New foraging blog from James Reynolds, RSPB Scotland Head of Media & Communications.

Nature's Larder Part 2

I spent an all-too-brief couple of days south of the border at my parent’s home in Cheshire at the weekend to celebrate my father’s birthday and see my sister, brother-in-law and three little nieces, too.

On the Sunday morning, before I set off to return to Edinburgh, I took my two eldest nieces – 10 and 6 – on a short walk to see what nature had to offer on my mum and dad’s doorstep. I always enjoy doing this, as I usually get to see the world a little bit differently in the company of my sister’s children.

Immediately behind my parent’s garden are spring-sown arable fields interspersed with pockets of woodland and crisscrossed by babbling streams. After strolling on paths next to fields that were alive with the lilting calls and eye-catching aerial display of peewits and a group of brown hares chasing each other in the middle (a privilege to see in themselves), the path meandered towards some woodland and dropped several metres into a deep green lane.

Here it became more shaded and damp as it descended to a wooded valley, where the floor was a carpet of bluebells on either side of the muddy track. As we were strolling along with me pointing out a few different edible herbs (jack by the hedge or garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and cuckoo flower, or lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) and getting Kitty and Madeleine to have a nibble and taste, something bigger and better caught my eye that would make a much more exciting hedgerow meal.

Encircling a large rotten ash stub on the left bank of the path was a fantastic colony of the fungus Dryad’s saddle (Polyporous squamosus). I don’t ever recall seeing quite so many perfect specimens in one place, and enjoyed showing the girls this beautiful bracket fungus, and letting them see how each was shaped like a miniature riding saddle for a small animal.

But as soon as I had done this Kitty - quite rightly - asked me about the fungus’s name, and what a Dryad was. And, of course, I couldn’t answer because, like the names of many things that one learns in life, I had simply accepted it without question and never really given a second thought to why it might have found this puzzling nomenclature.

Now, having returned home and thumbed through various identification books and consulted the ‘Wiki oracle’, I am enlightened as to the origins of its charming name: apparently, Dryads were nymphs of Greek mythology representing the female spirit of trees who could conceivably fit and ride on this mushroom. What a fantastic story to share with my nieces, and help inspire and interest them in the wonders of the natural world. I wish I had known on the spot and could have told them there and then, but I plan to Skype them this week and reveal this brilliant little nugget of etymological knowledge. And hopefully, in revisiting our woodland walk adventure in conversation this week, the whole experience will become more memorable to them and their connection to nature will itself grow and become an important part of their lives, too.

We didn’t pick any of these fruiting bodies, and I have never eaten them, but most of the identification guides classify this as an edible, though requiring careful preparation. Apparently, the outer edges of each fruiting body are the desirable part, as the rest can be woody and tough, particularly in the older, larger specimens. Once harvested, as is the case with many mushrooms, they are best thinly sliced and fried in butter with bacon. I’d probably add a finely chopped shallot and some cream and stock – and maybe even some finely chopped wild garlic leaves (see last blog) to that and make a delicious mushroom sauce. I have yet to find a mushroom that doesn’t benefit from such treatment, which both softens their texture and intensifies their flavour.

I’ll be out again over the coming days and weeks looking for more hedgerow comestibles. Various species are late because of the very prolonged winter and cold weather, so I am still hoping that this will be the year that I collect my very first wild morel! I will keep you posted.