Thursday, 30 June 2011

Wild food from the Park: May

Just catching up with posts about our wild food project, in which we are trying to generate food and drink every month from wild ingredients collected in our local park, King's Park in Stirling. Having had something of a culinary success in April with my first ever souffle, a wild Spring greens souffle, I thought I'd try it again, but using the wider range of plants available in May.

And it got a bit out of hand...

In a 30 minute foraging session in the park, I picked twelve wild plants: young nettles and white dead nettles, young, tender ground elder leaves and stems, comfrey, yarrow and dandelion leaves, chickweed, young plants of cleavers ('sticky willy'), the softer, youngest leaves of hawthorn, wild sorrel, the slenderest, most tender of common hogweed stems and wild garlic leaves. Back at home, we realised that our garden's herb bed was quite well advanced, so we added in little pinches or a few leaves of 18 different herbs: wild rocket, sorrell and red sorrell, four different varieties of thyme, sage, woodruffe, garden mace, tarragon (very sparingly - it has a very powerful taste!), chives, lavender, chervil, curry plant, savory winter, carroway and curly-leaf parsley.

So, a 30 plant souffle - a bit over the top, but it serves to demonstrate quite well the wide range of edible species that are out there. The preparation was otherwise as described for the April dish and, again, it turned out both well and delicious:

The final dish, garnished with fresh parsley from the garden

And we enjoyed some ancillary wild food action in May with ingredients collected elsewhere - namely the leaves of a succulent coastal plant, one of the Atriplex or goosefoot family, which is widespread around our coasts and a close relative of the edible garden weeds and wild food staples, Fat Hen and Good King Hal, effectively inland versions of the same family. Very nutritious and quite tasty. We harvested ours at the top of the sandy shore down at Tyninghame in East Lothian:

We added the leaves to a bean and vegetable soup, made with some home-made chicken stock. No photo I'm afraid but, needless to say, it was delicious... Looking forward to telling you shortly about June, when some of our favourite local wild food ingredients become available.

Nature wins again... Plankton 1: Nuclear Power 0

Occasionally, just occasionally, this nature boy blog has the chance to be reasonably topical.  I have a blog post in preparation about a wonderful coastal walk we did last week in East Lothian, from which I have extracted one small element to post early. One thing we noticed was that the high tide line of every sandy beach along which we walked was thick with stranded dead or dying jellyfish. They were mostly moon jellies, the very common jellyfish Aurelia aurita. It typically looks like this when stranded:

Stranded Aurelia aurita (moon jellyfish), Gullane beach, 26 June2011

Huge shoals or swarms of these jellyfish are very common in our coastal waters in some summers and mass strandings of this species or other jellyfish species are not uncommon.

Here are a couple of photos of stranded jellyfish en masse at Gullane beach in East Lothian last Sunday (26th June):

Like other jellyfish, this species does have a fringe of stinging tentacles but, in this species, they are not capable of delivering a sting to humans. When the wind is blowing onshore for long enough, these moon jellies, which are very poor swimmers in a current and are thus effectively a part of the zooplankton (albeit very large zooplankton), are forced into the shore and dropped by the falling tide. So what, I hear you ask?

Well, you might have picked up the news today (BBC, Reuters, all the main newspaper websites) that Torness Nuclear Power Station, about 15 miles along the coast from where we were walking, had to shut down both of its Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors on Tuesday afternoon as a swarm of moon jellyfish was clogging the filters of the cooling system's seawater intakes.

According to the BBC's website coverage, the filters: "are designed to prevent seaweed and marine animals entering the cooling system. If these screens become clogged, the reactors are shut down to comply with safety procedures." The Beeb also reported that the "East Lothian plant's operator, EDF Energy, said the shutdown was a precautionary measure and there was never any danger to the public."

It was not a radiological incident... Phew - no need for "Marine Plankton generated this generation-spanning nuclear contamination says nuclear generator" headlines...

But this mass plankton invasion has probably closed one of Scotland's few remaining operational nuclear power stations for a week! Like I said, Plankton 1: Nuclear Power 0...

Incidentally, the BBC coverage also reported, somewhat stupidly, "It is not known why there are so many jellyfish in the area". Duh, it's summer (recent weather notwithstanding) and jellyfish swarms often happen on the East Lothian coast in summer. My Dad recorded numerous incidents over more than 20 years of working on that coastline. And I have no doubt that EDF know that it is a likely occurrence in summer and hence have their contingency shutdown plans. Best not let the obvious facts get in the way of a good mystery for the news though...

Incidentally, my wee brother also picked up on the mass strandings during one of his coast rides on his fabulous Pugsley sand/snow bike, and posted about them here on his Coastkid blog.

The whole incident put me in mind of a wonderful character, Plankton Boy, created for a one-off cartoon strip in an issue of Chris Donald's Viz comic back in 1990 (lovely Google identified it as Viz Comic No: 40 Dated February / March 1990, but sadly no picture was available online). Plankton Boy was "raised by innumerable tiny sea creatures" and had special superhero powers based around plankton. Maybe one was corralling jellyfish towards cooling water intakes... as my brother said earlier "Nature wins again!"

Scotland's countryside comes to town - Royal Highland Show 2011

Personal reflections on the Scottish Royal Highland Show 2011

Last Friday (24th June), I spent almost 12 hours wandering around Scotland's Royal Highland Show at the Ingliston Showground west of Edinburgh, next to Edinburgh Airport. This is an annual four-day celebration of Scotland's rural and agricultural cultures, organised since 1822 by the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. According to Wikipedia, the event attracts over 1,000 exhibitors, 4,500 head of livestock, and an annual 200,000 visitors - making it Scotland's most popular summer event and the premier fixture in Scotland's farming calendar. It generates over £200 million in business. Exhibitors compete for the prestige of winning not only prize tickets, but also for prize money and trophies worth over £1 million. It is also the UK's largest agricultural event.

I love it.

Early morning entrants heading for the horse judging.
I love the spectacle, the vast area of marquees, the displays of agricultural equipment, the skills and expertise on display (dry stone walling, fly casting, dog handling displays, falconry, etc).

I love the opportunity to see so much livestock all in one place, including the rare breeds and old varieties.

I love the chance to meet so many colleagues from such a wide range or rural and environmental organisations all in one place. Many of them are working hard in engaging with the public and with rural and agricultural clients but it doesn't feel so much like work. In fact it feels like a bit of a carnival event. It is a great social event for many rural folk in Scotland, with many participants staying on or near the site for the week.

Last-minute attention to detail before the judging ring

But more than any of that, I love the sheer feeling of energy and enthusiasm that percolates the event. I often reflect on all the millions of individual actions that are required to bring together an event like the Royal Highland Show each year at the end of June for four (hopefully) glorious days. Not just by the organisers and the guys (pun intended) putting up the marquees, hammering in signs, designing and printing programmes, cutting the grass in the car parking fields, and so on. But all the work by all the individuals and families breeding their livestock, caring for their animals, preparing them for the show, transporting them and looking after them for the period of the show, then packing them up and taking them home, with or without the reward of a prize certificate. And all the judges, their preparation and homework, building on all their years of experience. And all the companies preparing their displays, building them up, printing their leaflets or packing their food or drink samples. Even all the efforts to move all those acres of pristine farm machinery in and then out again. And then all the individuals and families who decide to come for the day and all the activity and preparation which that involves.

One of my friend Elaine's four prize tickets for her Commercial Sheep competition entries -well done Elaine!
At the Show, all of that is combined together in a heady mix of (restrained rural) enthusiasm, judging rings full of hopeful owners and their washed, brushed, polished and sometimes powdered animal charges, increasingly noisy beer tents full of ruddy faced young and not-so-young men, and posh country women in expensive designer knitwear, long waxed stock coats or jodhpurs, hopeful retailers with their "special price for the show" market-stall banter. And troops of primary school children with their fretting watchful teachers, snaking hand-in-hand through the crowded avenues looking for some rural agency tent with lots of colouring-in opportunities to keep the wee darling busy and quiet for 15 minutes. Sometimes the sun shines and it is lovely. Sometimes it rains and it can be very muddy (think Glastonbury with sheep and cows). This year, the sun shone and it was lovely!

My favourite element of the Show is always the Heavy Horses, more on which later. Here is a selection of photos from the Show to give a flavour of my day.

And they were crossing - everywhere you looked...

Some of the most fun livestock to go looking for, surely!
And yes, it IS a Goat Coat! Either that or it's run off with the bathroom curtain...

Kids, eh? Always climbing over everything...

Rabbit or sheep - you decide!

Some of Elaine's prize-winning Commercial Sheep - that middle one is definitely pure Beltex. What do you think?
A big coo - definitely a very big coo! And a Highland coo at that.

Great to see people working hard to preserve and promote traditional and rare breeds.
Some Luing cattle...
A real mixed herd of Scottish breeds! May the best coo win...
A bonny, well-looked after Hampshire Down sheep from near Stirling (and a prize ticket for their efforts! Well done Jane and Roy)
Important work! Please support them!

Some of the fine Scottish produce on offer -in this case, smoked haddock ('smokies') produced by Spink's of Arbroath. The fish are being smoked over smouldering wood in the covered barrel (which is sunken into the ground) - these are unbelievably tasty...

Some of the rural crafts on display - some beautiful clarsachs (Scottish harps) built by Graham Muir of Ardival Harps from Strathpeffer in northern Scotland

The busy blacksmith's forge, where a competition to shoe all four hooves of a horse in an hour was well underway. The noise and smells were interesting!

Showjumping was one of the final events of the day in the main ring. I'm quite pleased with this shot from a camera phone!

HM The Queen's Highland cow and (above) her 4th place Prize Certificate

And so, on to the heavy horses, my favourite element of the Royal Highland Show. In 2010, the RHS managed to have representatives of all of Britain's heavy horses. This year, it was mostly Clydesdales, although there was a "four" of another breed I didn't recognise.

I think I fell in love with a horse.

This lovely beast was very quiet and appreciative of having her head rubbed. I watched an old man, walking around the heavy horse stalls on his own, stop and place his head against the side of her face and he just stood there for a minute. Maybe he was whispering, maybe not but it brought a lump to my throat and water to the eye. Maybe an old ploughman reliving past memories? Maybe someone who worked with horses in his early life before the tractor took over. I spent a few minutes rubbing her face and neck and talking quietly to her. It reminded me of standing next to the quiet but clearly latent power of an elephant which I've done a couple of times in Asia. For hundreds of years, heavy horses would easily have been the largest animals ever encountered by most people in Britain.

One of the joys of a show like this is the chance to see the enthusiasm and complete loving care and attention being lavished on these show horses by their owners, in preparation for showing. When I walked around the stalls, the place was buzzing with preparations to ensure that the horses were all in tip-top form for their moment in the ring later in the afternoon.

Whitening the feathers!

Waiting patiently for their turn...

Just look at this horse. What a beauty!

Nearly ready! gleaming chestnut with white feathery feet!
Exciting entry of the heavy horse fours and their wagons into the ring. The ground shook...

Beautifully presented animals!

Off goes another four, around the ring for the judges attention

And finally, here is a photo of maybe the largest horse you are likely to see - a 19-hand Clydesdale called Bud, owned by Hugh Ramsay of Millisle Clydesdales. One horse guy who knew about Bud reckoned he weighs a ton and a quarter. And so quiet and calm. The heavy horse hall is the perfect antidote to the noise and business of the show world outside...


Twelve hours at the Show and I didn't manage to see a half of what I wanted to! Next year!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #14

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

'The pheasant cries
As if it just noticed
The mountain'

Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827) ('The pheasant cries' – translated by Robert Haas)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 14
A lovely Autumnal painting of pheasants and fungi. There are two brightly coloured cock pheasants perched up on a tree stump, with two more camouflaged, brown-coloured hen pheasants on the ground in the background. A clump of fungal fruiting bodies (toadstools) have emerged from the tree stump and, to the top-right of the picture, we can see the delicate pink and orange seed capsules of a spindle tree opening their valves to reveal a single seed in each one. The bracken at the base of the stump has turned a wonderful Autumnal golden-brown. I looked at bracken previously, here, when it first appeared in the Spring pictures.

The pheasant, or Common pheasant (Latin name: Phasianus colchicus) is not a native species in the UK. In fact, looking closely at the cock pheasants, the picture shows two sub-species of pheasant, from the black-necked and the white-ringed neck races. I have a new information source for the remainder of the Ladybird book blog posts, a new set of two books, a glorious new publication, 'The Birds of Scotland', produced by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. I’ll review the books properly soon but I’m happy to say already that they are damned good and are going to be extremely useful! And from this source, I can confirm that the common pheasant is a common and very widespread introduced resident to Scotland, particularly in the lowlands of the south and east.

The Romans introduced the pheasant to Britain sometime between 55 AD and 400 AD and, according to the Ladybird book’s accompanying text, this was the black-necked version shown as the left-hand cock pheasant in the picture, with the Chinese white ring-necked version being introduced later in this period of introduction. Although the species has been in Britain since that time, 'The Birds of Scotland' (See? Already useful!) suggests that it did not reach Scotland until the 16th Century, having become well established a century earlier in England. Its population expanded in Scotland through the 1970s and 1980s, but captive-reared pheasants are also released in MASSIVE numbers almost EVERYWHERE to supplement local populations for shooting. Reared pheasants are thought to be quite sedentary, probably moving no more than 5 km from their release point. In Scotland, the pheasant population was estimated in 2000 to be 348,000 to 367,000, about one-fifth of the UK population of 1.8 to 1.9 million but, with the releasing of all those game birds, it is difficult to know how many there really are. The trend in Scotland is probably for a slightly declining wild population.

Those fungi on the stump? They could be any of many possible species but are clearly a species that grows in and on rotting wood (a “saprophyte”). Many other fungi live commensally with trees and other plants, assisting with nutrient transfer to the higher plant while being provided with a habitat on their roots. Saprophyte fungi are essential elements of the nutrient cycles that liberate nitrogen, carbon and other substances from dead wood. Otherwise, we’d be waist-deep in twigs, bark and branches!

The spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) is a shrub or small tree of hedgerows, scrub and deciduous woodland. With a preference for calcareous soils, it is native to England, Wales and Ireland, but only to the very southern part of Scotland, although it has been planted as an introduced species in other parts of Scotland. The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that there has been a considerable increase in the records of this species in Britain in the past 50 years, since the 1962 Atlas was published. This might, however, be due to better recording rather than an increase in its range or populations. 

I’ve recently found a very interesting website, for the organisation Plants For A Future , which promotes the conservation of plants for human use, whether for food, medicine or other uses (my interpretation of their “About us” text). It turns out that the spindle tree is resplendent with uses, including as a source of yellow dye from the seeds, and the bark is an “alterive, cholagogue, hepatic, laxative, stimulant and tonic”, and I only know what some of those words mean... and the fresh leaves and dried fruit and seeds are used “externally to treat scabies, lice, ticks and other skin parasites”. Wow... It doesn’t end there. The whole plant produces a volatile oil used in soap-making and the wood is used for “spindles, skewers, knitting needles, toothpicks, carving” and for artists’ high quality charcoal. Actually, I’m not quite sure why somebody isn’t farming this stuff!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A ukulele, Stephen Fry and a probably-unrequited love

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States is clearly a wonderful academic institution. It is also the oldest higher education institution in the USA and has had many significant figures through its educational doors, including George W and Barack Obama. That great musical genius, Tom Lehrer, is another alumnus of the University (see here for an example).

But perhaps the greatest thing ever to come out of Harvard is this short performance, combining, as it does, two of my favourite subjects - the ukulele and the living wonder that is Stephen Fry. Let's just say that the marvelous Mr Fry, attending Harvard to receive a, no doubt, very well-deserved award (the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University - chosen by a group of students for his endeavours in the arts), also received some rather unexpected attention in the nicest and most flattering way from a lovely and very talented young woman armed with a ukulele, a song and a heart-felt and well-thought through proposal.

My thanks to my friend Murray for making me aware of it and to the young woman concerned, Molly Lewis - bless you for a wonderful performance, and for trying!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #13

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Then the sudden rush
Of the rain, and the riot
Of the shrieking, tearing gale
Breaks loose in the night,
With a fusillade of hail!
Hear the forest fight,
With its tossing arms that crack and clash
In the thunder's cannonade,
While the lightning's forked flash
Brings the old hero-trees to the ground with a crash!
Hear the breakers' deepening roar,
Driven like a herd of cattle
In the wild stampede of battle,
Trampling, trampling, trampling, to overwhelm the shore!"

Henry Van Dyke (from: "Storm-Music")


(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 13

Well, when I started this set of blog posts on these Ladybird books, I had rather hoped to be able to keep pace with the four seasons as I progressed through the four books, starting with Spring. Clearly, although I managed this for Spring and largely for the Summer book, the timetable went out of the window when I was busy in the Autumn. So, here we are, in June and I’m writing about Autumn. Never mind, I hope you are still enjoying these posts regardless of what it looks like outside your window. I will be satisfied if I finish the series in the 50 year time window since the books were published, which was 2009-2011. That means I have the rest of the year to finish the second half of the autumn book and the Winter volume. On, on...

Here’s a wild picture. Until last month’s unprecedented extreme weather conditions in Scotland, I would have said it seems a bit odd to be writing about wild Autumn weather in June but hey ho... Here, a herd of young cows are sheltering behind a high hedge from a gale and lashing rain. Some starlings and magpies are sheltering as best they can behind the cattle. Growing under a fallen, broken tree, there are some puffballs. The only part of this scene that you couldn’t have found here last week was the puffballs – it’s a bit early for those in June! But hey, this is supposed to be a picture from Autumn. In fact, as far as the theme of these posts goes, comparing our natural history today with that displayed in paintings from 50 years ago, I don’t have much to say for this one. I’ve already covered starlings here and magpies here and, as I’ve said elsewhere in these Autumn posts, we actually don’t have good information on the changes in the distribution of many of our native fungi over time, even the relatively large ones like puffballs.

Having lived in the Stirling area for 22 years, I’ve seen many little puffballs around here, but never a giant puffball, the edible (in fact, gourmet) giant puffball beloved of gourmands, and delicious when sliced and fried; until last Autumn that is, when O and I were walking near Dunblane and found the shattered and largely decomposed remains of a giant puffball, but which was still capable of producing clouds of spores. So we took some pieces and scattered them along the edge of the field we found it in and, from late summer, we will start checking for signs of growth, just in case!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Signs I like #23 (and a special Titanic memory from Stirling)

You might have heard on the news that yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the launch of RMS Titanic from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. As we all know, the Titanic's maiden voyage ended in disaster and tragedy following a collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on 12th April 1912, resulting in 1517 deaths among the passengers and crew, and leaving 1517 families on both sides of the Atlantic to contemplate their own personal tragedies.

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for the Titanic, you will find that it lists all the passengers and crew, identifying those who lived and those who died. One of the engineering crew who died was a Mr William Y. Moyes, Senior Sixth Engineer. He is listed in the record as being from "Stirling, Scotland" and lived, in fact, in the street next to the one in which we live, where this featured sign is fixed to the fence of the house in which he once dwelt.

Apologies that image isn't great but the light was very poor. The plaque has a picture of the Titanic at the top. Below it, the wording says:

"Here lived
Senior Sixth Engineer
who lost his life when the liner sank
APRIL 14th 1912
with the loss of 1635 lives",

just one of the many moving stories from that terrible day. Note the discrepancy in the number of deaths (1635 vs 1715). The higher figure is the official death toll, I think.

Lovely to see the flowers that someone tied up there for the anniversary. We'll raise a glass to his memory (and all those who died) next April 12th, 100 years to the day.