An autumnal treat…

My field mushroom collection from last Saturday. Very nice on buttered toast!Hen pal and partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, has been enjoying an autumn harvest for free – so I thought I would get her to tell the story…           

During the last week it has suddenly got very autumnal here on Dartmoor, lots of mist and rain, but still pleasantly warm. This is great news for mushroom hunters like me!

I was walking the dog last Saturday morning and, as I strolled through some fields where sheep had been grazing, I spotted some bright white blobs among the green grass. Aha – field mushrooms I thought! Luckily, I had a plastic bag with me and picked some, which we duly ate for breakfast – lovely! When picking mushrooms, you want to look for nice clean, firm specimens – hence usually gathering mushrooms early in the day before they have been nibbled by insects, rained on or, most likely here, trampled on by a passing ewe!

I have been foraging for fungi for about 25 years now and it is a really interesting and rewarding thing to do when you are out in the countryside, strolling in a park, or just walking along a grassy verge. Scaremongers will tell horror stories about people poisoning themselves but this happens very rarely and, if you are sensible, learn from an expert and follow a couple of simple rules, you won’t go wrong.

If you are starting from scratch, I’d suggest you go on a fungi forage. You’ll find lots of these foraging walks arranged locally, often by National Trust properties, or other local nature organisations. This is a great way to pick up tips from someone who really knows their stuff, get to see the type of habitats that are good for mushrooms, and ultimately, discover if you enjoy foraging or not.

Despite knowing roughly what I am looking for, I am no expert, and I always refer to my trusty reference book – Roger Phillips ‘Common and important mushrooms’. I would recommend everyone starting out on this hobby buys this book.

Shaggy Inkcap – looks bad, tastes good!The first maxim I was taught on day one was: ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’ So if you pick anything you are not 100% sure about, DON’T try it, leave it out of your collection. The majority of mushrooms are not edible – but they aren’t poisonous either – they just don’t taste very nice. Quite a few are mildly poisonous and a few are lethal. Some are decidedly contrary and are poisonous raw, but edible when cooked… I confess I’ve never felt inclined to try any of these! 

One of the most common edible mushrooms you will see, often standing defiantly up in the middle of someone’s neat lawn, are shaggy ink caps. These are pretty unmistakeable, looking like judges’ wigs and, provided you pick them before they get to the ‘shaggy’ stage, they are lovely quickly browned in butter and served on toast.

Fly Agaric – looks good… but is deadly poisonous!Another mushroom that most of us are familiar with is the one with a red cap and white spots usually drawn with a fairy or pixie sitting neatly on the top. But don’t be fooled by its cheery looks – it is the deadly poisonous Fly Agaric and you shouldn’t even risk touching it. Which brings me to maxim number two: Always wash your hands thoroughly if you have been handling any fungi.

Fungi foraging is great fun and, like many things in the natural world, if you are sensible, and follow the rules, it is hugely rewarding.

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Jean’s Very Berry Jam

Here’s another basic jam, surely a popular choice for keen jam maker Jean – another character from our novel ‘A Sticky End’!

This is fun to try with different ratios of berries – try more raspberry than strawberry for example – and you could always add blueberries too. You can also make a far larger batch if you have the fruit available, I just used a fairly small collection as I wanted to try all sorts of different variations.

  • 600g mixed berries (Redcurrants, blackcurrants, strawberries and raspberries)
  • 500g preserving sugar

Makes about 6 small jars

  1. Wash all fruit
  2. Put fruit and sugar into a large pan and boil for about 15mins
  3. Test for set
  4. Pass through a muslin and sieve
  5. Boil again for 5mins
  6. Pot up and seal at once.

 

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Primrose Cottage Cherry Jam

Primrose Cottage is the name of the jam company that features in my novel ‘A Sticky End’ that I am hoping you will all enjoy when it launches on Monday!

This is a very straightforward recipe and I am sure you could add some secret ingredients and make it your own. I have had some lovely cherry jams with added touches of brandy and kirsch in the past, so I would suggest it is worth experimenting. However, I think Grace, a character from the book, would not approve of anything as frivolous as putting alcohol in her jams!

Makes about 5 pots of jam

  • 1kg cherries
  • 600g sugar
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  1. Wash and remove stones from cherries
  2. Put cherries and lemon juice into a large pan and simmer until the fruit is soft
  3. Add the sugar, stirring until it has dissolved
  4. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for about 10mins, until the jam sets when tested
  5. Remove any scum
  6. Pot up and seal at once
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Mother’s apple crumble

The crumble is a good old ‘standard’ British pudding. It’s so easy and adaptable that even reluctant cooks could produce a crumble as it doesn’t need the delicacy of pastry or the careful attention of cake making. My mother makes a wonderful crumble, and we tucked into this apple version (pictured) the other night when we had friends round to dinner. It comfortably fed eight of us and was served with ice cream, clotted cream or, in some cases – both!

The prep for this pudding can all be done in the morning before you need it and two bowls, one crumble mix and one apple can be stored ready for the evening meal. This particular crumble used apples from the garden but you can use almost any fruit you want – I have had particular success with peaches, plums and I even did an apple and left over Christmas mincemeat combo that was very popular.

Ingredients: (to serve 8)

  • 8oz self raising flour
  • 4 oz butter (or other fat of your choice)
  • Sugar for the stewed apple
  • 4 oz sugar (or less to taste) for the crumble
  • Tablespoon or two of demerara sugar to decorate

Peel, core and chop the apples. Stew in a pan with a tiny amount of water and some sugar to taste. Once it is cooked leave in a covered bowl.

Have the fat at room temperature and rub into the flour until it looks like breadcrumbs. Combine with the sugar. This is the point at which you can cover the bowl and leave until needed later.

Assemble the crumble by putting the apple in an ovenproof dish and sprinkling over the crumble mixture. Then put a couple of spoonfuls of Demerara sugar across the top to add colour. Bake in a medium over for about 25-30 minutes.

Serve with ice-cream, custard or cream – down here we like using clotted cream!

 

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The Forager’s Kitchen

Hedgerows are always a source of fascination, they are so full of flora and fauna. At the moment, they are dotted with glossy blackberries, and I can never resist picking them as I pass. My mother, the queen of preserves in our family, is already making jam and there has been talk of a blackberry and apple crumble coming our way too…!

My level of hedgerow foraging is fairly basic, but there is lots of ‘free’ food out there if you only know what to look for. My friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is a great forager and it was through her excellent Facebook page that I came across ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ a truly fascinating cookery book that contains over 100 easy recipes from savoury to sweet, written by a Scots lady called Fiona Bird.

Don’t be put off by the title – this book is absolutely fascinating just to sit and read even if you have no intention of going and collecting any of the ingredients yourself. Not only does Fiona provide lovely (and easy) recipes, she gives lots of additional information about wildflowers, herbs, fruits and berries and more. Should you feel inspired, she also tells you how to forage, essential ground rules (how to avoid misidentification!) and a range of lovely little ‘wild notes’ with really useful hints and tips.

The book is divided up into sections – Flowers & Blossom, Woodland & Hedgerow, Fruits & Berries, Herbs and Sea & Shore. There’s a huge range of recipes – from Christmas Tree Cookies (using Douglas fir needs) through Carrot & Clover Cake to the most gorgeous looking Violet Macarons with Primrose Cream. Fiona writes very well and, whether you live in a city, the countryside or by the coast, if you follow her advice, you will find more ingredients growing in the wild than you could imagine!

Our ancestors knew what to pick and I do think it’s a shame that most people today are so ‘disconnected’ from the countryside and, indeed, wary of it. There is so much beauty in nature and such bounty out there if we only know what to do with it.

Fiona Bird is a mother of six children. She is a self-taught cook and past Masterchef finalist who has always had a passion for cooking and her approach to food is based on her knowledge of tight budgets and limited time. You can follow Fiona on her Facebook page. 

 

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