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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Green & white – a restful combination

This lovely green and white flower arrangement gave me a lot of pleasure during the week or so that it graced my desk. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about unusual colour combinations with flowers. Indeed my first wedding flowers were green and white with green and white bridesmaids (their dresses, there were no green bridesmaids!).

The roses are old-fashioned English roses, mixed with cow parsley, buddleia and beautiful scented stocks making it a feast for the nose as well as the eyes. Most of the supermarkets have been selling stocks lately and I do so love their scent.

Green and white is a very restful combination and it always reminds me of the white garden at Sissinghurst near Tunbridge Wells. Vita Sackville West called it her grey, green and white garden, and the combination is amazing!

You can make beautiful arrangements that are almost completely green if you can source interesting green flowers. There are lovely green hellebores and of course green orchids to name just two. Another attractive and less run of the mill option is to have an arrangement that is entirely made up of foliage – if you have grey, green, variegated and other interesting leaves in your garden, why not give it a go!

 

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Chillies & strawberries this year!

I don’t have much space in the garden for growing vegetables (nor the time!) as pretty much all the growing space is taken up with flowers and shrubs. However I have got round this by planting some veggies in mid air this year!

I have an old feed basket from the days when Victoria Farm still had cattle, back in the 1960s I believe. There were actually quite a few feed baskets left in the stables and barns that are now the studios. There is one just outside my kitchen window which I lined with moss and plastic and then filled with compost. Now I have a mix, as you can see, of foodie and decorative plants growing together.

The chillies (Aurora (Capsicum annuum)) are just an annual but if I dry all the chillies that come from this plant I reckon I should have enough for months. I am fascinated by the colours of the chillies – the purple ones are beautiful and then they change to reds and oranges – just gorgeous.

I planted some strawberries next to them, partly for the fruit but I also loved the bright and colourful hot pink flowers, which make a nice change from the normal white flowers.

I don’t think I’m going to save any money on the grocery bill, but I am getting a lot of pleasure looking at the plants hanging half way up the wall just outside my kitchen!

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A summer soup…

My foraging friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is always introducing new seasonal recipes for either things she’s grown in her veg garden or foraged from some passing hedgerow, beach or field margin.

She currently has an excellent pea crop and, while they are delicious cooked and cooled and added to a green salad, she has also used them in a lovely soup that can be enjoyed hot or cold. It combines the sweetness of the peas with the zing of wild mint! As you will know, mint is a terribly over-enthusiastic plant, so either grow in a pot to try and contain it, or find some growing wild, as Julia has done here.

Wild mint & pea soup

Ingredients: 

  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil + extra for serving
  • 25g butter
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced or/and wild garlic leaves
  • 750g fresh peas, shelled (frozen peas are great!!)
  • 75g wild mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preparation:

Gently heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion and cook on a gentle heat for 10 minutes or until the onion is soft but not brown. Add the garlic (if using) and cook for a further 3 minutes.

Add 3/4 of the peas, the chopped mint leaves, the wild garlic leaves (if using) and 3/4 stock. Cover the saucepan with a tight fitting lid and cook on a medium boil for 10 minutes.

Blend the soup in a food processor; you will have a thick purée. Return the purée to the pan, season with salt and pepper and add the remaining peas and stock. Cook for a further 5 minutes.

Serve with crusty, fresh bread.

This soup is absolutely delicious hot or cold.

You can find out more about Julia’s foraging courses here.

 

 

 

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Peonies & clematis… a little bit different!

Much as I love looking at my flowers in the garden, it seems a shame that so many of them are out of sight when you are in the house and so I really enjoy bringing them indoors even if they are likely to be short lived.

I have this arrangement on my desk and it brings me huge pleasure every time I look at it. Peonies are such an amazing flower – and the stems of clematis wrapped around the arrangement just bring a careless country feel to it.

Start with a glass cube vase – they’re endlessly useful and can be bought from garden centres, Ikea and numerous other household type places. Soak some green Oasis in water for an hour or so while you are picking the flowers. Then place the well soaked Oasis in the cube and top up with a couple of inches of water. Take a large wide leaf – it could be a fern, an exotic plant in the garden like a banana leaf or a palm. We are lucky down here and the temperate climate (sometimes!) allows these plants to flourish.  Fix it with a folded hairpin of wire. Then place the peonies low and spread across the vase – in this arrangement I used six. I would usually stick to an odd number but I just couldn’t fit the seventh one in so put it in a bud vase!

The freesias in the arrangement were not from the garden, I cheated as I saw a small bunch in the supermarket and couldn’t resist! Finally cut some long strands of clematis and wind around the vase, again holding in place with wire. I made the clematis into a sort of mini wreath and then lowered it over the flowers and tucked just one long wire hairpin into the oasis to make sure it didn’t slip.

Just something pretty and a little bit different!

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