Winter BUSHMOOT: Fire Cookery Masterclass

Myself and the lad are fresh back from the deep woods of Cranham Scout campsite in Gloucester. Here we camped in about a foot of thick, curd-like February mud and learned of the further arts of camp fire cookery from Wayne and Beth (and other Chefs!) of Forest Knights Bushcraft School. Whilst my son threw himself into the stream a few times.

SAND PIT FIRE TABLE

The first inspiring idea was the wooden table with a fire on top of it. Er, wooden table? Fire? How do they mix without the obvious happening? In my oblivious state, it took me a while to realise the what I thought was solid wood was actually a wooden sandbox about 6in deep, chock full of sand. Clever. We had our food cooked on this solidly for almost a week and it didn’t burn down. Great if you don’t fancy all the squatting and bending over a fire on the ground, and you can store stuff underneath the table.

Curry night, cooked on the fire sandpit table at back.

DEER BUTCHERY

The guys then brought in two (already deceased) deer, a muntjac and a fallow, and showed us how to butcher them. Fans of my earlier posts will know that I have already done this, badly, with a roadkill muntjac. So it was interesting to see how to do it properly. the main idea was to completely gut the Deer as soon as it is killed to prevent spoiling (which I didn’t do before). Wayne let everyone get stuck in learning how to do it, but I had to go off and pull my son out of the stream again. Here you can see the two skins after they finished and the meat was carried to the kitchen.

KEFIR SWEET & SAVOURY FLATBREADS

Beth showed us all how to mix kefir, vinegar, bicarb of soda, flour, and either rosemary or raisins into little flatbreads which we cooked in a pan with garlic butter and oil. Delicious on a cold and damp day in the woods! The kefir contains healthy bacteria which help you digest your food, and gives bread that lovely sour-dough taste. Marty got stuck right into this bit, (even if he did have to wash his hands three times before Beth would let him near the dough).

SMOKING VENISON

The fallow deer was jointed and the leg joints spread with Jamaican jerk seasoning before they were put in the smoker. The smoker looks like a large metal barrel with metal racks inside, where the meat Is stacked in layers over the internal embers. One of our chefs, Tim, had an electronic control with which he could adjust the temperature of the smoker and time how long it had been in there. It took most of the afternoon to smoke the venison and we ate at 1830.

SPATCHCOCK MUNTJAC

The muntjac was split in half and tied onto a wooden frame, which was hung over the fire pit. Wooden stakes held out the bottom half. At first it wasn’t close enough and had to be brought down lower to cook. Judging the distance can be tricky. There was also a great design for a wooden stake kettle holder which had notches in the back to adjust the height of the kettle. I was worried the kettle would slip when I let it go, but the tension of the bent stake prevented it doing so.

BUSHMOOT DEBRIEF!

Every day we were stuffed to the gills with food. English breakfast rolls, which were very generous, were £3.50, and dinner was £7.50. If you didn’t want to buy it you could bring your own food. The whole week’s camping and workshops cost £120 for me and £70 for Marty (child 5-15), and the camp site had showers and toilets. The only downside was that because of the gale forecast we had to evacuate our camping spots in the woods on Thursday and drag our stuff to the other side of the site. Of course, yours truly left half her stuff in the woods, including the hot water bottles, as we spent most of Thursday warming up in TGI Fridays in Gloucester and only moved when it got dark!

To do the Winter Moot again ideally I would want a bell tent with a stove. You can get one for about £300. Though Marty was absolutely fine, I got cold on some nights, especially when we we on the other side without a fire. Good air beds or self inflating mattresses a must, also lots and lots of spare lanterns, as Marty dropped the batteries out of ours and lost my headlamp right underneath the double mattress for three whole days. My ukulele and tongue drum went down a treat too, as did a bottle of Carnivor Zinfandel. When in the woods in Feb, you need the heat in a decent red…

Winter BUSHMOOT: Fire Cookery Masterclass

Sap from Quick Silver

We can all feel the quickening, so now’s the time to talk about Birch, that fast growing speeding deciduous, first into the fray in the epic poem ‘Battle of the Trees’ from the Celtic ‘Book of Taliesin’. Birch is a useful tree in many ways. It really is first to colonise new spaces, being a pioneer species. It marks January in the Celtic tree calendar, under the ancient name of ‘Beithe’. It is the tree of new beginnings and rebirth.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula) is the most common species in the UK. When young, it forms a slender tree up to 26m high, with a narrow crown and a smooth white-silver bark with horizontal brown darts on it. Older birches tend to spread out more, and their bark is patterned with dark triangles or diamonds.

Close cousin Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) is differentiated by it’s more oval leaf shape, and the softly downy buds in Spring. The other two you will come across in people’s gardens and verges are the Paper-Bark Birch (Betula papyrifera) and the Himalayan Birch (Betula utilis), with its pretty golden-white peeling bark. When I was a kid (and even now, if I had the time) I loved collecting the semi translucent sheets of papery bark and putting them up to the light, imagining making the most delightful artists paper out of them. So apologies, folks, it’s time for a poem.

columns of Viking daydream;

powder greys of gunshot, white satin bride’s regalia

where Brunhilde walked with Beowulf

amongst those slender icy silver halls;

thirsty for the crystal gift of waters

from the Newest born.

Anyway…

What can we do with Birch?

Birch sap can be tapped and drunk straight, purified by the filtration system of the tree. if you are ever stuck out in mid-March (approximately) without access to clean water, this will save your life. No matter how unlikely you are to be that far from a pub. I have tapped birches in the woods near me, and yes, the sap is like very pleasant soft water. Not as sweet as I’d expected, but it tasted decent.

So how do you do it? The process is akin to giving blood.

You will need:

  • Plastic water bottles (2 litre lemonade ones are good, but smaller is fine)
  • Strong twine
  • Hand drill with bit the width of the drinking straw or slightly smaller
  • Scissors
  • Knife
  • Drinking straws
  • First aid plasters!

1 ) Find a large birch in mid March. Older ones are better as they are bigger and carry more sap.

2) Drill carefully and neatly with the hand drill at an angle of 45 degrees, slanting upward, into the trunk.

3) You should only need to drill about 1cm -1.5cm before the sap starts running out. When this happens, don’t drill any further. Take out the drill.

4) Insert the drinking straw into the hole. If you have measured it to the drill bit, it should be a tight fit.

5) Position the water bottle just below the dripping straw, close enough so you can angle it into the neck of the bottle.

6) Tie the bottle firmly to the trunk with the twine.

7) Leave it for several hours, or most of the day, or overnight, depending how much you want and how much time you have. I got about a litre in 2 hours.

8) Collect your birch sap and enjoy!

9) It is considerate to the tree to protect the wound, just like we do, from fungal spores and other tree germs. I like to stick a first aid plaster over the hole to help the tree heal.

If you can be bothered, and you have a LOT of birch trees nearby, and a lot of free time, you can try to make Birch Syrup by boiling down the sap. This is quite a tax on the trees however, you need a lot of sap just to make a tiny amount of syrup. If you ask me, I’m sticking to honey.

Fresh green Birch leaves can be used to make a cleansing tonic tisane (posh word for tea). Boil the leaves for several minutes then strain them out. Great if you need vitamins after a long winter stuffing yourself with chocolate! Birch leaves contain flavonoids and astringent tannins, having long been used as a beauty tonic, invigorating drink and facial wash by Celtic maidens attempting to snare the man of their dreams. Well, you never know.

Sap from Quick Silver

(Very Cautiously) Edible Tree of the Week: YEW

When I say ‘caution’ I mean the same caution that lovers of Japanese pufferfish fugu must exhibit while enjoying their meal. Do you trust your chef?!!

The only part of yew that you want to be eating is the aril, the fleshy red fruit that surrounds the black seed.

DO NOT EAT THE SEED WITHIN. Or the leaves, or the bark. Or the wood, should you have felt the urge. Yew, or Taxus baccata, contains the lethal alkaloid taxin, which causes cardiac arrest, coma, and, obviously, death. I recently read about a 39 year old idiot who made a bet with his friend and voluntarily drank a cup of yew needle tea. The only reason he didn’t die was the fact apart from every other heart stimulation the hospital could throw at him, they used the antidote to taxin. He was in a coma for weeks. (This just shows why there were less men than women cave people in the olden times).

Yew tree in All Saints churchyard

Yew grows in many churchyards and sites of antiquity. Some yews can be thousands of years old. The tree is roughly conical and has short (up to 4cm long and 3mm wide) flattened, needle shaped leaves which are evergreen. They are deep glossy green above and paler below, with dual pale yellow bands.

Yew timber was prized (and still is) for making longbows, which were powerful enough to puncture armour. They were made with a combination of the heartwood for strength and the sapwood for flexibility.

Yew bark is used by pharmaceutical companies to make Taxol, which is used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer. (Don’t try this at home).

So now I’ve told you all the bad bits, let’s go ahead and make Yew Berry Fugu Jam.

  1. Find a yew tree with berries…usually out from late Autumn to Winter.
  2. The trick is to separate the arils from the seeds, which is best done by hand with the blunt tine of a fork or other not too sharp object. DO NOT TRY AND BOIL OFF THE SEEDS -if you do this, there is a chance taxin may leach into your jam. Yew arils are very sweet and form a very gloopy goo, great if you are desperate for sugar.
  3. . Once you have got rid of all the seeds, add just enough water to cover and bring to a boil, then simmer until jam like consistency is achieved. This shouldn’t be too hard as like I said, the berries are very gloopy. Add mashed crab apple if you like, to help it set, though this will muddy the lovely pink colour.
  4. If it is too insipidly sweet (I’m not a huge fan of really sweet stuff!), add lemon juice to taste. Simmer again til jam consistency.
  5. Scoop into a pre sterilised jar (which you have boiled and dried for 5 plus minutes) Put a circle of greaseproof paper over the top of the yew jam to seal. Screw on the lid.
  6. Enjoy on sourdough bread with something sour like goat’s cheese. or freeze into ice cubes and make tropical tasting winter cocktails with rum. Wow friends at parties with your cutting edge risqué knowledge. Let people know first so they can make an informed decision! Just don’t kill anyone.

DISCLAIMER: The is risky foraging, only try it if you are paying attention and have got rid of ALL the seeds, needles etc. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Very Cautiously) Edible Tree of the Week: YEW