Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


At last! The spring messenger has arrived. On the 14th February I noticed some clumps of Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) flowering at the bottom of my driveway, yellow stars embracing the weak winter sunshine. I'd been away for a few days, so they may have braved the Yorkshire elements even earlier. Nevertheless, as the internet has so usefully reported to me, in around 1800 Gilbert White (natural history diarist extraordinaire), recorded the flowers as appearing on February 21st in Selborne, Hampshire. Spring is being sprung rather earlier nowadays.

This year's Valentine, dear Celandine
So, the spring's foraging opportunities are increasing and on the wonderful Eat Weeds I came across this Stroganoff for my Lesser Celandine... I haven't yet tried it, as it feels wrong to deplete these sunny harbingers so soon. Perhaps when I've found a glossy green carpet of them I'll have a go, or maybe someone else would like to try it out?

Last week I went to the Soil Association annual conference, and among the absorbing sessions met some interesting and inspiring people. One of whom, the lovely Holly, is part of a project called Fruitmap. It started in Slovakia, as a way to map forage-able fruit and nut trees in towns and cities. It's spreading, and aims to be a global network of accessible fruit, so if anyone wants to get involved please do! We can add trees wherever we are in the world, ensuring more people have access to beautiful, free, crumble ingredients...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Illustration and other wonders

Choosing the images to beautify the Battenberg was a slightly bamboozling experience that felt like treasure hunting on the internet. I wanted to find some old and evocative natural history illustrations that would convey the variety of ecological wonders that may be encountered on the Battenberg's voyage. I love the ability of illustration to express a quite magical natural world, full of intricacies, and occasional inaccuracies. So sometime this year, a pilgrimage to the new 'Images of Nature' gallery at the Natural History Museum is definitely in order.

In searching for something to go with the venerable picture of Darwin's own Beagle, I came across some wonderful sources of public domain images, and thought I would share some of the loveliest. The first is Vintage Printable, from which these beauties come:

Educational beetles
Magnolia by Mark Catesby
Octopus called Polypus levis Hoyle
Indian Owl by Johann Reinhold Forster - any ideas Radish?
Medieval - that's all I've got on that one!

Another source led me to Mr Edward Lear's work (not just a purveyor of fine nonsense, but also exemplary painting). So here can be found his famous Psittacidae.

Red-capped parakeet - Platycercus pileatus
Salmon-crested cockatoo - Plyctolophus rosaceus

The rather splendid Old Book Art brought that elusive lepidopteran resident of Norfolk and a whole book of mushrooms:

Swallowtail - Papilio machaon
Fly agaric with Linnean name Agaricus muscarius

And so to a delight of a different, and more edible kind. Wonder cake, my most frequently made, flexible and reliable recipe. It is particularly useful, because it happens to be vegan, and can be adapted to use whatever ingredients you have left over from other baking endeavours. It can be chocolately, fruit and nutty, spicy or all of the above. This one for example, is an almondy slice with pieces of crystallised ginger and flaked almonds as a slightly crispy topping:

Marzipan and ginger wonder cake

You will need much of the following:
175g self raising flour
3 heaped tablespoons cocoa or ground almonds (or some of both)
175g golden caster sugar
5tbsp sunflower oil
1tbsp red wine/sherry vinegar
1/2 tbsp vanilla or almond essence (or orange or peppermint if you fancy)
200ml cold water

And a selection of:
Flaked almonds
Pecan or walnut pieces
Chopped cranberries or other dried fruit
Chopped crystallised ginger
A few squares of very dark chocolate
Other goodies

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4 and line or grease a square/oblong cake tin/pyrex dish.
- Sift the flour, cocoa and spices (if using) into the tin. Add the almonds (if using) and sugar and stir to combine.
- Mark out three parallel grooves in the mixture. Add the oil to one, the vinegar to the next and the flavoured essence to the third.
- Pour over the 200ml cold water, then carefully stir everything together until well mixed, ensuring you get into the corners.
- If adding topping, sprinkle over the mixture your combination of nuts/fruit/ginger.
- Bake for about 20-25 minutes and leave in the tin on a wire rack to cool.
- If you are going for chocolate, melt your squares and flick across the cake using a teaspoon to create a Jackson Pollock-alike pud. Leave to set then cut into slices and have with a hot beverage.

You can do anything with this cake. If you use the chocolate version and add just a small amount of ground almonds, it becomes a slightly gooier affair. I've made a couple of nice variations recently, one almond, with flaked almonds, cranberries and chocolate topping. The other, chocolate, with cinnamon and nutmeg added to the flour, and cranberries and pecan topping. And the ginger one above of course, which is about to get munched.

Ooh and lastly, recently my mother made a batch of biscuits which made the biologist in me smile, as they reminded me of either cells with jammy nuclei, or honeycomb with jammy larvae...

Mmm, organelles in my biscuit!

Now light is creeping back into the days, and I've seen some Roe deer brazenly browsing the neighbour's field at two in the afternoon, there might even be a few more ecology related posts in the near future... watching for Spring.