Better Bread Than Dead
I won’t pretend that the last five weeks have been easy. In fact everything has been far harder than I anticipated. This is all because the number one ingredient of any completely wild food diet is not to be found in woodland, field or stream, not even lying ignored, dead and forgotten by the side of the road. In fact, it is neither plant nor animal, neither fungi nor seaweed and, strangely, has no food value whatsoever. And yet, although always present, it never stands still; in times of sadness and moments of pain, like a ponderous tortoise it tortuously creeps, and in times of joy, like a swallow it sweeps – if one wishes to get poetic about it. Which all goes to make this particular quarry far more elusive. It is none other than time itself and, in particular, its successful management.
The foundations of successful time management lie in the ability to be organized generally and to have a plan. And, given that under normal circumstances I’m completely, hopelessly and unforgivably disorganized as well as usually having about 10 rough plans for the day – when one or two would be quite sufficient, things have not been proceeding quite as smoothly as I would have liked.
Speeding up when attempting to slow life down can have dire consequences leading to enforced slowness. Today, or rather, tonight, is such a time; a night for juggling with noughts and hoping for ones. What I mean here is that, again, before even arriving at the presumed central importance of wild food in my year-long experiment there is something else that ties with time in primacy of importance: health. As I sit here sleeplessly with excruciating back pain and a seriously dodgy foot, the author Adeline Yen Mah’s reflections on health chime in my ears with ever-louder tinitustic persistence. Reflecting on being thankful for various things in life, she asks us to think about all the good aspects of our own lives. For each, whether it be a happy marriage, beautiful children, financial security, a fulfilling job or a big fat basket brimming full of wild food, she asks us to imagine that particular aspect as being represented by the figure zero. She then goes on to say that good health is number one and that, basically, if you don’t have this in the first place then all you are left with is a big bunch of noughts: 0000000 0000000uch, 000000000h dear! Well, it’s 3am and I can’t sleep because of this scream-out-loud diabolical back pain that sends me writhing in spasmic contortions of pure agony every time I move. I certainly feel like zero!
Perhaps, given that the way I do things in the first couple of months of this year-long wild food diet is likely to form the foundations for what follows, it may surprise you, given the time-shaken and ill-health of those foundations at the relative outset, that I have already started making bricks to build my wild food sanctuary. Forget mud and straw, water and clay; for sheer density and structural integrity such rudimentary bricks will never compete with my own. What is more, for the greater good of humanity, I have decided to reveal the secrets of their production, including detailed information as to all the superior materials used and the alchemical skills and magic required to create them.
How to make a brick 1
200g Alexanders root flour
200g Acorn flour
12g Oregon Grape skins
1 tsp Carrageen powder
650ml Spring water
5g Badger fat
Pinch of sea salt
Gather Acorns in October, shell, roughly crush and place in a pillowcase. Stake this down in a clean flowing river for 6 weeks to remove tannin. After this, remove from the river, rinse, grind to a fine paste and spread on trays to dry. Once dried render down to a fine flour in a coffee grinder or similar. In March dig for the Alexanders roots. Scrub clean, grate and lay out to dry for a few days. Once completely dry grind as for the acorns. At any time of the year gather Carrageen seaweed. Dry thoroughly and powder. When collecting the seaweed also gather some seawater. In the winter this can be placed in a tray on top of a radiator to evaporate off the water to leave the salt. At the height of summer this can be solar-evaporated. In April gather ripe Oregon Grapes (Mahonia species) with a good yeast bloom on the skin. Collect water from a natural spring. Now, to make the brick you must combine all these ingredients in the following way: First, boil a teaspoon of carrageen powder in 2 cups of spring water with 2 teaspoons of acorn flour until it thickens substantially. Set aside. Next, in a large bowl mix the acorn and alexanders flour. Add the grape skins, water, salt and warm carrageen mixture. Knead well. Grease a brick tin with badger fat and spoon in the mixture, leaving to slow prove for three days – just as your favourite Italian baker might treat his best breads. If all is going to bricky plan then, at least in the rising department, after this time absolutely sod all should have occurred. On the other hand, a white blanket of mould ought to be completely covering the surface. Using the appropriate magic words: shit, fuck, damn it, scrape this mould off and bake in the oven at 180 deg C for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, cool on a wire wrack, then start building your house or eat.
Of course, this is really a description of my failed attempts to make and bake my first bread from 100% wild ingredients. In a bizarre twist on the Arthurian legend I do not have the problem of being unable to draw my bread-sized Excalibur from the stone-like bread but actually getting it in there in the first place. And yet, I must indeed set out on my own particular wild food grail quest. It is the quest for that magical substance: gluten. Without this or its functional equivalents leavened bread, cakes, pasta, pancakes etc are all off the menu. I’ve a discouraging sense that the quest for this particular grail will be long and arduous. Saponinic spirits, tannic terrors and oxalatic ogres all raging and inflamed by the ergot evils of St Anthony’s blazing fires are the foes that await me, not to mention a whole legion of potentially organ liquifying phytodemons, unnamed and unknown. If your botanical knowledge doesn’t stretch this far, I’m alluding to the most common toxic substances I have so far come across in my search for a useful wheat-flour alternative: saponins (Horse Chestnuts), tannin (Acorns), calcium oxalate (Lord’s and Ladies tubers), ergot fungus (wild grass seeds). Phytochemicals are simply a range of substances that plants produce that have no food or nutritional value, often serving to protect the plant from disease. Actually, I’ve just had a very disturbing thought. What if one of the main symptoms of poisoning from one or several of these toxic chemicals is excruciating scream-out-loud muscular spasms of the back??!! Ummm….then again perhaps it’s due simply to a lack of magnesium in the diet???
OK, it didn’t rise and did feel almost as heavy as a brick but, even in spite of the mould, once cooked it wasn’t all bad. There is definitely a strong correlation between the enjoyment or appreciation of food and the amount of work that has gone into its creation. Anthropologist Karan Hardy at the University of York and co tried the bread. Your can hear their fulsome praise here: Farming Today: 05 May 08 Fergus the Forager
I should have got them to taste some of my elderflower, badger fat and cuttlefish egg biscuits. Would they have received such a favourable appraisal? If you have read my foraging column in this month’s Ecologist: Respect Your Elders, in which I have written out the full biscuit recipe, you may have reacted like some of my friends with thoughts and comments such as, “What is the point of it?” or, “But nobody’s going to bother making that recipe!” In the latter case that’s probably true. Nevertheless, there is a point. The recipe for biscuits there – using 100% wild ingredients, is meant simply to illustrate how difficult it would be to produce or obtain even the very common foods that we take so much for granted if, perhaps, through natural disaster or social collapse the conventional ingredients were unobtainable. The attempt to make such things is not a retreat to war-time frugality – in spite of our current so-called war-on-terror, but is a valuable education in itself. Of passing interest, the other day I came across a bit of filming that channel 4 had done with me for their website
– an act of attempted redemption on their part, apparently, after giving unchallenged air time to a climate change denier or some such bogey man. Anyway, I’d forgotten about this as it was filmed over 6 months ago, but if I recall I did talk about the joys of such experimental research challenges – I can’t listen to it because the sound doesn’t work on my computer.
Right, back to the gluten search, to that very education I have just mentioned. Where to begin? As far as I know no native or naturalized British plants contain gluten. The use of carrageen and its capacity to gell and set in my first bread was an attempt to mimic gluten’s ability to trap carbon dioxide in rising dough. The use of Mahonia berry skins was my attempt at getting an active yeast culture that would produce the carbon dioxide in the first place. Both failed – the first may have worked but given that no significant yeast fermentation occured its presence became irrelevant. No doubt I could have made a sour dough mixture that would have fermented under its own steam so to speak. In any case, the yeast fermentation is not a problem as I have succeeded here many times before – for instance using mahonia and bullace plum skins started off in wild apple juice solution or using birch sap yeasts.
The first clue and sign of hope that a lightish wild bread can be made came last year. Whist house-sitting for friends I noticed that they had an organic rye flour loaf. In fact, it was the most delicious rye bread I’ve ever eaten. It was so light and airy that I assumed it must be half rye and half wheat. To my amazement it was 100% rye. I had always assumed that rye didn’t contain sufficient gluten to create a light crumb structure, instead producing very dense breads. However, according to Katz in his wonderful book Wild Fermentation, “in rye bread, gluten is not the primary component that traps carbon dioxide produced by fermentation. Rye contains polysaccharide compounds called ‘pentosans’ which are extremely viscous and enable dough to hold gas.” Unfortunately no grasses of the Secale genus grow wild in this country (rye is Secale cereale) but perhaps plants with similar acting pentosans do? Unfortunately Rye Grass is a non-starter. That’s in a different genus (Lolium) and is used as a sedative and vasodilator and, reports Elpel in his fantastic ‘Botany in a Day’, could be poisonous in excess. The search goes on….
Yesterday I attempted to make brick number 2 or, being a little more charitable, I could call it breeze block 1. Yes, after refining the ingredients and method I managed to get the thing to rise by a whole centimetre. Now that’s progress! This time it contained the following ingredients: 50g roasted alexanders root flour, 70g acorn flour, 60g reedmace rhizome flour, 40g reedmace seed-head flour, 30g evening primrose seedpod flour, 2 tbspns shredded dried dulse, 1 tsp carrageen powder, sea salt and spring water. Unfortunately it collapsed prior to baking. Nevertheless, although almost equally dense it does taste better than the first one.
This is going to be a hard one to crack and any helpful advice or suggestions would be most gratefully received! Right, I’m off to bed. Maybe I’ll dream about wonderful fat loaves falling like manna from heaven. Actually, last week I had the most delightful morel picking dream. Four days later it came true with unsurpassed generosity but that’s another story.
So speaking of manna from heaven it’s time for my bedtime prayers…..
Our Father, who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy Name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread….