Saturday, 8 December 2018

The season of crusts and jellies - Part 2: crusts

The other day I described a few of the jelly fungi that you can see during the Winter. Today I'm going to cover some so-called crust fungi. My loose definition of this term includes a couple that are really brackets, not crusts!

A crust fungus is often resupinate for at least part of its lifecycle. This means that it is effectively upside down and lying flat over the surface of its substrate (the thing it is growing on), like this:

Some fungi of this type will grow underneath a log, where they are not visible until you lift the log, but more often they grow in places where their upper surfaces are visible - such as along a horizontal log, or on the vertical surface at the end of a log, as seen here:

In cases like this, the fungus becomes less resupinate, and more like a bracket - that's to say it juts outwards from its substrate and forms cups or ledges. The Stereum hirsutum (Hairy Curtain Crust) seen above is a good example.

Sterum hirsutum is a very common fungus, and grows prolifically in the Winter-time on fallen wood of deciduous trees, such as Oak and Beech. The upper surface of this fungus is very hairy (hence its common name), and brightly coloured in shades of yellow, orange and brown, with a yellowish-cream edge.

Stereum hirsutum upper surface

The undersurface is smooth and lacking in visible pores, as shown here. I pulled off a section to photograph it.

Stereum hirsutum undersurface (Centre)

The undersurface of a crust or bracket fungus is normally a key feature when trying to make an identification. As a general rule, all the Stereums have smooth undersurfaces, whereas the visually rather similar Trametes fungi have (usually white) pores - little holes.

Look at this fungus, which is somewhat similar to the Stereum hirsutum in terms of shape and colour. It is not a Stereum though, it's a Trametes.

How do I know? I looked underneath. It has white pores.

Trametes versicolor - Turkey Tail - is perhaps the best known of the Trametes types, and as suggested by its name it comes in many different colours, with blues and browns being the most common.

Trametes versicolor

Just in case you thought this was easy, if a fungus looks like a pale grey Trametes from the top, yet has blue-grey pores instead of white, it is probably a different thing altogether! It's probably Bjerkandera adusta - Smoky Bracket.

Bjerkandera adusta - upper and lower surfaces

Nothing in the world of fungi is ever straightforward, and most fungi seem to have one or more lookalikes. A prime example is Stereum ostrea, the False Turkey Tail. I think you will agree that when seen from the top it could easily be mistaken for a Turkey Tail.

But you know by now that it has a smooth undersurface without pores!

There is one other fungus that I want to cover in this post. It is Laxitextum bicolor. It doesn't appear to have a common name.

Laxitextum bicolor, photographed on Velmead Common, Fleet,  in December 2017

This is what I think of when the term "Curtain Crust" is mentioned. It actually looks like a curtain, doesn't it? Apparently this fungus is quite rare, or perhaps more accurately under-reported, because it is often misidentified as Stereum rugosum, the Bleeding Curtain Crust, and reported as such.

This fungus certainly grows on Velmead Common, in Fleet, where I have seen it several times, and just recently I saw some in Southwood Woodlands which are also close to Fleet, so it's evidently not rare in North-East Hampshire.

Laxitextum bicolor, photographed in southwood Woodland, Fleet, on 02 Dec 2108.

The types of fungi I have described here are not normally considered edible. Even if they had a good taste, and did not contain toxins, they are mostly extremely tough and therefore not palatable. Some of them do (allegedly) have medicinal properties though. For instance, a tincture made from Trametes versicolor has apparently had some success in slowing the development of certain types of cancer.

If you are interested in this subject and want to learn more, I strongly recommend the website First Nature, which is a mine of useful information.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Beginning of December update

So far this Autumn our weather has been comparatively mild. Yes, we've a had a bit of rain and a few very blustery days, but nothing extreme. I think we have had frost only on two occasions. This has meant that some of my crops have kept going longer than usual. I harvested my last tomatoes in mid-November. These last few have been ripened indoors and were consumed only yesterday.

Tomato "Tango"

I moved a few of my chilli plants under cover before the frosts came, some into the garage and some into my big coldframe. They have continued to produce ripe fruit. This one is my "Cozumel" plant, a variety which struggles to produce ripe fruit during a normal year, but with this year's hot Summer and now the protection of the coldframe it's doing OK.

I'll be honest and report that I did pick a few semi-ripe fruit the day before our first frost was forecast, just as an insurance policy. They have ripened and now dried indoors, and will be used for next year's seed.

Out in the open I still have quite a few nice vegetables waiting to be harvested. For instance, my carrots are still going strong, although we have already eaten lots. I'm always surprised by how many carrots I can get out of one 1 x 2.4 metre raised bed. I only pick a small number at any given time, and keep them in a Stayfresh bag in the fridge.

Leaving mature carrots in the ground in a typical Autumn is always a gamble. There is a risk that slugs will attack them, and some are likely to rot in the cold wet soil. Some people harvest their carrots all at once and store them for Winter use in boxes of damp sand, but I've never done that, though maybe I would if I grew them in an open plot rather than in a raised bed, which is easy enough to protect if need be.

Another crop that is just going on and on this year is the Kaibroc. I would have expected it to have finished long ago, but the two plants I have growing in a 35-litre container are still continuing to pump out spears! Yes, OK, they're getting progressively smaller each time, but they are still worth having.


In one of the raised beds I have 3 Purple Sprouting Broccoli plants coming along.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I often grow more PSB than this, but this past Spring we had far too much of the stuff (and Jane doesn't like it as much as I do, so we can't reasonably have it every day when it's in season!), so I've reduced my numbers. Actually this was fortunate, because the bed in which they are growing is my least good one, and I think if there had been more plants in it they would have struggled to survive the hot Summer. The bed dries out very quickly because it is nearest to my neighbour's enormous Leyland Cypress tree, which sucks up more than its fair share of water. Or at least, it used to.... a couple of weeks ago my neighbours had the tree cut down. Hooray!

I've mentioned before that I was late sowing and planting my Endives this year, and I hadn't expected to get any of them to maturity. However, thanks to the milder weather and my trusty Longrow cloches, they are still soldiering on, and may yet turn into something worthwhile. When frost is forecast, I cover the cloches with a double layer of fleece, weighed down with bricks.

Endives under a Longrow cloche

I have a few more Endive plants in individual pots, covered with plastic bell cloches, but these are not looking so good. Many of the leaves have brown tips, particularly where they have been touching the cloche. I think that the cold affects an individual pot a lot more than a group of plants in a tunnel cloche, providing a bit of mutual support for each other.

Endive growing in a 35L pot

To the uninitiated, my bed of Parsnips probably doesn't look very attractive, but as experienced gardeners know, the fact that its foliage has died down means that a Parsnip is ready for eating, and I know that this bed is full of lovely veg! And hopefully it will be nice and sweet, now that we have had a couple of frosts, because the cold promotes the conversion of starches to sugar.

I have decided to use the Parsnips from my Courtmoor plot before these ones, but I did dig up a sample from the bed pictured above, just to see what they are like. First indications are that this year's crop may be a little quirky...

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Classic Winter veg

I haven't been doing much gardening recently. You probably noticed that here on my blog (and on Facebook and Twitter) I have been writing about fungi more often than vegetables. Well, the truth of the matter is that my garden and my Courtmoor Avenue plot haven't really needed much attention. Lots of the veg that I sowed and planted earlier in the season has just been growing steadily away, doing their own thing. Every now and then I harvest something, but there is little else to do.

This week I visited the Courtmoor plot for the first time in over two weeks, and was pleased to see that it was still looking reasonably tidy. All the digging I did this time last year has ensured that there are few perennial weeds and the annual ones are not growing much at present. Each time I visit this plot I bring home any of the bits of "hardware" that are no longer needed up there, such as nets, hoops, canes etc, which I clean up and store away in my garage until they are next needed. The nets have been particularly useful because they successfully kept the pigeons off my second sowing of brassicas (you may remember that my first sowing was stripped bare...). I have ended up with some very satisfactory cabbages - such as this "January King" one:

Cabbage "January King"

The "Red Drumhead" red cabbages have done better than I feared too. Due to late planting (because of the pigeon attack episode) they were never going to be big specimens, but in terms of quality they are not too bad.

Cabbage "Red Drumhead"

This is one of my two rows of Leeks. Again, due to having to struggle to survive during the Summer drought, they are not big, but to be honest in a year like this anything is better than nothing!

You can't see it because most of the foliage has died down, but to the left of the Leeks is a row of Parsnips. The first ones I dug, a couple of weeks ago, were not up to much - very long and thin - but on this visit I managed to get some quite nice ones so maybe they have swelled a bit due to the recent rain. Perhaps the same will happen with the Brussels Sprouts, which are still very small?

This photo makes the sprouts look big, but in reality they are not!

Well anyway, on this visit I came away with Cabbages, Leeks and Parsnips.

Here they are at home, after rough trimming. In the end I brought three cabbages - one "January King" and two red ones. The latter will be braised with apples, onions and raisins to accompany a roast Goose crown (one of our favourite Autumn / Winter meals).

I think you'll agree that these three are all classic British Winter vegetables. It's just a pity I didn't have any Swedes or Kale to show off! I'm as guilty of this as the next man, but isn't it a shame that so many gardeners fail to produce more than the odd one or two Winter-maturing crops when there are so many viable options?

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The season of crusts and jellies - Part 1: Jellies

No, this post has nothing to do with food (well, only very indirectly). It is about fungi. [NB: I don't claim to be an expert on this incredibly complex subject, and my post is written purely from the Enthusiastic Amateur point of view.]

Most of the edible fungi are ones which appear in the Summer and early Autumn. Not all of course, because during Winter you still get the Velvet Shanks (Flammulina velutipes), Blewits (Lepista spp), Wood Ears (Auricularia auricula-judae) and even the occasional Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus). That said, however, Winter is usually the season for the fungi that are more for looking than for cooking - like the crusts and jellies. Incidentally, my definition of what constitutes a jelly fungus is definitely a subjective one!

Over the last couple of weeks I have been lucky enough to find quite a wide variety of jelly fungi. Perhaps the most striking is the Yellow Brain fungus, Tremella mesenterica, sometimes called Witches' Butter.

Tremella mesenterica growing on living Gorse

Although it grows on the (usually dead) wood of a variety of broadleaf trees, his highly visible fungus has a particular liking for Gorse bushes, either living or dead.

Tremella mesenterica growing on fallen (dead) Gorse wood

Tremella mesenterica growing on fallen Beech wood

To be pedantic, the Tremella does not really grow on the wood, but it feeds on another fungus by which that wood has been attacked. This is usually Peniophora incarnata, commonly known as the Rosy Crust fungus.

The best time to see Yellow Brain is in the Winter, particularly if the weather is wet. In dry weather the fungus shrinks and darkens, making it more difficult to spot. This photo taken a few weeks ago shows one which is very orange in colour, so it was probably just beginning to re-hydrate after the long dry Summer.

My next subject is Tremella foliacea, Leafy Brain. [I note however that if you want to be really accurate the name Tremalla foliacea is supposedly only used for the species that grows on conifer wood, whereas Tremella frondosa is the one that grows on broadleaf wood. Most people lump them together!]

The example I saw this week was growing on a small Oak tree, so I suppose it is technically Tremella frondosa.

About this time last year I saw a much bigger example in the woods just half a mile from our house, and this one was also growing on a young Oak. It was a multi-coloured specimen, which I think indicates growth in a number of different stages.

I believe that the lighter part is probably the youngest part, because other, very dark, specimens I have seen have appeared to be very old and ragged.

Like its cousin Tremella mesenterica, Tremella foliacea grows on wood that has been attacked by another fungus, in this case the wood-rotting fungus Stereum hirsutum, commonly referred to by the lovely name Hairy Curtain Crust.

I'll move now to the fungus called Ascocoryne sarcoides, commonly known as Purple Jellydisc. As I have found recently, this fungus goes through a number of stages during its lifecycle and can look quite different at each stage. I'm not going to attempt to describe these in scientific terms, because I am assuming that my readers are probably (like me) just enthusiastic amateurs, so let me just say that when young this fungus often looks slimy and ill-defined. In one of the Facebook Groups to which I belong this is often referred to as "Mouse Guts Fungus"!

Later on it seems to get firmer and it develops into more structured "blobs".

You'll notice that in the preceding two photos the fungus has a definite purple colour. When it grows older it turns more of a red colour, and tends to form flatter fruitbodies, like this:

In the past this has confused me. I had thought that this was a different fungus but friends in my Facebook Groups have confirmed that it's the same one.

Ascocoryne sarcoides grows predominantly on well-rotted broadleaf wood. I see it most often on Birch - though that is probably because there are loads of Birch trees in my area.

Ascocoryne sarcoides on very old Birch wood.

This post could go on for a long time, but today I want to cover only one more fungus, which is Bulgaria inquinans - Black Bulgar - aka Bachelor's Buttons or Poor Man's Liquorice.

This fungus usually forms fairly regular fruitbodies, which are broadly circular and cup-shaped, with flat upper surfaces. These upper surfaces (the fertile surfaces) are black and shiny, whereas the sides are usually brown and felty.

As with most fungi of this nature, Black Bulgar is softer and more jelly-like in wet weather and it is firmer when the weather is dry. Its preferred habitat is fallen broadleaf wood, such as this pile of Beech logs.

Look closely and you'll see that the logs are covered with hundreds of little black blobs...

There are literally dozens of other jelly fungi that I could describe, and I have been fortunate enough to find plenty of them, but I want to stop here. If you are interested to learn more I strongly recommend having a look at the relevant part of the First Nature website. In a future post I will cover some of the so-called Crust fungi.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Butternut Squash with Feta and Pomegranate

Have you still got some Butternut Squashes left? If you have, here's a recipe that you might like to try. It makes a nice change from soups and purees! Actually, I'm fairly sure it would work well with pretty much any type of squash, not only the Butternut.

This is a recipe from Sabrina Ghayour's book "Persiana", with a few adaptations. For instance I have used Mint instead of Dill and Coriander, both of which I detest. Incidentally, if you haven't got this book I strongly recommend buying a copy. It contains loads of really great recipes, many of which are incredibly easy to make. Lots of them are suitable for vegetarians too.

For copyright reasons I won't spell out the complete recipe, but will give you the gist of it.

The first thing to do is make a pesto. Not the usual type, with Basil and pine-nuts. This one has Pistachio nuts, Parmesan cheese, herbs (I used Parsley and Mint, but Sabrina uses Parsley, Dill and Coriander), lemon juice, olive oil, salt and chilli oil. The recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of chilli oil, but it doesn't give any indication of its strength. I suspect that a fairly mild version is intended. I used a dessertspoon of Portuguese Piri-Piri oil and it seemed just right.

The pesto needs to have a texture I would describe as "gloopy" (not a technical term!) - in other words it should be spoonable but not too runny. You can make it in advance and keep it in the fridge until you need it, but I made mine about 6 hours in advance and kept it at room temperature so that it would remain fairly loose.

At some suitable point there is more prep that can be done in advance if you want. Remove and set aside the seeds from a pomegranate. Crumble a block of feta cheese - cover it with clingfilm, but let it get to room temperature so that it will not be too hard. Then of course you can prepare the main part of the dish - the Butternut squash. Cut it into quarters (lengthways) and remove the seeds. Again, set it aside until you are ready to start cooking.

The aim with the Butternut is to cook it until the flesh is soft and just slightly charred at the edges, so you will have to aim off for this and begin cooking at the appropriate time. Of course the cooking time depends to a certain extent on the size of the squash too. Sabrina Ghayour reckons that a medium-sized Butternut will serve 4 as a side-dish or starter, and 2 as a main dish, and her recipe suggests cooking it at 200C (180C for a fan oven) for 45 - 50 minutes. You will know when the squash is cooked because a pointed knife will slide easily into the flesh. By the way, the quartered squash is liberally anointed with olive oil before cooking - and I like to add a few grinds of fresh black pepper too.

When the squash is cooked, slide it onto a suitable serving-dish and then add the other elements. Using a spoon, smear the pesto over the pieces of squash and then sprinkle the feta and pomegranate seeds on top of it. Hopefully the "gloopy" pesto will help the other bits to stay put and not fall off! Finally, you can add a few sprigs of a suitable herb as a garnish. I used Parsley.

To accompany this dish I served Middle Eastern style flatbreads and a nice salad (which included homegrown tomatoes, despite it being late November).

Apart from being easy to do, this dish is healthy and nutritious as well as being a very pleasing combination of sweet and savoury tastes and lots of different textures. The soft creamy squash and salty feta, the acid tang of the pesto with its little buzz of chilli, and the sweet firm nuggets of pomegranate all come together perfectly.