WELL SEASONED

The Blog

Welcome to our award winning blog

 

Here you can find a collection of our thoughts, reports and ramblings together with some fun things we find along the way. We try to update the blog at least once a week and more often during busy periods so make sure you check back regularly..

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 11 2017 08:00AM

One of our favourite early summer outings is a trip to the south coast to dive for scallops.


In truth, the plump, sweet and succulent scallop isn't strongly seasonal and can be enjoyed most of the year round but, since they spawn during the later summer months, June provides the optimum compromise between their reproductive cycle, some slightly warmer coastal waters and suitably calm weather needed for scuba diving.


The highly-selective and labour intensive operation of diving for scallops is about as sustainable as you can get. Suitable specimens can be plucked from the seabed, 30m below the surface, and everything else is left completely undisturbed. Dredging, the alternative and most common method of harvesting scallops, is much less selective. Dragging a steel jaw along the seabed can cause considerable disturbance, damaging important habitats and dramatically reducing biodiversity.


Now, had we written this post a few years ago we'd definitely have urged you to stick exclusively to "hand-dived" or "diver-caught" scallops. And that is still largely the case - if you ever find yourself doubting the mantra that fresh British seasonal food is best, try a fresh South coast hand-dived scallop and compare it to a foreign, frozen, supermarket one. It's an embarrassing Round One, knock-out of the foreign contender and victory to the eco-friendly home-grown heavyweight.


But supporters of the dredging industry point out that scallops live in naturally sparse areas of sand and gravel that are routinely disturbed by waves and tidal action in any event. They also say that certain dredged fisheries (such as the Rye Bay fishery) have been producing good numbers of scallops for decades without any decline in number or quality – a sign that they can’t be doing that much damage.


It is at least a partly-convincing argument and it's only fair to point out that the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has recently rated some dredged scallops as sustainable on its Fish to Eat web resource. King Scallops from Shetland are rated 2 on its sustainability scale - the same as diver caught scallops from other regions. The MCS says that, in some case, the effects of dredging can be mitigated by rotating the areas that are dredged as well as using smaller, less powerful dredgers and lighter weight gear.


Dredged scallops are, unsurprisingly, considerably cheaper that their more carefully handled cousins and with some now rated as similarly sustainable, it's hardly reasonable to expect everyone to stick to the priciest option. There are plenty of other arguments in favour of diver caught, not least the quality of the product (dredged scallops tend to be grittier and have damaged shells) and we still always buy them, but it's a slightly harder call than it once was and one which a combination of your wallet and conscience will need to make.


Scallops should be cooked simply and quickly to enjoy their sweet, succulent flesh.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 9 2017 08:00AM

As the weather and our coastal waters warm up (15 degrees appears to be the trigger point), mackerel will start coming inshore and in June you'll easily be able to catch them with a simple rig. It's a great introduction to sea fishing.


The simplest way to experience mackerel fishing is to book a spot on a fishing trip. You'll find them in most harbour towns these days and you can expect to pay a few pounds per person for a two hour session with all kit and instruction supplied (plus a share of the spoils) which is pretty good value and a great introduction for real beginners. But, assuming you'd rather invest in some kit that you can use at your own pace and whenever you're down at the coast, here's my mega mackerel masterclass to help you catch your own sustainable dinner, direct from the beach.

Basic kit

Don't be tempted to spend hundreds of pounds on tackle online. You can kit yourself out for a mackerel session for well under fifty pounds and the best place to go is your local tackle shop. Not only will you be supporting local businesses, you'll also be getting access to a wealth of free fishing information. Fishing shop owners are a friendly bunch and will be happy to talk as much as you like, especially if they smell a sale. They should know everything about their kit as well as vital local knowledge on the best spots. Tell the shop owner what you're after and hopefully you'll come out with at least the following:

- A rod (suitable for casting),

- A reel (again, suitable for casting rather than boat fishing or fly fishing).

- Main fishing line and a "shock leader" line.

- A selection of mackerel feathers (pre-tied strings of 3 to 6 hooks, with a feather, foil strip or similar sparkly adornment).

- A selection of ledgers (a simple lead weight or "bomb" in a streamlined shape, with a small loop at the top to attach to your line) from 2oz to 4oz.

If you're a complete novice you'll need to know how to set the kit up. Your helpful shop owner should be happy to show you how to do this but make sure you pay attention. You'll need to know a few basic knots as well as how the rod and reel work, so don't be shy to ask and make sure you've committed it all to memory before you part with your hard-earned cash.

When to go

Although mackerel are present in our waters all year round, they usually only come inshore in late spring and will be at their peak in June and July. The first thing to remember is that mackerel are either within casting distance of the shore, in which case you should catch some, or they aren't, in which case you won't, however hard you try. A wise and experienced angler once told me that the best way to fish for mackerel is to wait until you've seen someone else catch some, then get casting - and there's a lot of truth in that. If you can't wait or there's no one else around, you can maximise your chances by fishing at high tide and in the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Calm, still days are best but as mackerel have no eyelids, they don't like bright sunlight - if it's a very sunny day, they'll be nearer the bottom. Signs you might look for include a thin slick of oil on the surface of the water and seabirds diving into the water (they aren't actually eating the mackerel but the bait fish - usually sand eels - that the mackerel are chasing.) In the height of summer you might even see the sand eels bubbling on the surface of the water, sometimes just yards from the beach. Mackerel have even been known to beach themselves in the hunt for their food.

Where to go

You'll need a beach or pier that gets you easy access to deep water. So, rapidly shelving pebble beaches like Chesil in Dorset, are ideal, or any long pier, such as Brighton. Piers may have rules about when you can fish so it's worth checking in advance. Rocky headlands are also good but they can be very dangerous and you'll need to take extra care on these.

Casting and retrieving

Set up your kit and get casting. Aim to get as much distance as possible. Although the fish can be very close to the shore, the further you cast, the more water you'll cover and the more chance you'll have of catching. But remember that you can vary your depth too - it's no good casting miles and constantly retrieving your feathers though the top 10m of water if the fish are at 20m. So, mix it up a bit. Leave a few seconds before you start your retrieve to allow the weight to sink a bit. If that draws a blank, try again but with a quicker or slower retrieve. You'll see people lots of different techniques - some people just reel straight in, others prefer to twitch the rod or use a series of pulls and reeling in. Give all of these a go and find the one that suits you. Ultimately, they'll all work if the fish are there.

Catching

You'll know when you've caught anything - there will be a sudden increase in resistance and you'll feel the fish fighting at the end of the line. It's an exhilarating feeling if you've never caught one before but, once you've felt that initial tug, it's worth trying not to get too excited. The fish that's there is likely to stay hooked but your other hooks may well be in the middle of a shoal and, if you give it a few more moments, you have a chance of catching a few more. So, wait a few seconds and then reel in. With this method it's not that unusual to score a "full house" with a fish on every one of your hooks. Unhook your catch and give each fish a couple of sharp blows to the head with a "priest" or study stick. It can appear brutal but it's the most humane method and ensures a quick death. Mackerel spoils very quickly so once you've killed it, gut it as soon as you can and then store it in a cool bag or a bucket or water.

Then get that barbeque lit. The fresher the better is definitely the rule for mackerel.

And finally...

If you fish regularly throughout the summer you will have days when you can catch hundreds of mackerel. It's easy to get carried away but try only to catch as many as you're going to eat. Once caught, mackerel can't be released as they have a very sensitive skin membrane which degrades as soon as it's been touched. If handled by human hands, even very gently, mackerel will die within days. They do freeze well but mackerel are always best fresh. So if you don't have a plan for them, best to leave them in the sea and come back another day. Conversely, some days you'll do everything right and just won't be able to catch them. If that's the case, pack up, and get down to the fish and chip shop before you get totally fed up. There are no guarantees with fishing and it's important to know when to cut your losses. Retain some of your enthusiasm for another day and remember that it wouldn't be any fun if you caught something every time, now would it?


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 4 2017 10:00AM

Hunting for aquatic mini-beasts is one of the best ways to learn about the diversity of our freshwater pond life.


From the smallest garden pond to largest lakes, any established body of water will be teaming with fascination organisms. Although you certainly don't have to attend an organised event at a nature reserve or wetland centre, they will usually have a specially-constructed dipping platform, to enable safe access to the pond, as well as pre-printed identification sheets for you to tick off. Any entry fee you have to pay will go towards their conservation efforts.


You will need:


• A net

• A light coloured bucket or tray

• A magnifying glass

• An identification book


Start by half filling your tray or bucket with pond water. Now start your dipping. Using a figure of eight action sweep your net though the water. You'll find most life at the edges of the pond and near plants but try to avoid scooping up too much mud and silt. After a couple of sweeps, gently turn your net inside out, into the tray or bucket. Wait for a few minutes to let any silt settle then take your magnifying glass and see what you can identify. Look out for:


• Nymphs like mayfly, damselfly and caddis fly.

• Crustacea like freshwater shrimp.

• Molluscs like pond snails and freshwater mussels.

• Insects like water boatmen and water scorpions.

• Vertebrates like toads, tadpoles, frogs and newts.


Make sure you take time to look around the pond as well, particularly for bird life including ducks, and if you are really lucky, the electric blue of a darting kingfisher.


Staying safe:


Beware - even at centres designed with children in mind the water can be deep.

Kneel by the pond when you’re dipping and don’t lean over too far.

If you have cuts and grazes cover them with a plaster. (Weil’s disease is an unpleasant infection that you can get from getting water in contact with open cuts.)

Wash your hands thoroughly after dipping.


Did you know…? Mayfly were named because they "hatch" from the river in late May or early June. "Duffers Fortnight" supposedly affords novice fly fishermen the best opportunity to catch a trout - the fish feed voraciously on the mayfly as they emerge in huge clouds to mate, lay their eggs and die in a single day.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Jun 1 2017 10:00AM

Many herbs will lose some of their aromatic intensity as the weather really hots up, so June is the perfect time to preserve a few batches for use later in the year.


As we mentioned back in May, early summer is prime time for garden-grown herbs. The simplest and most economical method of preserving some is to air-dry them.


Home dried herbs are a world apart from supermarket varieties. The flavour and aroma from most herbs comes from oils that are a natural defence mechanism against insects and bacteria. Because most supermarket herbs are grown hydroponically they don’t have the same exposure to these elements, meaning their oils are less intense.


You will need:


• A selection of garden herbs (buy some from a market if you don't grow your own)

• Brown paper bags (the large sandwich bags used by delicatessens are ideal)

• String or twist ties

• Somewhere warm and dry to hang your herbs

• Jars and labels for storage


On a dry day, cut your herbs. Cut then mid-morning after any morning dew has dried off.


Rinse them under a little cold water to remove any dust and garden chemicals. Dry by lightly blotting on a sheet of kitchen paper.


Take small bunches of your herbs and tie the stems together. Remove any discoloured or damaged leaves.


Puncture a few holes in each bag, without damaging the leaves, to allow air to circulate. Using a hole punch will ensure the holes are neat and less likely to tear.


Now place each bunch into a paper bag and using the string or ties, tie the neck of the bag around the stems. Use a knot that you can undo easily as you'll want to check the herbs from time to time and the knot may need tightening as the stems dry and shrink.

Write the name of the herb on the bag and hang upside down in a warm, dry space, ideally out of direct

sunlight.

After a few weeks of warm weather your herbs should be dry and crispy. If they are still moist then leave for another week. Otherwise, pack them into airtight jars and label.


For maximum flavour, don't crush your herbs until just before you cook with them. Dried fully, your herbs will last until next summer.


Air-drying is most effective for slightly woody herbs with a low moisture content such as rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. Herbs with a high moisture content like basil and mint, can go mouldy before they dry out so oven drying is preferable. Spread the stems thinly on a baking tray and place in a very low oven (70-80 C) for a couple of hours, opening the door occasionally to release the moist air.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 5 2017 10:00AM

One food that has virtually disappeared from the British diet in living memory is rook.


Rooks were once eaten in large numbers in Britain and especially on Rook Sunday - the Sunday closest to 13 May - when it was common to raid rooks' nests for fledgling birds (also called "squabs" or "branchers"), which start to leave the nest in late spring. The young birds were the main ingredient in rook pie, a celebrated delicacy in parts of the country. The practice has all but died out now although you will very occasionally still find rook for sale in high end butchers and game dealers.


These members of the crow family are very sociable and you'll most often see (and hear) them nesting in their hundreds in tall trees to the side of open farmland. Rooks have thinner beaks and a light, bare face whereas crows have black beaks and faces, but if you have trouble identifying them, remember the country saying that "a crow in a crowd is a rook and a rook on its own is a crow."


Since we're talking about birds we don't usually eat, it's worth a mention of one other this month. In April we saw the start of the season for an ingredient that has one of the shortest periods of availability - asparagus, which is around for just 8 weeks. Well, this month we can go one better.


The season for wild gulls eggs usually kicks off in the last week of April and runs until mid-May – just three weeks - until the birds begin sitting on their nests. A tiny (and shrinking) army of just 25 government-licensed collectors is be permitted to raid the cliffs of our coastline, taking a single egg from each nest of black headed gulls.


Before you scramble out of the front door to get hold of a box of gulls eggs, there are a few reasons why you might not be too concerned about this particular foodie season.


First, despite their beautiful appearance, gulls eggs don't actually taste that different. Whilst aficionados will tell you that they are creamier and gamier that hens eggs, the truth is that unless you have pretty refined taste buds, you won't have an eggy epiphany when you crack open the speckled shell of a gull's egg.


Secondly, from an ethical perspective, some conservationists (including the RSPB) have expressed concerns over the possible impact of the collection on the gull population, which has, in the recent past been in decline. Numbers do now appear to be on the increase again and the RSPB's concerns mainly relate to unauthorised collection by people who cause damage to the nesting sites.


Tim Maddams - the Ethical Foodie blogger for the Ecologist magazine recently told me there is "No shortage of gulls - in fact probably the opposite due to human wastefulness. [It's a] sustainable harvest that helps reduce numbers." However, the species remains on the Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) Amber list as a species with "unfavourable conservation status", so definitely one to keep an eye on.


Finally, and possibly most importantly, they are wallet-scarringly expensive. A single egg will set you back up to fifteen pounds in London's trendiest food quarters. Now, given the hard work required to collect them, it's not necessarily bad value for money as such, but they are unlikely to be your choice for a quick omelette, especially if you've got guests round. This is perhaps why every year a good proportion of the eggs collected are eaten not at home but in the poshest restaurants and at special Gulls Egg Dinners held in London's swankiest gentlemen's clubs (and why I've chosen a picture of hen's eggs to accompany this piece...)


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 1 2017 10:00AM

If you're searching for an eccentric British celebration which serves no discernable purpose and whose original roots were lost, long ago, in the mists of time, look no further than the Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling.


This event, which takes place each year on the early May bank holiday, dates back to the 1800s. Essentially it consists of a round of local cheese being rolled down the hill with a large crowd running after it. Whoever holds the cheese when it reaches the bottom of the hill is the winner.


There is little formal organisation or safety around the event and, given the obvious dangers, it has officially been banned for many years now. Since 2009 the Gloucestershire authorities have tried actively to discourage people from attending, though to no avail. (You've got to be proud of living in a country where our idea of civil disobedience is to throw a nine pound round of dairy product down a moderately steep (1 in 3) incline.)


It's true that the event is essentially spontaneous and unmanaged with few formal health and safety measures. Nevertheless some 15,000 people usually attend and it is an entertaining day out whether you are participating or (rather more safely) just spectating.


Given its questionable legal status, we would advise you definitely not to go to Coopers Hill at noon sharp on the early May Bank Holiday Monday and definitely not to find further details on the (unofficial) cheese rolling website. Searching for the hashtag #cheeserolling is right out.


Since we're on the topic (and since this is essentially a blog about food), it would be a shame not to mention the cheese itself. There are two types of Gloucester cheese - Single and the Double (the latter being used in the cheese rolling). Although no one is completely certain about the origin of the "double" part of the name, it's likely to be either because double skimming of the Gloucester cattle’s milk was needed to make this creamier cheese or because cream from the morning milk was originally added to the evening milk (also with added creaminess in mind). It is a hard, orange cheese with a slightly nutty flavour and flaky texture. Single Gloucester used to be made from the partially skimmed milk left over and so was smaller, crumblier and less creamy. It now has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 1 2017 10:00AM

As the weather warms up and dries out it's time to collect bark rubbings.


Bark is the outer protective skin of a tree. It prevents the vulnerable inner tissue from attack by disease, fungi or insects as well as insulating it from the elements. Each species of tree has a unique bark pattern – collecting and cataloguing rubbings of them is a great way to spend the day and to learn more about the species living near you. Although you can do it at any time of year, May is the first reliably dry month of the year and new leaves will be out on most trees by now, making them easier to identify.


You will need:


• A roll of masking tape

• Several sheets of strong white paper

• A pack of wax crayons

• A pen or pencil

• A dry day!


Tape a sheet of paper to the truck of your chosen tree. Peel the paper wrapper from one of your crayons. Rub the long edge of the crayon over the paper until the bark pattern shows. Try to keep all your strokes in the same direction. When you have a clear impression of the bark, carefully peel off the masking tape, remove the paper from the tree and use the pen to record the type and location of your tree.


Did you know…? The horizontal dark "dashes" seen on silver birch trees are called lenticels, and they allow the trunk to breath. When the lenticels become blocked, new bark from beneath grows, causing the older covering to peel off.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 13 2017 10:00AM

Britain's network of cycle paths provides the perfect opportunity to discover free food and get fit at the same time.


April is a great time to take advantage or the improving weather by getting on your bike. One of our favourite springtime activities is a bicycle path forage (borage?*).


Whether you live in the town or country, bodies such as Sustrans (the charity which organises the National Cycle Network and campaigns for sustainable transport throughout the UK) do an amazing job of opening and maintaining car-free routes for bike enthusiasts and providing us with free access to them.


Along these cycle paths, (and, in fact, all of the towpaths and footpaths which criss-cross the country), we have, unwittingly, created the perfect foraging trail. Either side of the tracks for decades, or even hundreds of years, we have disturbed the natural order of things in a number of ways; by breaking the ground, trampling plants, removing larger trees and discarding fruit stones and cores. The result is a unique environment where the truly wild and the feral co-exist.


Along every path you're likely to see apple trees, wild roses, hawthorns, blackberry bushes, wild garlic, chervil and dandelions, all of which will, at different times during the year, provide free and accessible seasonal food just yards from the paths. As you cycle, take note of the various foraging opportunities that you spot so that you can return to them later in the year.


The multitude of opportunities you'll find along a cycle path proves that you don't need to be in the 'real' countryside to have a fun day out foraging for food. Even if you haven't been on a bike since you needed stabilizers, get out there and discover the National Cycle Network.


(*Actually, this could catch on. Borage, or starflower, is a culinary herb which isn't commonly used these days but was a favourite in medieval times. It tastes a little like cucumber.)


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 11 2017 08:00AM

At this time of year we start to see some real growth in the garden. Unfortunately for the aesthetic horticulturalist, that often means weeds rather than seedlings.


In April you really need to stay on top of things in the garden if you want to avoid undesirable interlopers. The lack of frosts and plenty of rain means its boom time for garden weeds.


But there is an upside if, like us, you find it difficult to keep things tidy in the garden. As well as being much better for wildlife, you'll occasionally get a crop that you didn't intend to grow. One in particular comes into season in early spring, and if you can bear to leave a small patch of them growing in your garden, they'll provide you with your first green (and free) meal of the year.


We are, of course, talking about stinging nettles. The first young shoots will have started to grow in mid-February so by now you should have a decent, harvestable crop.


You'll need a plastic bag and a good pair of gloves. To get flavoursome and delicate leaves, only pick the first few centimetres of the plant tips. As with most freshly picked, green leaves, nettles will keep for a few days in the fridge.


There is a definite spinachy tang to nettle leaves and they can be used in most recipes as a substitute (although you should probably avoid using them in salad.) In terms of accompaniments, you'll find that nettles have an affinity for nutmeg and most recipes will be perked up by a fresh grating. You can also make a simple, refreshing nettle tea from half a dozen fresh leaves left to infuse in boiling water for a few minutes.


By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Apr 3 2017 10:00AM

If you want to grow your own pumpkin for Halloween then late April is the time to get planting.


You'll need a sunny spot in the garden or on the vegetable patch which is reasonably sheltered from any cold winds. They are quite easy to grow from seeds and although most people only want a large, orange pumpkin, it's worth buying one that is good for eating as well as carving.


Start with a visit to your local garden centre to buy seeds. Although you can sow the seeds straight into the ground we usually like to give ours a head start by sowing them indoors in a seed tray or small pots. (If you're sowing outdoors it's worth waiting until mid-May when any chance of frost has passed. Alternatively, buy plug plants from the garden centre which can usually be planted straight out.)


You should follow the instructions on your seed packet but most will suggest planning to plant out your seedlings in June. Until then you'll need to keep them indoors, warm and well-watered.

A couple of weeks before you plant out, dig a hole for each plant in your chosen spot and fill it with compost or manure. At the same time, leave your seedlings outside, (ideally in a cold frame, but otherwise bringing them in at night) for a fortnight to acclimatise.


Once acclimatised, you can plant the strongest looking seedlings. Make sure you space them far enough apart to allow room to grow (you'll need at least 30cm and up to 1.5m for the biggest pumpkin varieties).

Next to each plant, sink an empty plant pot into the ground. They will need plenty of water when the warm weather arrives so you can use the empty pot to ensure the water gets straight to the plant's roots rather than staying on the surface where it might rot the fruit and leaves.


Your plant should flower in early summer and start to bear fruit the following month. Place a piece of plastic under each pumpkin to prevent it from rotting.


Let the fruit mature on the plant for as long as possible before Halloween but harvest it before the first frost when it might be damaged. (You can store most ripe squashes in a dark, cool place for many months before they spoil.)


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