Michaelmas Fruits

Pinkgills, Earthtongues, Fairy-clubs and Parrots

IIndio Pinkgill Entoloma chalybeum

Indio Pinkgill Entoloma chalybeum

In these islands there are no hedgerows adorned with hips and haws, orchards laded with apples or woodland walks full of glowing leaves and the chance discovery of spiky, sweet chestnuts, milky hazel nuts or golden chanterelles. Our native woodlands are confined to deep ravines where the rowans, birches and aspens flaunt their buttery, autumn colours in solitude. The autumn landscape does not blaze with the colours of the forests, it is more subdued. In the fading evening light the hills are draped with cloud, their dark slopes indigo behind the west facing ridges defined by the warm glow of the setting sun.The lowland fields and the machair are still green, their summer floristic glory reduced to scattered bleached, crackling seed heads. However, nestled among the grass there are strange fruits, as gaudy as any Michaelmas fairing. Pickings for the larder are slim, perhaps a handful of field mushrooms or a young puffball, these strange fruits are soul food.

Earthtongue Geoglossum fallax; Crimson Waxcap Hygrocybe punicea; Golden Waxcap H. chlorophana; Snowy Waxcap H. virginea; Crimson Waxcap H. coccinea

Earthtongue Geoglossum fallax; Crimson Waxcap Hygrocybe punicea; Golden Waxcap H. chlorophana; Snowy Waxcap H. virginea; Crimson Waxcap H. coccinea

Jewel coloured waxcaps, delicate fairy-clubs, sinister earthtongues and pinkgills, are indicators of ancient grasslands which have not been ploughed or saturated with fertiliser and are managed by grazing or mowing. Up to 95% of the ancient grassland in the UK has been destroyed by to agricultural improvement or developments since the 1940s. Once commonplace, they are now rare and precious habitats and once destroyed it is almost impossible to restore their fragile ecosystems. The presence of waxcaps (Hygrocybe species) and other specialist grassland fungi, particularly the various species of pinkgills (Entoloma), fairy-clubs (Clavariaceae) and earthtongues (Geoglossaceae) are indicators of unimproved grassland, and are used in the assessment of their conservation status.
As their common names suggest, this groups of fungi can be recognised by their physical characteristics. Waxcaps have a thick cap with a waxy texture, sometimes covered with a slimy coat, as in the parrot waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina). They appear in a range of bright colours from yellow to scarlet and pale pink to ivory. Entolomas also appear in variety from indigo or very dark blue to dark mouse brown to pale grey or even white, but have pink gills on the underside of the cap. Earthtongues and fairy-clubs hide in the grass poking up like tiny fingers reaching for the sky. Difficult to find, but always a fascinating discovery.

Meadow Coral Clavulinopsis corniculata

Meadow Coral (Fairy-club) Clavulinopsis corniculata

It will soon be National Fungus Weekend (12-13 October), so even if you can’t find some ancient grassland to explore you will certainly find some interesting fungi in your local woodland. Fungi are difficult to identify, but even if you can’t give them a name you can enjoy their beauty and marvel their variety. Please remember that if you are tempted to collect edible fungi you need to be certain about your identification. Mistakes can be fatal.


The Fruits of the Vine

TomatoesDescribe the humble tomato as a love apple, pomo di mori, pomi d’oro, or pomo d’amori and it immediately conjures visions of beautiful fragrant, juicy fruits, Mediterranean skies and the mingling aromas of basil, garlic and fresh grassy olive oil. A far cry from the  perfectly engineered, orange globes manufactured in Dutch mega glasshouses.
The tomato was introduced by the Spaniards in the 16th century from South America, but outside Italy it was not widely eaten until much later. In his eponymous Herbal (published in 1597) Gerard described the Apple of Love as “chamfered, uneven and bunsped out in many places”,  “of ranke and stinking savour” and claimed “they yield very little nourishment to the bodie and the same naught and corrupt”. With typical English disdain he noted that Spaniards and Italians esteemed them a delicacy eaten “with pepper, salt and oyle.”
Originally grown as an ornamental plant, the fruits were thought to be poisonous and there was more interest in their alleged aphrodisiac properties than culinary merits. It is now one of the staples of the supermarket shopping basket and an invaluable member of the five-a-day cohort. However, after generations of commercial breeding we have succeeded in producing a perfectly formed, tasteless super food incapable of stirring the most ardent romeo.
We can now enjoy tomatoes all year round nurtured on a carefully controlled hydroponic diet in an artificial environment, with a long shelf-life and an enviable number of air miles, but somewhere along the way we lost the plot. The marketing men sought to seduce us with fruit on the vine, but all they sold us was the scent of the tomato foliage. However, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.
So what is the lovelorn romeo or epicurean to do? The best tomatoes are grown outdoors in southern Europe and most of the time just left to get on with it, although I suspect that any French gardener will tell you it’s all down to the terroir. Our climate is just not suitable for growing real tomatoes and by the time you get this far north, even under cover, it’s another attempt at climbing mount impossible. However it is worth all the nurturing, anxiety and stained fingers to grow something that not only looks like a tomato but tastes wonderful.
I have been trying to grow tomatoes for the last four years with varying degrees of success. For the first two years I produced beautiful green fruit and perfected my chutney recipe. Last year I harvested a respectable amount of ripe fruit from one of my four varieties, but was this just the result of an exceptionally good summer?
This year the Head Gardener and I did some careful analysis and decided a new approach was necessary. We came to the conclusion that because our soil is so very well-drained and alkaline all the liquid feed we applied drained away and any available potassium was made unavailable by the high pH of the soil. So we tried grow bags (organic and seaweed enriched) and although not the sunniest of years we managed to have a mini glut of ripe tomatoes. Although optimising the growing conditions is important, this far north the choice of variety is also critical. So far we have tried a dozen or so varieties and a small plum tomato (Lucciola) is the most successful: prolific with a very good sweet flavour. I’ve not manged to find a suitable variety of one of the larger tomatoes yet but there are plenty to try.
The vines are still producing, and we’re still picking enough to have fresh tomatoes every day and any spare are roasted with garlic and herbs and frozen. The small ones are frozen whole without pre-cooking and will add a wonderful splash of flavour to winter soups and casseroles. There will doubtless be enough for a few jars of chutney too. Soon it will be time to clear the vines and look forward to next year. As much as I love tomatoes, I have become accustomed to abstaining during the winter months and to anticipate the first home-grown fruits in July.

Beans Glorious Beans

broad bean podsBroad beans are one of my most reliable vegetable crops and I am usually rewarded with a rich harvest – enough to eat during the summer and sufficient to freeze as one of our winter staples. They are one of those vegetables that you either love or hate – eat them small with just a little melted butter with a garnish of finely chopped mint or parsley, stirred into pasta, risotto, couscous or quinoa, in salads with radishes and salty goats cheese or serve the more mature beans in a rich parsley sauce with ham or in garlicky purée with black pudding (preferably Stornoway black pudding). Delicious with fish but divine with bacon.
In my windy garden the best variety is The Sutton, it does not require staking and although only 12 inches (30 cm) tall it produces plenty of pods from its beautiful white and purple flowers. The flowers have the most heavenly perfume and are just the right size for our bumblebees.
I sow the seeds on cardboard tubes full of compost in the polytunnel in April or May, depending on the whether it is a warm or cool spring, and these are hardened-off as soon as the first true leaves appear. Again depending on the weather I have either two or three sowings, sometimes four in a good year, and try to harvest the pods regularly to ensure a continued supply of small tender beans.
The cold spring and an enforced absence in August resulted in a frantic picking of the entire crop in two days before the onset of the first autumn gale. So this year I have rather more mature large beans than normal. These still freeze well and are perfect for use in the more robust winter dishes, but it is necessary to remove the tough outer skins before use. As the freezer was full, I decided that I would try to dry some of the beans. Normally beans are left to dry on plants, but this is not an option in this part of the world and even drying the pods in the shed in our moist coastal atmosphere is probably not a viable option. So I experimented with putting beans on a rack in the warming draw of the oven, but this wasn’t a success, so it was a case of trying to squeeze more beans into the freezer.


Berber Broad Bean Purée (Byssara)

Fresh Broad Bean Purée with Herbs

The Lost Garden

lost garden

I’m sure there were carrots here

While the gardener was away the chickweed made a bid for world domination in the vegetable beds and secured its empire with an outer defense of 3 foot high nettles. Now this is obviously a tribute to the fertility of my soil but I must confess that after a month of neglect I was probably lucky to be able to get into the garden without a machete.
After two days of weeding, muttering and general grumpiness, the carrots and parsnips were freed from their green blanket and appear to be none the worse. So order is now being restored and the gardener’s tuneless whistle accompanies the squeaking wheelbarrow once more.

Rhubarb and Knot Grass caterpillarHowever, it is not all sweetness and light in the croft garden, the Head Gardner is not a happy man, something is eating the rhubarb and doing so in broad daylight. Now I have to admire this small hairy caterpillar (Knot Grass Acronicta rumicis) not just for the impressive chomping ability and robustness of its digestive system but for having the audacity to reduce the Head Gardener’s prize rhubarb to lace curtains. Fortunately it does not appear to affect the stems so our supply of breakfast rhubarb crumble is safe.
The cottage garden has still to be returned to good order and remains in a state of riotous decadence. It is suffering from excessive fecundity and exuberance with an air of fin de siècle weariness. However, with the help of an equinoctial tempest, sobriety and decorum will be restored at some point.

Homeward Bound

Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie

I’m sitting in the railway station.
Got a ticket to my destination…….

Is there anything more desolate than a deserted, draughty railway platform at dawn? Waiting at Glasgow International Airport for 24 hours for the fog to lift on Benbecula must be the modern equivalent of wallowing in the slough of despond.
Although I am not a nervous flyer landing in dense fog in a small plane on an island airstrip left me wondering whether I was going to experience my final rite of passage. Would purgatory be equivalent to sitting in an airport departure lounge?
I had returned to find that summer had fled, the season had changed and the islands were suffused with autumn magic. The north wind whipped my hair and restored the colour to my cheeks. The rain washed away my world-weariness and the skeins of migrating geese lifted the burden of cares from my shoulders. At last I was home.
According to Eugene O’Neill “obsessed by a fairy tale we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace”. Going home to the island is like opening that magic door.