Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Adventures in Winter Foraging

If you had asked me whether there was much decent foraging to be had in the midst of January before last Sunday, I in my ignorance would have probably guessed at not much. I certainly wouldn't have predicted a basket full almost to the brim with edible mushrooms. But that, apparently, is just what you'll get if you know where to look and have a knowledgeable guide to point you in the right direction.

Rob, the boys and I were invited along on a walk lead by our friend Jesper Launder for the Manchester-based Cracking Good Food group who offer courses for passionate foodies as well as working with local community groups. As soon as we arrived at Fletcher Moss Park in Didsbury the children frantically started searching under fallen trees and logs, with Jesper and Sam's daughter Leonie leading the pack. Fortunately, the crowd on the walk were very tolerant of being pushed aside by enthusiastic little people looking for wild treasure.

Many logs were inspected and children ran about in no particular direction whilst shouting loudly but eventually, after some crazed thrashing about in boggy terrain, Jesper confidently led us to the gold. The treasure in this case was a log covered in Velvet Shanks, yellowy brown mushrooms with velvety stems. Eager hands plucked excitedly and the basket quickly filled.

Velvet shank

We went on to discover mushrooms I had never seen nor heard of before - striking Scarlet Elf Cups, Glistening Inkcaps and the medicinally useful Turkey Tail mushroom. The basket also held a lovely big Oyster mushroom discovered earlier by one of the group.  There were herbs too to provide contrasting colour and flavour - three cornered leeks for an allium tang, peppery hot large bittercress, and pretty young cow parsley leaves. It seemed so strange to me that these fungi and herbs should be growing in such abundance in a city park. Largely overlooked by its regular visitors, here was good food and delicate beauty growing in almost complete secrecy.

Scarlet elf cup

Glistening inkcap

Turkey Tail
A box of Oyster and Wood Blewit mushrooms that Jesper had 'collected earlier'!

It was a bitterly cold day and as we came to the end of the walk people sensibly hurried into the warmth of a nearby pub to thaw out a little before the finale. The gathered mushrooms were cleaned, chopped and cooked in a pond of butter together with some of the greens. Next to a main road while we stamped the cold out of our feet and blew into our hands, a rather special sort of omelette was created and shared. The portions may have not have been kingly, but it satisfied in every way possible. As fresh, ethical and local as you could wish for, gathered by our own frozen hands; wild and truly wonderful food.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Down to the water

Whilst walking in Hardcastle Crags and the vale of Callis Water last weekend, I came to a somewhat obvious realisation that water is a constant presence in these valleys. Any Calder Valley dwellers reading this may well immediately think of the rain and general wetness at this point, but I'm also talking about   watercourses. Tumbling and  trickling from high ground to low or rumbling along valley floors, the streams and rivers of this place are never far from sight or earshot.

I mused that most long walks here will, sooner or later, bring you within sight or sound of moving water. These waterways are the veins and arteries of the map and being beside them stirs our own blood in kinship; the pounding of water on rock quickening the pulse. In the Crags and I'm guessing elsewhere, many of these walks have changed of late; heavy rainfall has made stream beds of the paths, some of which are now no more than deep stony scars, treacherous for little legs and tired ankles. The destructive power of water is clearly evident across this landscape.

Throughout our beloved valleys,  fragile walls have slipped and fallen in great hunks of earth and root, leaving brutally sheared ground and gritty stalagmites. Seemingly immovable trees have toppled like skittles and lie across the land like vanquished nobility, unsettling in their revealed vulnerability. I heard one of these great capitulations in the night at the start of winter, the sound was like the cracking of rock followed by the breaking of a thousand branches. Listening in the dark I felt more than just fear and shock, there was foreboding too - a sense of the natural world shifting in unnatural ways.

All this serves to remind us that water ever was and is an unstoppable agent of change. Heavy rainfall, dramatic floods and tidal waves or simply the constant call of 'onwards'. Rivers and streams pulsing ever on and out, dragging with them all that comes too close to their edges; particles pulled on an involuntary journey of transformation.

I wonder what this means for those of us surrounded by constant moving water. It seems that we too are pulled to and along it; awed and comforted in equal measure by our watery companions. I know that I have sought solace and peace by the side of the river, casting troubles and wishes onto its indifference, but I've also found strength and renewed energy  from its tireless journeying.

On the day pictured here I was drawn to the light that was reflected on the surface of the water; down at the very bottom of this dark valley was the sky, with some new silvery quality that I had missed. The tops of the trees were there too, proudly framed like photographs. This is what has stayed with me, this was the river's parting gift - the reminder to look up and look out but do remember to watch where you're going.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Ruminating on educating

As it's the beginning of a new academic term, my thoughts have naturally turned to our own educational arrangements. A couple of friends are facing those big decisions about whether to go mainstream or seek alternatives and our conversations have touched on the home education option. It seems like a good moment to look back at our first term and share some thoughts and observations about the business.

It's probably too much waffling for one post, so I imagine I'll spin it out a bit - by which time I'll hopefully have got back into the swing of blogging a bit more regularly.

The decision to home educate is not made lightly. Even I, who had decided almost from Eli's first month that he would not be entrusted to the state for his upbringing, felt some self-doubt creep in when it came to the end of his short time at the local Steiner kindergarten. I hadn't ever properly taken on board the very obvious fact that almost everyone sends their children to school. It is not only expected, it is largely unquestioned.

It seems that the general consensus is that school, whilst not necessarily the ideal option, is the safest. The practical considerations alone give rise to enough consternation to prevent treading another path - bringing in enough money whilst having children at home; not feeling that one has enough resources of energy to be around ones offspring constantly; not having the requisite support network and so on and so on. I am familiar with these anxieties, it can seem logistically impossible before you even get to the education bit.

I think our real fears kick in when we get to our children's well-being and future prospects. Will our children learn all they need to know from primarily being with one person, perhaps two at the most? Will they need more social contact than we can provide for them? How will they learn to read????

These questions and worries are valid and real. A certain amount of self-confidence and a sizeable rebellious streak are useful when contemplating them. I cannot speak for others or offer any sureties but I can share our experience and add to the growing numbers of people who say that school doesn't have to be the only way.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Up in flames

Yesterday evening, with good friends on hand, I felt like I finally bid goodbye to the old year and welcomed in the new. Rob returns to work today and so I must shake off my festive sleepiness and sharpen my wits for the adventures and challenges to come.

There are exciting projects in the pipeline; a home to be packed up and moved; a blog to be kept up to date *ahem* and through it all, two children to love and nurture.

Although I'm busy making plans for the new year, I'm trying to remember to honour the season that is still upon us. Winter is not the time for great acts, we must be kind to ourselves and each other; take our time and go gently. Keep dreaming and rest while we can, soon enough we'll be called from hibernation and nudged into action by the waking world.

What have you said goodbye to with the old year? What projects and schemes are you planning for the new year?