Saturday, 2 November 2013

Three Go To The Island

The only time I had ever been to the Isle of Wight was in 1989. It was a Bank Holiday Monday. It was closed. I'm not kidding. My (then) boyfriend and I had popped across from Portsmouth as foot passengers for the day but when we arrived, there was barely any public transport available and everything in sight was shut. We ended up on some kind of community minibus to Blackgang Chine (sort of theme park and the only thing that was open). It wasn't quite what I'd expected so when my aunt and uncle in Southampton suggested a day trip, I jumped at the chance to create some better memories of the place! 

The Red Funnel ferry whizzed the three of us and the car from Southampton, across The Solent, over to East Cowes in just under an hour. It was nice and calm but the sun had yet to make an appearance. 

On arrival, we headed straight for The Garlic Farm which had been highly recommended by Cathy, amongst others. WOW! If you get the chance, go there. I could have spent longer, particularly in the tasting room. I learnt some interesting stuff - did you know, for example, that you can only grow garlic on a plot of land for one year in every seven? No? Nor did I. Even though when it's growing, it looks a bit like onion or spring onion, it's not part of the onion family, it's an allium. 

The tasting room was fantastic. There were three huge stations each with 8 or 10 different products and a massive bowl of crackers to try them with. I won't list all the products - you can see them on the website, but my absolute favourites were: Onion Marmalade with Garlic, Roasted Garlic Jam, Garlic Mayonnaise with Mint, Olive Oil with Garlic, Creamy Garlic Horseradish and Toasted Garlic Mayo. I managed to resist buying all of them - just! The shop itself is a garlic-lover's dream, as you can imagine. Along with all the jams, marmalades, oils and relishes, they of course sell garlic - seven or eight different varieties both to eat and to plant. Having no garden, I had to stick with the eating varieties but that's fine by me. I got my first sight of elephant garlic, which can grow to the size of a melon. They're so large, you buy them by the clove, not the bulb. Here are the three I bought, next to a standard clove I already had at home:

I'd like to go back there in the summer sometime to see more actual growing going on but to be honest, I can test and shop for garlic in any weather! 

Reeking rather pungently of the "stinking rose", we headed down to Ventnor. My aunt and uncle had tried to go there once before but the steep hills leading down to the seafront proved too much for their motorhome, leading to them beat a hasty backwards retreat. It was actually the final day of the season so things had started to shut down but that just served to add to the rather nostalgic, slightly old-fashioned air of the place. There were very few people around but those who were braving the threatening storm clouds and the rather nippy wind, were being stoically British about it:

We wandered along the seafront, Bev stopped to buy some obligatory rock, then we decided it must be time for lunch. Rather unexpectedly, we found a tapas bar! The Met offered a great range of tapas, lovely atmosphere, great surroundings and was like being back in Madrid yet with a view of a very English beach! So replete with stuffed pimientos, caramelised onion tortilla, cumin couscous with roasted vegetables, potatoes in allioli and mixed olives, sundried tomatoes, capers and (more) garlic, we left Ventnor to carry on closing down for the winter and headed up the east coast through Shanklin and Sandown, and up towards Ryde for our final destination.

I'm not always the biggest fan of English Heritage/National Trust properties but I had always heard that Queen Victoria's island residence, Osborne House, was worth a visit. My aunt and uncle are English Heritage members so entered for free whereas I paid the (rather steep) £13.40 entrance fee. A little disappointingly, no photos are allowed inside the building (I have to say I do object to that when you've paid to get in) but I'm not sure I would have taken too many photos even if it was allowed. It's a huge house - most of the ground floor is made up of the classic sort of "state" rooms - high-ceilinged, lots of red and gold, velvet curtains, heavy furniture and shelves and cabinets stuffed with plates, vases and other ugly expensive trinkets! The hallways were lined with statues of people in various stages of nakedness (god the Victorians were a confused bunch, weren't they?!) and a few rather disconcerting ones with, for example, the body of a Roman soldier but with Prince Albert's head. I reckon there was a bit of roleplay going on in that (short) marriage! The nursery and children's bedrooms upstairs were quite interesting, if only as a reminder of how many generations of kids were kept entertained with nothing more complicated than a spinning top, solitaire and a ball. 
There was an odd atmosphere in the bedroom where Victoria died, not least because when Albert died, she hung a picture of him (dead) on the headboard above his pillow and slept next to that image for the next 60-odd years. 
The highlight was downstairs in the servants' area - I wish there had been more of the kitchen area open but the table dressers' section was very interesting. The huge red book containing an example of just one meal for all the people in the house, from Queen Victoria through the Royal Children and down to "Sick Persons" was fascinating. Mind you, I'm not sure mutton stew would have been very tempting if I'd been one of the latter group and, as a vegetarian, I'd have starved! 
We exited into the neatly kept gardens, down a sweeping stone staircase and back towards the café for a warming cup of tea and a cake.

And then it was all over. We headed back to the ferry and were back in Southampton in time for dinner. It was a lovely relaxing day out and I'd definitely like to go back for a longer and better look around, perhaps in the spring. By then, I'll need some more garlic anyway! 

All my pictures from the day can be seen HERE

Sunday, 9 June 2013

A decadent afternoon in London

For my birthday this year, my dad and stepmum bought me a marvellous present: Chocoholics Champagne Afternoon Tea for Two in the Podium Restaurant at The Hilton, Park Lane! Wow. 

Cathy was the lucky recipient of the "Plus One"and we eagerly anticipated May 20th. As it was up in London, we decided to make a day of it and headed up on the first reasonably priced train, arriving about 11.30am. We'd spotted a couple of things we fancied doing and which also fell into the "2-For-1" Offer where, if you produce your train tickets to London, you get (unsurprisingly) two entries for the price of one. 

Our first port of call was the Old Operating Theatre in the Herb Garrett of a Baroque Church in St Thomas' Street. It looked fascinating even on the net and in reality it was even better. The entrance is a tiny door in the wall of the building (from where you can see the almost-finished Shard) and you are immediately faced with a very tight winding wooden spiral staircase. After creaking your way up the 36 steps, you reach another tiny door leading to the ticket office and rather incongruous gift shop. The 2-For-1 system worked perfectly, we paid the grand total of £6.75 between us to get in, and headed up the next flight of stairs.

We entered a relatively small, quite dark attic, absolutely crammed with artefacts. It was a real mixture of old surgical tools, operating tables, early stethoscopes etc and the Culpeper Herb Museum. Both areas were fascinating in slightly different ways - the tools and tables looked incredibly primitive and it was amazing to think that these were once the height of modern medicine! The herbal section was great too - especially given our interest in complementary/holistic health. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an amazing herbalist (amongst other things) and much of the information held in his "Complete Herbal" is still used today in herbal medicine. 

After the delights of the garrett, we moved into the actual operating theatre. This was where operations were carried out on patients from St Thomas' Hospital between 1822 and 1862 when it was partially dismantled and the entrances were bricked up. It was basically forgotten about until 1956 when a man investigating the history of St Thomas' Hospital found some records of it and decided to take a look. What a surprise he must have got once he'd negotiated the 15ft of ladder up to the trapdoor entrance that was now the only way in. Since then, it has been restored somewhat and filled with the paraphernalia held there today. 
Although the website recommends a 45-minute visit to the museum, we spent well over an hour there and consequently realised that we didn't have time to go to The London Film Museum and still get to The Hilton on time. 

It was a lovely day so we decided to walk right along the river from London Bridge to Westminster Bridge and then hop on the Tube to get to Park Lane. Our journey took us past Southwark Cathedral, Millenium Bridge, the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, Blackfriars Bridge, a replica of the Golden Hind, St Paul's Cathedral (on the other side of the river), the South Bank, Gabriel's Wharf, Waterloo Bridge, Jubilee Gardens, London Film Museum, London Aquarium, the London Eye, opposite the Houses of Parliament and finally to Westminster Bridge. 

On the way we stopped off for a drink at the very marvellous "Propstore" bar, a summer pop-up bar, filled with sets and scenery from National Theatre productions. 

And then it was time for the main event - 3pm had rolled around and we were heading into the Podium Restaurant at The Hilton. I'll be honest, once upon a time, "The Hilton" conjured up images of very posh, swanky hotels with chandeliers and marble floors. These days, many of them are, as someone put it the other day, slightly upmarket Travelodges! However, we weren't there to gawp at the surroundings, we were there for our Chocoholics Champagne Afternoon Tea. 

Having been shown to our table, we were handed the menu or, rather, the explanation! A flute of champagne was brought fairly swiftly, along with a small wooden box which contained six tiny glass screw-top containers, each containing a different tea. There were probably twenty different teas on the menu and these were just six interesting ones they thought we might like to sniff. Cathy opted for a white tea and I went for the Hilton Afternoon blend. The champagne was rather nice - Pommery - and went down far too easily. Once that had gone, we were brought our individual pots of tea and the first round of food - sandwiches. They were dainty open sandwiches but absolutely delicious. I had the vegetarian option (of course) - one egg and cress, one cream cheese and cucumber, one cheddar and grape, one mozzarella and tomato and one asparagus with parmesan shavings. 

Then it was time for cake. Cakes. Lots of them. A three-tier metal and glass cake stand arrived, laden down with cakey chocolatey goodness! 

Level One - Scones. Two chocolate chip scones, one fruit scone and a plain scone. A pot of strawberry jam. A pot of clotted cream. A pot of chocolate praline. Heaven.

Level Two - Pastries. Battenberg. Sacher Torte. Raspberry and Elderflower cupcake. Red velvet cupcake. Mmmmmmmmmm.

Level Three - Miniature Fancies. White chocolate and cherry cheesecake with red velvet and orange tuile. Milk chocolate cremeux. Pistachio macaroon with manjari chocolate filling. Iced shortbread butterfly on an orange and chocolate profiterole. Lemon and raspberry marshmallow lolly. Meringue lolly. Yummity yum. 

Oh, and the top level cakes were sitting on a gigantic, half-inch thick patterned plate made of solid chocolate. Everything was beautifully made and presented and, of course, absolutely delicious. We tried to finish it all, we really did but we were beaten by a couple of cakes and the chocolate plate. Needless to say, we were not the first people to ask for a box to take the rest away in. We asked our waitress if anyone had ever finished the whole lot. No. A few people managed all the cakes but no-one had ever actually eaten the plate on the premises! 

So after nearly three hours we headed back out into London with a couple of hours to kill before our train home. Cathy found an internet-based guided walking tour of Jack the Ripper's murder locations on the net so we headed off to Whitechapel and followed most of the grisly tour, ending at The Hoop and Grapes, one of the oldest pubs in London and the only timber-framed building to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666.

And then it was back to Victoria and home. It had been a lovely, interesting and decadent day! Thanks Dad and Ann! 

For all my photos of the day, click HERE

For the actual website and their own photos, click HERE

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Roma - La città eterna

After a five-year hiatus, Cathy and I finally returned to Rome for this year's Internazionali BNL d'Italia tennis tournament. Back in 2008, we came for the entire week's tournament but this year we decided on a five-day trip, with at least two full days at the tennis. \

I'm well aware that my blogs can sometimes go on a bit so here's the short version (note that the word "short" might not be entirely appropriate by the time I've finished writing this):
We stayed at the wonderful B&B Bio in the far north of the city. As its name suggests, it had a certain dietary theme. It's entirely vegetarian, catering for all sorts of dietary requirements over and above that. There are only three rooms, all painted using only natural paints. The couple who run it, Michel and Barbara, are utterly lovely. They couldn't do enough to help us, providing dairy-free milk and gluten-free products for our breakfast every day, and regularly giving us a lift to Piazza Mancini, saving us a 15-minute bus ride (although on one occasion, due to a very important tunnel being closed, the car journey took 40 minutes, but it was the thought that counted!) Michel runs a health food store (La Madre Terra) so of course we had plenty to talk about and, on the day that we visited his store, lots of price and product comparisons to do. The only downside to the B&B was its rather remote location. From the city centre, we had about a 35-minute walk, then a tram ride and then a bus ride to get back. On two occasions, one of which really wasn't our fault, we managed to miss the last bus (midnight - how uncivilised) and had to get a cab which, we discovered, is not an easy thing outside the main city centre. 

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Monday and headed out of the B&B at nearly 6pm. We stopped for a first little drink at Campo de'Fiori, a square that we had somehow managed to miss on previous visits. When here in 2008, we had attempted to visit the Trastevere part of town which, according to the guidebooks, is lovely and quaint and a must-see. The last time we tried, we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up in a rather squalid, council-estate type area! This time we got it right and agreed entirely with the guidebooks. It's a lovely area with little streets, plenty of restaurants and bars, all clearly frequented by Italians - always a good sign. The B&B host had recommended Ristorante Da Augusto for dinner, but when we arrived at around 7.30pm, there were about 20 people queuing outside. Now that might be a good sign as far as quality is concerned, but when you've spent most of the day since 6.45am travelling, waiting that long for a table isn't an option. Instead we went to Osteria Margherita, a lovely little pizzeria down a side street and sat outside enjoying huge stone-baked pizzas and a well-deserved glass of wine or two. On the way back, we stopped at Mimi e Coco for another quick digestif. That decision may, of course, have been to blame for our first late-night taxi ride. 

On the Tuesday, we decided to take a side-trip. We had been tossing up between Tivoli, Ostia Antica and Orvieto. Due entirely to the contents of a well-timed article in the Easyjet in-flight magazine on the way over, we settled on Tivoli. What a great choice! An hour from Rome and only €3 each way on the train, Tivoli is a lovely little town with a splendid combination of old and new. We had a quick drink on arrival, failed to find the tabac where a passing German tourist had told us we could get a free map of the town, and headed off. After a couple of hours, we followed the brown tourist signs to Villa Gregoriana. What a find! After several devastating floods, the river Tiber was diverted in the early 1800s into this valley, creating several amazing waterfalls. There was already an ancient Acropolis there but by the early 20th century the whole thing had gone to ruin and for many years, it was a dumping ground for unwanted rubbish (including fridges, washing machines etc). Thanks to the Italian version of the National Trust, it was cleaned up and opened to the public in 2005. It took us about three hours to cover the whole thing - steep paths with lots of little diversions to panoramic views, grottoes, waterfalls, low and sometimes narrow passageways but it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon. Given that the temperature was hovering around 28 degrees in the sun, we were quite grateful for the shade of the trees and the relative coolness of the valley. We emerged at the Temples exit just in time to walk to the station and head back to town for some dinner.


For our first few annual visits to Rome, we stayed right in the centre at a little place called Planet 29. Right opposite, was a pizza place (La Famiglia) which we frequented probably a little too often. It had given us our first taste of risotto alla ortica (nettle risotto) and we had been able to check from our hotel window for a free table and then run down the stairs to claim said table. We had promised ourselves that we would try to get back there for a meal. After our Tivoli train pulled in to Termini, it seemed logical to pop just down the road to La Famiglia. Very little had changed. We nabbed the last table outside and were treated to some very familiar somewhat surly service. They're not rude exactly. They're just, well, down-to-earth! They don't try to be your best friend, they just do their job! In a nostalgic move, we both ordered nettle risotto, with a starter of deep-fried mozzarella balls and a litre of house wine. €8 for a litre of wine - who could turn that down? Like any other wine of that price, it tastes a lot better after the first couple of glasses! 

You might think that was the end of our evening. So did we. We planned to walk back to our tram stop via the Trevi Fountain and then get a relatively early night. The one thing we certainly didn't plan to do was miss the last bus again. Just round the corner from the pizzeria, we decided to buy a couple of postcards to write and post later. The guy in the shop, however, told us that if we bought SwissPost stamps along with the postcards, we could post them from a small postbox in the shop. Standing outside the shop scribbling our postcards, we were approached by an elderly couple who we recognised from the pizzeria. The lady asked us, in French, if we knew where Via Flavia was. It didn't occur to either of us that it was a bit odd to be asked a question in French in the middle of Rome by people who couldn't possibly know where we were from. We both replied (in French) that we didn't know but we had a map and could help. We finished writing our postcards quickly and then consulted the map. Via Flavia was only about 6 streets away but there wasn't a simple route for them to memorise so we offered to walk with them at least some of the way. We chatted away (still in French) all the way to the street with their hotel. They had left the hotel earlier in the evening looking for something to eat, wandered the streets, settled randomly on the same pizzeria as us and only when they finished did they realise they had no idea where they were or how to get back! He (another Michel!) was 77 and she (whose name we failed to get) was 75. They were originally from Paris, had retired to Cannes and were gradually working their way round Europe. When we reached the right street, we attempted to head off to our bus stop but then they invited us for a drink at their hotel. Initially, we resisted but they were so sweet and so keen that we relented. Off we went to the Hotel Marcella Royal and up to the utterly fantastic seventh floor roof terrace bar. We were met by a lovely barman who clearly liked his funny French customers who showed us to a table right by the fairy-lit outer wall with its view straight over to the illuminated St Peter's Basilica at The Vatican. Wow! We were so pleased we'd accepted. They treated us to a Campari Soda and a Kahlua (which they'd never heard of until then!) and far too soon we had to leave or we were risking missing public transport. I took a quick photo of Cathy with them on the roof terrace and we headed off.

We got the tram OK but as we jumped off it at the bus station, we saw our last bus just starting to move. A man was hurtling across the concourse, banged on the door and the driver opened it, let him on, closed the door and moved away again. We were perhaps three steps away from the bus, Cathy managed to reach it and bang on the door but the driver just carried on and we watched our final bus disappear into the night. Grrrrrr. Getting a taxi was only a little easier than the night before. A tram driver kindly found us the number of a cab firm but he didn't know the code for Italy or for Rome, so we had to call Dade for the info! (This would all have been a lot simpler had I been able to access the internet using 3G on my mobile at all during the trip!) We finally got home around 1am again! 

Finally it was time for some tennis. Having grabbed our lunch on the go ingredients from the little supermarket down the road, we jumped on the bus to Foro Italico. We'd pre-booked tickets for Wednesday and Thursday day sessions so after the usual melée of people all trying to collect pre-paid tickets, we were in. It's certainly grown since the last time we were here. There's a whole new court! Campo Centrale (Centre Court) has gone from a somewhat temporary affair, with scaffolding and metal staircases, to a properly built concrete arena, holding probably half as many people again. The new court (SuperTennis Arena) occupies a space which, for the life of us, we can't work out what was there before. The lovely Pietrangeli court is still there though - an amphitheatre court, where you sit on marble steps, surrounded by Roman statues. Despite the forecast, only an hour of play was lost on the Thursday. The rest of the time we sat in temperatures of high 20s and glorious sunshine. Our combination of tickets meant that we didn't get to see Nadal, Djokovic or Federer but it didn't matter. Over the two days, we saw a succession of talented players, including a fairly new guy on the block - Jerzy Janowicz - he saw off players much higher up in the rankings. Our only disappointment really was that, despite having booked the tickets in mid-January, our seats on both days were in the very last row.The people who showed up on the day and rocked up to the ticket office got better seats. We weren't to know that though and we didn't want to risk getting all the way out there and finding it was sold out.

On the Wednesday evening, we walked back to our old stomping ground from our 2008 trip, the little area on the north side of Ponte Milvio. Even though we ate there almost every evening for a week back then, we couldn't really remember much about anything. The main thing we'd forgotten was that there were really only two restaurants! We ate at La Pallotta, which has a massive outside area (which was lovely until it started to rain on the pizzas - I was OK because I was under an umbrella but the waiters came over and moved our table - and Cathy - under the umbrella too!) It was very busy and there were plenty of Italians in there. Very tasty food and house wine that was almost as cheap as the night before! Even better news - we managed to get the bus back!!! Mind you, spotting where to get off on a residential street with no streetlights, whilst being whisked along by a bus driver who was the reincarnation of Mario Andretti. Cathy managed to spot a building just along the road from our street so we managed to leap up to ding the bell and got off not too far past the right place! 

On the Thursday evening, the tennis went on quite late so we ventured even less far! We crossed the road from the tennis stadium and went into a funny little pizza place that looks almost temporary. It's more like a pizza shack! We sat in the plastic-sided "outside" area. It might have looked cheap and nasty, but they made mean pizzas! Despite it being our last night, it was also our earliest and we were back at the B&B before midnight. 

Friday morning rolled around far too soon and it was time to pack up our stuff and decide what to do with our day. We had contemplated going to the tennis again and just buying a ground pass. However, the tournament had reached the quarter-finals stage so all the interesting matches were on the two show courts, not covered by a ground pass. That made our minds up! Tourism day it is! After a lift from Michel and a nose around his health food shop, we walked through the local market where there was some kind of TV show being filmed. No matter how much we darted or dodged, we kept finding ourselves in the camera's line of sight. Who knows? Maybe we're Italian TV stars now!
From there, we headed to the lovely Pantheon:

From there, we jumped on the tram down to Piazza de Popolo and walked to the Trevi Fountain. We bought a delicious ice-cream (pistachio and stracciatella for me) from the lovely gelateria overlooking the fountain. Then we made our way down to the fountain and threw the obligatory coins backwards over our shoulder into the water. If you don't know why, look here

and then on to Piazza Navona. It was buzzing with people, the sun was shining so we did the perfectly obvious thing - we stopped at a bar and treated ourselves to a glass of Prosecco. It was so nice (the sun, the atmosphere and the drink), that we were obliged to stay for a second one! As we left, we spotted these fetching portraits of a couple of Popes, some archbishop or other and ... er ... Obi Wan Kenobi:

We had a last wander through the little cobbled streets nearby and then headed to the Metro up to where Michel was picking us up to take us to the airport, and before we knew it we were waving goodbye to the Eternal City. 

It had been an utterly wonderful five days and we remembered why this used to be an annual trip! Roll on Rome 2014. 

If you want to see all my photos from the trip, click HERE.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Foraging - free food from nature!

A few months ago, Cathy suggested that we sign up to a short foraging course at Woods Mill, near Henfield. It's the HQ of the Sussex Wildlife Trust yet I'd never been there, despite it being only 20 minutes from home. 

Today was the day. Our tutors for the day were Millie and Mark, both avid foragers. Millie had also studied herbalism and nutritional therapy and was particularly interested in the medicinal side of plants. Mark is a qualified "bushcraft"instructor. The 8 participants met in the small main building and we started with a a cup of herbal tea, made from herbs dried over the winter by Millie - dandelion, nettle and cleavers - delicious. 

We then had a talk on foraging generally, the rules and environmental concerns and, of course, a warning not to pick anything you're not absolutely sure about! The consequences of getting it wrong can be fatal. 

So - the rules. You can't pick anything from a designated National Nature Reserve or from an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) unless you have permission. You can't pick from private land without the permission of the landowner (though of course, if you're on private land, you're already trespassing!) Foraging is covered by the Theft Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

The environmental impact - you shouldn't just help yourself to armfuls of plants just because they're there in front of you. A general rule of thumb is to take no more than 20% of the leaves from any one plant. Some plants can only withstand light "grazing" - perhaps 5% of the plant. 

The dangers - many and varied. For example, if you pick from near water, you could pick up the "liver fluke parasite" which lives in cattle and other grazing mammals. So if there are cows or sheep around who drink from the river/stream/pond, give it a miss. Another lovely possibility is Weil's Disease - passed on through the urine of rats, cattle and pigs. Again, if infected urine is present in or around the area and you have any cuts on your skin, it can get into your system. A non-animal related problem is "phytophotodermatitis". Some plants can leave a substance on the skin which, when the sun hits it, causes severe blistering. Another good reason to be careful when picking anything with your bare hands. Bizarrely, some of the plants which cause the worst blistering topically on the skin are incredibly beneficial when ingested. 

So - what can you pick? Well, "The Four F's" - foliage, fruit, flowers, fungi. This course concentrated on foliage, mainly because of the time of year. Fruit and flowers are covered on different courses and fungi-picking is a very specialised area. 

After the talk, it was time to venture out into the April sunshine (yes, sunshine finally happened in the UK!). Almost as soon as we walked out of the door, Mark spotted our first few edible specimens and for the next hour, we discovered just how much food is literally right there under our feet and our noses. Apologies for the state of the pictures, I only had my phone with me:

Hawthorn - eating the baby leaves early in the season is best but the berries can be dried. Great for the heart and the circulation: 

Cleavers - they have tiny hooks so if you throw them against your clothing, they'll stick! Must be cooked before eating. Good lymphatic system cleanser:

Daisy leaves - light flavour, good in salads:

Plantain (not the exotic fruit) - the ribbing pattern under the leaves tells you you have the right plant. It can grow on very compacted soil and it's sometimes the only plant on what otherwise appears to be dead ground. It can draw out toxins so if you have an insect bite or something with pus (mmm, lovely), chew up a leaf to soften it and then wrap it around the problem area:

Ox-eye daisy:


Wild chives - pungent and very tasty:

Ground elder - a cross between a herb and a vegetable. Very tasty:

Meadowsweet - only to be picked in small quantities as it can't withstand over-grazing:

Bitter cress - a little like mustard and cress. Peppery flavour. Voracious grower so OK to pick quite a lot. Best picked with small scissors:

Ground ivy - part of the mint family but tastes a little more bitter:

Common sorrel - tiny leaves at this time of year (resembles dock leaves). Fascinating taste - almost like apple skin:

The main edible plants of the day were wild garlic and nettles. I think we all know what nettles look like so I didn't bother photographing them. They can be picked with bare hands but it's not the most comfortable thing in the world. Always pick nettles before they flower. Leaves with purple tinges can be very bitter and older leaves can damage the kidneys. There's some evidence that nettle stings can be good for rheumatism because the sting brings blood to the affected area. Once upon a time, being covered in nettles was a common medical treatment. April is the best month to pick them when they are young and tender. It is possible to eat them raw - rub the leaf hard between the fingers to destroy the little hairs which cause the stinging sensation and you can then pop them in your mouth. However, they're probably better either cooked or mixed raw with other foods. 
We didn't see wild garlic during our walk but the guides had picked a huge basket of it beforehand. It is a fantastic food to forage though - incredible garlic flavour so if you can find it, get some. Here's what you're looking for:

And now for the warnings! Hogweed is one of the plants which can cause phytophotodermatitis so avoid this:

Many plants of the carrot family (umbelifferae) must not be eaten. Avoid anything which looks like those fluffy carrot tops you occasionally see still attached to carrots when you buy them. The family includes cow parsley, wild chervil but, surprisingly, cumin, coriander and dill. However, the main issue with this family is that it includes hemlock which is a poison. Here is hemlock water dropwort and yes, it will kill you:

Wild arum absolutely must not be eaten . It can be confused with sorrel (when sorrel has bigger leaves) so be very careful. If it looks like this, don't pick it:

So those were our plants for the day! We headed back to the classroom/impromptu kitchen with our basket of goodies and started making lunch. Mark was in charge of nettle pakoras - ridiculously simple: a colander full of washed nettles, roughly chopped, 100g of gram (chickpea flour), a spoon of baking powder, a chopped onion and some of the wild garlic, all mixed together and shallow fried. Delicious. Millie made wild garlic pesto - two good handfuls of wild garlic (which I happily chopped), a small amount of chopped nettle, crushed pine kernels, olive oil and parmesan. All simply mashed together in a pestle and mortar and served raw with some plain crackers. Divine!

Interesting fact (I hope I get this right or Cathy will have words): some plants like spinach or rhubarb contain oxalic acid. This acid can hinder the absorption of the calcium which is also contained in the plant. However, this problem can be overcome in a very handy way. If you combine the foodstuff with another source of calcium, the acid doesn't affect the calcium in that food. So what do we eat with rhubarb? Yup - custard! Generally made with milk. And with spinach? Indeed - cheese. So whether we know it or not, we're combining the right foods when we have a bowl of rhubarb and custard or a lovely spinach and feta salad.

All in all, it was a fascinating three hours and I'm seriously contemplating signing up for the autumn foraging course too. 

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Egg Hunt 2013

I woke up this morning to find this cryptic message on the bathroom mirror:

Which led me to this one:

So I did:

Off to the living room with me:

I sat down but this is all I could see ...

So I stood up and ...

Aha! Once rescued, this is what it looked like:

Bet it doesn't look like that for long.

Thanks Dade!