Hawthorn Shashuka

The Hawthorn tree is a gift that keeps on giving all year round. During the glorious spring, the leaves have a pale greenish-yellowish hue, a delicate flavour and almost melt-in-the-mouth softness. In early summer it is festooned with white blossom which gives way to round, red berries which, amongst other things, make a most intriguing ketchup substitute (when cooked correctly). Over winter the hawthorn is an ideal place to spot faeries as that’s where they live and when the leaves are gone it’s easier to see them. Obvs.

Now, if you had read my post the other day about the health benefits of eating wild, you would know that eating hawthorn is good for the body and mind. It has been used in various traditional medicinal practises throughout the world for over 2000 years to treat all manner of ills; nowadays we know it to be loaded with anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory whatsits and of actually, scientifically documented benefit in the treatment of anxiety.

I’ve heard a few people joking lately about prescriptions for Xanax being on the rise. Sure, that makes sense; certainly the anxiety factor in my house seems to be growing day by day. So if there’s something out there that can calm everybody’s nerves, has the added benefit of making the body feel better and is growing for free on bushes all over the place – then it ought to be in every breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Hawthorn leaves have lovely lobed edges and when you catch them in early spring they unfurl in a pattern that looks just like the inside of a rose. Obviously the spikes are spikey no matter what time of year it is, and you can get a bit infected if you scrape yourself too hard on the thorns, so please be mindful when you’re picking. You’ll find hawthorn in hedges, growing randomly in woodlands, along the side of the road, and well, all over the place really.

Now, the thing about hawthorn leaves that I feel compelled to point out, is that eating hawthorn leaves is exactly like – well, eating leaves. Close your eyes and imagine what a leaf would taste like: there you have it. Which is fine if you’re a giraffe, but upon tasting a few bites raw from the tree, my children were not exactly enthusiastic about the thought of a whole plate of steamed hawthorn so I tried to think of favourite dishes that include a lot of other flavours.

To make our (“really delicious”, Felix, 10) shashuka, I started with an actual recipe and then modded it – because recipes generally leave me wanting more. So in a break from tradition (which I feel I can because it’s only a one-week old tradition), I’m going to list the ingredients I used as if this was an actual recipe.

  • 2 glugs oil (your choice, we’re in lockdown)
  • 2 thinly sliced red onions (or leeks or white onions or whatever, see above)
  • 1 sliced large red pepper (do not put a green one in. those are wrong.)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin (you could use ground coriander if you haven’t got cumin because it looks similar)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika (surely you have some lingering in the back of the cupboard)
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano (I’m sure you could also use thyme or basil or just nothing)
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger (or leave it out – just adds a bit of warmth)
  • 1/2 tsp salt (if you’re out of salt, I suggest crying tears of desperation into a big bowl, boiling it until dry, scraping out the salt and feeling much better for it)
  • 1/8 tsp harrissa powder (I actually used even less and it was still spicy – but every family is different when it comes to spice) or any other spicy powdery stuff.

OK, so mix all this up in a large frying pan and let it cook away for about 7-8 minutes – until the onions and peppers are soft. Then stir in:

  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 2x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • generous handful of hawthorn leaves

Let the whole thing come to a slow boil and reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes or so – you’ll know when to stop simmering because it’ll look thicker and your children will be wailing about how hungry they are.

Give it all a stir and, using the back of the spoon to make a little dent, lower your eggs into the mix one at a time. I used 6 eggs with this quantity but we had extra tomato-ey goodness left at the end, so if you have 4 people to feed and a big enough pan, this will work perfectly with 8 eggs. (Not that I know anyone with 8 eggs in their house….)

Once your eggs are cooked (which took ours about 5 minutes with a lid on), sprinkle the top with some uncooked hawthorn leaves and serve with the toasted pita bread that your friend bought you because there was no other bread left in the store. Or the toast ends from your freezer. Or crackers. Or whatever. You get the idea.

Thank you for all of your generous donations! I’m enjoying writing as a form of therapy, I’m loving hearing stories of people getting out and cooking up some masterpieces and I’m looking forward to inspiring you all to head out walking with your families, foraging, talking and enjoying the glorious springtime. If you’d like to contribute financially for my work, I would really appreciate it. If you cannot, I’d be incredibly grateful for a share on your own social media platform. Thank you so much!

This is not home education

Radio 4 are running a new series called ‘The Corona Chronicles’. This is my submission, but if it doesn’t get selected I thought I’d share it here anyway.

I’ve been home educating for over 6 years and I’ve heard every awed, shocked and concerned comment there is:

‘But what about their social lives?’

‘How can you be around them all day and not get fed up?’

‘I can’t even do homework with my kids, there’s no way I could do that.’

The list goes on.

Temporary home ed groups are appearing on facebook and I’m being approached for advice from families who previously scoffed at our lifestyle, and this makes me sad. Sad that they will think that this crazy, uncertain world of distancing and isolation represents home education.

This is not home education. 

Every home ed family is different, but ours is hardly ever at home. We have a full schedule of activities that keeps us out most days; break-dancing, singing, trampolining, fencing – my children’s curriculum is of their choosing, but they’re committed to it just like other families are committed to school.

This new normal has us reeling too. We feel cut off and scared. Our children are missing their friends and our lives feel like they’re on hold. The uncertainty of what will happen to us financially is almost crushing – I’m self-employed and have lost all of my work.

I’ve heard plenty of people saying ‘oh well it’s fine for you to just play all day’ but I’m balancing on the edge of devastating financial ruin, exploring every avenue to move my work online. I’ve gone from a job that I love to sitting at a computer 6 hours a day hoping that my children don’t kill each other – just like everybody else out there.

This is not home education. 

Gone are the days of collaborative learning, group outings to National Trust properties, educational factory visits and art classes with friends. Gone are our shared meals and laughter. Gone is our support network, our shoulders to cry on, our ‘laugh so hard it makes you cry’ moments.

I’m a single parent, utterly and completely alone with my children 24 hours a day. On my shoulders rests the responsibility for their health, their nutrition and the continued provision of a safe place to live. On my shoulders lies the responsibility for their emotional well-being, organising a Zoom birthday party (?!?) and trying to turn this scary nightmare into an adventure

This is not home education. We are each one of us adrift on a raging sea with unknown boundaries. Our little family is our only lifeline and also my biggest burden.

We will not start following a schedule, imposing timetabled learning, or worrying about anyone ‘falling behind’. We will laugh and play, sing and learn piano. We will bake and watch films. We will head out on walks and bike rides. We will move our friendships online and try to adjust to this new normal.

Please don’t think that what we’re all facing is home education. We home educators have never faced anything like this before either. We’re all walking into the unknown together.

Why should I eat wild?

 “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Hippocrates, ages ago

This post is dedicated to everyone out there who does a little shudder at the thought of eating leaves straight off a tree. I get it. Honestly, I do. Intellectually we know that the food we buy from the supermarket grows in the ground just like that plant growing in the ground in the wild, but for some reason our emotional response is not always on a par.

So, if the pure joy of getting food for free isn’t enough. If the delight of knowing that your lunch has zero food miles doesn’t have you picking away. If you still have a voice in the back of your head saying, ‘yes, but they’re leaves!’ Then perhaps this post will convince you.

The first thing to note is that farmed produce – i.e. the fruit and veg you buy in a grocery store – has been proved to be significantly lower in trace elements and minerals than it was in 1940. Click to read the full article. (sorry, I haven’t a clue how to make a footnote in wordpress)

From this, it is not difficult to extrapolate that modern, intensive agriculture practices, and genetic modification of food stocks where produce is bread for colour, size and shape, is causing changes to the nutrient structure of the crop. That’s not hard to buy, is it?

As examples, certain types of wild apples, when compared to a supermarket Golden Delicious, contain 100 times the phytonutrients. Or consider that a purple potato native to Peru has 28 times more cancer-fighting anthocyanins than common russet potatoes. (If I knew how to make a footnote, I’d put one in here to explain that a phytonutrients are the various substances found in foods that are thought to benefit health and that anthocyanins are free-radical busting, immune-system boosting elements that give produce its rich colours).

So, supermarket food is less-healthy than it was in the middle of the last-century and communities who have not heavily agrculturalised (is this actually a word? thoughts on a postcard…) their produce continue to maintain higher nutrient density in their foods. We can only assume that the drop in nutrient content will continue into the future as factory-farming of spinach and the like, intensifies to meet global demand.

If that isn’t enough to get you to hop off the supermarket veggie train, then consider a comparison between the nutritional components of wild food versus cultivated options. We all agree that spinach is a superfood, right? (I mean, if you can say the word superfood without gagging then you’d agree, no?)

Dandelion leaves contain 7 times the phytonutrients of spinach. 7 times. This news must surely bring joy to any parent who’s had to cajole ‘just two more bites’ out of resistant toddler – imagine, if you’d served them sauteed dandelion instead of sauteed spinach, they’d only need 2 bites in total!

In 2013 some actual sciencey-types conducted a study which found that the wild berries available in Alaska were 3 to 5 times higher in anti-oxidants than cultivated varieties found in supermarkets .  Click here if you don’t believe me.

I could make you a really long list of all of the wild plants and foods that are much higher in nutritional content than a similar, store-bought relative, but then I’d be actually doing my job here and you’d all be bored. Because I know that what you actually need is further convincing, not facts.

Let’s turn then, to the mystical, magical worlds of herbology and what is commonly referred to as Chinese medicine. I’m going to put in a little disclaimer here that says that however many times you’ve heard me take the mick out of alternative anythings, I want you to know that I truly and honestly believe in the wisdom of thousands of years of human evolution and will not discount any of the following as witchcraft. I mean it is, but you know, witchcraft has its uses.

Since the 1st century, hawthorn has been used for treating heart problems, respiratory illnesses and circulatory disorders. It is also still frequently used to treat anxiety disorders and promote immunity, two benefits we could all do with a bit more of these days. (no points for guessing what my next blog post is going to focus on!)

Tea tree, echinacea, lavender and turmeric are all readily and comfortably known to contain healing, anti-inflammatory, immune-system boosting nutrients. But plenty of weeds (don’t get me started on calling them weeds) comfrey, burdock, plantain and nettles, amongst others, contain equally high levels of medicinally valuable nutrients.

We all know the powerful capacity of some of those rockstar plants: foxgloves contain digitalis, a compound that has been synthsised and is used to fight heart failure; poppies contain opium which, in the wrong hands produces heroin, but in the hands of the scientists gives us morphine, a drug that almost everyone knows someone who’s had it at one point or another. yada yada

The last, but possibly most important point, is fairly irrefutable, but since people do like to argue (and since we’re all stuck at home maybe we have a bit more time for it) I’ll supply you with a few links in a minute. But for now, just listen…

GOING OUTSIDE AND PICKING FOOD IS BETTER FOR YOU THAN SITTING AT YOUR DESK GETTING STRESSED BECAUSE YOU’RE NUMBER 33,000 IN THE OCADO QUEUE.

Viruses do not like sunshine, which makes me like them even less than I already do because, seriously, who doesn’t like sunshine?

Getting down and dirty with the soil improves your mental health, because even though it would be easy to lump all of these little critters into one negative group, the truth is that there are loads of really helpful microbes out there who are desperate to protect us.

Exercise helps keep your immune system functioning and the heavy breathing associated with exercise helps force foreign bodies away from the lungs (which is a darn sight more useful information than getting told to gargle with vinegar).

But, most importantly, going out for regular walks is proven to reduce stress and anxiety. And I think we all know that, as we face the unknown weeks and months ahead, nothing is more important than keeping a handle on our own anxiety.

So there you have it. The food you have been eating isn’t as good for you as it used to be and eventually will be even less-good for you. The free food that’s all around you (possibly even in your garden waste because you think they’re weeds!) is higher in nutrient values than a lot of the stuff that you’re spending your hard earned pennies on. Wild food is full of all sorts of healthy little bits and pieces which, should you care to do some actual research, you might even find could replace your daily multivitamin. And to top it all off, the simple act of going outside to pick the stuff, even if you get it home and decide that you simply cannot bear to eat it, is going to keep you well.

Now get out there and get picking. Your immune system will thank you for it.

And I thank you for reading. If you’re enjoying my blogs and would like to support me, please feel free to donate – even just a few pence is really appreciated. If you cannot donate, please know that I will be really grateful to you for sharing these posts along. Thank you.

Wild Garlic

You’ll know it instantly when you are near a patch of wild garlic, the scent fills the air with garlicky wonderfulness – and the ground covering of shimmering leaves is unmistakably magical.

March is the ideal time to be picking wild garlic because, before they flower, the leaves are beautifully fragrant and flavourful without being pungent or stringy. Anyone who’s ever spent hours picking and preparing wild garlic leaves, spending half a month’s income on pine nuts and laboriously grating parmesan, producing 8 bea-yooo-tiful jars of wild garlic pesto only to discover that the garlic was so strong that the resulting concoction was inedible, will be much more satisfied with the fruits of their labours if they do their picking far earlier in the month.

Wild garlic does often grow near the poisonous lords and ladies, which in my humble opinion looks absolutely nothing like the wild garlic. However, having just spent the afternoon foraging with two young boys who continually amazed me with their ability to confuse the two, made me decide to caution you against the potential confusion.

Wild garlic leaves are long and narrow with a smooth edge and a pointed tip. They have a central vein with smaller veins running horizontally to it. They grow in clusters, low to the ground and like a nice shady bank or hillside. The completely unsimilar (as far as I’m concerned) lords and ladies are a darker green, have wobbly edges and the leaves meets the stalk in a heart shape – also the veins radiate out in a branching pattern. Please don’t confuse the two, I’d be very disappointed in you if you did. And you’d be dead, so that would be disappointing too. (kidding. you won’t be dead.)

Our enthusiasm for picking and the seemingly endless list of recipe ideas we were coming up with as we picked (wild garlic ice cream anyone?) meant we came home with many more leaves than we will ever consume so if anyone has any wacky suggestions for what to do with the harvest, I’d love to hear. (But if you saw my dandelions blog where I revealed our lack of cheese, you won’t recommend I make pesto!)

As more and more of us go into isolation I would imagine that our resourcefulness, or willingness to leave things out of recipes, will grow. The idea of going out to the shops for a particular ingredient, shopping for one meal at a time or cooking exactly according to instructions is going to have to be replaced with a sense of comfort with things not being how they ‘should’ be, but good enough anyway. So my wild garlic stir-fry recipe is pretty pared down – but to be fair, my children ate the whole lot and asked for seconds (there were none) which is pretty much proof that the recipe didn’t suffer for its weirdness.

Thinly slice a couple of carrots lengthwise and chuck them in a frying pan with a generous teaspoon of sesame oil, 2 Tbsp of soy sauce and a teaspoon of rice vinegar, then grate about an inch of fresh ginger in and let it all cook for 5-7 minutes.

While that’s cooking, boil your water and cook your noodles in the usual fashion. Once the carrots are softened, roughly chop a couple of good sized handfuls of wild garlic and toss them in with the carrots. That should take a minute or two to wilt. If, like me, your noodles are taking longer than your veg, pop the lid onto the saucepan to trap the moisture which will keep it all a bit saucy. All that’s left then is to mix the veg and noodles together and enjoy (oh, and read the little disclaimer paragraph below).

So, when I said noodles, it turns out we didn’t have noodles, so (as the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have already noticed) we used wholewheat spaghetti. We also don’t have any sesame oil so I used olive. And no, I don’t have rice vinegar either, so I used red wine vinegar (which I’m pretty sure was about 6 years old). Lastly, if you haven’t got fresh ginger just use ground – probably 2 teaspoons will do.

Perhaps we should start a new thread on isolation-related mods to our usual recipes? If you’ve got anything else you’d like us to forage and cook up, let me know! This blog is down to a request from one lovely contributor!

I have been overwhelmed by the financial contributions that friends and strangers have made to my blog. I am so incredibly grateful to you, it’s hard to express that in print but I want everyone to know how touched the boys and I were to wake up this morning to the notifications of donations received. Thank you. If you cannot donate and are facing hard times yourself, please just read and enjoy and take your family out for some free wild food! If you like my recipe ideas, the best favour you can do me is to share my posts with your social media network. Thank you.

Is there beauty in the mud?

We have been wading through the most squalorous, squelchy, sticky, smelly mud for several weeks now. Some days it’s so muddy that you can’t actually find anywhere to wipe the mud off your hands because you’ve already wiped so much mud onto yourself by wiping your hands off on yourself. This is, sadly, not satire.

I have recently, rather forlornly, looked out over the landscape of my woodland and wondered to myself whether we were doing too much damage by churning up the whole forest floor. The site is rife with natural springs that make themselves known in heavy rainfall and, of course, there’s the stream we diverted right into the middle of the woods. All of this naturally occurring water combined with hundreds of (joyfully taken) footsteps has created a quagmire of mud and uncertainty.

My argument has always been that whatever small-scale damage our group is doing to this one piece of land is outweighed by the passion and enthusiasm for the natural world that these children will carry into their adult lives. My guiding belief has been that by raising kids to be passionate consumers of nature, they will grow to be adults who are policy makers who protect nature.

But still I wonder. The nettles are all but gone – a welcome loss I think since they grew so thickly in the woods 6 years ago that by midsummer they were the only plant species we ever saw. Recently we’ve seen forget-me-nots, herb robert, and lords and ladies flourishing in the site and I put this down to there being a lot less nettles.

But this spring I am seeing more lords and ladies than I ever have and I wonder whether the dwindling nettle population is upsetting a natural balance. The children (and adults) are churning up the ground, the nettles aren’t growing, something else is taking over, ergo, are we negatively impacting the ecosystem?

If you want to extrapolate that into a global context, then we are doing the exact same thing to the entire natural world, hence the climate crisis. And on some level, every single business and enterprise figures that their mission or aim is important enough that it justifies the harm they are doing on an individual level. Are we any different?

The kids have to get to gymnastics, therefore this car ride is essential. The people need pineapples in February, so this boat needs to sail. The car industry needs to stay afloat, so they have to continually innovate new and creative products to replace old styles.

And then, Coronavirus happened: China’s emissions dropped by a third; the super-polluting air industry has all but ground to a halt; self-isolation has us staying home so lack of demand has slashed the price of petrol. Job insecurity means we’ve stopped buying all but essentials so retailers are reporting unprecedented losses and cancelling orders for future production.

The wheels of industry are grinding to a halt and the entire earth is breathing a huge sigh of relief. I think, on some small level, any of us who’ve been passionately and helplessly raging about the climate crisis are also experiencing something like relief that, despite the human cost, the cloud of Coronavirus has created a silver lining for the earth.

I’ve taken the very sad decision to cancel my forest school sessions in line with government advice to avoid all non-essential contact – and I wonder if our forest is also breathing a sigh of relief?

Part of me wants to drive over there and visit the woods – I suspect the trees miss hearing the sounds of laughter (and eavesdropping on all of the juicy gossip). But part of me is happy to spend some time exploring the natural spots closer to our home given that we have nowhere we actually have to be.

So I guess what will happen is that the woods will have a little break, things that shouldn’t have been growing might stop and things that need to be there might emerge. I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like in a months time – even if we’re going to miss the cherry blossom.

So am I right? Is it ok to let the children do what they will if it means altering the eco-system? I don’t know. Is the global crisis caused by an industrial beast which justifies its wrecking of the climate by saying they’re only meeting demand a different beast to the mud in our woods? I don’t know. Is slowing down, staying home and finding new ways of doing everything the only solution to the climate crisis? I don’t know.

There’s so many things that I feel like I don’t know right now. Fortunately there is one things that I know for certain – the love and positivity that exists within our woodland family is real. I’ve received messages, calls and donations from people over the past few days to an extent that has been overwhelming. I have been brought to tears by the extraordinary generosity and unfailing support that’s been shown for the work I do. Our community has been there for several years now – helping families find friendship, support and emotional connection – and the importance of that has started to feel incredibly essential over the past few days.

Maybe we’re making a lot of mud. But we’re making a lot of other stuff too.

I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people who have donated in just one day. I am so grateful to all of you – many of you I don’t even know! We are all facing an uncertain financial future – so if you don’t have money to donate please don’t feel I’m any less grateful to you for reading. I would really appreciate you sharing my blogs – my subscribers have risen sharply in the past few days and that will help me more than you know.