Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Umami; Small is Beautiful, Blue and Green; and Firing up the Reactor (Heating a Greenhouse with Leaf Mould and Compost – Part 9).

SDIM3946bc (2)It’s been a bumper autumn for mushrooms. I’ve found pink waxcaps, Hygrocybe calyptraeformis, in all 3 of our upper sloping meadows this year, after spotting them for the first time in just our High Meadow last year (Click here for details of this rare mushroom from a previous post.).SDIM3936 (2)Lots more mushrooms, mainly Larch Bolete, Suillus grevillei, have emerged in our mossy copse, and much earlier than anticipated, the first sighting of mushroom on mushroom – growing at the base of one of the mossy capped mushrooms I’d fashioned about 2 years ago from a recently felled fir tree. These mushrooms probably herald a quicker demise for my transient chain-sawed creation than I’d hoped for. Had I introduced some fungal spores with my chainsaw cuts, transferred on the chain oil?SDIM3820 (2)Or had they drifted in?SDIM4019 (2) Check back in a few years to see what they look like then, if the blog is still being updated. The plan was always that they would age and decay at about the same pace as their creator.SDIM4049 (2) But the real star performance has been in a poorly waterproofed, and huge pile of logs along our green lane. We’d used cheap tarpaulins to provide some cover, since we had no spare capacity in our roofed wood shelters.SDIM4045 (2)The tarpaulins had leaked, and we’d never quite got round to buying in some more sheets, but eventually sourced some seconds a few weeks ago, and about 10 days previously removed the shredded tarpaulins and laid the sheets loosely over the log pile with a bit of an air gap, Whether this disturbance or subtle environmental change trigged fruiting body production, or whether the sheet positioning just coinicided with an appropriate weather change, I don’t know.  But within a few days, and lasting for about a week, the whole pile erupted into a huge mushroom covered display which changed with time as a white mycelial ‘snow’ engulfed some of the fruiting bodies, SDIM4035 (2)(I think that these may all be the sadly inedible, Gymnopilus junoniussometimes known as ‘Laughing Jim’, or the ‘Spectacular Rustgill’. This is apparently a very common mushroom, with psychoactive properties typically found on decaying hard wood logs. ‘Gymn’ translates as naked, whilst the ‘Juno’ portion of the name cross references to the wife of Jupiter. The ‘Laughing Jim’ or ‘GYM’, apparently originates from a report in Japan of a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who mistook this for an edible mushroom, and owing to some of its hallucinogenic active ingredients, ended up dancing around the town.

I can find no note of whether or not they were naked at the time.

This display though certainly was spectacular. In spite of the poor light, I hope that these images give an idea of the scale of this mycological extravaganza, and the creative effect that it had on me.SDIM4023 (2a) (2)SDIM4023 (2) Then, with time, the benign mushroom based smell gradually morphed into something more putrid and unpleasant.SDIM4023 (2ab) (2)SDIM3944ab (3)Sure enough lurking mid pile, beneath the sheets, was a pristine Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus.SDIM4078 (2) Untouched by slugs or flies in its protected position, it was the first time I’ve had a good view of the egg at the base of the shaft, which apparently is edible at the early egg stage and reputed to have aphrodisiac effects.SDIM4078 (2ab) (2)SDIM4078 (2a) (3) Not tempted by any of these fungal offerings, I have however been discovering new ways of preparing tomatoes, since the glut has continued until just now.SDIM3862 (2) And discovered Umami. 

The fifth taste sensation, to put alongside salt, bitter, sweet and sour. And these are not just subjective experiences – there are recognised physiological receptors located in our tongues which respond chemically to dietary components to help us build up the complex array of flavour experiences that most people can appreciate. (Smell is perhaps even more important in this field – try holding your nose and blind tasting tea or coffee, apples or onions). Click here for an in depth consideration of both the anatomy and physiology of taste perception by Tim Jacob. In amongst the scientific jargon are some interesting nuggets.

The Umami taste receptors respond to certain amino acids and their compounds, particularly glutamate and aspartate, and generate a savoury and often longer lasting type of enhanced taste sensation. This is why mono sodium glutamate has been used by the food industry as a flavour enhancer. Heston Blumenthal has played a significant part in researching Umami based taste. This 3 Michelin star winning British chef, with a passion for marrying cooking with scientific methodology, even conducted experiments on which parts of a tomato were the most flavoursome.

The result? Firstly, naturally vine (sun and warmth) ripened tomatoes beat commercially ethylene gas ripened tomatoes hands down. But also the level of umami generating components are up to 8 times greater in the jelly surrounding the tomato seeds, than in the tomato flesh, as analysed chemically and also when assessed by tasters. And their flavour is concentrated by slow, long cooking.

Armed with this information (and the fact that olives and anchovies are a couple of other umami rich food sources) just in time for processing the last of this year’s tomatoes, I came up with my own take on a type of tomato concentrate, passata if you will, but with seeds, skins and all, for use as a pizza base topping, soup or stew addition, etc.

Drizzle some olive oil into the base of a large pan. Fill the pan with roughly chopped tomatoes (about 6lbs or 3kg), a teaspoon of sugar, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, half a dozen mashed anchovy fillets, half a dozen chopped olives, and a sprinkling of chopped basil. Bring to the boil slowly, then simmer to reduce, stirring occasionally. I do this during the evening on our wood burning stove, and it takes a couple of evenings, so several hours, until it’s shrunk to about a quarter of its initial volume. Cool and freeze in small moulds, then knock out and keep in a bag in the freezer for easy use – you just need to pull one out and defrost.

The flavour is intense and long lasting, and is a world away from bought tomato puree. Try it next year if you have any surplus tomatoes. Whilst doing this tomato processing, seed saving has also been going on. The trick here is to soak the seeds, jelly and all in a small pot of water for a few days, stirring occasionally. The jelly, as well as being umami rich, also contains seed germination inhibitors, and the soak in water helps to remove these.SDIM4080 (2) A final rinse, and the seeds are dried on a bit of kitchen towel, wrapped up and stored for sowing next early spring. But I did double check just what the 2 very different looking tomatoes shown above were called. And they are both variants of ‘Orange Banana’. One plum shaped and yellow orange, the other much longer and pointed and more of a red colour. They’ve certainly been the 5 star performers later in the season for us this year.SDIM4084 (2) In a year made for Welsh butterflies, with plenty of warmth, sunshine and lack of rain, the one regret has been no sightings of any blue butterflies.SDIM4012 (2)SDIM3999 (3)SDIM3860 (2)SDIM3853 (2)We usually see the occasional Holly blue, Holarctic azures, in either spring or autumn, but this year has drawn a blank, in spite of several maturing holly trees around the garden. But the steady increase in Birdsfoot trefoil in our high meadow got me wondering about the other very pretty and ‘common’ Common blue butterfly, Polyommatus icarus.L Common Blue (B Male) (3) On our last trip to the National Botanic Garden of Wales in August, we’d seen several of these on the wild flowers beyond the Great glasshouse, and having photographed some very locally just a couple of years ago, I reckoned perhaps they could now survive up here.L Common Blue (B) (3) Researching them on line, I found a company that apparently supplies a range of moths and butterflies from around the world at various stages of development, so back in July I’d placed an order with them for 30 larvae, with an expected delivery of early September. The payment was taken up front. September came and went and no larvae arrived, I wanted to chase things up. I then discovered that there was no contact phone number. Just an email address.

And then no response to email requests for information. And no feedback from previous customers that I could find. Eventually in early October an ordinary and the smallest of sizes of jiffy bag arrived, enclosing a small Petri dish, a few leaves, and if you look really really carefully you could spot a few tiny larvae.SDIM3789 (2) No guide line instructions were included for ‘after care’.

And I’ve no idea if there were 30 in there – I certainly could only count a handful. So worth about £45?SDIM3787 (2) I’ll let you decide.

Perhaps if they kick start a colony up here, I’ll change my mind, but perhaps this is one occasion when I was unconvinced that small is beautiful.


However, as a convinced advocate of micro electricity generation, I must update readers on our first year’s experience with our Immersun.  And this in the week when the politicians have again started to debate the benefits of any renewable energy, or ‘green taxes’ to help fund it, and a drive for energy efficiency measures. Our Immersun was installed last October 1st 2012, and dovetails with our 3.8KW solar PhotoVoltaic system, to divert any electricity over and above ongoing, variable household use, into heating our hot water. So 1 year on, how successful has it been? I’ll let it explain.SDIM3783 (2)SDIM3784 (2) This figure of 1151 KWH since installation, is roughly a third of our annual production, and since we don’t have any other form of hot water heating, this diverted electricity has directly saved us importing this amount to heat our water. The Immersun now means very little of our electricity is ever exported – only on those rare days when the sun shines all day, and we’ve run out of ways of using it productively, like cutting the grass, washing, weed steaming paths, etc.

The information that it gives you about variable appliance consumption, for example throughout the cycle of a washing machine, has made us much smarter and more economic in how and when we run certain appliances, with consequent electricity consumption savings. So well done to Immersun for a great, simple and effective product, which helps us with our quest for a greener existence. Click here for a link to the company website. I notice that they now have an updated, even better version.

With the first press reports of a severe winter, beginning early, starting to appear, I must commend the Met Office/BBC for their really accurate 5 day, and pretty good 10 day, forecasts. Click here for a link.  These are extremely helpful in planning what to do, and when. So when the website indicated that night temperatures might drop to low single figures, it was time to fire up the ‘Reactor’.S1030019 (2) Learning from last year’s trial experiences with my design, I reckoned that some tweaking was required. So the blue agitator plastic rods, (which were awkward in use and a nuisance when emptying the heap), were removed, and I opted to fill the central reactor core with compost material directly, rather than placing it into tubs, again for simplicity and speed of work, to minimise heat loss with the lid off in very cold weather.S1030016 (2) In addition I’ve opted to cover the heap with salvaged sheet plastic, then double skin polycarbonate sheets, before adding the insulated top.S1030014 (2) I reckon that whilst this might limit air movement and oxygen supply a bit, it should mean that there is greater heat retention in the main compost pile, with more available energy to warm the circulating air. After just a few days this seems to be a correct hunch, with about a 7 degrees C temperature rise for the air flowing through the reactor core with the 20 watt 80 cubic metre per hour cheap fan.

The challenge now will be to keep the heap productive over a longer period – in part this should be possible by starting with the compost at a much lower level than last year, and also by regular weekly forking over to aerate the heap, with a planned partial emptying of the heap as it starts to fill up, and recharging it with additional material. And I’ve still got a second heap to construct!  (Addendum: There are a lot of posts now about how this idea has developed and its implementation. If you want to find the other posts quickly, then click here).

Finally, a few more NABS and pictures from the garden.SDIM3806 (2)SDIM3828 (2)SDIM3797 (2)SDIM3825 (2)SDIM3821 (2)SDIM3813 (2)SDIM3958 (2)SDIM3972 (2)SDIM3930 (2)SDIM3987 (2)The last 2 images are of a seedling Dahlia, from ‘Bishop of Auckland, which I raised this year. In spite of its vibrant colour, it may be cherished – since I seem to have a special affinity for anything I’ve grown from seed, and like many things, I think it looks even better when illuminated and viewed from an unusual angle.

7 thoughts on “Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Umami; Small is Beautiful, Blue and Green; and Firing up the Reactor (Heating a Greenhouse with Leaf Mould and Compost – Part 9).

  1. As always, I enjoyed your many faceted post. I am always drawn toward learning to forage for wild mushrooms and then think what if I make a mistake. Mushrooms are quite beautiful to look at so for now that’s as far as I’m getting.

    • Hello Carolyn,
      Glad you enjoyed the post. We used to eat wild chanterelles from nearby which are pretty distinctive, but then there was the sad case 5 years ago of Nicholas Evans, (Horse Whisperer author), wife and friends who ended up with serious renal issues after eating perhaps a single rare mushroom amongst other foraged ones in Scotland. As you say, we now enjoy them for their fleeting beautiful appearances and the hidden vital underground role that they play in nature’s ecosystems,

  2. Hi Julian,

    Good result on immersun. I maximise ours to the thermal store and then use the hot water in washing mc, dishwasher with the balance going to hot water and heating. First year was 1855kwh out of 3708kwh from 4kw system equals 50%. However our saving is considerably less as we use wood at about £23 per tonne to heat water if the sun dont shine! Very pleased with Immersun and reckion only about 120kwh went to the grid!

    • Hello Dave,
      Thanks for the comment and the extra data on just how effective an Immersun can be at maximising use of home generated electricity. As always your grasp of your own data is well ahead of mine, and the quote of £23 per tonne of home produced wood(?) would be helpful for anyone thinking of ‘saving’ costs by using a wood based stove/heating system. I’m guessing that this figure doesn’t include any element for labour – either that or you’re factoring in Avril doing all the logging for ‘nowt? AS we’ve often discussed, you really have to enjoy using a chainsaw and have the ‘free’ time for wood to be a viable fuel alternative.

  3. Pingback: Encouraging Common Blue Butterflies | Carmarthenshire Meadows Group – Grŵp Dolydd Sir Gaerfyrddin

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