Well, there’s no getting around it. Summer has waved a cheery farewell, taken hat in hand, and buggered off to the tropics for six months, leaving us to be bitten by frosts and sunk in seasonal gloom. On the other hand, this is the short-but-fruitful period before the first serious frosts, where the air is still delightfully brisk rather than cold enough to compel even the highest-pitched of brass monkeys to chitter the simian equivalent of ‘sod this’ and zoom off to Bali. Or something.
In any case, it’s also the perfect time for one of my favourite past-times, viz, tramping heartily through wooded dell and mossy field, poking things with a stick, breezily ignoring signs warning of imminent death by shotgun if I take but one more step, and scouring the bases of trees and the undersides of dead logs for that most elusive of bosky treasures, the wild mushroom.
I’m sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away. In truth, as much as spring and summer have the goods in terms of sunshine, lazy days and all-round gloriousness, I’m a bit of a one for autumn. The snap in the air and the slow transition from light snacks, delicate fancies and salads to hearty stews, roasted meat and many, many pints of good ale really has me at my best.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing something almost entirely alien to my essentially indolent nature – taking voluntary exercise. The reason being, I’m lucky enough to live in the (relative) countryside, and the New Forest begins more or less at the end of my road. A short stroll down a green path with horses eyeing me suspiciously from afar, a hair-raising dash across the main road, a shaky tip-toe across a cattle grid, and an entire National Park stretches out before me, crammed to the ruddy gills with free food.
Which, of course, is the nub and crux of the whole issue. The reason I love early autumn so much is that I can go for a quick stroll and return with all the necessaries for supper, all of which I can guarantee is fresh, in excellent condition, and best of all, free.
I’m very aware, of course, that you may not have such a huge natural resource at your beck and call. Wherever you might live, however, there’s almost certainly a place within reach – a small patch of woodland, a city park, an overgrown stretch of scrubland – where something edible will have eked out an existence, ready for you to wander along and munch it. Whether it be blackberries for crumble, sloes for gin, rabbits and squirrels for those of you with a more direct approach to ‘free food’, or mushrooms for just about everything, there will be something edible, going free, right under your nose.
Beyond the above-mentioned, my expertise runs dry. I can heartily recommend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cook-Wild-Side-Channel-Four/dp/0752211153) and Richard Mabey’s excellent ‘Food for Free’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Collins-Gem-Food-Richard-Mabey/dp/0007183038/ref=pd_sim_b_6), together with their related mushroom books for further reading.
Anyway. Enough hyperbole. On with the recipes.
Blackberry and Apple Crumble
Picking blackberries is, I hope, something everybody has done at least once. The bloody things seem to grow everywhere, so you’ve got no excuse. The actual plant is something of a pest, consisting of approximately one million tiny thorns per square inch, but the ripe, dark purple fruits are worth the hassle. Occasionally you come across one that is so ripe that it almost glows, and juice dribbles invitingly down your fingers (and anything white you happen to be wearing. Automatically. Even if said clothing got nowhere near the blackberries. It’s probably because of quantum), and there’s nothing for it but to scoff it right there and grin gleefully. All the rest will do for cooking.
Evidence of a good walk.
As with most foraged food, eyes and fingers are your best tools – a ripe blackberry will come easily from its stem, and only the dark purple will do – red ones are NFG. That said, the closely-packed dark berries that require a little ‘help’ to come off the plant are fine for cooking too. I was lucky enough to find a couple of apple trees in the same field as the blackberries (and cooking-apple trees aren’t all that abundant in the wild, so I was probably poaching), but you can get bramley apples more or less anywhere.
170g plain or wholemeal flour (Spelt flour is pretty good, if you have such a thing)
50g porridge oats (not the jumbo ones)
150g soft brown sugar
75g butter, in small cubes
1tsp baking powder
1tsp mixed spice
Two good handfuls of blackberries, carefully washed and expunged of any spiny stalks or insect-life therein
4 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into centimetreish chunks.
First, make the crumble mix. Add the baking powder to the flour and oats in a large mixing bowl, then add the butter and rub between your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. The trick with this rubbing-in business – you can’t really get away from it – is to dive in hands first, grabbing lumps of butter, making sure there’s enough flour nearby, and then bringing the two into happy conjunction. The hand-movement you’re after is along the lines of the classic show-me-the-money, thumb-and-forefingers, only with all four fingers. Got it? Good.
Tip in the sugar and work it through the mix lightly, until everything’s combined together. Add the spice, plus any remnants of flaked or ground almonds you may have about the place, and give everything a final toss with your fingers. Chuck your diced apple and blackberries into a suitable ovenproof dish, sprinkle liberally with sugar and a splash of water, then pack the crumble mix on top. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t entirely cover the fruit – any gaps will simply allow fruit juices to surge upwards and caramelise on top during cooking, which is needless to say a good thing.
Bake at 180 degrees for 35-45 minutes. Custard, cream or vanilla ice cream would suit.
I’m not going to give you a recipe here, because you know what you’d do with mushrooms – omelettes, stir frys, fried with garlic, whatever your preference – and though my plethora of mushrooms books have many recipes in them, I’ve yet to collect enough of any one type to give them a go.
First of all, A Warning. Do not, under any circumstances, eat any wild mushroom without knowing to 99% certainty what it is. Get a mushroom book or two – the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook is a good one, as is The Edible Mushroom Book and the Collins Mushroom book. Your first few mushrooming trips will, by necessity, involve more study than supper. By all means, however, pick one or two specimens of everything you see, bring them home and take time to identify them. Then next time, you’ll know what to look for. And don’t lick your fingers while you’re out there.
Actually, this is a good excuse for a picture. Recognise this?
Not pictured: a gnome.
‘Course you do. It’s not a very good picture, but that there is a Fly Agaric, probably the most well known of all poisonous mushrooms – although in point of fact you’d have to eat about 70kg of those in one go to seriously endanger yourself. A quick munch on a fried Fly Agaric will result in nothing more than stomach cramps, nausea, some amusing hallucinations and a powerful urge to sleep.
There are, however, plenty of seriously dangerous ones out there, and some of them are worryingly abundant. As far as the spectrum of mushrooms go, it’s about equal thirds delicious, dangerous, and dull. Two of the most prized are the Cep, or Penny Bun, an enormous specimen of which is to be seen below, and the Chanterelle, a relatively baby example of which is even further below
A very large Cep
Chante...oh. Well, what he said.
One afternoon's haul
The above, I should point out, is the work of four people in two different areas of the forest. The Cep and Chanterelle you’ve already met, but the grey ones in the plastic box are Oyster mushrooms, which you sometimes see in the supermarket (cultivated ones, mind) and, just to prove a point, that little brown one on the far left is the hilariously deadly Brown Rolled Rim which, if it hasn’t already featured in an episode of Midsomer Murders, will be shortly.
This underhand little bugger will, instead of poisoning you outright, instead do nothing. For a while. You can happily eat it several times, after which it will proceed to kill you dead. What it does is build up, slowly, a terribly allergy to itself in your body – up until about the 1970s it was considered edible, until one of the most prolific mycologists of all time suddenly found himself dropping dead unexpectedly after eating it for the ninth or tenth time. After that, people started taking notice.
In any case, I can give no heartier recommendation than for you to equip yourself with a good mushroom book, a basket and a small knife, and ho for the nearest patch of woodland to see what you can find. Look up as well as down, you get plenty of good fungi on trees as well as between their roots and in patches of moss and dirt. You’ll find that you start getting a genuine thrill from finding a particularly choice specimen. Well, I do.
As I said above, most of them can be used in any recipe that calls for mushrooms, although some types of cooking suit certain varieties better. When I’ve experimented more with some of that haul above, I’ll post the results here. That’s your lot for now.