Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Rich in Mushrooms

I come to the computer under the delightful glow of my third meal of wild mushrooms in the past two days. As I mentioned a few days ago, the recent deluge has brought all the fungi out to play.

Agaricus arvensis and Boletus edulis are this week’s two wild additions to our meals. Their rich, earthy flavours have topped burgers and adorned home made pasta (because how can you possibly serve such wonderful mushrooms on store-bought pasta?)

There’s no doubt I love these wild mushrooms for their flavours, but I also appreciate them for their provenance. There’s something satisfying and primal about foraging for dinner. And it becomes even more satisfying when you consider these mushrooms can retail for $40/lb ($88/kg) in the US, if you can get them at all.

I smile to think that the dinner we’ve just eaten might have easily cost $30 to $40 a plate in a restaurant. But with wild-picked mushrooms, vegetables from the garden, and home made pasta (made with eggs from our own chickens), we spent well under $1 per person (and we all had seconds, and there are leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch). It’s no wonder we feel far wealthier than we actually are.

Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to buy such a meal at any price, with vegetables just minutes out of the garden, eggs laid today, and obscene quantities of gourmet mushrooms. I almost feel sorry for rich people. All they have is money.



2016-11-22-13-39-04Poroporo (Solanum laciniatum) is a native shrub, and one of our few native plants typically classified as a weed. A few years ago, I noticed a tiny poroporo seedling sprouting under our oak trees—planted, no doubt by some bird roosting (and poohing) in the branches above.

At the time, the chickens were quartered under the trees, so I fenced it with a ring of chicken wire to keep it safe from their scratching.

It has now grown into a huge sprawling bush easily three metres in diameter and as tall as me. It is currently covered in gorgeous purple blooms. Later in the summer, it will drip with teardrop shaped yellow fruits. Weed or not, the plant is eye candy.

Eye candy only—not to be taken internally. Like many of the Solanums, poroporo is poisonous (though apparently the fully ripe fruit is edible…sort of). Fever, sweating, nausea, and abdominal pain are the unfortunate effects of poroporo poisoning.

In spite of its poisonous nature (well, actually because of it), poroporo is grown commercially as a source of steroidal alkaloids used medicinally to make cortico-steroid drugs like birth control and eczema treatments.

A pretty and useful weed!

Cricket Flour

IMG_1784I was running errands in town today, and called in to Bin Inn for some flour and cornmeal.

I was excited to find this sitting on the shelf next to the rice flour and barley flour. It was the first time I’ve seen commercial insect products that admit to being insect products sold in an ordinary store (there are plenty of things you’ve probably bought that contain insect products, but manufacturers generally don’t advertise that).

It’s nice to see insects showing up on the grocery store shelves. I am a proponent of entomophagy, even though I am a vegetarian. If you’re going to eat meat, insects are probably the most environmentally sound way to go.

Being cold-blooded, insects convert feed into body mass much more efficiently than our warm-blooded livestock. You can raise a kilo of crickets on just 1.7 kilos of feed. Compare that to chicken at 2.5 kg of feed per kilo of chicken, or cows at 10 kg of feed per kilo of cow. Adjust these numbers for percentage of the animal that’s edible, and they favour insects even more—80 percent of a cricket is edible, whereas only 55 percent of a chicken and 40 percent of a cow is.

It still takes resources to produce insects. Though they convert feed into food more efficiently, insects need to be kept warm—warmer than you need to keep a cow, because they can’t keep their own bodies warm. There is an energy cost in that.

Of course the biggest problem with farming insects is getting people in Western countries to eat them. Most of the world’s people actually do eat insects, but our modern Western culture had separated us so much from our food, that we even get squeamish when we can identify the animal that our cuts of meat came from.

Consumers generally don’t want to actually see the animal when they’re preparing dinner. I’m sure cricket flour goes over better than, say pickled whole crickets (sort of like sliced ham vs. pickled pigs feet).

It will take a change in our attitude toward insects before Westerners will agree to bar nuts that include roast, salted crickets (which are delicious, by the way). When preschoolers learn that a cricket says “chirp, chirp” along with the cow says “moo”, we’ll be on our way. When we begin to view insects, not as enemies to be beaten, but as fellow organisms on Earth, we’ll be on our way. When we stop seeing insects as dirty, but rather recognise that they carry fewer potential human pathogens than our close relatives the cow and pig, we’ll be on our way.

As a vegetarian and a gardener, I value the insects that come into the kitchen on my vegetables. I don’t get enough vitamin B12, because it is only found in animal products. Insects are full of vitamin B12. So, I’m casual about cleaning the insects off our organically grown vegetables. We eat a lot of aphids, and quite a few caterpillars, I’m sure. And that’s great—it gives us all the nutrition we need, without any extra effort on our part (less, in fact).

Indeed, though I support insect farming, I’m afraid I will probably never buy any insect products–there are so many wonderful insects out there free for the taking, I couldn’t see spending $120 per kilo (and that’s half off!) for cricket flour.

Besides, I prefer my crickets whole—the best part about them is the crunch, after all.

Boletes! Cepes! Porcini!

2016-02-05 18.22.23 smIt’s that time of year again. A little rain last week, and we’ve got porcini mushrooms (aka Cepes, Boletus edulis), collected from a location that will remain undisclosed, lest others beat us to them.

The wonderful, earthy flavour of these wild mushrooms makes any dish special. Bored with the “usual” meals, I decided to make Friday’s dinner a Fun Friday sort of meal.

2016-02-05 18.28.40 smInspired by the mushroom packets in Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty, I put together these divine little parcels that turned dinner into Christmas morning.


The following quantities made nine packets.


600 g small boiling potatoes, cooked

500 g fresh green beans,

125 g fresh oyster mushrooms

1 medium fresh porcini mushroom

½ cup chopped cutting celery

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup chopped fresh oregano

1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme

½ cup olive oil

1/3 cup half and half

Salt and black pepper to taste


Chop the vegetables and mushrooms into small cubes. Gently mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Place portions of the mix in the centre of large squares of baking parchment. Scrunch up the edges of the parchment and tie with cotton string. Place parcels on a baking sheet.

Bake at 200˚C (400˚F) for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a minute before serving.

Eating Native?

veggiesforgrilling2smI’m currently teaching a biodiversity class at my daughter’s school, so I’ve been thinking a lot about biodiversity in New Zealand. Out here on this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, living things have had 65 million years to evolve in isolation. Until humans arrived about 700 years ago, most living things here were endemic—found nowhere else on earth. Three and a half metre tall birds and the giant eagles that preyed on them, flightless parrots, frogs that hatch from the egg fully formed, tuatara that died out everywhere else on earth millions of years ago, crickets the size of mice…

Humans changed things dramatically and rapidly. We brought thousands of other organisms with us, some on purpose, many by accident. Many of those organisms flourished here, at the expense of native organisms. Today, there are few New Zealand ecosystems untouched by the invasion of humans and other non-natives. Some of the most successful invaders have been plants—today there are more introduced plants here than there are natives, and more arrive all the time, in spite of efforts to prevent them.

Many of those invading plants were brought to New Zealand on purpose to provide food, shelter, or medicine. In fact, I can’t think of a single native plant currently cultivated for food, except one seaweed. There are certainly a few edible native plants, but they are few, and they are more of a survival food than something you’d want to eat every day.

No surprise. The crops we eat today have been cultivated for thousands of years—selected by countless generations of farmers to be bigger, tastier, and easier to grow. With only 700 years of history in New Zealand, there’s hardly been time to develop native crops.

The human migrants to New Zealand brought their crops with them instead. Familiar corn and carrots, potatoes and peas. But it’s not just in New Zealand that people mostly eat food native to other regions. People have been carrying their food with them for as long as we’ve travelled, until it’s sometimes hard to know where a food originally came from—classic Italian tomato sauce is made from a plant native to the Americas, the American “wheat belt” has its origins thousands of years ago in Turkey, and cassava domesticated in Brazil is now a staple food throughout tropical areas worldwide. Few people anywhere in the world eat native.

While I would love to be able to magically bring back the moa, Haast eagles, huia, and host of other incredible New Zealand endemic organisms that humans have wiped out here, I will admit I’m terribly fond of my non-native tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, eggplants, etc. I am thankful those non-natives are here, and I need not subsist on seaweed and ferns. Does it feel somewhat disingenuous to passionately support the conservation of our native biodiversity while I plant my non-native vegetable garden? Yes, but I’m only human, after all, doing what humans have done for 10,000 years.

Fall Foraging

DSC_0016 copyI enjoy foraging for forgotten food, and university campuses often offer good pickings. Development marginalises former research and demonstration plots. The plants are abandoned in some corner between buildings, and are forgotten by everyone but the groundsmen who have to mow around them.

Apples used to be a huge crop around Lincoln (until growing houses became more profitable), and the university has done research on apples for many decades. The “Orchard Carpark” is presumably the former site of the University orchard, but only one lone apple tree remains on the edge of the pavement. No one officially picks its fruit, but passersby avail themselves. This year, the tree is groaning under a heavy crop.

This morning, when I stopped by, the tree was well-picked on the lower branches, but there was plenty of fruit on the ground, and my daughter climbed into the tree to reach a few higher up. We came home with a bag full of tart, firm apples. Perfect for pie.

Gifts from the Soil

DSC_0001 smAccording to Wikipedia, the price of porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis) ranges from $20-$80/kg in the U.S., though it’s been known to rise to over $200/kg (wholesale) in years when it is scarce.

Porcini is expensive because of its ecology. It is a mycorrhizal fungus, meaning it lives in association with the roots of plants. This is a mutualistic relationship—the plant provides sugar, and the fungus provides nutrients. Neither one can grow properly without the other. Porcini’s mycorrhizal partners are oak trees. In order to grow porcini, you have to grow oak trees, so it is difficult to cultivate. The result is that porcini is largely collected from the wild, and is subject to wide fluctuations in production.

Sitting down to a picnic lunch today (in a location that shall remain secret), Ian and I picked 730g of porcini. It’s very early in the mushroom season, and quite dry, so we were surprised to see it, though Ian regularly finds it nearby. Ian manages several hundred dollars worth of porcini foraging in the autumn, even calculated by the lowest prices. It’s a delicious and welcome gift that is overlooked by thousands of passersby.

Porcini is a firm and meaty mushroom. Strongly flavoured, a little can go a long way when it needs to. But in autumn when the porcini are fruiting, we need not skimp, and a meal can easily include half a kilo of mushrooms. I dry the excess for use over winter in soups and stews. It goes well with thyme and rosemary, and lends a deep earthy flavour to dishes.

So, thanks to whoever brought these two non-native organisms—oaks and Boletus edulis—to New Zealand. Their presence is a gift to our table.