This month we are launching a most notable project to be completed with the developers of The Bishopsgate Goodsyard. Named The London Highline, it is a forest in Bishopsgate leading onto various nature adventures in East London.
The London Highline by its very name will be an iconic public park for all to see and walk along. It is so important that we look at where we live with different eyes. It is essential that we all make use of The London Highline in whatever way we can and deal with other environmental challenges which will always be present.
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For every problem on this planet, there is a mushroom with an answer. We have a complicated relationship with mushrooms but, as scientists point out, they are a wonder weapon in our fight to help the environment so we need to make our peace with them. In the UK, mushrooms are the vegetable we love to hate.
Why are so many of us still fearful of fungi? It’s true what's been said: some of them kill, and in terrible ways. If you were to dine on a death cap, like the recent tragic lunch party in Australia, then you would probably remark on the flavour. Those who have tasted it and survived, say it is delicious, until multiple organ failure sets in.
Even some of the edible species are tricky. The false morel, a prized delicacy in Finland, is deadly when raw and boiled, since it emits a toxic cloud of monomethylhydrazine, also known as rocket fuel. Whilst the blusher, with its delicate flesh, flaky and tender as fish, will liquefy your red blood cells if cooked incorrectly.
According to Greg Marley’s book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares, of the 10,000 known mushrooms, only 3% are toxic and just a handful of these are responsible for the majority of poisonings.
British naturalist William Delisle Hay wrote in 1887, “Fungophobia is very curious. If it were human one would be inclined to set it down as an instinct and to reverence it accordingly. But it is not human, it is merely British.”
Seemingly, we’ve been this way for hundreds of years. To the Victorians, fungi were ‘vegetable vermin, only made to be destroyed’. To the Elizabethans they were ‘earthy excrescences’ which ‘suffocate and strangle the eater’. Mediaeval folk seasoned their distaste with antisemitism, scorning mushrooms as ‘Jew’s meat’. Is it that Brits prefer their food tame? Or do fungi, with their upstart habits and rude forms, offend British decency? Famously, Henrietta Darwin, Charles’s eldest, used to gather the most phallic of the forest fungi and burn them behind closed doors.
Magic of mushrooms: Some varieties can break down disposable nappies and eat cigarette butts. According to Pliny, all red mushrooms could be eaten, while Nicander said that only those growing on fig trees were safe. Dioscorides, conversely, suggested all mushrooms were edible, unless they had grown above rusty iron or near a serpent’s den.
Disasters were inevitable. Letcher’s favourite mushroom mishap occurred in 1830, when an out-of-work labourer called Frederick Bickerton picked a large quantity of unknown mushrooms in London’s Hyde Park, which he ended up feeding to his family.
They began to giggle and dance, symptoms we now know as magic mushroom intoxication, but believing themselves poisoned they rushed to the doctor, who applied emetics, a stomach pump and leeches to the forehead. Little wonder people avoided them. “There’s another side to the story,” says Letcher. “We were the first to industrialise and there was a mass movement to the cities. You take people off the land and they lose what oral knowledge they have. All it takes is one break in the link.”
“What I want to do,” says Max Mudie, 38, co-organiser of the All Things Fungi festival, “is to get people to see what’s beneath their feet. You can’t go a day without crossing paths with fungi. We need to get people inspired to look. Then they’ll want to protect themselves.”
Mudie, a photographer who lives in East Sussex, became obsessed with fungi in his early 30s and began using macro-photography to document his finds. His images, showing the minuscule cities of mushrooms that might grow from a single rotting leaf, often attract hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of likes on TikTok.
The weekend-long festival brought together all facets of the mushroom world: foragers, mycologists, ecologists and citizen scientists. There were workshops on home cultivation and DNA sequencing, and nocturnal mushroom safaris, using special UV torches that cause wild fungi to glow in the dark. “The best thing about the festival,” Mudie says, “is being able to connect. Mushroom people are solitary creatures.”
In spite of their solitary nature, mushroom people are multiplying. On iNaturalist, the grassroots biodiversity map, the number of people in the UK making records of fungal finds has increased tenfold since 2018. In the past year, there were more than 100,000 individual observations. And there has been an upswing of interest in the once geeky territory of mushroom cultivation, too.
Forage feast: Charlie Elliot Webb, 29, never imagined mushrooms would be his bread and butter. “My profession was fish,” he says. “I ran the freshwater arm of one of the oldest fish farms in Scotland, then travelled around Asia and Australia working in the industry.”
In 2019, he returned to the UK to found a fishery business of his own. “But then a lockdown happened and I realised we had to look for something else. “It’s all about food sovereignty,” says Webb. “That’s how we reduce our impact on the planet and secure our own personal wellbeing. People are learning to value the simple things again: being able to grow food, being self-sufficient.”
Nappies were what led the author of this article to a personal obsession with fungi. He had just become a father for the first time and was wading through our own mini-landfill, when he came across an experiment conducted by scientists in Mexico, who discovered that the oyster mushroom would colonise used nappies, reducing their mass by 80%. Even better, the mushrooms that grew from them were safe to eat. He had a vision: we would feed the baby and the baby would feed us. It was a perfect closed system.
For every problem on this planet, it seems there is a mushroom with an answer. Nasty old cigarette butts? A fungus will eat those. Bees suffering from colony collapse disorder? Mushroom medicines boost bee immunity, helping hive health. Land poisoned by chemical weapons? Fungi can be trained to consume even the infamous VX nerve agent as well as petrochemicals and nuclear contamination.
Fungi have survived the last five mass-extinction events. They grow at the centre of Chornobyl and on the inside of fuel tanks. If we wish to survive on this planet, there is much they can teach us.
If our fear of fungi comes from having been locked out of the land, then perhaps fungi can be the key that lets us back in. Fergus Drennan, 51, is a mushroom evangelist. He is the author of a book about mushrooms, created using mushroom ink and mushroom paper.
Currently limited to a single edition and, as a former chef, he uses his skills to turn mushrooms into Marmite, mangos and meringues for those who attend his foraging courses. “Fungi,” he says, “give you a reason to go to the woods, and they open the door to all the magical things happening there. If you’re looking for mushrooms, you’re observing the natural world. There’s so much we’re missing out on,”
One example is the fly agaric, instantly recognisable with its red cap and white spots as the archetypal poisonous mushroom. Drennan has used it to make hummus, sushi rolls and risotto. Whip them into ice-cream and bake them in wild pear syrup. The fly agaric is, it turns out, quite safe to consume, when prepared in a specific way, with a history of culinary use in Japan, Siberia and southern France.
In London we are blessed with one of the first rail systems in the world, mainly from the Victorian era. But many of these rail lines have now become extinct or have been used for other purposes.
It is not only London where this has happened since various countries around the world have also found adventurous uses for their defunct rail architectures.
The East London Garden Society, along with CPRE London Campaign to Protect Rural England, Go Parks London and others, are promoting The London Highline of which we will be able to walk, as well as discover the many benefits of having such an iconic forest in Bishopsgate, London.
There is also The Camden Highline, first noted by a group of people in Camden North London. Unfortunately, The Peckham coal line has not been able to obtain enough interest for the volunteers take the idea forward.
It is the local people who are most interested in improving their particular local environment and they should be supported as much as possible. It is usually the politicians who are the most reticent in being involved.
The London Highline will be the first to be created, a forest atop redundant rail arches in Bishopsgate. It is two thirds of a mile long, leading into The Great Eastern Parks Route which takes you through the nature of in east London. But even The London Highline is in need of public support to avoid it’s failure, so it is for this the reason that we walked the route on 29 October 2023.
Food Waste is inefficient, risky, wasteful, and expensive, so The East London Garden Society will shortly be holding the second phase of The Behavioural Study on food waste, a practical project to prove its ability to reduce carbon emissions, and make cost savings with the local community receiving the funding as a result.
The idea that we can turn all organic matter into a biomass within a twenty-four hour period is an exciting concept for those who wish to know what to do with their food waste.
A new law is to be enacted early in 2025, that will require all local authorities to have a practical scheme on food waste. The East London Garden Society's aim is to prove that we can achieve this at minimal cost to local residents, as well as making them more involved in local projects in their particular area.
Many years ago we used to have the Pig Swill Man attend weekly to remove any food waste we had. However, since the Swine Flu Fever in the early seventies, local authorities have been at a loss as to how to deal with food waste. It is therefore important that matters such as this be dealt with otherwise it will only become a monster too large to deal with as the population grows.
While yams appear very similar to sweet potatoes, they're quite different. In fact, they're not even related. Yams belong to the Dioscoreae family, while sweet potatoes are from the genus Convolvulaceae, or the morning glory family.
Yams (from the African word nyami, meaning to eat) have only one embryonic seed leaf, while sweet potatoes have two.
Yams are grown throughout the world, with West Africa as its top producer. As at 2019, Nigeria was the world's most prolific producer, making over 60% of the world market. Over 200 species of yams are cultivated and eaten worldwide.
Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are usually longer and sometimes as long as several feet but and not as sweet. They have a rough, blackish or brown surface that looks like tree bark, and flesh that's either reddish, white or purple.
They're usually harvested after six months to a year of vine growth, and dried for several hours (a process called curing), after which they can be stored without refrigeration. In fact, yams should never be refrigerated until they're cooked, as this will give them a hard interior and an unappealing flavour. Ideally, store yams in a dark, cool place for up to a month.
Yam varieties are classified as either firm or soft. When cooked, the firm yams stay dense, while soft varieties turn tender and moist. Culinary preparations can be as vast as the varieties, including boiling, mashing, grilling, roasting, baking or sautéing. After cooking yams, wrap and refrigerate the leftovers, making sure to eat them within a few days.
Yams are a good source of fibre, protein, starch, lipid and vitamins and minerals, nutrients that play a role in its antimicrobial, hypoglycaemic and antioxidant activities. A particular compound, called saponins, may help curb inflammation and return the balance of your gut flora. Examples of saponins in yams include dioscin, diosgenin and dioscorin. Dioscorin in particular is said to exhibit antioxidant, antihypertensive, immunomodulatory, lectin activities and can protect airway epithelial cells against dust mite allergen destruction.
The vitamin A in yams may help maintain healthy mucous membranes and skin, as well as heightening night vision, supporting healthy bone development and providing protection from lung cancer.
Yams are a good source of vitamin C with 17.1 milligrams per 100 gram serving. It's an essential nutrient for fighting infections such as colds and flu and helps in quick wound healing, anti-aging, together with many other assisting health benefits.
Yams should never be eaten raw, as they contain poisonous toxins. However, cooking them (boiling or roasting is recommended) and then peeling off their skin will make them safe to eat. You can also use yams as a substitute for sweet potato in recipes.
Thought to be one of the world's earliest cultivated vegetables, yams may be undergoing an identity crisis due to their frequent comparison to sweet potatoes. Though yams don't come close to the vitamin A content and carotenoid presence in sweet potatoes, this world-traveling tuber has a unique set of phytonutrients. Besides strong antioxidants, including the enzyme superoxide dismutase, yams contain vitamin C, fibre, potassium, manganese, B vitamins, and a long line of other minerals like riboflavin, potassium, iron and manganese.
Yams shouldn't be refrigerated unless they've already been cooked. Recipes vary from sweet or savoury, but either way, they generally command a second helping!
Allow to cool slightly before serving. This recipe makes four servings.