked together and flavoured with chilli, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil.

Finally, a couple of sweet additions to the foraging list. Japanese knotweed shoots are excellent for a very brief period when the young shoots first emerge. They can be cooked and taste very like rhubarb, albeit with a little less acidity. I’ve done crumble, cake and a fool with them this year, no pictures sadly 😦

As an invasive non-native species which spreads very easily and grows from very small vegetative fragments, you do need to be very careful how you pick it and what you do with the trimmings. I tend to thoroughly cook or burn any offcuts before disposing of them. Definitely don’t throw them on the compost!

The last one on the list is a bit of an experiment. I noticed that the pine flowers were laden with pollen and decided to try collecting some. I got quite a lot in a very short time, as you can tell from the videos below! Not sure what I’ll do with it at the moment, I’ve tried adding it to cake batter but the flavour is very delicate so it didn’t really come out. It does look pretty sprinkled on top or on porridge or yoghurt though. Any suggestions welcomed, I have a jarful in the cupboard!

 

The summer season is approaching!

Ahoy! I have had a busy week and have a nice restful day of bellringing on Guernsey to look forward to tomorrow so it’s time to relax and write an Alderney update.

So, what have I been up to in the last month?!

Pretty much everything really: exploring Alderney, butterfly and bumblebee surveying, reserves jobs including finishing off the new Longis Birdhide and maintaining footpaths, tractor cutting, a few bat and hedgehog walks, beach cleans, more ormer hunting, helping set up for puffin season and for the first time today, leading a cycle tour of the island.

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Sharing the white sands and azure seas of the Mediterranean Channel with visitors on a cycle tour this afternoon.

The weather for the last few weeks has been glorious. It’s been sunny almost every day although often the air and wind have been pretty cold. I’ve had my first sunburn of the year and have got out exploring and being shown new places with fellow AWT staff members 🙂 There are two new secret places which we visited in particular which I loved – The ruined Cachliere pier and Bluestone beach. Bluestone is the islands “nudist” beach as it is hidden from view and again hard to find unless you know how. The blue/grey pebbles get lovely and warm in the sun and there and huge wave smoothed boulders of sandy coloured stone to sunbathe on. It’s a lovely swimming beach and the beach drops off steeply so it gets very deep quickly. I had my first swim on 2017 here a couple of weeks ago – it was very cold! We warmed up in the sun afterwards with a hot cup of tea before heading off to lead a beach clean in the afternoon.

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The ruins of Cachliere pier viewed from the approach above
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It’s great to explore and hard to find unless you know the way down!
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We enjoyed a classy glass of prosecco and enjoyed the warm evening and the different view
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The descent to Bluestone beach.

 

Survey season has well and truly begun, I have two weekly butterfly transects to walk and a monthly bumblebee transect. Ideally these should be done on warm, sunny and calm days, we’ve definitely had the sunny but not necessarily the warm and calm!

Here is one of my survey sites a couple of weeks ago – not may butterflies there!

I also see some other interesting things along my transects like this:

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Mucilago crustacea also charmingly known as Dog’s Vomit slime mould

I do love a slime mould! They are a bizarre single celled organism that most of the time live freely and independently. When conditions are right and they meet mating partners, they grow into a ‘plasmodium stage’ of a mobile slimy mass of interconnecting strands. This mass moves over the food source until it runs out which triggers spores to be produced. The plasmodium stage of many species can be very distinctive but is ephemeral and you will only usually see it for a day or so before if darkens, produces spores and the remains dry up.

I’ve encountered a fair number of different insect species in the last few weeks so I have a separate post coming on those – sorry, like the moths this will be more for my benefit than yours!

In the meantime have some photos of Alderney sunrises and sunsets:

 

The pace is picking up!

Argh! I did it again, a month without a blog.

Well, my only excuse I that I’ve been very busy. Although that’s not quite true, mostly it’s because instead of using Sunday evening as a relaxing time at home to cook, watch TV and write a blog post I’ve been going out and doing more exciting things.

Anyway, just a quick moth update for now since this is something that has definitely just picked up this week.

So since I last wrote I have run the trap another 3 times. On 24th March, I caught nothing. Very disappointing but it was a cool night and I also forgot to switch the trap on before dark which means I may have missed some species which tend to fly at dusk.

On 31st March I had 9 moths of 6 species, pictured and listed below:

2 Early Thorn (1♂, 1 ♀)

2 Early Grey

2 Common Quaker

1 Powdered Quaker

1 Hebrew Character

1 Shuttle-shaped Dart (♂)

Most recently the trap I ran on 8th April had 32 moths of 14 species including the stunning and crowd-pleasing Emperor Moth.

Full list and pics below:

7 Early Grey

5 Engrailed

4 Hebrew Character

3 Common Quaker

3 Waved Umber

2 Shuttle-shaped Dart

1 Muslin Moth (♂)

1 Emperor (♀)

1 Knot Grass

1 Coronet

1 Chinese Character

1 Light Brown Apple Moth

1 Least Black Arches

1 Early Tooth Striped

I’m afraid that’s all you’ll get today. Hopefully I’ll be back with a better update soon!

More of the same – this weeks adventures

This week has been another busy week, I’ve been setting up bumblebee transects around the island so that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Beewalk surveys can be included in our survey programme this year.

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Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queen laden with mites. These don’t harm the bee unless there are so many they become too heavy for her to fly. They feed on pollen and other debris in bumblebee nests. When the nest dies off in the autumn, they hitch a lift with the queen as she hibernates and wait for her to emerge and set up a new nest in the spring!

Warning: Lots of acronyms coming up!

The Alderney Wildlife Trust (AWT) participate in a number of regular surveys every year including Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) Field Surveys in July, The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Breeding Birds Survey (BBS) and Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) and our own Long-Eared Owl monitoring programme. As well as adding bumblebee surveys to the programme this year, I also hope to be able to carry our baseline vegetation and floralistic surveys in our Longis Reserve using Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Phase I and National Vegetation Classification (NVC) methodologies. Add some dabbling in moth trapping, pond surveying and pitfall trapping for beetles and I’m going to have a pretty busy season!

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View down to Crabbie and the breakwater from the Community Woodland at dusk

On Tuesday I went out for the first Long-Eared Owl survey of the year. No owls sadly but I did take a bat detector with me and discovered that there is a fair amount of activity on mild days now. I led an early bat and hedgehog walk this Friday for some visitors but unfortunately the weather had turned colder and the wind picked up meaning that there was no sign of any bats or hedgehogs!

On the practical side of things I have got in some good practice at using the tractor and topper and flail in the last couple of weeks and also got going on our garden at the farm and my veg patch. I’m very excited to see how things grow over the next few months!

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Tractor time on a sunny day
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My new raised bed with some rows planted with veg already – beetroot, cabbage, broad beans, carrots, turnips, spring onion and lettuce
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All sorts of veg sown and waiting for germination – courgettes, tomatoes, lettuces and broccoli

Every day there have been more and more signs that spring is here – some of the things I have spotted this week:

Local flora happy families

  • Boraginaceae
  • Geraniaceae
  • Brassicaceae

Some interesting invertebrates

I was especially excited to find the Glanville Fritillary nest as this is a rare species in the UK, confined to a few populations on the south coast. They are a pretty butterfly with complex patterning on their wings like most fritillaries. The larvae feed solely on Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and the butterflies can be found at a few spots on Alderney. These were right by the road in the Longis Reserve, I’ll try and keep my eye on them over the next few months. The caterpillars will mature towards mid-April and pupate between mid-April and May. Adults are usually seen on the wing around the end of May to beginning of June.

Of course there have also been some wild food adventures this week including wild salads and fresh nettle soup!

 

Finally I’ll finish again with this weeks moths: Only 3 this week, Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica) and Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi) again and a new one – Early Grey (Xylocampa areola). Apologies for the repetition but I’m doing this so that I learn to recognise them and get familiar with their names so you’ll have to bear with me!

I’m looking forward to next week and getting some more tractor time and enjoying the spring sun (hopefully!)

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The sun beaming down on the inner harbour last week

Wild food, sea life and mothing

It’s been another busy week with another mixed bag of weather.

I’ve done a bit more foraging and cooking this week, finding an assortment of treasures including jelly ear fungus and fresh young radish shoots.

Wild rabbit will also be on the menu at some point. It ran out into the road as I was driving back to the farm one evening last week. There are no foxes or other mesopredators here so it was still there the following morning and as rabbit is a rather lovely meat for cooking in.a stew I thought I may as well make use of it!

This week has also been one for exploring our shores here. We’ve had a couple of survey sessions looking for Green Ormers (Haliotis tuberculata) at Clonque bay and Longis Bay, the former in our Ramsar Site and the latter being one of the Wildlife Trust’s Reserves.

Although we found no Ormers at Clonque and only one at Longis, it was still great to get out and explore the rocky shores and the creatures that live there. I’ve picked a few of my favourites here, some of these are pictures from earlier rockpooling trips too.

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Clonque Bay at low tide

Here are the Ormers we found when we last had a survey back in October – they’re tiny! Ormers have been a traditional food in the Channel Islands for centuries but now they are becoming more scarce. They can be up to 10cm long and can be gathered during any month with an ‘r’. They are important on Alderney because this the most northerly site in Europe that they are found, they are not present in the UK.

 

Finally: mothing.

I ran the moth trap on Friday for the first time this year. Despite the dry and mild night there were only 4 moths in the trap, these were Engrailed Beauty (Ectropis bistortata), Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi), Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica) and Early Thorn (Selenia dentaria). The Early Thorn is a particularly distinctive moth as it holds its wings closed like a butterfly when at rest.

Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up a weekly moth trapping session from now on to work on my ID and learn more about the species we have. There will be more surveys starting soon to and spring begins in earnest so more on all sorts of things to come!

Spring greens – a foragers paradise

The last week or so it has really felt like spring has sprung. We’ve had a week of unsettled weather, defying any attempt to predict what it will be like from one hour to the next. We’ve had hail, rain, gales and thunder storms interspersed with unexpected periods of glorious sunshine!

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One of those life-affirming sunny intervals over Longis Bay

Today I had a nice relaxing morning after bellringing taking a walk around some places I haven’t been for a while, intent on restocking my fridge with some greens for this week.

I started with a visit to Ladysmith – a historic ‘Lavoirette’ and ‘Abreuvoir Publique’. This is a shady wooded site rampant with Winter Heliotrope and Three-Cornered Garlic. Here I found my 3 main spring veg plants: Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and of course, Three-Cornered Garlic (Allium triquetrum).

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Hogweed (top) and Cow Parsley (bottom) surrounded by Three-Cornered Leek at Ladysmith

Three-cornered Garlic is one of my favourite wild vegetables. It’s not native to the UK and spreads rapidly and can be invasive. Here on Alderney it’s ubiquitous, flourishing all over the island. This is one plant you can pick as much as you like of, the entire plant is edible with a sweet and subtle garlicky onion flavour when cooked, next time I go out I might take a small trowel with me to get the bulbs too. I eat it sparingly in salads and cheese sandwiches or in generous amounts cooked as a vegetable in all sorts of dishes from pasta to omelettes. The one thing to watch for when picking it is where it grows in proximity to bluebells in wooded areas – make sure you know what you are picking! If it smells garlicky it’s ok 👌

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Can you separate your Three-cornered Garlic from your Bluebells?

Hogweed and Cow Parsley are both in the Carrot family (Umbelliferae). This is a family of plants which includes some of the tastiest vegetables but also some of the deadliest so make sure you know what you are picking!

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Young furled hogweed shoots are the best ones to pick

Hogweed and Cow Parsley are both very common and found in a variety of habitats and they are both at their best at this time of year. The young leaves are picked when still mostly furled and a bright fresh green. To identify the plants correctly make sure you have at least 2 point of identification and compare carefully with potential imposters. For Hogweed, the main plant it might be confused with is Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which is an invasive species found mostly along rivers in the UK. Cow Parsley can be trickier and can grow alongside similar looking and very poisonous plants such as Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Hemlock Water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). If you want to know more about these plants and what to look out for, there is a good guide at Galloway Wild Foods.

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From L to R: Cowparsley, Hogweed and Three-cornered Garlic

I also picked some other bits and bobs which are useful greens either cooked or in salads. These include:

  • Dandelion leaves (Taraxacum agg.) which have a bitter taste but are good mixed with other greens in salads.
  • Oxalis leaves – I’m unsure of the species without any flowers but it’s likely to be a non-native introduction, there seems to be plenty around! This is related to Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) which is native to Britain and has a sour tang, similar to sorrel.
  • Chickweed – a weed of bare ground and shady places, it has a fresh mild taste and is great in salads, there is a fair bit of it around but it can be difficult to find in places that would be safe to pick – there’s lots along the roadsides which is also where the dogs walk!
  • Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) – most that I’ve seen here is Sea Radish (ssp maritimus) although without flowers or seed pods I can’t say for definite which this is. Like many Crucifers they have a cabbage-y flavour and are great as a cooked vegetable when the leaves are young and tender.
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a common sight all over the island and the fresh fronds have an aniseed flavour which can be used to flavour all sorts of dishes, it’s particularly good with pork.
  • Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) also known as Wall Pennywort is also a common site around the island, particularly in damp shady places where the leaves can grow up to 3” across. It’s edible and although I’m not convinced it’s particularly tasty it can add a pleasant texture to salads.
  • Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a classic wild vegetable with a distinctive flavour. The stings are neutralised on cooking and it can be great to add to pasta bakes or used like spinach as well at the classic nettle soup.
  • Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a frequent sight all over the island. On footpaths where the vegetation is regularly trampled, the leaved don’t grow very large but in some long grassland areas they can be very worthwhile. I like them in a cheese sandwich where their sharp lemony tang goes wonderfully with a rich nutty hard cheese.

 

Here’s looking forward to a good years foraging on Alderney and some tasty meals!

Sunny winter days

The last week has been glorious! The perfect kind of sunny bright and cold days that make you forget what it’s like to be wet and miserable. That make it impossible to go outside without a huge grin on your face from the sheer loveliness of it all. A few snaps from getting out and about this week:

One of my big projects at the moment is the refurbishment of the bird hide at Longis pond. The Longis Nature Reserve was the first reserve to be established after the Alderney Wildlife Trust formed in 2002. The hide pre-dates the Trust and was built in 2001 by the Alderney Conservation Volunteers so has done pretty well for nearly 16 years of service!

The new hide is planned to be much bigger with improved access for wheelchair users. With the formation of the Alderney Bird Observatory last year, Alderney has become a new and exciting destination for birders and bird ringers and hopefully these improvements will give visitors a more comfortable experience.

With any luck, the hide will be ready and open by 1st March but there’s a lot of work to do before then!

I’ve also been making the most of the wild food opportunities here. Coastal locations are great for all kinds of edibles and it’s hard to walk out the door without stumbling on something good to eat. I’ve been using garlic chive (three-corner leek, Allium triquetrum), sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia) regularly  and have been sampling some seaweeds recently as well as trying limpets and cooking outdoors over an open fire. Hopefully much more of these kind of adventures to come!

Some cooking adventures:

  • Chicken roasted with garlic chive and sea beet veg
  • Limpets cooked Japanese style with dulse and garlic chive
  • Vegetable curry  and quick breads cooked over a fire in the garden using my new dutch oven

So, I think that’ll do for now… I do think once a week might turn out not to be often enough but we’ll see how it goes. Till next time then!