Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Cold weather comforts

November is often full of pumpkins, roots and stews, tea as recommended by Radish below, nourishing baking and that dark steel blue rain reserved for the boundary between autumn and winter. And so it has been, with some added dairy-free kitchen experiments, one of the best being a cobbled together pumpkin and leek quiche.

No soggy bottom here...
To make this you'll want roughly the following:
A blind baked pastry case using pastry of your choice
1 small butternut squash or pumpkin
2 small leeks
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1-2 tsps English or wholegrain mustard
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 packet silken tofu (pressed to remove liquid)
~ 1/2 cup soy milk
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C or Gas mark 4.
- Cook the finely chopped onion and garlic gently in a little olive oil in a large frying pan.
- Add the butternut squash, cut into small cubes (1-2cm ish) and chopped leek. Saute everything gently for 10-15 mins until all the vegetables are soft.
- Blend the tofu, soy milk, mustard and nutmeg until smooth. Season to taste.
- Add the tofu mixture to the vegetables and mix before adding to your pastry case.
- Cook for 30-40 mins until golden brown and set in the middle, and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

Silken tofu experiments also led me to the quickest and richest chocolate pudding... All you need is a block of silken tofu to blend until really smooth with a couple of spoons of cocoa powder and maple syrup, and then add in whatever you like best with chocolate, try peanut butter or finely chopped stem ginger. If you blend this and then add it onto a biscuity base and leave it to set for a couple of hours it makes a beautiful chocolate torte.

I got the chance to visit the lovely Collard Hill, scene of my June Large Blue Butterfly adventures this month, for the end of year wash-up meeting to discuss the season. Somerset was damp and green, and my feet remembered many of the hill's lumps and bumps as we walked the transect route in the rain, discussing the successful increase in Large Blues during 2011. Happily, we were also able to find a Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) egg on the Blackthorn hedge, and peered at its intricate golf ball like indentations through a hand lens. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't get that close.

Lepidopterist finger for scale.

There was some further Lepidoptera related excitement when I went out to the woods one evening with the Yorkshire mothmen... It being chilly there wasn't exactly a lot of activity, but by peering at the trunks of Beech, Birch and Ash trees we found the somewhat elusive flightless females of the Winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and Scare Umber (Agriopis aurantiaria). We also found a pair of copulating Winter moths, sometimes you can watch a female drag the male way up a tree trunk, in order to get to her favoured ovipositing spot. Sadly my photos are not amazingly clear as it was rather dark out, but the local moth blog has some good close ups of the females.

Lady winter's vestigial wings
Birch for a bed...
Scarce Umber girls are stripy

Nippy Novembrr eco-endeavours require some dense sustaining baked sweetness to keep one going, which has mainly been taking the form of flapjack. I like them to be slightly crisp rather than soft and stodgy and my favourite recipe works well with either butter or dairy-free margarine. You'll need:

150g butter or margarine
70g light brown muscovado sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
pinch salt
125g jumbo oats
125g porridge oats
200-250g combination of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, chocolate.

Grease or line a 30 x 20 x 4cm baking tin and preheat the oven to 180C or Gas Mark 4.
- Heat butter, sugar and syrup gently in a pan until butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
- Stir in the oats, salt and dried fruit etc. If you want the whole flapjack to be chocolatey then stir in your chocolate here and it will melt through, if not, allow it to cool some more and then plonk choc chunks in so they remain whole.
- Put the mixture into the tin and spread evenly. Bake between 20-25 mins, until golden brown. If you prefer softer flapjack, bake for less time, and if you like crisper, it'll need slightly longer.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in its tin. If you fancy decorating it a little, melt some chocolate and drizzle over the flapjack then allow to cool before cutting.

You can put pretty much anything in this, recently i've tried dried pear and crystallised ginger with dark chocolate, and coconut chips, cranberry and dark chocolate with sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Mmm, time to embark on more winter walks armed with oats...

Coconut and cranberry

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Misty Hills

It is the season of the short rains in Kenya. The Taita Hills are lush and wet. We sleep to the beat of rain drumming on our metal roof and wake up in a house drenched in mist. The red-chested cuckoo is constantly singing its three note song which sounds like 'it will rain'.

Can you see the man in the cliff with a big nose?

It is a wonderful time to look out for creepy crawlies. As soon as the sun comes out of the clouds the garden is buzzing, humming, clicking and chirping with bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, spiders & other arachnids.

Two adorable dogs, a puppy to die for and a whiny but sweet cat have adopted us for better or for worse. Mr Dal is very concerned about their nutrition and feeds them wholesome vegan food as a supplement to whatever it is they are hunting. Unfortunately we do not see many birds from our house, we believe they might have been killed as they can be crop-pests.
The cutest little puppy in Wundanyi

It is also my favourite time of year to have countless cups of tea (actually my favourite would be the monsoon but this is just as good). And not just any kind of tea – a special masala tea with ginger and mixture of spices – cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg. The most comforting and tasty tea would be made by boiling tea leaves with milk/milk alternative and then adding sugar and spices. But if there is a ready spice-mix to sprinkle on teabag-tea, its just as yummy!

Masala tea and peppermint tea with ginger biscuits - perfect for elevenses (And did you know that according to Wikipedia the term 'elevenses' was first used in East Anglia :))

Monday, 31 October 2011

Adventures in Meddling

Crunchy gold, rust and red tree shrapnel is carpeting the pavements, darkness is falling at four-thirty, wood smoke is permeating the valley, and autumn is well and truly here. Being alternately mud-spattered or wrapped up in voluminous knitwear at this time of year is strangely comforting, but before settling into such a rhythm, I spent rather a lot of October gadding about...

It started off in glorious Grasmere, before quick jaunts to Scarborough's shores and ghost hunting with Pudding Pie in York, a delightful trip to Brussels and Ghent, before the main event; East Anglia, the scene of so many MSc moments. Given that I am, alas, once again without work, what better way to spend time than bother those of you who do have eco-geeky jobs? So I started off with Mrs Teacup, who now works in community development for local food in Suffolk. She took me to an allotment, which is getting turned into a community orchard, and we happily weeded away in cold sunshine, while other volunteers dug a very big hole.

If you like orchards brandish your garden forks! Well, that's one.

While at Mrs T's, I gazed with interest upon two huge platters of Medlars, gathered from a tree in Dunwich. They were being left to blet (rot to a delicious ooziness) before being eaten. She very kindly gave me a few, and they've slowly been ripening to collapse in my fruit bowl. Tonight I ate my first 'naked' Medlar, and it was lovely. It has the grainy texture, but not the juiciness of an overripe pear, and tasted delicate, almost like partly cooked crumble filling. There is a particularly evocative and almost joyously lascivious description of the bletted Medlar from an enthusiast who urges one to 'nip the medlar in its side as if you are a vampire and its tender, turgid, russet-skinned being is a plump neck. Now suck its guts out.' Ooh er.

Blet you darn Medlars!
Next up was Mr Watervole, who is very busy and important working for the National Trust at Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast, looking after its glorious wetland haven for waders, vegetated shingle, and decrepit abandoned MoD buildings. And a really big nuclear bomb. Mrs Teacup and I got to experience the Orford Ness ferry, saw much damp red Salicornia, watched diggers build new lagoons and walked through the strange shingle at sunset.

If you ask nicely you can ride in the Landrover...
A short, flat train ride took me to Norwich, where I headed to Goat Manor, home of Luscious Lemon, the lovely Grazing Officer at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. On a truly beautiful blue Saturday we cycled through narrow lanes to Buxton Heath, one of the sites she looks after. In search of the ten or so Dartmoor ponies that graze the heath we wandered around in thick afternoon sunshine, avoiding the mire, but finding no equines. Finally, on our way home we screeched to a halt on our bikes, spying the cheeky faces of the ponies peeking over a gate at a side entrance. They were rather enthusiastically curious, and quite boldly surrounded us. Unfortunately this suggested that they had been fed by visitors to the heath, which is not ideal for semi-feral beasts... Hopefully with a little more interpretation (my favourite!) on site, they will start to keep their distance from people again.

A golden evening on the heath.
They all have names, I just can't remember them...
A rather momentous moment for the blog now, as the first actual Battenberg makes its appearance. . Not homemade, but made especially delicious by eating it off Ms Lemon's wildflower and moth covered crockery! Well deserved after finding two lonesome and chilly Green Brindled Crescents (Allophyes oxyacanthae) in the first moth trapping session at the Manor. One day, it'll be a carefully hand constructed chequered creation gracing the tea table.

Mrs Teacup I hope you approve!

Now that the season of conkers, treacle toffee and dragon breath is upon us, it's time to reacquaint ourselves with those sustaining foods that will, ahem, cushion us against the winter. Behold, the veggie toad-in-the-hole! Oh, there will be more...

Mmm, fluffy and pillowy.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Butterflies vs Summer

Rather unexpectedly, summer has offered us a sunny renaissance. This week has brought the warmth and calm that was much missed during July and August. I spent those months as a field assistant for a UEA project. Like Mrs Teacup, we were studying the behaviour of a range-expanding butterfly species in core and margin populations. In this case it was Brown Argus (Aricia agestis), with Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) as our control species.
First Brown Argus of the season!
Also like Mrs Teacup, the summer activities involved chasing butterflies that had been caught and marked, before releasing them on a host plant or nectar source. As our study species were small, and often rather brown, there were many occasions when despondent field assistants peered around, vainly looking for a butterfly that had lured them into a false sense of security, nectaring for minutes on end, before promptly disappearing into the ether.

Ecology takes you to some exotic places, and this project explored the glories offered by Leicestershire and Bedfordshire. Such were our adventures up and down the M1, to sites that were full of dog poo, Dartmoor ponies, sunflowers and lovely landowners, ice cream sellers, dog poo, mites and brambles, motorbikes, cattle, secret glades, dubious dogging carparks, kites and dog poo. At all of these places we wandered, waving our butterfly nets to numerous cries of 'are they fishing?!' from children passing us by. We even got a little bit of sun, when we could watch our butterflies basking surrounded by flags and ragwort...
Boys watch butterflies
Bumblebees, geese and other lepidopteran delights distracted at times, bright Small Coppers, Ruby Tiger moths, visiting Clouded Yellows, Purple Hairstreaks at dusk and many ghostly Chalkhill Blues.
Icy Chalkhill Blue - Lysandra coridon
Another Chalky distracts me
A day off's visit to Canons Ashby, south west of Northampton, provided a gleeful episode of bonding with other visitors gathered around a huge Mulberry tree (Morus genus). Next to the croquet and quoits we stained our fingers and faces with beautiful ripe Mulberries, surreptitiously glancing around for National Trust staff ready to quell our feasting. As I am not currently imprisoned in a William Morris papered drawing room, I am happy to say we got away with it.
Here we go round the mulberry bush, guiltily stuffing our faces.
I returned to Yorkshire in September, to find an empty house and a fecund garden. One afternoon's foraging produced quite a haul of goodies, runner beans, roses, broad beans, strawberries, windfall apples, lavender, and some rather suggestive courgettes, the trombetti plants having rather taken over! Dinner that night was two bean salad, for which you will need:
broad beans
runner beans
fresh mozzarella
raspberry or redcurrant vinegar
balsamic vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper

- Pod and prepare your beans and lightly steam them. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
- Toast your walnuts in a hot oven for about 5 minutes. Remove and cool before using.
- Make a dressing with the honey, vinegars and olive oil. Season to taste.
- Rip up your mozzarella and mix everything together, adding in some torn basil.
Change cheese/herbs/nuts as you wish.


The beans and courgettes are still going, the apple tree is 'rude with fruit' and tomato and pepper plants on the windowsills are laden, oh, autumn's bounty is nearly upon us!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Pedro in India

India was an amazing and immense experience, it would take a 1000 pages to describe everything!

Main point is everything went surprisingly and almost mysteriously well with Radi’s parents, family and friends. They were all very excited, sweet and accommodating. So we are now officially finance and fiancée! Provisionally the wedding will be at Saj Resort in Mahabaleshwar, 5 or 6 hours inland from Bombay, on the weekend of the 13-15th of January 2011. We’re hoping to have a “small wedding” of 100-150 people.

The landscape of Mahabaleshwar is stunning, it’s high in the ghats with deep valleys, huge waterfalls (Lingmala Falls) and forested plateaus and hillsides. We visited at the start of the trip and loved it. It’s a small town of less than 15,000 full of strawberries and sandals.

After Mahabaleshwar we were driven down to the coast to Tarkarli, a relatively undeveloped resort quieter than bustling places like Goa. Rajeev, one of the families drivers, was hilariously inept at directions (but great at avoiding seemingly inevitably collisions) so everytime Radi fell asleep we ended up getting lost (a lot). Eventually we arrive at a government resort of little bungalows, complete with hammocks outsole, right next to a long stretch of beach. The beach was bustling with people playing cricket, ecstatic kids, swimmers, camel rides, cart rides but best of all where the white-bellied sea eagles and kites gliding close overhead. The next day we took a little boat ride following the coast to see dolphins and gull colony, beyond the shore and beach palm trees loomed mysterious through the thinning morning mist. Next on the agenda snorkelling in shadow of the awesome Sindhudurg Fort, an island completed ringed by thick old stone walls with regular round towers rising straight out of the sea. The water was a bit turbid, and most of the coral bleached (apart from spreading fan-like corals) but judicious use of bread attracted huge shoals of colourful fish to us as we paddled in the intense midday sun.

From Tarkarli we headed 160km south along the coast to Goa, we stayed at a swanky hotel apartment near the famous shacks, clubs and restaurants of Baga beach. Parth and Almitra (Radi’s brother and sister-in-law) came to join us after a day and Goa became a blur of restaurants, bars, rum and karaoke (I gave it all for Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue). We visited a really cool bar perched atop a cliff right next to the glittering ocean, an authentic Tibetan restaurant and classy jazz bar which served fancy desserts to die for (including a vegan coconut selection with a yummy Australian coconut cheese which tasted like Wensleydale). Rajeev got the car stuck in the beach sand and was freed by an industrious group of guys who must have set it up as a trap, they demanded 500 rupees for their troubles and gleefully ran off to buy booze from the nearest beach shack, it was all pretty amusing. Parth met an old school friend who coerced us into a night club full of an amazing assortment of clubbers from all corners of the world, the best was a deranged disco-dancing wanabee cowboy. We did manage to visit a quiet little beach hidden around the corner from the craziness of Baga and swam as the sunset into the sea. Radi and I also managed to take a bird watching trip one morning, unfortunately the guide was a reptile expert and wasn’t all that interested or good at birds. We did get to see a Changeable Hawk-eagle and Vernal Hanging Parrots though, very cool.

After Goa we took a taxi and struck south-east inland through farmland and huge verdant hill forests (real forest not little the grotty little remnants we have in the UK!) to get to the Hornbill Resort near Dandeli, which was freakin’ amazing by the way. Radi had booked us into a little slice of paradise, a beautiful rustic tree house cradled in mango and Terminalia boughs above a deep blue river with forest hills all around. Just a little upstream of our arboreal abode dozens of large Malabar pied hornbills played and foraged in the trees of a lush riverine island worrying a pair of Brahmini Kites nesting nearby. White-browed wagtails perched on bare branches poking from the swirling currents, cormorants and herons commuted back and forth and kingfisher could be heard calling all around. We were visited by Malabar giant squirrels in the morning and Gray langurs played the canopy beyond the window. The loo had the best view ever, “” if someone hasn’t invented it they should. Radhika was so excited, she was bouncing of the walls! We did lots in our short time there, kayaking, swimming, white water rafting, morning bird walks, night walks to see giant flying squirrels and nightjars and a visit to a Malabar pied hornbill dustbath a dusk where about 50 birds gather to clean.The white-water rafting was brilliant and exhilarating, we started just downstream of a huge dam and travelled over 10km through 8 rapids. Rahul & I manned the front probably thinking we looked cooler than we did, Radi was at the rear and then there were 3 very weak uncoordinated young indian guys making up the rest of the paddlers making the adventure that little more exciting (avoiding getting bashed by their paddles was a bigger challenge than the rapids!). The ride was stunning, cool, clear, fast flowing water, sparkling in the sun, forest rising all around, no sign of man. As the river was high submerged copses and flooded forest were everywhere, some of the overhanging riverine trees were festooned with scale-like epiphytic orchids so dense that the trunk looked like it was covered in scaly armor.

From Goa it was another long taxi ride to River Tern Lodge (Bhadra Reservoir, Chickmaglur) approaching the dam the arid landscape turned in verdant green rice paddies and betel nut plantations irrigated from the impounded waters. River Tern Lodge was another triumph of Radhika’s brilliant planning. A water landscape stretched out towards the mountainous horizon, the tree clad tops of drowned hills poked from the reservoir and forest ringed the shores in all directions. The lodge was a collection of 30 or so little wooden houses sympathetically set amongst trees and scrub (considerately labelled for the botanist visitors) perched on a hillside above the reservoir. I took a noisy, bone crunching, morning jeep safari on which it was almost guaranteed not to see the tigers in the Bhadra Reserve. As expected no tigers, but the forest was beautiful with the morning light patterning through the canopy. We saw a whole lot of tiger food, spotted deer, sambar deer, barking deer and bush pig and there were some fantastic storks, Wooly-necked and Lesser Adjuntant, near the waters edge. Around midday we had our personal boat safari around the reservoir to see Ospreys and the colony of breeding River terns and Little Pratincole.

View from the room in Bhadra

Malabar Pied Hornbills having a dust bath, Dandeli
Blue-tailed bee-eaters, Goa

Bhadra Sanctuary

Note: Pictures and text by Pedro

Friday, 1 July 2011

Orange-tip chasing

Mrs Teacup spent April and May in deepest Scotland chasing Orange-tips polewards with a UEA research group, investigating the responses of range-expanding butterflies to climate changes. In comparing populations from the core and margins of the species’ distribution, we hoped to quantify increased dispersal in margin populations, and establish whether a correlation with morphological characteristics (wing lengths) could be detected. We expected margin populations to be flying further and straighter, with a longer wingspan, to aid their dispersal to new thermally suitable habitats. Sciency stuff aside, what a glorious species to eye up for 8 weeks! The challenge commenced in what was forecast to be the hottest April on record – an amazing stroke of luck.

Admiring these insects was a joy - characteristic bright males and the more understated females, both with gorgeous green mottled underwings aiding flawless camouflage. This species has a huge amount of charm. It is no surprise then, that the males were chosen as a pin-up in a public awareness campaign in 1990s for range-expanding species, adorning the front of thousands of postcards sent to the public asking them to report sightings in Scotland. Over 1000 sightings were reported and even today inquisitive members of the public all agree, “there’s a lot more of them around this year”. And lots we found, over 300 individuals were tracked in 23 days, in Carlisle and Kilmarnock.

Northern populations of Anthocharis cardamines like damp habitats, which required much chasing along rivers and streams with wet feet! Upon catching the critters (along with many Green-veined whites), individuals were cooled in a glorified picnic cool-bag to calm them down, before being marked, sexed and assessed for condition. We then released them on food plant (Cuckooflower - Cardamines pratensis, or Garlic mustard - Alliaria petiolata), or a nectar source, and waited for take off. On warm days, tracking with a GPS antenna attached to our backs (no laughing please) was quite an exhausting exercise – these orangey wonderments fly almost 2 metres a second, often through high swards, across brambles and nettle beds – chasing them was a high risk activity, filled with lots of comedy moments launching ourselves head-first into nettle beds as a patrolling male glides away across the river!

On cold days, the waiting game often took 20 to 30 minutes – what a wonderful opportunity to watch this species at close range, basking, nectaring, and even some ovipositing occurred, not to mention a lot of Orange-tip loving! Males often swoop on a hostile female who curves her abdomen out of reach despite repeated attempts to mate. Watching females on host plant was glorious, flitting from plant to plant, nectaring like mad – if butterflies could smile I'm certain there’d be a lot of smiling faces in the sunny meadows of central Scotland J. All in all, a fantastic few months in the field; birds singing and butterflies meandering, through bluebells, red campion, herb robert, wild pansy, daisies and lots of forget-me-not. Forget it? I will certainly not.

June bugs and blues

How June has flown, in a haze of wind, rain and butterflies... I moved to Somerset at the end of May and was immediately thrown into the whirl of Large Blue butterfly rangering, as they had emerged early, with the first sighting on the 27th May.

My days have since been filled with transects, thunderstorms, sheltering beneath the Turkey Oak, Large Blues a go go, sunburnt noses and a lot of chasing flutters in the distance. Here are a few of my favourite pictures from Collard Hill so far...

View from the office - the 'Land of Counterpane'
Freshly emerged on Wild Thyme
Open wings!
A prickly boudoir for love
Wasp Orchid - Ophyrs apifera var trollii
Marbled White nectaring on Small Scabious

The Land of Counterpane
by Robert Louis Stevenson  
When I was sick and lay a-bed, 
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.