Monday, 11 October 2010

One false move and it's curtains, not parasols

This weekend brought an amazing foraging find. Anyone who knows mushrooms will probably be able to tell that these were Parasol mushrooms. But I didn't. So I sweated and swotted and did some life-saving homework before taking them home for tea.
I've been gathering mussels from the seashore for over 15 years now and I've never been ill once. I've been fishing for ten years and shrimping for 4. Still no stomach cramps. And since I started researching wild food for The Camper Van Cookbook I've been trying all kinds of natural finds. From seaweed to chickweed, winkles to wood sorrel. It's been a delicious (mostly) journey.

But when it comes to fungi, I am a complete novice. And I always will be - because there is so much to learn and so many mistakes that can be made along the way. Mushrooms are a delight because they are so ephemeral but a few of the edible ones have look-a-likes that can kill you. So it's important to get it right if you decide to head out into the woods. You need to know that what you're picking is absolutely what you think it is. If you are not sure, don't bother. It's like all foraging. You need to be confident otherwise you won't enjoy eating it. And you might end up dead.

So unless you are a confident countryman who knows your ceps from your puffballs, you need to do a little work. This weekend I found some enormous mushrooms on my way back from a surf. When I got home I looked them up and got a positive ID. I did this by asking myself a few questions.

  • Does it match the time of year?

  • Does it match the habitat?

  • Does the physical description match exactly? This includes the gills, the ring, the way they grow or open, if they change when bruised, the diameter, the height. And any other physical features.

  • Does it match all descriptions in at least two field guides?

  • Is there anything that looks similar but is potentially harmful?

Once I was happy that I had a 100% positive answer to each question I went back to take a closer look. Once I was happy I decided to pick them and take them home. But even then I acted with caution. I tried a little first, then, a few hours later, I ate the rest cooked in butter with oregano and black pepper. They were, of course, delicious and extremely satisfying in a way that buying from the supermarket could never be. And I am still alive today. Which, of course, is a bonus.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Something old, some kind of brew, something borrowed and something I grew

I went scrumping this week. It was a load of fun and completely unexpected. What would you do if you found an apple tree laden with fruit that no one would pick? Exactly.
I lifted my daughter Maggie on my shoulders so she could pick the lowest hanging fruit from the neglected old tree. The apples were so perfect it would have been a crime to let them become windfall. They were ripe, sweet and delicious. We took what we could reach and then vowed to return to get more. I felt like a schoolboy again, with grazed knees and short trousers, heart beating as I tasted the first freshly picked apples of my autumn. The scrumper in me loves this. A day out in the van and a walk that turns into an adventure.

So the apple tree is the old part of this story. And the apples, shall we say, borrowed. But what about the rest? What about some kind of brew? In keeping with the apple theme we decided to try out this pork dish using Devon scrumpy. How apt. After browning and seasoning the pork we let it simmer away in a whole bottle of organic cider. Then we added the something I grew. That's easy. Fennel and thyme.

I am glad to say that the result was a fragrant and fruity mix with melt in your mouth pork and a lovely light sauce. I could have used more fennel or even spiced the pork up with fennel seeds but it was a good first effort. Served with a mustard and horseradish mash, it was the perfect dish for a Sunday night in September.

Admittedly I cooked it on the hob. But, with a little patience I could have cooked it over the fire while I went scrumping for more! Can you see it? Ruddy cheeks and bobble hats, starry skies and smiles. And bowls of hot apple, fennel and pork stew.


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