Fresh fallen firecoals

chestnuts loose

fresh fallen firecoals

Once again the chestnut trees are dropping their glossy nuts, and the squirrels and I are in a fierce but silent battle. My grandfather planted several varieties of Chinese chestnut so he would have an extended harvest. What made him think to do that? He was a lawyer, he read the Wall Street Journal and sipped his drink. Yet he was a fervent chicken-necker of crabs, picker of beans, of wineberries. Did he know we might need it? Because he read the Wall Street Journal?

The first tree that ripens is on the other side of the lane from my garden so I don’t hear it as well as the second one. The nuts are covered with a satiny down, and tend to be a little smaller than the others. Those are ripening now, and the squirrels are silently aware of each burr that opens. I have heard people say it will be a wet, cold winter. It has been a while since we have had heavy snow. Chestnuts are very nutritious; in fact in French one old name for a chestnut tree is arbre a pain: tree of bread.

Remember hearing about how the hallucinatory smut fungus called ergot on rye was the cause of people being accused of being witches? People would actually confess to flying around on broomsticks, when they were actually tripping. Many grain crops are problematic in wet climates. They tend to “lodge” or lie down due to rain and wind, where they rot. Often in rainy Europe in the old days the wheat crop would fail and peasants would go hungry.  Many people relied on chestnuts to survive. Italy and France have lots of chestnuts. They used to smoke-dry them in special chestnut smoking houses, since chestnuts will otherwise be wormy inside a week. There are many ancient chestnut based dishes which tend to be heavy and nutritious. I used to trick my grandmother into eating by reminding her of how she used to eat chestnut puree at her landlady’s house when she was in graduate school in France in the Twenties. Charmed by the memory, my anorexic granny would absently spoon down piles of the rich puree de marron I had made from the chestnuts my grandfather had planted, while we talked about Alsace and the calorie counter in my head spun happily.

chestnuts

These silky ones mature first

When gathering chestnuts, squeeze each chestnut, especially if it seems unusually dark. Fresh, firm, bright nuts are what you want. Refrigerate them if you aren’t going to process them immediately. Make one long slash through the skin and bake them until they pop open. From there you can put them in the blender for creamy soup, eat them as is, boil them and mash them or rice them, candy them, dry and grind them into flour, or throw them for the dog. They do not have a nice texture if frozen; it is sort of heavy and gummy. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter after cooking.

There are two trees on the farm that have very glossy chestnuts. These are the fresh fallen firecoals I refer to, after Gerard Manly Hopkins. ( This link will send you to last years chestnut rhapsody, in which I discuss Hopkins, which is such great stuff.) Startlingly reddish brown- chestnuts are chestnut- they are so shiny that the best way to get them gathered is by children, whose small hands reach for the beautiful things, to carry them home in a sack and caress them. Just make sure they don’t try to pick them out of the chestnut burrs, which are like small hedgehogs. Those spines stick and break off under your skin. Do wear gloves if you touch them. It generally isn’t necessary. Most ripe nuts just fall right out. Go squirrels!

chinese chestnut burrs

beware of spiky burrs

And remember to wear shoes walking under that tree next year. My dear stepdaughter was walking barefoot unawares under a chestnut tree a few years ago and let fly a few expletives, then realized that her new aunt was being baptized in the swimming pool within earshot.  I’m pretty sure the angels were guffawing all over the place.

So go pick them, slash them, and bake them. My other article is more how to.

Using willow

Do you like baskets? People have been making baskets for millenia, and some are incredibly intricate. Baskets are useful, light, and pretty strong when you consider that they are made out of twigs, grass, leaves, roots, or bark. I sometimes make baskets; it’s really time-consuming but addictive. The hypnotic repeating patterns are sort of trance-forming. I will do a post on that sometime. And while you can buy basket weaving supplies all day long, I think it is more sustainable to make your own. So this post will be about using wild-crafted materials to repair a common wicker laundry basket. Repairing things is, after all, cheaper and better for the planet.

White willow (Salix alba) is what people usually use for medicine, and those long weeping branches are fun to weave with, but Black willow (Salix nigra) is a close cousin, and it’s very common here on the Eastern Shore. It grows in wet places, has a fairly short life, soft wood, and when it is dying you can often find Oyster mushrooms on it.black willow (check mushroom post) I cut two of mine back periodically so that I have usable straight young shoots. This one has spread out and leaned over in the wet ground, so I sometimes have to trim branches so our friend can mow under it.

Salix is latin for willow, and you may notice that it is the root for salicylic acid, as in aspirin and various pimple medicines. Boiled willow bark makes a nice reddish tea that smells a bit like roses. I sometimes make it when I have cramps.  Usually I make it when I am boiling willow in my big stock pot to soften it or to loosen bark to use in repairing baskets. It is like leather.willow projects (14)

Cut the straightest pieces you can find, and no thicker than your thumb or it will be hard to bend them into circles to fit in the pot. Strip off smaller twigs on the shoots you will be using before you come in the house. You can do this by just making a loose fist around it and stripping them off. They are connected very weakly. Bend the shoots by bending small sections of the branch firmly and slowly between your fingers and thumbs. You will see how you can get the pieces in the pot without breaking.  Cover with water and boil for about a half an hour. Pull out the thick end of a piece and see if the bark peels easily. If it doesn’t, boil it longer. If it does, try to get the park off whole, or in wider, neater strips. willow projects (12)If you split it in one place and then support the bark with your hand while pulling back, it will come off in relatively fat strips. It will catch at the little knotholes, so pick it loose and continue. The strips of bark are strong, flexible, and easy to wrap around basket repairs to give a tidy but natural appearance similar to leather. You should use them while they are damp or dry them and rewet them later. If you keep them in a plastic bag they will mildew. Here I have repaired a broken laundry basket handle by reinforcing it with a piece of willow lashed on with bark. While I was doing this I also boiled willow to make wreaths for Christmas gifts. and tea for me. I will do a post on that later.willow projects (19)

 

Fall Mushrooms: Armillaria Tabescens

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about the time we go back to school one begins to see these reddish brown to tawny clusters of mushrooms everywhere; on the lawn and on the edges of woods. Armillaria Tabescens.They are almost bouquet-like. If you pull them up you will see that they are in fact grown together at the bottom. The technical term- attention Scrabble lovers- is cespitose. They grow from buried wood, and when picked young they are delicious; with a mushroomy flavor that seems a pit caramel-like to me. They grow in huge quantities and can be frozen, canned in a pressure cooker, and dried. Here is a small laundry basket with one cluster.

armilariella tabescens (10)

Time to put the fear of God in you. Now, this is a variety that is easy, to me, to identify from a photograph, but but that’s me and I’ve been doing this for a very long time. You might think it looks the same a a Jack O’Lantern, which is poisonous, or a Big Laughing Jim, which tastes bitter and will apparently make you giggle. So before you go mushroom hunting, read The Audubon North American Field Guide to Mushrooms, or Peterson’s Mushroom Field Guide. I grew up with the former, and find the book physically durable- mine still has the puppy chew marks from my dear old Lab now dead. Try to find a mentor. My father taught me, but he learned from a book and we were very cautious. Some of our Russian and Ukrainian neighbors have more background in mushroom foraging and others. Bottom line: Never take a chance. A yummy mushroom is not worth your life. The lethal dose for a Death Cap, which is a big white pretty mushroom, is a cubic centimeter. The only way to save your life is a liver transplant.armilariella tabescens (5)

OK, now if you decide to forage ahead, and you are totally sure this is what you have, check that the caps are fresh and young. This photo shows a cluster that is right in the middle- not the baby size but not too mature. If they have deposits of powder on them, they have sporulated and won’t be as tasty. If they have  nice little caps that are still curved under, they are probably yummy. They are beloved by tiny little white worms, which, while not poisonous to you, are kind of gross. Split a cap down the middle and look for little holes. I am guilty of not worrying about one or two holes if I don’t actually see the worms, but generally I just get them as quickly as I can and process them right away.

Here is a photo of armillaria tabescens cooking down in a cast iron pot.armilariella tabescens (1) So good!

My favorite way to preserve them is to slowly brown some onions in salted butter, cut the caps off the clusters which I have harvested whole, rinse them quickly, drain well, and cook them down. I salt them a little, and eat them with egg noodles, rice, etc., then freeze what is left. (Once in a while I get the quantity to pressure cook them in Mason jars, as I know that anything in my freezer may be lost in an extended power outage.) They become succulent and rich, but reduce much in volume, so harvest a lot, and process immediately. They won’t wait.

Field dressing and hanging a deer

 

If you get to the deer before the heart stops beating it is a good idea to cut the throat, both out of mercy and to allow the heart to expel blood from the body. I think most hunters feel gratitude at this moment, and I think it is appropriate to thank the deer as well. If you are in an area where it will not pose a nuisance to field dress the animal there, go ahead and grasp the furry lumps at the inside of the bend in the back legs, and cut them away. They are scent glands and will make your meat smelly.

butchering deer (8)

Note 12/26/2012: Really, even a doe. A young man gave me a doe which had been hanging for a day and a half without the scent glands removed. I have never butchered a gamier deer. It was actually nasty, and I am not the squeamish type.

Put the point of your knife through the skin of the belly at the edge of the breast bone (really just cartilage) and run it shallowly up to the anus. Do NOT pierce deeply. Go back to your breastbone and grab the edge of the ribcage with one hand while sawing down through the sternum. Be careful not to cut into any guts or you will contaminate the meat with smelly stuff. Actually you can make that cut later if you want, but if you do it now you can sort of let everything slide out at once, and blood will drain out and not coagulate in the throat area when hanging.

Go up around the genitalia and look for a tube running to the anus. Grab it and cut  the skin around it. You should be able to pull out the entrails easily.  Heart, lungs, and liver is great dog food as long as the deer is healthy. I remember seeing what looked like parasitic lesions on a liver my mother cooked once. Cooked it was fine for the dogs, but I didn’t want it.

Once your deer carcass is empty it is a lot easier to move. But it is also easy to gut a deer hanging up. I am a woman so I have less upper body strength and I always ask the guys to get the deer hanging for me. What you want is an overhanging limb or a cross-member in a shed.butchering deer (40) Tie a decent rope over it and get a piece of wood about as thick as a sturdy broomstick to put through the deer’s back legs. Tie the rope to the middle of the stick and make slits big enough through the thin area between the back legs and the Achilles tendon, where you removed the scent glands. This would be like if you feel above your heel, only the deer’s heel is above his back elbow; bottom of the hock, if that makes sense. You can do this on the ground and have someone tie off the rope when they heave the deer up, or tie the rope where you want it and hold the deer up while you push the ends of the stick through the holes in the legs. Needless to say don’t cut through the tendon.

butchering deer (7)

Usually we let the deer hang overnight to cool and stiffen, It is helpful to put a stick or something inside the body cavity to hold it open a little. Note somebody stuck a hammer in there. Whatever.

Always a great idea to hose it out well if you have access to water where it is hanging. I have been given carcasses that were messily shot or inexpertly field dressed that were nasty.butchering deer (5)

Note 12/26/2012: My neighbor has a pulley system hanging from the crossmember in his barn so a little kid can raise or lower a carcass. A mental leap too great for this Neanderthal.

More notes on gutting: Now you have your deer hanging and ready to skin. If you haven’t gutted it in the field out of consideration that someones dogs will find it and have a heyday rolling in it, now’s the time. Put a big sack under it to catch the guts. An old dog food bag, etc. If you haven’t removed the scent glands, do it right away. Gutting in this position I always start near the top but I don’t cut around the anus until I have the genitalia removed and the cavity open so that I can grab the sphincter and lower the guts into a bag. Just easier to control the fall.  Be careful not to damage the bladder which is pretty obvious; that’s the transparent bag full of yellow fluid that you don’t want on the meat. Also be careful when removing the liver, which is also obvious; the big lobed dark brownish red organ with a smaller greenish yellow organ attached to it. Be very careful of this little sucker- if you cut the gall bladder you will have horrible green bile all over the place that stains and ruins the taste of whatever it touches. Remove this by cutting into the liver around the bile duct, pinching the bile duct closed if you can. As I said previously, heart, liver, and lungs are good dog food, as far as I’m concerned. Liver is wonderfully nutritious, and there is nothing wrong with eating heart and lungs, so you could use them in sausage or something, but I never have. Unless you are really hard core and are going to try to use the intestines for sausage casings or something, leave them alone. They come out together if you can catch them in a bag. I have had a deer given to me that had a messy wound in the belly. The only thing to do then is empty the body cavity and hose it out until it smells ok.

Now that we have the carcass hanging empty and clean, if the weather is cool it is fine to let it hang overnight for the meat to stiffen. This makes it a little easier to handle. Some people even let them hang for a few days because that tenderizes the meat. I haven’t done this.

Black Walnuts and Hickories

 

We have a number of Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) trees on the farm, and like the chestnuts they are fruiting heavily this year. We have Shagbark Hickories, but they are deep in the woodlot and I haven’t been out to see. The squirrels are still burying pecans as well. One imagines that they may be doing this in response to the early drop in temperature. That  combined with the heavy nut crop makes one think perhaps they know something. We are glad we got a jump on the woodpile this spring when a number of trees came down.

The idea of nuts is appealing in winter; the rich oiliness and sweetness, and the comfort of sitting in your warm house and munching away, like a rodent.   Yet black walnuts make this complicated. You have to get off the eternally staining green husk and crack the extremely tough nut. Hickories politely husk themselves and are easy to see on the ground with their smooth, elegant white nuts full of sweet deliciousness. The nut is even easier to crack than black walnuts, but nowhere near as easy as a storebought English Walnut. Nonetheless on the Eastern Shore it’s all about Black Walnuts. Their strong flavor is fabulous in cakes and filled cookies. Says I.

So here’s what I recommend. Pick them up in a bucket and lay them in a gravel road where cars will crush the husk but not the nut. A paved road is likely to scatter and smash them more, but husking them by hand is a terrible job. You can them easily gather the nuts out of the mass of crushed husk, and store them until they are dry inside. I thought you had to store them for a few months in a paper bag in a dry place, but it must depend, because I have eaten nuts the same day I gathered them in Virginia. I don’t know how long they were on the road of course. So my best guess is check one from tie to time. Now, how to extract the nutmeats. They sell a lot of fancy crackers, but these were not available to native people. If you hit them with a hammer, they go everywhere. The perfect tool, to me, for walnuts and hickory nuts as well, is a rock. By the creek in Virginia where we camp, I found a flat piece of sedimentary rock and another rock that fit my hand, about the size of an oblong baseball. The weight is such that it sort of drops onto the nut and cracks and crushes it partially, allowing me to pick the nut apart and extract good size pieces without bashing it all to bits. It is a pleasant activity, sort of an atavistic pleasure I guess, sitting on the ground in the sunshine cracking nuts with a rock.

Black Walnut is good for a lot more than nuts. My brother in law, Robert Clickner, a doctor of alternative medicine in Charlottersville, gathers them for the terrible hulls. He learned the hard way to crush them wearing a good pair of plastic gloves. We used to make the medicine with whole nuts, but the crushed hulls make a much stronger tincture*.  This has been traditionally used for parasites, but it is also good for hypothyroidism. It looks and tastes like iodine. I take about 15 drops a day.

* If you want to know about tincturing, I will probably have something written by the time you read this, but I recommend Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine as the perfect introduction; enough to get you interested and  enough to get you started. Actually, despite his fun anecdotal style, he is really quite precise, and you will likely become a fan of his great seed company, Horizon Herbs.