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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wild food of the month October & a bloggy visit

Yesterday we had another bloggy visit. Stefani of Sicilian Sisters Grow Some Food came to see us all the way from California for the second time this year.

This time she didn't only bring her husband Eric along, but her 4 children as well, which insisted on being introduced to all the animals around our village.

Here's her youngest trying to feed grass to a donkey's bottom...

So, if you were wondering why she hasn't posted anything on her blog for a while, here's the answer: She's been taken her family on tractor rides in Italy amongst other things.

On another note, it's time for the wild food of the month feature. For October this should normally undisputedly be the chestnut. However, I have in the past written extensively about this beautiful fruit (here for instance), and this year we have an exceptionally bad year for them

Initially I had put that down to the vagaries of nature until I realised that just a few km up the valley, they have an extremely good year for chestnuts. Due to the above average rainfall this year, they have grown to a larger size and the crop is particularly healthy. The area around and just above our village on the other hand seems to have produced hardly anything and on closer inspection the leaves on the trees have started turning autumnal at least a month ahead of normal.

A chance meeting in the woods gave part of the explanation: insects have spread a virus amongst the trees and helicopters have already dropped large quantities of predatory insects to control the harmful ones, but it may already too late to save the extensive woods for a few km around us.

Further research on the internet seems to suggest that we are suffering from a twin attack of chestnut blight, which has caused famines in some of the remoter valleys shortly after the war, and the Oriental chestnut gall wasp. Over in Arcola we have a tree on our land which has not been affected so far, but we do have to go further afield for our chestnuts this year. I hope they'll manage to control these outbreaks, it's one of the most calorie-rich wild foods we gather.

So instead I'll write something on the little blue myrtle berry.

It may be a bit of an exaggeration to call it a wild food. The main use for it is as an ingredient for a Sardinian liqueur called mirto. There are 2 versions of it mirto bianco, made from the extremely aromatic leaves, and mirto classico, a dark red liqueur made from the berries. I have made neither so far, but I've picked a mixture of the berries and leaves today to dry for later use. The berries are also said to be good used cooked with venison or wild boar. The leaves, as I have already found out can be used in these essential oil burners instead of essential oil to spread a pleasant aroma in the room. I imagine they'd be good as part of a stuffing for some rabbit or grouse for example, although again not tried yet. Anyboy knows of any other uses, I'd love to hear.


Angela said...

The children really seem to have fun, meeting all the local animals. Sorry about your chestnuts. Due to an exceptionally cold and dry spring, we have hardly any apples this year, or pears, or plums. Good there are some supermarkets around, although I never like their apples.
It is rainy now, and I need to be uplifted.

Heiko said...

Angela, the weather really has been crazy everywhere this year. Due to chronic lack of cash, sipermarket usually isn't an option for us, but at least apples, pears and plums we had plenty of. May was cold, but not dry here. Hope the sun will shine on you soon again. :)

chaiselongue said...

I'm sure the myrtle berries would make good jam, but I love the sound of the berry and wild boar recipe.... is it a good year for wild boar? Very sad about they chestnuts because you can do so much with them. I've heard that in the Cevennes mountains, just north of here, during the war the people lived on chestnuts and very little else.

Jan said...

What a shame about the chestnut trees, hopefully they'll survive. I don't think they grow around here... at least, I've never seen one.

Stefaneener said...

To be fair, she knows which end eats. . . the baby was probably distracted by her older sister.

The berries look an awful lot like the huckleberries I'd blogged about last, lo these many weeks ago.

It was so very good to see you again.

Heiko said...

CL, I'm not sure about the jam. They are veryintensely aromatic, but maybe as an accompaniment to the likes of wild boar would work like that too... Here also the chestnut was THE staple food during times of famine. Many of the older generation won't touch them any more, because the associate them with war and poverty.

We are surriunded by chestnut trees, I don't think you get them individually. If the trees die it will mean an awful lot of forest around us disappearing and with it aforementioned wild boar and general wild life.

Stefani, thanks for coming to see us, it was a pleasure. I'm sure the little one is just having trouble attracting the right end of the donkey.

Mr. H. said...

Too bad about the trees we have issues with a certain type of beetle around here from time to time that destroys trees but nothing of late. It sounds like you had a good visit with your guests...perhaps some day I will see my picture on your blog.:)

Heiko said...

Mr.H, the frustrating thing is also to get any real information on what's happening with the trees. As far as I can tell it's fairly localised issue at the moment, but it could surely spread. I must ask a friend who works as a forester, if he knows any more.

I am also looking forward to the day I'll see your photo on my blog. :)

Ruralrose said...

Wacky things happened with some of my crops this year too. No cherries, 12 plums, no pears, . . . I think it is partly to do with the jetstream splitting. I loved seeing the myrtle as it is new to me. You could write a book about making liquors you sure are knowledgeable. Peace

Heiko said...

Rose, I.m working on a musical cookery book for wild food and frugal recipes. It'll have a few liqueur recipes in it as well. Watch this space!

Anonymous said...

Down south myrtle is mostly used to flavour olives cured with caustic soda, but as a rule of thumb you can use the leaves as you would bay leaves and the berries as you would juniper berries or allspice.

Sorry to hear about your chestnuts and I hope they recover next year.

Heiko said...

Contadina, that's what I thought too, but I hadn't heard about the flavouring for olives before, in fact I haven't heard about them being cured with caustic soda. Tell me more.

Jan said...

Heiko, I've put some rough amounts on my post about the fig chutney for you.

Anonymous said...

It's for green olives only and the bigger the better (down here the green rugby-shaped ones are favoured).

Wash and cover the olives with water in a container, which is not metal. Dissolve caustic soda in the water (20 g per each kg. of olives); the olives are left to soak till the pulp comes easily away from the core (about 2 or 3 hours). Be extremely careful while doing this because the caustic soda is strongly corrosive. Also, remove any that float.

The pickling water is drained and the olives are left in regular water for 4 - 10 days or until the water becomes completely clear and it stops discolouring. It needs to be changed a couple of times each day so that the olives can lose the taste of the pickling.

Then boil up a couple of handfuls of myrtle, about 30 bay leaves, a couple of handfuls of wild fennel (stems and flower heads), and 100g of salt per litre, in a big pan of water.

Leave for a few weeks before opening and they should have a very aromatic taste - a bit Christmassy.

I only usually make a few jars using this recipe as they don't last as long as olives cured in brine, but they are definitely a winner over the Christmas period.

Heiko said...

Thanks for that Contadina. Not sure if this is going to work for us. Native olives are very much on the small side here. I'll have a look out for some larger ones maybe. Is caustic soda the same thing as bicarbonate of soda?

Anonymous said...

No it's lye, so very corrosive. You can make it yourself from the ash of hardwoods or buy it in a petrini/ferramenta type place. It's really cheap and lasts a long time. I buy a 300g tub every other year for the olives and to make soap.

Ask your neighbouring contadini though as I wouldn't be at all surprised if there isn't an olive they cure this way.