Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Marching towards spring

While March continues to fling the occasional snow shower over the hills of Edinburgh, determined daffodils in green corners are quietly insisting that spring is on its way. Watching the seasons has become something of more than idle interest, as my PhD research is all about phenology, or seasonal timing.

Waiting and watching for budburst and blossom, spring will find me wandering woods, tracking trees and gazing into the canopy with my binoculars. Before the first leaves are unfurled, there is much time to anticipate the seasons to follow, remembering the busyness of June skies, when the butterflies come out to play.

One glorious weekend last year, a pilgrimage to Collard Hill and a trip to the Cotswolds with a certain Large Blue butterfly botherer, brought lepidopteran adventures.

There were clouds of Small Blue (Cupido minimus)...

... Electric Adonis Blue (Lysandra bellargus)...

... and a Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae) or two.
As well as seeing a bashful Cotswoldian Large Blue, which was part of the generation that had been reintroduced using individuals from Collard Hill and other sites in 2011, orchid spikes were scattered across the slopes. Sweet pink Fragrant orchids were interspersed with my first Fly orchids, and back at Collard, some the 'Wasps' had appeared again.

Super Fly (Ophrys insectifera)
Six-spot Burnet moth caterpillar creating its cocoon
Back in the wind-blown present, an essential part of braving the woods and occasional hail is having cake wrapped up in paper, ready to be eaten with cold fingers in five minutes of crisp sunshine. Today this was 'wrinkly apple cake', a vegan version of my childhood favourite. Made with the ageing apples left at the end of a long winter...

3/4 cup non-dairy milk
1tsp apple cider (or other) vinegar
2 1/4 cups plain flour of your choice (I used  1 1/4 cup rye, 1 cup plain white, wholewheat would be nice too)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 tbsp golden syrup or treacle/molasses for a darker cake
2 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated is perfect)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup slightly stewed wrinkly apples (sweeten to your own preference)
a handful of sultanas/walnuts if you like them

Preheat the oven to 160C
- Mix the milk and vinegar in a bowl and leave to one side while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
- Mix the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda in a large bowl and set aside.
- Whisk the sugar, oil, syrup, spices and vanilla thoroughly in a bowl.
- Pour the milk and sugar mixtures into the flour, and beat everything for at least a minute.
- Add the apples and dried fruit or nuts if you are using them and mix everything well.
- Pour into a lined loaf or cake tin, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for ~50 minutes.
This cake is best cooled and eaten the next day on a chilly walk, or with lots of tea at home.

The Woodland Trust and their Nature's Calendar project are partners in my phenology adventures, and I'll be posting updates like this on the Woodland Matters blog as the research progresses, or stalls. I may even report on what baked goods are being taken on jaunts to the woods...

Friday, 1 February 2013

What May have been...

aybe the imminent signs of Spring are reminding me of last year, or perhaps it is the shamefaced realisation of how long it's been since the Battenberg had its hatches battened... Whatever it is, here are some memories of long ago avian adventures. May 2012 was a month spent slipping over saltmarshes in search of waders. I attempted lesson two in cultivating a love of birds; studying them. As a field-assistant for Elwyn's PhD research, looking at the influence of saltmarsh management upon breeding birds.

Marshes in Wales and the North West were sites of nest-finding, navigating creeks and avoiding cattle. Being based on Anglesey meant travelling between sites in the time-honoured tradition of fieldwork. Muddy clothes, muddy wellies, and muddy vehicles filled with equipment, folders and food. In between there were days off wandering along the beautiful Aberffraw sands and coastal paths, taking in wild flowers I'd not encountered during my inland life.

Lilac bells of Spring Squill (Scilla verna)
Some peachy pink blooms of Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)
Sheep's-bit (Jasione montana) near the shoreline
We recorded breeding Redshank and other birds using the saltmarshes. Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Meadow Pipit and Skylark were the most frequent users, with a few Mallards also choosing these sites. Days were spent scouring the marshes with our binoculars and investigating likely looking vegetation, which was usually across several large and very muddy creeks.

Spotting nesting passerines was largely through chance; seeing a small brown flash fly from beneath the grass as we wandered the marshes, occasionally glimpsing a bundle of small mouths clamouring to be fed. As well as our study species, being on the marshes provided many opportunities for watching flocks of Dunlin and Ringed Plover, encountering Shelducks and Shelducklings and the occasional Little Egret (reminding me of those plentiful Indian egrets). Wheatear and Reed Bunting were also frequent visitors.

Elwyn's research should increase the understanding of saltmarsh management for birds and biodiversity in the long term. It was a fantastic opportunity to get involved a research project observing breeding birds from a privileged perspective one would never normally see.

At the end of May I retreated home with a sprained ankle, and spent several days cooking (to make up for the fieldwork diet of soup and pita bread) and eating in our sunny and green garden. Clearing out the herb patch involved a great deal of excess Lemon Balm, which became a pesto to eat with some homemade wholewheat gnocchi.

Enough pesto for several meals...
To make the pesto you will need approximately:
1 cup lemon balm leaves (rinsed)
2-3 garlic cloves
2/3 cup walnuts
1/2 - 2/3 cup olive oil (depending on how liquid you'd like your pesto to be)
salt and pepper

Whiz the dry ingredients together in a food processor and then add oil to reach your desired consistency. Season to taste. It is quite delicate, so is particularly nice served simply, over your pasta of choice.

Wholewheat gnocchi with lemon balm pesto
Lastly, I recently came across a great blog called Ecological Spaceship, which is concerned with many issues facing the Earth and its inhabitants. My favourite post so far is a reminder of what it is to be an 'environmentalist' i.e. someone who is dependent upon the environment, which is in fact, everyone.

Monday, 7 May 2012

What goes on Inside

In case you read my last post and were wondering (just like us) what is inside that pretty green tube? Gorm opened it up to reveal bee larvae in their own little compartments covered in a film of pollen and something else we don't know. It is a fairly nondescript small, white, segmented worm-like creature lacking legs and eyes. The tube has been rolled up again and left alone. If the bees emerge I'll try to get a picture of what they look like. 

There is a European leaf-cutter bee (Megachile rotundata) that seems to be better studied than the African ones. Has anyone seen it around?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Green Homes

Leaf-cutter bees (Genus: Megachile) are absolutely awesome! Have you gone into your garden or bit of wilderness and seen leaves with perfectly cut circular or semi-circular holes in them?  That's the leaf-cutter bees at work. They carefully stick these bits of leaves together to form the most beautiful, neat and complex nests. Gorm, Mr Dal's Phd partner, has been putting out paper tubes to attract wasps to nest in them. One morning we were called by an excited Gorm to come see this amazing construction inside one of his tubes. With his permission I share this photo with you.

The puppy that adopted us was very ill. We haven't even known him for very long but it is surprising how quickly we fall in love. After some frantic calls to all the vets we know and some medication he seems to be doing fine. Here is Casper, the puppy with Bruce, his mama (we didn't name them).

Janet lives on the same hill as us. We are very lucky indeed as she makes mean chapatis.  I always thought chapatis were an Indian thing but they are very popular all over Kenya. They are made slightly differently though. Make your dough with 1 kg of wheat flour, warm water and lots of salt for 13-14 fat chapatis. Knead it till its quite soft. Then make three huge balls and roll them out. Put oil all over them and cut them into four strips each. Then each strip gets rolled into a smaller ball. Then roll these balls out into round chapatis about 3-4 mm thick and 6-7 inches wide. Now heat your pan and put a spoon of oil on it. Cook your chapatis on both sides with sufficient oil. When they have big brown spots on them they will be ready. They obviously taste so good because people here are not worried about oil consumption! :)

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Birding for beginners: India

n a trip for the glorious Indian nuptials of Roald Dal and Radish, some bright-eyed eco-geeks took the wonderful opportunity to travel across the world and, after the feasting and dancing, attempt to see as much of the local wildlife as possible. For a few of us, it was the perfect chance to practice our novice birding moves.

Lesson 1 for the reluctant birder is a simple one; leave the country. If you happen to be someone who feels a little overwhelmed by the brownness of the UK's finest avian residents, the perfect way to muster some enthusiasm is to go elsewhere. Luckily for us, India offered up a range of winged beauties, vivid colours and fancy shapes to make the shallowest wannabe birder go 'ooooh'.

There were numerous lessons learnt on our travels but only some come with photographic evidence, taken by Laveesh, finest hat-wearing ecologist in the land. Ready with bins, book, pen and camera we identified 93 species, and saw a few more. Here are just a few of the birds, and lessons, for your pleasure...

Seeing large charismatic species gives you confidence - White-bellied Sea Eagle, Goan coast
It's ok to have a favourite when it wears zebra stripes - Orange-headed Thrush, Goan Ghats
Watching birds tackle their prey makes them much more interesting, doubly so when you're on a tropical beach - Common Sandpiper, Goan coast
Hoopoes will always bring a smile to your face, even when tired and dehydrated - Hoopoe, Hampi
Learning to love herons will make your stay next to paddy fields much more rewarding - Indian Pond Heron, Hampi
When you are this handsome, you do not shy away from your public - Plum-headed Parakeet, Hampi
All birds are fond of ruins and elephants. Fact. - Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, Hampi
One can never see too many species of Kingfisher - Stork-billed Kingfisher, Keralan backwaters
Wherever you are in the world, Cormorants look like crooked umbrellas - Little Cormorant, Keralan backwaters
A bird requires impeccable balance when residing on spindly vegetation  - Purple Heron, Keralan backwaters
Birding is easiest when you breakfast on the balcony - Red-whiskered and Red-vented Bulbuls, Keralan Ghats
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, birds will turn their back on you - female Scarlet Minivet - Keralan Ghats
And sometimes, they are attention seeking posers - male Scarlet Minivet - Keralan Ghats
All roads lead to India for the chickens who crossed them - Grey Junglefowl - Keralan Ghats
Night birding is best with good hearing - Jungle Owlet (we think!) - Keralan Ghats

And finally, the lesson that holds true everywhere, there is always something small and brown that you can't identify!

An unknown Prinia? - Hampi
Naturally, some of the most exciting sightings were imprinted not in pixels, but only our minds, and we jumped around with glee seeing wonders such as a very unexpected chestnut coloured female Sri Lanka Frogmouth, and the Malabar Trogon.  We admired the punk-crested Black Lored Tit, watched open-mouthed as the huge wingbeats of a pair of Great Hornbills echoed above us in the Western Ghats, and saw a Black-rumped Flameback woodpecker scamper up palms in the backwaters. We learnt that the best way to pronounce 'Drongo' was with an Australian accent, and preferred to call the Greater-racket tailed Drongo the 'fancy-tailed'. Rufous and White-bellied Treepies made us happy, the tails of Asian Paradise Flycatchers and blue flashes of Velvet-fronted Nuthatch causing much geeky joy. We also saw an awful lot of Egrets.

Our final few days were spent around Kumily and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, an area whose hills were etched with tea plantations and spice gardens were tucked into lush grottos. Before leaving we packed our bags with sweet and pungent vanilla, conker-like nutmegs and tiny green rugby balls of cardamom. Since returning from India my favourite way of using some of these aromatic delights has been in a cardamom and orange syrup cake.

It's a version of wonder cake, the extravagantly named recipe I wrote about last February. Follow the recipe as suggested, using ground almonds and vanilla essence. In addition, finely grind the seeds from 5 cardamom pods and grate the zest of one orange and add to the dry ingredients before adding the oil etc. When you've stirred it all together, sprinkle flaked almonds over the mixture before baking.

While it's in the oven prepare the syrup, bash two cardamom pods and add to a pan with 40g sugar (granulated or caster) and the juice of 1-2 oranges. Put on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved and then set aside for the flavours to develop. When the cake is cooked and a golden brown, remove from the oven and pierce all over with a skewer in between the almonds. Strain the syrup and pour over the hot cake, it should be absorbed as you pour. Allow to cool before slicing. It is a very aromatic and sticky cake, good with hot black coffee and memories of India.

First attempt - no flaked almonds, but it's nicer with!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Warm Winter Passing

eap day in a leap year, winter seems to have gone, shifts and stirrings appear. Boxing day primroses finished 2011, Lesser Celandine flowers waved yellow as January began. February frosted all life at the start, now there's crocuses, butterflies, snowdrops and bees. Adders in East Anglia, frogspawn all over, Todmorden toads on the 27th, and no time to take a breath.

Hello, spring.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Cold weather comforts

November is often full of pumpkins, roots and stews, tea as recommended by Radish below, nourishing baking and that dark steel blue rain reserved for the boundary between autumn and winter. And so it has been, with some added dairy-free kitchen experiments, one of the best being a cobbled together pumpkin and leek quiche.

No soggy bottom here...
To make this you'll want roughly the following:
A blind baked pastry case using pastry of your choice
1 small butternut squash or pumpkin
2 small leeks
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1-2 tsps English or wholegrain mustard
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 packet silken tofu (pressed to remove liquid)
~ 1/2 cup soy milk
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C or Gas mark 4.
- Cook the finely chopped onion and garlic gently in a little olive oil in a large frying pan.
- Add the butternut squash, cut into small cubes (1-2cm ish) and chopped leek. Saute everything gently for 10-15 mins until all the vegetables are soft.
- Blend the tofu, soy milk, mustard and nutmeg until smooth. Season to taste.
- Add the tofu mixture to the vegetables and mix before adding to your pastry case.
- Cook for 30-40 mins until golden brown and set in the middle, and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

Silken tofu experiments also led me to the quickest and richest chocolate pudding... All you need is a block of silken tofu to blend until really smooth with a couple of spoons of cocoa powder and maple syrup, and then add in whatever you like best with chocolate, try peanut butter or finely chopped stem ginger. If you blend this and then add it onto a biscuity base and leave it to set for a couple of hours it makes a beautiful chocolate torte.

I got the chance to visit the lovely Collard Hill, scene of my June Large Blue Butterfly adventures this month, for the end of year wash-up meeting to discuss the season. Somerset was damp and green, and my feet remembered many of the hill's lumps and bumps as we walked the transect route in the rain, discussing the successful increase in Large Blues during 2011. Happily, we were also able to find a Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) egg on the Blackthorn hedge, and peered at its intricate golf ball like indentations through a hand lens. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't get that close.

Lepidopterist finger for scale.

There was some further Lepidoptera related excitement when I went out to the woods one evening with the Yorkshire mothmen... It being chilly there wasn't exactly a lot of activity, but by peering at the trunks of Beech, Birch and Ash trees we found the somewhat elusive flightless females of the Winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and Scare Umber (Agriopis aurantiaria). We also found a pair of copulating Winter moths, sometimes you can watch a female drag the male way up a tree trunk, in order to get to her favoured ovipositing spot. Sadly my photos are not amazingly clear as it was rather dark out, but the local moth blog has some good close ups of the females.

Lady winter's vestigial wings
Birch for a bed...
Scarce Umber girls are stripy

Nippy Novembrr eco-endeavours require some dense sustaining baked sweetness to keep one going, which has mainly been taking the form of flapjack. I like them to be slightly crisp rather than soft and stodgy and my favourite recipe works well with either butter or dairy-free margarine. You'll need:

150g butter or margarine
70g light brown muscovado sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
pinch salt
125g jumbo oats
125g porridge oats
200-250g combination of dried fruits, nuts, seeds, chocolate.

Grease or line a 30 x 20 x 4cm baking tin and preheat the oven to 180C or Gas Mark 4.
- Heat butter, sugar and syrup gently in a pan until butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
- Stir in the oats, salt and dried fruit etc. If you want the whole flapjack to be chocolatey then stir in your chocolate here and it will melt through, if not, allow it to cool some more and then plonk choc chunks in so they remain whole.
- Put the mixture into the tin and spread evenly. Bake between 20-25 mins, until golden brown. If you prefer softer flapjack, bake for less time, and if you like crisper, it'll need slightly longer.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool completely in its tin. If you fancy decorating it a little, melt some chocolate and drizzle over the flapjack then allow to cool before cutting.

You can put pretty much anything in this, recently i've tried dried pear and crystallised ginger with dark chocolate, and coconut chips, cranberry and dark chocolate with sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Mmm, time to embark on more winter walks armed with oats...

Coconut and cranberry