Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Into Africa.....

Hey everyone,

apologies for the non-foodiness of this post but I though I'd give you an update on me boffin training. I'll be heading out to India on the 2nd March to see Radhika for a couple of weeks then it will be onwards to Kenya on the 21st! Radi will be joining me in April :)

First I'll do a taxonomic placement at National Museums Kenya so I can identify Kenya bees and common pest taxa (how many species can there be in an equatorial tropical country?). Then I'll be living and working with an institute called icipe based in Nairobi.

Fieldwork will be the Taita Hills, a biodiversity hotspot part of the Eastern Arc Mountains to the south of Tsavo National Park. We're going to try to piggyback on a big Finnish project that's using altitudinal gradients as a space for time substitution to investigate and model potential impacts of global climate change. I'm hoping to work with pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests in avocado orchards, yum!

I'll try to keep you posted of any opportunities regarding fieldwork in Kenya and if anyone is really desperate to get out of the UK I could help develop some funding applications.

There are plans afoot for a gathering on the penultimate weekend of February ask Muffin McMinihen for the details if you want to come along.


here's a recipe I enjoyed over christmas:

Griddled artichoke and red onion paella

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A Wilmot Winter

Mr Wilmot and I love a good free-food forage, but what could be better than having a supply of mushrooms in our own home? We mused upon this prospect last spring, after meeting a delightful mushroom farmer in a market in Bath, who almost agreed to take me on as an apprentice. His infectious enthusiasm for the profession (combined with his amazing hat and even more amazing variety of produce) seemed to entice me towards a simple existence cultivating fungi.
This, combined with the risk of fatal poisoning wild foraging presented, made me more determined to try and grown my own. But as a summer of elderflower-related distractions came and went, and autumn brought with it new experiments with rosehip syrup, I’d almost forgotten about the mushroom farming dream come winter. Until, lo and behold, a “mushroom kit” arrived on the doorstep shortly after Christmas; Mr Wilmot was keen to put our vague musings into action.

Chestnut, white button and shiitake varieties were waiting, to be covered with soil before being transferred to a warm, dark boiler cupboard. Attending to moisture levels regularly, we waited for the mycelium to grow through the soil, and for the tiny mushrooms to appear at the tray edges. A watched mushroom tray never sprouts, and after what seemed like weeks of wondering what we’d done wrong, suddenly the silky smooth chestnut caps appeared and ballooned, and the tray on the windowsill started sprouting shiitake practically overnight, which grew larger, it seemed, by the hour.

Our minds soon turned to what to do with these home-grown delicacies. It would have been rude not to attempt my favourite of all creations, the mighty mushroom risotto, but it was the simple stir fry that surprised us most. In absence of white wine for the risotto, a good slug of rich port gave it an almost magical pale purple colour, and the shiitake (added fairly near the end, after ladlefuls of stock) gave it a delicious flavour. To recreate the risotto, you’ll need:

Arborio risotto rice (a large mug’s worth will feed 1 giant or two little ladies)
A few shallots
A small glass of port
A sprinkle of tarragon
A stock of vegan Swiss marigold bouillon, with a big teaspoon of miso brown rice paste mixed in (a good few teacups worth will be needed, depending on the quantity of rice)
A big handful of shiitake mushrooms
Half an aubergine (or whatever else you have to bulk it up a bit)

Chop the shallots finely and sweat in butter for a few minutes, before adding the Arborio until the grains become translucent. Add port and leave to simmer until adsorbed, before turning the heat down and addling ladlefuls of stock one by one, stirring frequently. Continue stirring and ladling for twenty minutes, before adding shiitake, diced aubergine and tarragon for the last ten to fifteen minutes of cooking time. Try to leave the pan to rest a few minutes before serving, but don’t expect hungry boys to wait!

For the simple stir-fry, we combined the chestnut mushrooms with celery, broccoli, lemon juice, creamed coconut, tahini, light soy sauce and miso paste, to create a fragrant yet subtle medley of flavours. Served with light noodles it’s an almost virtuous health-giving feast for winter nights. Mushroom fans take note – cultivating these perfectly formed little beauties was so effortless it made our fairly easy-going vegetable patch seem like hard graft. There’s really nothing quite like eating your own home-grown ‘shrooms.

The Bleak Midwinter

Just as the memory of the icing white valley has faded, it seems right to write about the snow. Winter arrived with a vengeance, blanketing every branch, rock and tangle of vegetation in my garden, and everywhere else, with cold cotton wool. In those frozen days of tumbling pedestrians and plaintive birdsong I decided to follow the advice of some lovely birdy boys (DN, Gareth and PTM) and have an avian baking session. And so the seedy muffins made their appearance.

Everyone loves a seedy muffin...
This highly technical recipe required:

Some wild bird seed
Some suet
A handful of currants

Melt the suet and stir in the seed and currants before dolloping into muffin cases and leaving to set. In some I put a loop of string so they could be hung on branches. Others I left without to break up and leave on the sundial for those who prefer to hop.

In December I spent a long weekend in Brussels, which while providing the Belgian culinary delights of frites, waffles and chocolate breasts (yes, really) did not offer much in the way of natural history diversions. This was until I took a chilly morning walk in one of the parks, where the air was rent with the screeches of Indian Ringnecked Parakeets (Psittacula krameri). I watched several frequent visitors to a cosy looking nesty hole, chuckling to myself as a curious beak emerged from its gloom, while the local joggers gave me a wide berth.

The only green in the trees that day
Back to the Yorkshire chill, and the unusual discoveries one makes as the weather laughs in the face of the memory of summer. We have a tunnel in our garden, which leads to a spring under the hillside. One morning, wandering about in the snow I noticed some interesting icy formations that had popped up along the floor of said tunnel. On closer inspection these phallic sentries were relatives of the stalactites and stalagmites of more adventurous caves. In school geography lessons some people get taught how to remember the different between these as 'Tites hold on tight, and mites might reach the top'. My school teacher had a different phrase, he said all he needed to know was that 'Tights come down'. Ahem.

The festive season called for a festive addition to my crumble repertoire, and this has been the favourite combination of the last couple of months, created on a weekend spent with PTM and Shelby:

Butter or magarine
Demerara sugar
Broken up walnut pieces

3 cooking apples
~ 12-15 dates
A handful of sultanas
~ 1tsp cinnamon
~ 1tsp nutmeg
~ 1/2tsp ginger or mixed spice
Grated rind of 1-2 clementines
Juice of 2 clementines
~ 2 capfuls of dark rum

Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.
- I tend to part-cook the fruit before assembling the crumble. Peel and chop your apples and put in a pan with the chopped dates, sultanas, spices, clementine peel and juice. Cook over a low heat for about 15 minutes until the fruit has softened, but not turned to mush. Stir through the rum and transfer to your crumble dish.
- Meanwhile make the topping by combining the flour, oats and cinnamon. Rub in the butter with your fingertips, so it becomes like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir through the sugar and walnuts, adding a little more butter if it seems too dusty. Add the topping to your fruit mixture.
- Cook for about 30-40 minutes. Custard, yoghurt, cream or ice-cream all go well with it. Not that I've tried of course...

Christmas is often a time that my family and I pad ourselves out with copious layers of clothing and venture out onto the hills to see how long we can last before losing feeling in our toes. This year it wasn't long, and I thought the best way to convey the bleakness was probably a picture. Note some Juncus (effusus probably?) in the foreground, it's all the ecology I can muster from this photo.

Wuthering heights... below Stoodley Pike
Impromptu ice sculpture atop Great Rock
On a brighter note, I did receive a wonderful gift from my sister this year, it's what every wannabe ecologist dreams of...

Eco-plaster with Amanita muscaria
A rather retro dessert was the pinnacle of our culinary creativity over New Year, after about 15 years of thinking about it, my sister and I finally made a Baked Alaska. It was hot, and cold, and really really good.

Snowy dome of gooey goodness
To repeat this meringue monstrosity try:

A medium flan case
500ml tub ice cream of your choice
Some frozen raspberries
3 egg whites
175g caster sugar
Some flaked almonds

First prepare the ice cream pyramid.
- Line a pudding bowl with cling film and fill with the ice cream and frozen raspberries, pressing to the edges of the bowl. Turn out the bowl into the flan case and leave to set in the freezer for about three hours.
- When ready to eat, preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7.
- Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then gradually add the sugar, whisking continuously until it is a thick, glossy meringue.
- To assemble, put the flan case on a lined baking tray and spoon the meringue over the top. Spread so it covers all of the ice cream and case, then sprinkle the almonds over it.
- Bake for 7-8 minutes until browned, then dust with icing sugar and eat immediately.

And now, commence waiting for a verdant spring.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A Yorkshire Autumn

Last autumn sowed the seed of the Battenberg's voyage, as I introduced Pedro and Radish to my little corner of Yorkshire. Our wanderings took us to tea shops, through woodlands to hilltops and to kitchen tables. The spell of unemployment took me to recipe books and experimental afternoons with the Aga. One particularly glorious day, well supplied with snacks, we three headed to Hardcastle Crags, a wooded valley extending to moorland, owned by The National Trust. Many stepping stones, funny looks from dog walkers and ginger beer in the Pack Horse pub later, we'd found huge ant solaria, flowering Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and many fungi, including a bank of moss cushioning numerous puffballs of some sort. We also came across a teepee made of branches and bracken.

The Northern Hairy Wood Ant (Formica lugubris)

Unidentified purple velvety fungi - any ideas?
Tidying up the garden I salvaged the old lavender flowers from the compost's clutches and decided to try making lavender shortbread to welcome my sister home for a short visit. It was lovely, and floral baking will be making a reappearance in my kitchen when the flowers reappear in the garden.

Purple sparkly sugar is perfectly respectable
After stripping the most appetising flowers from their stalks I roughly ground them in a pestle and used this recipe:

250g very soft slightly salted butter
250g plain flour
75g mixed cornflower and semolina (just what I had left)
70g golden granulated sugar
~ 2tsp ground lavender flowers (more or less to taste)

Preheat oven to 160C/Gas 3 and line a 6x10 inch glass dish with baking paper. If you use a smaller dish it'll take longer to cook....
- Mix butter, sugar and lavender.
- Sift flour and cornflower/semolina onto butter and lightly mix until a smooth dough is formed.
- Press the dough into the prepared dish until vaguely even. Bake for about 30 minutes until top and bottom are both light brown.
- Cool in the dish, cut when just warm but remove when completely cold.
- Decorate with what you will, we used Divine dark chocolate, small purple elephants and purple sugar.

In October my father spent a week at a conference discussing sustainable food and gender in Italy. While he was there he learnt to make gnocchi from an Italian grandmother, and when he returned we spent a morning learning from him and feasting on the tiny dumplings for lunch.

Gnocchi with cherry tomato sauce
All you need to make them are some starchy potatoes and plain flour.

- Boil your potatoes until soft, drain and allow to cool completely.
- Next you have to get them into a useable form for kneading, which technically means using a potato ricer. We didn't have one, so used a rotary cheese grater, but I think a normal grater would work too. So, rice or grate your potatoes into a big pile on a floured work surface.
- Now you shake some flour onto your pile of potato and start kneading. Flour must be added and the dough kneaded until it no longer feels sticky, but is instead bouncy and you can feel it stretch slightly. This will probably take a while, maybe 15-20mins.
- When you're happy and no longer sticky, split your dough into three or four and using the flat of your hand roll each portion into a long thin sausage shape. When it's a couple of centimetres in diameter, use a sharp knife to cut small dumpling portions.
- The gnocchi need to be thoroughly floured when then have been cut, so they do not stick together, and laid on a tray for a couple of hours to dry out.
- When you are ready to eat, drop the gnocchi into a pan of boiling water, and remove as they float to the surface, which will take a couple of minutes.
- We ate ours with a sauce of cherry tomatoes cooked in a little olive oil and torn basil. 
- Any uncooked gnocchi you don't need, freeze and save for a midnight dumpling picnic in midwinter.

October offered a great deal of baking opportunity this year, and feeling especially childlike on All Hallow's Eve my sister and I made a lot of very garish creepy crawly biscuits. We did supplement this with a slightly more mature, dairy free pumpkin pie, made with butternut squash. It still had a spider on it though.

Bats in my biscuit tin
A pumpkin stares into the future
Autumn slowly crumpled towards winter, and ice appeared on the inside windowpanes in November. Watching the icicles melt one morning I was surprised to see a disorientated and dozy wasp basking in the early sun on my windowsill. I have his photograph, but we haven't stayed in touch.

Hairy, but is that enough to keep warm?
And then, it was winter.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Beginning

Once upon an early autumn afternoon, a small flock of ecologists gathered over several cups of tea and slices of cake. Their gently rambling conversation revealed several significant truths. That they loved natural history, eco-geekery and adventures. That they loved to eat. And that they also loved to cook, bake and share food.

Another certainty emerged that day. Their lives were about to take them in many disparate directions, across the globe, across ecology and across the culinary world. They wanted to share their stories wherever they were, and what better way to do so than the newfangled medium of a blog. It would combine their enthusiasm for baked goods and bird boasts. And invertebrates, plants, fungi, mammals and all other specks of life.

Discussion and laughter led to a plethora of puns involving ecology and cake. Finally 'The Voyage of the Battenberg' was settled upon. A bit of Darwin, a bit of adventure and a bit of a classic teatime treat. The road to Battenberg was long and arduous and it only seemed right to share the wondrous words that fell by the wayside:
Do Penguins Eat Cake?
Where The Wild Mushrooms Are
Bats In My Baking Tin
The Blind Cakebaker
My Kitchen And Other Animals
The Decent Of Flan
On The Origins Of Cake

So the few have Battenberged down the hatches and all that's needed now is a crew...