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Ben Law: The Woodland House (*****)
Fearnley: River Cottage Cookbook (*****)
Richard Mabey: Food for Free (*****)
We have a brand spanking new website at:
Please drop by and check out who we are, what we do and our epic courses for 2013!
Posted at 11:46 AM in Adventures, Curing & Preserving, Fish & Fishing, France: A Year in Providence, Homebrewing, Meat & Game , Mushrooms, Press, Recipes, The Treehouse Diaries, Useful Products, Vegetables, Wild Berries, Wild Camping, Wild Greens | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Last year I did a post about Trumpet Chanterelles (Cantharellus Tubaeformis) paired with the ridiculously moreish Joel Robuchon 'Pomme Puree' (see here). Out here in France I have been picking Trumpets for the last few weeks- there should still be plenty in the UK out and about, head to a pine forest near you and have a rummage! Here is a little video I put together to help with Identification and even included a Basque Sheep jam.
Trumpets dry very well, they hold their shape in the pan and are extremely tasty- well worth looking for...they make a very good tart with caramelised onion, thyme and egg too!
We also have a few places left on the HGC group course on Saturday 19th May. Get in touch if you want in! I was most pleased that we Auctioned an HGC overnighter recently for the charity 'Action against hunger' and raised over £1000 for them- Happy days!
I recently did a feature on Truffle hunting for the Independent, thought I would share it with you here and throw in some of my own pictures. My Guide for all things Truffles was Melissa Waddingham- if you want to get your mutt transformed into a Truffle hound or even head to the woods for a spot of 'shrooming- contact her here.
My first ever encounter with a truffle occurred age six, somewhere in the Jura Mountains of France. My brother and I had pooled our pocket money to buy my father a birthday present. We settled upon a small Périgord truffle in oil, sealed in a shot glass. I had no idea what a truffle was, but understood this: they weren't cheap. Quite why we had paid 25 francs for something that resembled an oversized, warty bogey in a jam jar was beyond our comprehension, but my mother assured us it was worth it for the exquisite taste, a flavour I would have to wait quite a few years to see if it really was worth it's weight in gold.
Now, while looking for mushrooms above ground can be difficult even when you're bang in the middle of a good cep season, trying to root out a subterranean fungus, relying on only a few pointers and perhaps the assistance of a creature with a keener sense of smell than you or I, is a completely different kettle of fish altogether. I had always disregarded truffles as something I was never going to find in the UK, until last autumn when I began to hear mutterings in and around Sussex of the South Downs having a rich history of truffle hunting, though sadly many of these fellows in the know have died and taken their knowledge and locations of the wild-truffle orchard with them.
Of the three truffles regularly sought after, only two are highly prized: The white truffle (Tuber magnatum), which hails from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, most famously the countryside surrounding the city of Alba and the black truffle or Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) named after the region where it is found in France. The white truffle, with its pungent aroma, is perhaps the most valuable with the largest specimen to date, with a 1.5kg (3lb 5oz) beast, being auctioned for £165,000 in December 2007. The black truffle has a more refined, earthy scent with notes of umami capable of filling a room almost instantly. It is perhaps more affordable than its cousin at around £1,500 per kilo.
It might surprise (or disappoint) you to know that the third, the summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), with its milder aroma, is the only one we are likely to find in the UK and fetches a modest £180 per kilo.
Over the past couple of months my desire to harvest a truffle from the South Downs has become fanatical. When you find yourself in a library looking at soil maps of the local area, you have to have a word with yourself, so I decided to track someone down who might be able to help me on my quest.
If Indiana Jones had been into truffle hunting and had been a woman, then he would have been called Melissa Waddingham and would have lived in Horsham, West Sussex, with an excitable Labrador called Zebedee. I managed to track down Melissa on the internet through our mutual love of all things foraging. She agreed to take me on a hunt. Melissa has been chasing all members of the fungal world for the past seven years and trains dogs to become "trufflers", takes guided fungi walks and is even considering cultivating truffles. Her background in woodland management clearly helped her find her first jackpot some time ago.
By following a series of natural indicators, unaided I might add, she unearthed 13 fine specimens of Tuber aestivum. A good start. Being an avid forager myself, who regularly practises and teaches the ancient art at my Hunter: Gather: Cook school in Sussex, I know only too well how productive areas are kept schtum, not so much with plants, but definitely fungi, and if you're talking truffles, well, I was expecting to be blindfolded and have the phone with built-in GPS taken away.
As it happened, there were no such cloak-and-dagger shenanigans and we met on a glorious September morning on top of the Downs at one of Melissa's closely guarded wild truffle orchards. It soon became evident that it didn't really matter if I knew the location, since I didn't possess a well-trained truffle hound to sniff out the goods and Melissa knew it. It was apparent that when it comes to truffle hunting, knowledge and some sort of creature with a good snout aren't everything – look can be just as important, and I felt woefully underdressed for the occasion compared to my expedition leader in all her finery. I knew I was in good hands.
As we entered the wood, a mixture of ash, hazel and hawthorn, which looked just like any other woodland I had ever rummaged around, Melissa explained to me that having a truffle hound such as Zebedee is only the half the battle: you need to get into the ballpark first before sending out your star player. So I was put through my paces on how to locate a wild-truffle orchard.
"Firstly, you need to be on calcareous [limestone or, in our case, chalk] soil. This is why the South Downs are perfect. Next is having the right species of tree."
Melissa went on to explain that the mycelia of truffles (the fine white strands found in decomposing leaf litter- fungi roots if you like) form a symbiotic relationship with certain trees, predominantly hazel, beech and oak. Truffles help the trees by "fixing" the nitrogen and extracting and breaking down chemicals in poorly drained soils such as chalk. Although this is all going on below the surface, naked to the human eye, there is a tell-tale sign on the surface: truffles are alleopathic, which means they chemically inhibit the growth of any vegetation around them, and this is quite visible on the surface. "What we're looking for is a 'brûlée' or 'burnt area', devoid of any vegetation," Melissa explains.
As we wandered through the hazel, ankle-deep in dog's mercury, a common woodland plant that's quite poisonous, we eventually came to what I would have thought was simply a clearing, but was in fact a brûlée. Looking around, it must have been a good 30ft (9m) in diameter, with a smattering of hazel stands and, compared to the rest of the wood, an eerily perfect circle, devoid of any greenery.
"The next indicator within the brûlée is evidence of any digging or activity by woodland animals," Melissa says. She went on to explain that the truffle's method of reproduction and spore dispersal relies on animals attracted by the scent to dig them up, scoff them and deposit the remains elsewhere. No doubt humans could do the same – a quick pit stop in Hyde Park on the way back from a top London restaurant could prove lucrative in the future. Simply put, any kind of surface disturbance is a key feature.
This is where the ever excitable Zebedee or Zeb stopped picking up sticks twice his length and went to work. Melissa didn't have to do much to get him in the mood: a bottle of truffle oil was produced, sniffed and along with some encouragement and frequent use of the word "working", Zeb was off. It was a complete transformation of character: one minute he was childish and playful, next a serious MI6 snoop on the case. He snaked around the brûlée, snuffling the ground and showing particular interest in a patch of soil at which point I was handed a trowel and put to work.
As with any type of foraging, sustainability and respect for the environment cannot be stressed enough. Under Melissa's guidance, I was shown how deep to take back the leaf litter and how to replace it in order that the mycelium (fungi roots) should not be harmed. Also, she added, so that no one else in the know might recognise it as a truffle stronghold.
What we did find was a false truffle. Close, but not close enough. The rest of the day continued with the same practice, moving from brûlée to brûlée, but unfortunately it wasn't our day. Just like fishing or even looking for mushrooms, if they aren't there, they aren't there. As luck would have it, Melissa had come prepared and brought four large truffles from her last foray the week before. Now it was time to indulge. Truffles took me a while to appreciate. At first, I couldn't understand why this fungus that Plutarch believed was born out of thunderbolts striking the earth, was so highly regarded: to an amateur, it smells of wet dog and old socks. But then, I used to think beer was horrible.
What they are is something quite special. Truffles are as much about aromatherapy as they are taste, and because 70 to 75 per cent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell, then you begin to understand how the truffle works as an ingredient. You can't simply bite into a truffle as if it were an apple: to get the most out of it you have to use a mandolin to get thin, almost translucent slivers of truffle, which then reveals its intricate marbled flesh. Rarely cooked as this can compromise and reduce the flavour, the slivers are best sprinkled over a warm dish, such as the classic scrambled egg or wild mushroom risotto, through which the intense earthy perfume of the truffle, its very soul, will waft up to your senses and infuse every mouthful. That is why the truffle is so sought after (coupled with the prospect that they are about as easy to spot as sardine among a gang of pilchards).
We headed off the Downs to my local pub, the Rainbow, where head chef Dan Baker had agreed to cook up a few taster dishes using our summer truffles. After supping a well-earnt pint of Harveys, Melissa and I talked a bit about "black diamonds" and examined the ones she had brought with her: they had a heady aroma that was both earthy and quite nutty, these were mature truffles, ready to release their spores. Typically, truffle season is between September and May, and immature truffles picked before this will have little aroma or flavour. On asking the best way to store them, I was quite surprised, well, shocked actually, that most truffle oil isn't even made with actual truffles but with an organic compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane, derived from a petroleum base and infused with olive oil. Most truffle oil is fake? Yes. That explains why it is possible to buy a small bottle at a reasonable price.
We were invited into the kitchen to watch Dan in action. First up was a sweetcorn veloute made from nothing but fresh ears of corn stripped and blitzed into a sweet creamy consistency and warmed through. As Dan began to grate thin slivers of summer truffle I asked him how it would work with this particular dish: "The sweetness of the corn will tease out the sweetness of the truffle and the warmth from the soup will pass through the truffle and enhance the aroma," he said.
Next was a wild mushroom risotto followed by skate wing with a caper sauce and Provençal vegetables. In each case the truffles were used in the same way, to help accentuate certain aspects of the dish.
There is no doubt that truffles are a luxury ingredient, for the very reason that they have a rich taste and intoxicating aroma. They are not, as I found out, all that easy to find – it is this scarcity that holds their market value: plans in France to mass produce cultivated truffles has caused uproar as it would drive down the value of the elusive truffle. Truffles are not something you are going to use every day – that is why when you do get your hands on a "black diamond" keep it simple and use it wisely. My search is still not over, with or without a snout to help me, there is gold in them thar hills and I mean to have it, hold it, sniff it and then grate it all over my scrambled eggs.
Secret ingredient: the lure and lore of truffles
Finely sliced, raw truffles work especially well with chicken, veal, fish, omelettes, soufflés, pasta and rice.
For an exquisite roast chicken, insert thin wedges of truffle under the skin of the chicken 24hrs before roasting.
Truffle aroma also has the ability to penetrate eggshells, so pop a truffle in a bowl of eggs overnight in the fridge for the tastiest scrambled eggs ever.
Preserve truffles by storing them in good quality olive oil.
The reason pigs, especially sows, make such fine trufflers is because the pungent odour of the truffle is very similar to that of a male wild pig.
Truffle production has declined over the past century. In 1900, France produced around 100 tons, now it produces around 20 tons, 80 per cent of which are from specially planted truffle fields.
As with most ingredients that have a hefty price tag, truffles are also considered an aphrodisiac...
As of two days ago, after a soul destroying 12 hour drive, become French! And made it down just in time to put together a surprise party on the Beach for the Mrs (see above). Although I will be back next spring to get HGC school up and running again with a whole new exciting course structure, specialist days, banquets and even staff members! Expect plenty of French food adventures over the coming months...at last the year in Providence has begun!
Au Revoir. Weston Out.
Few things are more delightful on a brisk walk through the woods, on a cold January day, than coming across a cluster of Pleurotus ostreatus fanning out in tiers of slate-blue. The walk becomes instantly more worthwhile than simply getting a bit of fresh air- whatever was meant to be for supper that evening is instantly scrapped, the oysters are immediately plucked and pockets are filled with firm flesh, the intoxicating aroma of mushrooms and perhaps (depending on how far along the oysters are) half a dozen maggots.
It has always struck me as rather strange that most mushrooms aficionados will quite happily chow down on a good fungal find even if it does contain a few maggots, such an abhorrent practice wouldn’t even be considered if it were some sort of meat or fish. Of course you do try to avoid as many as possible, but then it is quite satisfying to see a panic-stricken maggot desperately trying to escape a sautéing chunk of fungi only to hit the base of the hot pan, go into a series of crazy spasms and then explode. I quite welcome the added protein boost to the meal, after all the maggots are basically made up of the mushroom they have been eating…just be wary if you come over to mine for supper and foraged ‘shrooms are on the menu.
The wild larder is not completely bare at this time of year, whilst Mother Nature begins to tease us with the appearance of the first snowdrops and the sprouting of daffodils; spring is still a long way off. But do not despair, she has spared us a few treats from the hedgerow to munch on: Sorrel, Bittercress and chickweed seem to be abundant along with two members of the fungal family: Oyster mushrooms and Jew’s ears.
We find ourselves in a sad little world indeed, when a mushroom has to have a preferential name to avoid anti-Semitism. For some time whilst teaching foraging I couldn’t decide what to introduce this tasty fungi as. Its pseudonym of ‘Jelly Ear’ is all well and good in descriptive terms- it certainly does look like an ear, lobes cartilage the lot, but in a historical context the non-PC version is preferential.
The Latin name Auricularia auricula-judae hints to its past, eventually adapted from ‘Judas Ear’ to ‘Jew’s Ear’ it was so named under the belief that Judas Iscariot hung himself on an elder tree, the principle host on which you will almost always find this fungi growing, others include beech and sycamore infrequently.
The Jew’s ear is not a difficult one to find, as mentioned, Elder trees are the place to look. They often grow on dead parts of the tree devoid of bark, either in a cluster or in a row. When picking, simply take a knife and cut the fungi off as close to the base as possible. There are a number of reasons why this fungi is worth picking more often:
Hunting for mushrooms is a curious thing indeed, few other, in fact no other member of the wild larder evokes such secrecy, joy and obsessive weather watching. I believe its probably the only outdoor pursuit in which participants pray for a downpour to get the fruiting bodies to magically appear. It cannot be denied there is a sort of magic behind them, a favorite of gnomes with fishing rods, fairies and any other woodland dweller: including humans.
Every ‘shroomer has their closely guarded spots that they won’t even share with their nearest and dearest and no amount of alcohol will shift from their lips (trust me…I’ve tried). I did once get my friend Dan to determine the location of his private giant puffball stock, but when I got there, nothing…how typical. But then these are the things that make mushroom hunting what it is! If you have a favored spot I don’t need to describe to you the anguish, hatred and disgust that bubbles up on encountering another soul on your patch, but lets be honest, its probably not ‘yours’ anyway.
This time of year is easy pickings if you are a squirrel eater, the springy little buggers are bouncing across woodlands across the country desperately trying to stock up on us much fruit and nut before winter really kicks in, so what better time to lock and load the old 12 bore and go in search of supper?
Squirrel eating, despite having bad press to begin with from early thriftonomists, has become rather trendy in the last year, I was a bit surprised to hear from a friend that a supermarket had begun selling squirrel (I don’t tend to read newspapers or watch TV for fear of depression or anxiety!), so I had a look online expecting it was some sort of stunt by Waitrose only to see that Budgen’s had pipped them to the post (now that really was a surprise).
Wow, what a mushroom season! As I have been spending plenty of time grubbing about the woods in search of something tasty for tea, I though I would take the vid cam out and try and capture some of my amateur tips for the amateur mushroom hunter. Now, I will make it clear, I am certainly no Mycologist, but I have managed to feed myself fairly well over the years, but then wheres the fun in being an expert anyway? There's nothing new to learn!
My approach has always been to start with the fungi that can't be confused with anything that will dissolve your internal organs...like what almost happened to Mr.Horse whisperer a few years back. If you arn't certain of what the mushroom is, then don't put it anywhere near your lips! Simple as that.
I hope that this little vid will help with finding 2 of my favourite 3...the other being ceps. The hedgehog has always been a favourite as it was the first foraged mushroom, gastronomically speaking, that I managed to find. Still trying to find my feet as a cameraman, but if nothing else this should be an entertaining jaunt through the Sussex undergrowth!
Any Good? I do hope you enjoyed it!
It must be said that while there are many wild foods that are edible, not all of them are worth bothering with. Some however, are just about the most delicious, scrumptious morsels you will ever get your hands on. The Cep (alias Porcini or Penny bun) is the very pinnacle of fine wild food.
It is difficult to truly describe the overwhelming pleasure that sweeps the soul on discovery of a perfect Cep. First, a glimpse of the round cap poking through tufts of grass looking like a freshly baked straight-out-of-the-oven crusty bread roll. Next the rush over to fondle underneath the cap to see if it is accompanied by the fat belly and off white pores that will indeed guarantee a wild find of the best kind. Food porn it most certainly is, if the Cep was in the adult entertainment business it would give Jenna Jameson a run for her money…
“Whats that structure there?” so came the innocent question from the Reuters news journalist.
“A bench.” I said. What else could it be?
The last week has been full on. Monday to Tuesday I was visited by an extremely talented photographer, Greg Funnell (www.gregfunnell.com) and then Wednesday- Thursday, a young adventure called Kevin who is planning to cycle and sail around the world next year (www.becauseitisthere.co.uk) each were treated to the delights of treehouse living from pheasant to squirrel and even a taste of the somewhat elusive Cauliflower fungus. Friday was left aside for a visit from Reuters News and weirdly, as I later found out, the chairman of Reuters happens to be my next door neighbour and lives the other side of my wood. That would explain the big house and perfectly manicured gardens…
Not of course the kind of hedgehog you might be thinking of, that is still on the wish list (it is important not to limit yourself…baked in clay to remove the spines is the prescribed cooking method). This is about my favourite wild mushroom: The hedgehog fungus.
There are a few reasons I like it so much and I think it all stems from the gills of this unique little mushroom. The hedgehog possesses spines instead of gills, which makes it one of easiest mushrooms to identify. My philosophy on gathering mushrooms has always been to look for the most unmistakable characteristics in edible fungi that could not be confused with poisonous cousins (I’m sure I am not the first to apply this method and I wont be the last).
A few days in Sussex is more than enough time to have a poke around the countryside for a few more of Autumn’s finest wild ingredients. Last week was spent not only having a firm fondle of the hedgerows, but taking part in the Woodlore-assistant-intructor-selection process (what a mouthful). So apart from immersing myself in some thoroughly enjoyable bushcrafty goodness with some great people, I was able to spend some time gathering a few bits to take home with me at the end of the week.
When we were told we had to give a 5 minute talk on whatever we wanted, I felt that my best shot would be to talk about something that I was both passionate about (always makes it flow better) and something that the people I was talking to could have a good feel, sniff or nibble of.
I was able to gather allsorts: Sorrel, mint, horseradish, meadowsweet, sweet chestnuts, Japanese knotweed, common puffballs, rosehips, hawthorns and by a pure stroke of luck: a cauliflower fungus.
Moving with the times, the cool kids call them ‘Shrooms’, why not? An abbreviation? What’s cooler than that! So rather than being spaced out on a sofa, unable to comprehend what you’re hands are doing (or shivering in a corner hoping it will just ‘go away’), it is time to move on and look for more acceptable members of the fungi family, dude. So, last weekend my brother and I went to pay a visit to my mother in Sussex.
My brother has been in the city for too long, first London then New York. It was clear from his enthusiasm, just how much he had missed charging round the woods in search of random stuff. We had only been in my mother’s garden a matter of hours before he muttered: “Where’s the air pistol?” and preceded to nail a member of the local collared dove population. Ok, not your typical fair game, I had not eaten it before, similar to pigeon…I’ll try it (to satisfy his guilt or my curiosity, I will never know).
It’s been a long time; I have been searching high and low-nowt! But for all the searching I have done, all it took was to be sitting in the front seat of a car, feeling a little delicate from a few ales the night before that I suddenly saw it- spewing forth from the cleft of an incredible old oak tree, the whisky tinted fronds of the chicken. The fact that I was driving through the outskirts of Burgess Hill in Sussex surprised me, the chicken of the woods is indeed as much of a townie as the morel has become, after all why not?
I have read all sorts about this fascinating fungus, but never had the chance to taste it, its not likely to grace the supermarket aisle and may just sit amongst a few of its better known cousins at farmers markets. The best way to taste is to find. The chicken of the woods is actually quite an evil fungus, the bright orange and yellow beast will not yield once its spores are inside the skin of it’s favoured host; the oak, and will eventually see the tree off. That’s why of all the fungal finds to prise the chicken off its perch is both gratifying and makes you feel you could be doing the tree a favour.
I have never been one for mushroom picking- dangerous business. As I have got older the priorities have changed, gone are the days of windswept October walks across open fields in search of the Psilocybe semilanceata (that’s magic mushrooms to you and me) for these are the days of mushrooms which hold more culinary potential. They say the best things in life are free and I am completely in agreement, the best food is wild and If you know what your doing they are readily available.