Saturday, 19 May 2018

Hedgerow soup

At the beginning of June I am going on a Hatfield Forest wild camp overseen as always by Woodlife Trails and I've been thinking over food options. There will of course be some bannock action as they are my favourite camp sustenance but with the lush verdant growth I thought a Nettle heavy soup might be the order of the day for a meal. In the end my mini forage consisted of Nettles, Ramsons, Cleavers, Hedge Garlic (Jack-By-The-Hedge), Lime leaves and a small amount of Alexanders stalks.

I've blogged about making an Alexanders soup before but this recipe is slightly different. As per the Alexanders recipe I scrape the skin off which is quite strong tasting to reveal the celery-like inner.

After the Alexanders prep I roughly chopped the rest of the leaves which I guess amounted to around two good handfuls once chopped with about sixty per cent being Nettle tips.

I then started to slowly warm some water in a pan that I had cooked some vegetables in the previous night and saved.

I chucked in a vegetable gel stock cube and then a small packet of blitzed soffrito into the water. The other ingredients are  pearl barley, and handful of which I had put on to cook earlier, and some powdered potato to thicken the soup.

The combination of the vegetable water, soffrito, and gel cub could have easily sufficed as a basic soup on it's own. The soffrito mix is 18% celery hence the reason I only got a little bit.

So without further ado the chopped greens went into the mix and it all got stirred  together.

Once the pearl barley had nearly finished simmering I added it to the soup. It was cooled and frozen and will resurface in June with a fire baked savoury bannock of some sort. 

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Fish Skin Leather

I have been doing some casual research into making fish skin leather for a little while but a Bushcraft and Survival Skills magazine article by Naomi Walmsley gave my the push to start in an unusual way.

When I undertake a new bushcraft discipline I triage the projects so if for instance a sunny day was required a certain project may go to the top of the list. Now I'd recently got some willow so as I pondered how to use it a picture Naomi had used made of a Salmon with the skin half off me realised that I was good to go on this. 

I work in food retail that has a Sushi concession and they get through legendary amounts of salmon meat. The fish come in with the head and innards removed and are absolute Leviathans and the guy who preps them was only too happy to save me a couple of skins.

They prep the meat in a different way to a fish counter which essentially sells steaks and fillets. They want thin trimmed slices to fit inside rolled sushi which necessitates an inch or so being cut off each side lengthways so the ones I have above would be even wider but for this. The longest is about three feet.

As these were big sizes I didn't fancy trying to get the remaining meat off in one go so I sliced it off in sections. There is a fair bit of meat left but a lot is the strong tasting brown meat along the lateral line and even the pink stuff had a fair bit of blubbery tissue attached so I didn't save any.

After removing the majority of meat I then used a combination of a teaspoon and sharp knife blade held at ninety degrees to scrape the remaining tissue off.

This is the meat side scraped to within an inch of it's life.


Flipping the skin over I then set about de-scaling it. You probably don't need me to tell you that scales can go everywhere so I put plenty of paper around it and again, used a sharp knife blade held at ninety degrees and dragged it from tail to head. Three beer bottle tops nailed to a piece of wood can remove them efficiently but I wanted to take my time with a less abrasive method.

The shape left behind is an attractive diamond shape. I found particular attention was needed with the scales along the lateral line which were often harder to remove.

It was then into a mix of about 300ml of vegetable oil, three egg yolks and about two dessert spoons of washing up liquid. I couldn't get hold of any salmon heads from work before I started so hence egg yolk used instead of brain in the softening/ cleaning mix.


And whilst the skins were chilled overnight in the mix it was time to make the tannin solution. This was mainly made up of Oak and Willow bark with a hint of Silver Birch and Sweet Chestnut...And around 18 used teabags. I figured that the remaining tannin in the spent bags was worth accessing and was a free resource. I left this chopped up mix come to the boil and then slowly bubble away gently until it was the colour of thick gravy. To access even more tannin chop the pieces finer still.


I'd read that tanners used to try the solution to gauge whether the tannin level was sufficient and I thought 'Why not?' as all the ingredients were non-toxic. a small sip practically turned my mouth inside out (think a stewed cup of black tea times a thousand). It was good to go as far I as was concerned. I had four pint milk bottles to store the solution in which I put in with a funnel lined with kitchen.


I had two bottles plus a small container from my concoction. The solution is supposed to weaken as subsequent bottles are filled, but to be honest I noticed little difference. I noticed the spoon I stirred it with was slightly stained and I slipped some of my Lime bast cordage and a bit of old settee leather in to see what colour both held. The leather, almost predictably, was stained on the rough side but the Lime? Well, the jury is out.

And so after a couple of days of the washed skins soaking in a weak solution (about a 7:2 ratio with softened water) there was a clear uptake of tannin. The weaker solution and softened water is because a full blooded solution from the off will apparently case harden the skin which means the outside will tan and not allow penetration to the inner parts, the softened water is because regular water can be mineral rich and leave small marks on the finished skin. 

I also made a jig out of wood scraps from my wood steamer project to start stretching the skin. I sanded the thin wood to a point with one half being a shallow point and the other a little steeper depending what I need to be doing to the skin.

I'd begun to start working the skin on the jig from when it went in to the weak solution applying some effort length ways, sideways and across both diagonals. I added some stronger solution to the original after three days at a ratio of 5:2. By this stage there wasn't a fishy smell of course, more wet leaves with a small hint of wet dog.

Again during the second immersion I squeezed out the skins and gave them a working on the shallow  jig angle. I tried to do the skin the opposite way on the length day to day because I found that I was gripping it harder under my fingers towards the top and this meant that the bottom half of the width wasn't worked as hard.

And then three days later I re-bottled the weaker solution and added the neat stuff. You can see from this image just how dark and forboding it is!

When I had a moment I constructed a rudimentary smoke to finish the skins off with in the back garden. I had my honey stove made up  with an aluminium serving tray over the top as a smoke retardant to allow it to cool before it reached the skins. the skins would be mounted along their length by means of small pegs attached to a couple of old barbecue grills. 

After the first day in the fully leaded soup I gave the flesh side a gentle scrape with a knife to tease off some of the large membrane bits that still persisted.

And so to the moment that the tannin solution was done with. I have to say that the family would come nowhere near these 'piscine monstrosities' but I was so pleased with them up to this point. Comparing this shot with the image after the weak first solution shows how much tanning the skin has taken on.

In much the same way as a deer skin would be squeezed of any liquid so too must the fish skin. I started by wrapping the skin loosely over the line then folding the left hand edge over.

And then the right hand edge to form a sort of elastic band. I then inserted a stick into the loop at the bottom.

And then twist the stick around until moisture begins to express from the skins. Even from the first moments it was clear that fish skin really does deserve to be called leather because however hard I scrunched it up it just bounced back. see here for information on it's tensile strength.

I decided to do the serious stretching and softening outside with my foot adding support to the jig. I estimate that the skin had already had about 45 minutes of stretching during the tannin baths (it apparently helps absorption). Both skins had about an hour of stretching outside before they were dry.

Towards the end I could feel the skin's physical properties changing. as well as using the jig I was pulling it width ways by hand and suddenly it just stayed in the position shown above...

...Until I pulled it length ways and it just popped back to it's original dimensions.

I also did a few small sessions on a garden wall to help get some more of the membrane off. You can see the treated skin flesh side on the right with the yet to be worked skin on the left.

Once I'd worked both skins I added some coconut oil to the flesh side which made it a beautiful dark colour and smoothed the surface out.

I also elected to darken the textured side with oil and whilst I like it I think I preferred it as it was. Not a deal breaker however.

And that's a wrap. I was generally happy with the results to the point that I decided not to smoke them. The edge of the skin in places however is a little rigid but I expected that because despite paying attention to the edges when working the skin it isn't easy to grip when softening. I'm hoping that when I trim the edges I'll be able to use the strips to produce a cordage to power a bowdrill set and add to my labour of love bowdrill page. My initial thoughts are to make a possible pouch or two using two sides of fish leather and two of cow leather for contrast. I had some chestnut brown stuff lined up but I may need to buy some black now that it's darkened.

I'm certainly still a novice but all in all I'm happy with my efforts, having learnt a lot along the way, and as you can see from the above picture I can easily roll it which is a win in my eyes. But could I have done anything else to refine it? I have two further stripped skins in airtight bags in my freezer for future use and I'll try and catch up with Naomi at the Bushcraft Show for a quick critique.

This is a shot fo some Spring sunshine illuminating the skin. Not only does it show some nice detail but it gives an idea of what it is like as a 'window' because the Innuit used to use them in their homes.

Bannocks to You!

Whatever sustenance I consume on a camp I will always try and make sure that a bannock or two are on the menu. Versatile, basic and simple to cook...What's not to like?  Now I was sorting through some camping/ Scouting/ kitchen pictures and noticed a lot of different bannock shots (and some other breads too) so I thought I'd pull them together to form a sort of doughy how to. 

I think it's therapeutic making them once the fire is bedding down to embers and the coffee is ready, and by coffee I mean a Growers Cup coffee pouch (which you can seen next to the bannock mix). 



So let's start with the simplest of bannocks, the ash cake. the most basic recipe is flour, water and a little salt or sugar, I use self raising flour with a flour to liquid ratio of about 3:2. Mix the ingredients together until a dough like texture is reached and add a little more flour or liquid as needed and I usually form them to a depth of about 1.5 cms or so. The ash cake name comes from the flattened dough being placed on small established embers by the side of the fire. It almost goes without saying that you need to keep an eye on this so that it doesn't get overly charred. You can check any bannocks by tapping them to see if they sound hollow and firm.

My usual, but not exclusive preference however is for a sweet bannock and I use milk instead of water whenever possible. I find that a breakfast with one of these sweet and flavoured breads really sets me up for the day.


So if the ash cake is the most basic plain recipe, this bannock is arguably the most basic of fruit bannocks. This is made with self raising flour, milk, sultanas and vanilla sugar. Round a campfire I'd usually use plain sugar but as this was a breakfast at home I had access to the flavoured sugar.

This is pretty much the kitchen bannock from above but out and about. The only other addition is a tiny pinch of baking powder to plump them up a bit. Doing bannocks in my Primus non-stick cooking pan is a doddle.

This one is perhaps the most decadent that I've done outdoors. I used chopped up semi dried figs instead of sultanas and this large beast simply oozed sugary goo when cooked. 



Or is this the most decadent? The milk or water is subsituted for a shot of Guiness. This was made with leftover cake fruit so had peel, dried fruits and glacĂ© cherries in. I made this mix up and then took it on a camp using my trusty vacuum sealer to transport it. This is obviously one that is for non-scouting use of course but fear not, it gives leaders the chance to experiment using various non-alcoholic   beverages. Try putting the ingredients in a small zip lock bag with coke and getting them to mix it by squidging it under their armpit!

So far I've detailed two ways to cook the bannocks, namely on fine coals and in a pan.  Another way that I cook them is in a  Zebra billy can insert propped up at an angle by the fireside. You can use a log but this one has been modded to take two sticks but more on that later.


I drilled two holes close together in the rim of the insert. Note that they are resilient and will take a while to drill, the drill tip I used eventually glowed orange. As you can see in the right hand side picture two sharpened sticks spread at an angle work perfectly.

This fairly basic one was for breakfast at home but is included at this point to suggest that a drizzle of some sort makes a bannock taste 'calorifically heightened'. Obviously I had access to my food cupboards to pour some homemade dandelion syrup on it but of course you can make a sachet with the afore mentioned vacuum sealer.

One ready made 'bannock mix' that I've recently discovered is the chilled tubes of croissant dough that can be purchased from supermarkets.

The dough can be cooked from the tube but it is a little sticky, each triangle can take a dessert spoon of self raising flour needed into it.

 This folded triangle has sultanas loaded into it. I placed a few dried fruits in the top corner and folded the apex (bottom right) up to the hypotenuse (the longest side) and squeezed the edge shut. More fruit was added to the top of the fold and then the final corner was slightly stretched to fit and both edges sealed and double checked.

The plain round bannock is done in a few minutes on a medium low light and is done when, like a standard bannock, it is puffed up and sounds hollow when tapped. The stuffed slice needs a little longer but has the advantage of being able to be balanced on all four sides to help cook it through.

They don't just have to be sweet of course. something like this Sweetcorn and Bacon bannock is almost a breakfast in itself.


The final cooking method I use is a cast iron pan. I dust the pan with flour to facilitate a smooth extraction of the bannock when cooked, it also helps protect the base from getting too brown. This is the sweetcorn and bacon bannock cooking.

You'll notice that the flour will go will go brown after the bannock is ready. Simply discard it and rinse out the pan.


Whilst on the savoury bread theme this is an Indian style bannock. Typically I mix things like cardamon seeds, cumin, turmeric and coriander into the flour mix to give it flavour and colour. The liquid part is actually natural yogurt in roughly the same ratio. 

And the result is an impressive Indian style unleavened bannock to have with a curry around the campfire. You can use plain or self raising for this depending if you want a flatter/  more puffed up affair.

Another Indian style bannock variation is to use  Chick pea and regular flour in a 50/50 mix.  Chick pea flour on it's own doesn't really work as it's strong tasting and makes a rather crumbly bread. Note the feathers in the background from a prepped Wood Pigeon.

As we are now on the mixing of flours you can use such bushcrafty additions as Acorn, Chestnut and Reedmace pollen flour. The savoury bannock mix shown is mixed with Reedmace pollen, again in a 50/ 50 mix. 

The Reedmace mix goes a darker yellow when it is formed up into a dough as shown above. Almost predictably they go a similar colour to any breads made with Chickpea flour when cooked.

Reemace pollen is collected in the spring by putting a plastic bag over the cigar shaped head and gently tapping. Care must be taken by water.

Acorns are full of tannin that needs leaching out. This is done to the chopped up Acorn meat with copious water changes until the water runs clear. To be honest it's a load of effort that yeilds a rather bland end product.

Sweet chestnut is a little easier. simply cook them in the oven (don't forget the cross in the shell) and when cool simply chop, dry and grind. I did nearly come a cropper on the trip to the Almost Wild Campsite in the Lee Valley. I took some chestnut flour to make a bannock and realised at the last minute it was finely sawn wood shavings for a fire lighting project! I settled for a banana laced bannock instead.

There are, of course many different variations of ingredients and cooking methods including Iron Age and Native American recipes that often include some less well known ingredients, fat and are often fried. These to my mind get away from the basic bannock bread but I've no doubt that I'll add them to this page in the future. The only other thing that is along the same lines that I enjoy are drop scones. I've also tried a wheat free drop scone with some success too.

These are made over a low heat with 100g of self raising flour, 30 ml sugar, 1 beaten egg and 150 ml of milk which will make about 3 of the bigger ones that are in the pan. You can tell when they are about ready to flip over when copious amounts of bubbles appear through the batter. As it's a pourable batter patterned scones can be made. Above I've done a Birch leaf, a Celtic triskelion swirl and a fougasse bread style patterns.

And this a perfect warming and filling camp breakfast for me with a cooked breakfast in my pan, straight off my folding trivet with a bombproof sweet sultana bannock for seconds and all washed down with tea or coffee.

Shot on location at my Scout group HQ, various camps and my kitchen.

Suggested links:-