Natural history adventures sailing the culinary seas...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Dark Nights and Dock Pudding

Late nights in the dark woods were how I spent many an April evening this year. Punctuated by rustlings and startled Roe deer, Tawny hooting and sudden screeches. I took on the co-ordination of a local 'Toad Patrol', a group of volunteers that monitor a road with a 'toad crossing', where migrating toads on the way to their breeding pond are at risk from traffic. My site was unusually lovely for such an endeavour, a single track road through woodland on the way to a Scout hut. The road was quiet, and primarily used at weekends while the huts were booked up. Traffic use was light, but often has a high impact on the toads due to the narrow, twisty nature of the road.

Lovely lady toad (Bufo bufo) from the breeding pond.
I often walked the couple of miles to my site before dusk, arriving with my bucket and hi-vis vest, ready to transport the horny wee toads across the ocean of invitingly warm yet hazardous tarmac. Over the remarkably dry days and cool evenings of the season an assortment of enthusiastic volunteers and I helped nearly 200 toads. A rather wonderful bonus of my site was the presence of Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus), which delighted the children of my volunteers and the hoards of Scouts we occasionally encountered of an evening. Over our nights there we helped over 90 newts off the road, one of the largest single records for the area, which seems to be singularly lacking in newt surveys.

A wee newty cutie
A couple of weekends ago I was inspired by the event of the year, that's right - The World Dock Pudding Championships, that happen to be held in Mytholmroyd, about a mile down the valley from me. Dock Pudding is a Northern speciality, especially associated with the Calder Valley, that I have never eaten or made, a sad state of affairs I set out to rectify with my first spot of real foraging of the year. It is traditionally eaten with bacon, often with breakfast and is made in spring to see people through the period when not much else green is available. The 'dock' of the pudding is in fact bistort (Polygonum bistorta), which apparently has the most wonderful collection of local names, some of the best being; adderwort, dragonwort, Easter man-giant, passion dock, pudding grass and snakeweed. So off I gaily skipped one Sunday afternoon to a spot where I knew the bistort grew. A wee stream lined with fresh shoots, sorrel and nettles, another ingredient required for the pudding.

Young leaves of 'Red legs', sexy vernacular for bistort.
Ruby Cream-spot ladybirds (Calvia quattuordecimguttata) by my bistort.
There are many variations in recipe, most seem to make pans full of the stuff, which seemed a bit much. For a more modest portion here is what you need for my cobbled-together vegetarian version:
200g fresh young bistort leaves
40g fresh nettle tops
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
2 spring onions
2tbsp oatmeal
salt and pepper
olive oil

Freshly picked and ready for washing.
 - Place the nettles in a bowl of cold salted water and leave to one side while you prepare the bistort. Wash bistort leaves thoroughly in a colander and then remove the larger stalks before roughly slicing them. Drain and rinse the nettles then chop roughly (I used rubber gloves!).
- Chop the onion, garlic and spring onion (you can use whatever alliums are available, wild garlic and leek would be nice) and fry gently in some olive oil. Add the sliced bistort and nettles and continue to fry. You'll need to add a couple of ladlefuls of water or stock to the mixture and cover to cook gently for 15-20 minutes.
- Add the oatmeal and stir to ensure the mixture doesn't stick. It will need another 20 minutes or so, with occasional stirring and adding a little more water if it gets too dry. The mixture should apparently be 'moist not wet'. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pudding at the moist stage.
- It's now nearly ready, and the final stage, once the pan is removed from the heat and allowed to cool a little is to make up small patties of dock pudding (like potato cakes). These should be fried in a little more olive oil or butter, the crispy outer is said to make the pudding more palatable!
- I substituted the traditional bacon for haloumi cheese and ate my dock pudding for supper. It worked really well with the saltiness and texture of the haloumi.

Pudding patties.
Delicious dinner of dock and haloumi.
Dock pudding has that iron-rich tang of spinach based dishes. I even convinced a slightly skeptical family to eat and enjoy it and the amount this recipe made contributed to about three meals. Younger bistort is supposed to make for a better pudding, but leaves can be foraged throughout May, here is a nice guide to doing so.

Here's to more foraging!

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