A British Halloween

A British Halloween

I’ve come to hate Halloween with the adoption of American traditions such as Trick or Treat.  If you have children you will find it hard to fight against, but perhaps reintroducing some of our own traditions will help.

Ever popular with children is Apple Bobbing and indeed apples feature in many Halloween traditions.  Also perpetually popular is sitting around a fire telling ghost stories.

Fires were lit to ward off evil spirits and, thus protected from harm, people believed that the ghosts could help foretell the future.  Nuts might be thrown into the fire – if a nut burnt brightly it meant that the thrower would still be alive in twelve months’ time.  If it flared up suddenly, it foretold marriage within that twelve months.

The most common question put to ghosts concerned future marital prospects.  Apple pips could be thrown on the fire in the same way as nuts with the name of the loved one being said as the pips were thrown.  If they were lively as they burnt, spluttering and popping, it meant the love was returned, but if they burnt silently this was not a good sign.

There were several other ways that apples were used to foretell romantic prospects.   One involved peeling an apple in one long piece – the length of peel predicting the length of life remaining.  Women who wished to predict who they would marry would then throw the peel over their left shoulder – the form it took was meant to spell out the first initial of their future husband.  If a woman had more than one potential lover in mind as her future husband, she could stick apple pips to her face – one for each lover.  The pip that remained stuck for the longest would foretell who would remain most true.  Another method was to cut an apple into nine pieces then, at midnight on 31st October, begin eating the pieces whilst looking into a mirror.  When she got to the ninth piece, rather than eating it, it was thrown over her left shoulder and the face of her future lover was then supposed to appear in the mirror.

Cakes or puddings were made which contained fortune telling charms:

A coin for wealth

A pea for poverty

A button for a bachelor

A thimble for a spinster

A wishbone for your heart’s desire

That someone’s fortune was so bound up with marriage seems very old-fashioned and some charms, such as the matchstick, which predicted that your husband would beat you, have thankfully disappeared. Nonetheless I remember buying Halloween Brack in Dublin, finding a wedding ring and thinking how much more pleasant this was than trick or treating.

Mid-Season Apples

This is a 2013 post-script to the previously published article Apples… A Seasonal Approach.

Owing to a prolonged winter, the 2013 apple harvest is approximately three weeks late, which has led to some embarrassment for supermarkets that were expecting to be full of British Apples in October, which normally marks high-season in the UK.

People are, correctly, pointing out that smaller, independent suppliers are not short of British Apples.  These are however the delayed mid-season apples, characterised by poorer keeping qualities than the late-season apples and frequently being of dual-purpose rather than pure dessert apples.  I expect supermarkets bought some time ago, and asking them to change plans at short notice is somewhat akin to trying to change direction in a super tanker!

The beauty of buying from small independent growers is that they are likely to have a wider selection of local varieties and what might be ripe where you live could be quite different from where I am.  The variety James Grieve perfectly illustrates this situation.  It is a Scottish variety, and in its homeland usually considered a cooking apple.  However, in the far south it will often ripen sufficiently to make a very pleasant eater.

In fact almost any apple is suitable for cooking before it is fully ripe.  It is only the British who have bred such a range intended solely for cooking, whilst other countries consider all apples dual-purpose.  Peasgood Nonsuch and Tom Putt are two other examples of apples that are probably being used for cooking now but later can be eaten raw.  Rev. Wilkes, descended from Peasgood Nonsuch, is an early cooker that is probably now nearing the end of its season in most parts of the country.  Whilst just coming into season is another cooker, Charles Ross.

Of the mid-season dessert apples that you might find at the moment are Ellison’s Orange, Lord Lambourne and Ribston Pippin – from which Cox’s Orange Pippin is decended.  Clearly some choice, but it is true that the greatest depth of flavour will not arrive until the late-season apples are with us.

Herb of the Month – Sage

Although Sage is predominantly a Mediterranean herb and available fresh all year round, I associate it most strongly with the autumn months and the warming hearty dishes that we serve as the weather turns colder.  I stress that it is available fresh all year round as I cannot understand why anyone would dry this herb, which quickly smells and tastes musty and quite unpleasant, and yet it is in the dried form that it turns up most frequently in British cooking.  If there is one thing that I hope this article will achieve it is to persuade you to throw away any jars of the dried herb that you might be harbouring and plan instead where you will plant a bush in the spring.

Growing Sage

Broad-Leaved (back) and Common (front) Sage

You can grow sage from seed, although as one plant is likely to suffice in most homes I see little point in doing so.  You can buy a plant quite easily in most garden centres and, once the threat of frost is over, plant it out where the soil drains well and it will receive a reasonable amount of sun.  The bush will grow to about 2 foot in height, with a similar spread.  After the first year you should trim the bush in the summer, when it has finished flowering, but don’t leave it until the autumn as late pruning can kill the bush.   After about 5 years the bush will have become tough and woody, so in the 4th year take cuttings in spring from which to grow a replacement plant and prune the bush back hard.  Although there are many varieties, including some with attractive variegated leaves, from a culinary viewpoint the ones to grow are just Common (or Garden) Sage or the broad-leaved variant Salvia officinalis Broad-leaved (latifolia).  Confusingly the Common Sage is sometimes also referred to as Broad-leaved, but the leaves of the true broad-leaved are larger, darker, more oval and more aromatic than Common Sage.  Additionally the Broad-leaved Sage rarely flowers in this country.

Medicinal and other properties

Sage has powerful healing properties but should be used with caution as, if you drink an infusion for more than a week or two at a time, it can cause potentially toxic effects.  Nevertheless, as a short-term remedy Sage Tea is first rate for colds and when combined with a little cider vinegar makes an excellent gargle for sore throats.

In cooking it aids the digestion of fatty foods, hence its traditional pairing with pork and goose, and its antiseptic qualities help kill off any bugs in the meat, which is why it is so frequently used in sausages.

An essential oil is extracted from a variety of Sage known as Clary Sage – the oil being referred to as Sage Clary or Muscatel Oil.  This is used in herbal medicines and toilet waters, perfumes and soaps but also to add flavour to wine, vermouth and certain liqueurs.

As a companion plant it is said to repel cabbage white flies.*

Cooking with Sage

Having already stated how important it is to use sage fresh the quantities needed this way are quite small.  If you really want to preserve some, include it in a crab-apple jelly as an accompaniment to pork.  It is great in stuffing, not only for meat but also for vegetables.  In Italy sage often accompanies veal or liver.  Frying individual leaves until they are crisp and then scattering them over a dish brings out the flavour beautifully and is a technique I employ to accompany liver, squash and some pasta or gnocchi dishes.

Recipes

*source: JSM 2012

Minding your P’s and Q’s….how to get the best from Pears and Quince

That there is some relationship between the pear and the quince is obvious from their shape, but whilst the quince has to be cooked to render it edible, a perfectly ripe and juicy pear eaten raw is a delightful, if somewhat rare, experience.

Ripening pears needs care, the sort of care that is seldom found in a world geared to mass production.  It also needs the type of storage conditions that are in short supply in most households, making this a frustrating fruit to grow in your garden.  All of which makes it inevitable that at some stage you are likely to come across the less- than- perfectly-ripened pear, which will respond better to cooking.

Before admitting defeat, let’s look first at how to optimise the chances of getting at least some perfect eating pears from your crop.

The first step is to judge when to pick them.  Early ripening pears, such as Jargonelle, Williams and Beth can be disappointing in flavour, and potentially grainy in texture, if left to ripen fully on the tree.  So pick as soon as the stalks break easily, but whilst the pears are still firm.   Handle them extremely gently, as any bruising will cause the pears to rot.  Transfer the pears immediately to the bottom of the fridge.  Even a couple of days in the dark at a temperature close to 1˚C will help ensure even ripening later on.   Pears left in the fridge will remain hard for quite some time, but when you bring them to room temperature they should ripen within a couple of days.  Because the pears ripen (and rot) from the inside out, the best spot to check for ripeness is near the stalk.

The process is similar for late ripening pears, if for different reasons, i.e. that our season is usually not long enough for these pears to ripen adequately on the tree.    Late season apples are also picked before they are fully ripe and stored for a period before being eaten, but note that they should not be stored in close proximity to pears as the gasses given off during ripening will interfere with the natural process for both fruit.  So, in a domestic setting, it may be best to invest in a separate fridge for storing pears, whilst keeping the apples in a cool outhouse.

Britain has far fewer native pears than apples, but those that do have a place in our culinary heritage were actually meant for cooking.  Cooking pears were termed wardens or wardons in late medieval England, taking their name from the abbey of Wardon in Bedfordshire, although no-one seems to know why.   Like apples, pears do not grow true from seed, making them a species of infinite variety, and these warden pears almost certainly sprang from the wild pears which were once common in our hedgerows, although now very rare.  The most famous named variety is the Black Worcester, which has been a feature of the coat of arms for the city of Worcester since 1575.  By that time the region was already gaining a reputation for its Perry, which originally would have been made from the wild pears, until gradually specific varieties of Perry Pear were cultivated for the purpose.

Let’s now turn our attention to Quinces, which are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although not native to the UK, Pyrus Cydonia has been grown here since the 13th century and was quite common between the 16th and 18th centuries, especially for Quince Marmalade.  So despite being mainly associated with Mediterranean countries, they do have a long heritage here and will grow happily as far north as Yorkshire.  Shelter and sunshine are both important for quince, although it does not mind in what soil it grows – it is actually quite happy to stand in water making it ideal for those less well drained spots within an orchard.

However, they do not usually ripen fully on the tree in this country.  Old country lore says they should be picked on a waning moon, but whilst the weather is still fine.  Late October or early November is about as late as you can leave it, because they should certainly be brought in before the first frosts.  In a warm kitchen they will complete their ripening quite quickly – the delicious aroma will tell you when that point has arrived.  They ripen from the outside in, and will always be firm, so don’t expect them to soften.  The flesh is rather gritty and the core positively hard.  This hard core needs to be removed but the gritty flesh will soften on cooking.  Although they will discolour on cutting, just like apples, as they cook to a beautiful pinky-orange colour this will disappear so don’t worry about it.

What you do with them depends largely on the quantity available.  Because the flesh is dry rather than juicy, I don’t usually make Quince Jelly even though I find it useful in the kitchen.  When my own quince tree is more mature it may yield sufficient for this, and certainly the pectin content is high ensuring a good set.   But for the time being I am more than happy to support the fundraising efforts of the good ladies in a neighbouring village.  The church path of St Andrew’s in Compton Martin is lined with quince trees, which since antiquity have been a symbol of love, marriage and family and the fruit from these trees is made into jelly each year.

Happily a small quantity of quince goes a very long way.  A single slice would scent a whole apple pie and the old recipe for Quince Marmalade includes slices that would often have been used in this way.  What I usually do is bottle slices poached in spiced sweet white wine.  These are then available for desserts (a Quince Trifle is lovely), breakfast, or serving with meat.  There is quite a lot of waste – peel, core and pips from this recipe and this I add to more quinces to make Quince Cheese (the Spanish Membrillo).  This paste is in itself quite versatile.  It is usually served with cheese – try it with very mature Cheddar; but it can also be served with coffee or added to a variety of other dishes to impart its wonderful flavour.

Click here for these and other recipes for quince and pear.

Bread Update

In March I wrote about the benefits of long fermentation on the taste and digestibility of bread:

Since that time I am pleased to report on some welcome new developments.

Traditional Dried Yeast more widely available

Firstly, in addition to Allinsons, there is now another producer of Traditional Dried Yeast – Doves Farm.   As Doves Farm seems to have captured the market for dried yeast with their fast acting type, designed originally for bread-making machines, I hope that more outlets will now be persuaded to stock both types so that those who are looking for a slower rise in hand made loaves are equally well catered for.

A new logo to look for when buying bread

Real Bread MarkThe second development has been the launch of Sustain’s Real Bread logo so that consumers can identify at a glance which loaves do not contain any processing aids.

Their survey of 1300 people found that more than 70% found it unacceptable that food additives known as “processing aids” don’t have to appear on an ingredients lists and that further more unwrapped loaves do not even have to display a list of ingredients.  Whilst continuing to campaign for greater transparency in labelling so that consumers can make an informed choice about what they buy, The Real Bread Campaign has developed their own logo which bakers can apply to use.  This will require the baker to sign an annual declaration that no processing aids or other artificial additives have been used.

Having taken an interest in this campaign from the outset, and knowing of the considerable resistance from some bakers to declaring these additives, I congratulate them on this important step forward.  Because slower fermentation, without additives, reduces the number of loaves that can be produced in any given space and time, is not uncommon for bakers to include both “Real” and “artificially enhanced” loaves within their range.  Campaign co-ordinator, Chris Young assures me that the usage agreement each baker/retailer has to sign makes it very clear that the mark must only be used in a way that makes it totally unambiguous as to which loaves it applies.  Only a bakery that bakes solely Real Bread will be able to use the mark in reference to the whole business, otherwise the mark will be loaf specific.

New website for purchasing baking equipment

The third welcome development I have discovered recently is a new website for artisan bakers http://bakerybits.co.uk/ .  They sell everything that an artisan baker, including the enthusiastic home baker, might need – from full blown wood-fired ovens to individual baking domes that you can use in a domestic oven to replicate the action of a wood-fired oven.  Critically what these do is give you loaves that have risen evenly, because however good your oven, none apply the heat as uniformly as the dome shape of a wood-fired oven.  You will also get a much crisper crust.  I will certainly be adding one of these to the “wish-list” section of the website for when anyone asks what I want for Christmas!

The benefits of wild yeast (sourdough) starters

For my bread recipes this month I am stepping up a gear.  The recipes that I have given for slowly fermented breads up until now have all used the “Sponge and Dough” method.  Now I would like to focus on another method – the use of wild yeast.

Wild yeast works more slowly than modern commercial yeasts.  During this long fermentation the wild yeasts and lactobacilli bacteria (the same friendly bacteria that are found in yoghurt) pre-digest the flour so that it becomes far more digestible when you eat it, allowing your body to access more of the nutrients and avoiding the bloating and other problems that can be experienced with yeasted breads.  During the long fermentation process the nutritional properties of the bread change dramatically.

For a start, the glycaemic index of sourdough bread is 68 compared to 100 for yeasted bread.  This helps keep your blood glucose levels steady.  The lacto-fermentation process actually uses carbohydrates, converting them to lactic acid so the carbohydrate content is also lower in than in yeasted breads.

The lactobacillus that are cultivated in a wild yeast fermentation produce lactic, formic and acetic acids, which in addition to being beneficial to your gastro-intestinal health also help the bread keep much longer by inhibiting the growth of other organisms.

However, despite keeping a wild yeast starter on the go, and usually baking with it once a week, I will also continue to use small quantities of commercial yeast and the “sponge and dough” method on occasions.  A bread made with wild yeasts will be dense and chewy in texture, which is lovely, but less suited to more delicate sandwiches for example.

Apples…a Seasonal Approach

Juice from Beauty of Bath Apples

Today, 21st October, is Apple Day; time to celebrate the harvest of our orchards and to pick those apples that still remain on the tree before the storms forecast for this weekend bring them to the ground.

The first task when picking is to sort the apples into those that will keep and those that must be processed quickly, even if they will then be stored in a different form.  The recipes that accompany today’s article should give you some ideas for those that are to be processed.

In an earlier article on this website I suggested that Community Orchards could play a vital role in reconnecting people with their food and kicking off a people’s takeover of our food system –http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/06/community-orchards .  Because our climate suits them so well, apple trees were once planted in every garden and reached their zenith of popularity in Victorian times.  England has an estimated one-third of the listed apple cultivars in existence.  Farm workers were paid, at least in part, with cider, and many pubs made their own.  Orchard fruits, and in particular the apple, represented the bulk of the fruit we ate in the UK – they are a cornerstone in our culinary heritage.  Nowadays the banana is the most purchased fruit in Britain and when we chose what fruit juice to drink in the morning, orange reigns supreme despite being given a run for its money by more exotic imports in recent years.

Whilst these imported fruit have a place in our diet, things have turned around to such an extreme a recent survey by The Daily Telegraph found that that at the peak of our home-grown apple season just one in eight apples on sale in the major supermarkets was British.  Tesco has taken out billboard advertisements to say that it will be stocking 10 British apple varieties this year, presumably spread across the season, and although this is an improvement they obviously feel warrants shouting about, it is still a ludicrously small percentage of the 2300 plus varieties indigenous to this country.

It is not only a wider variety that you will find on offer if you trouble to buy direct from growers or plant your own fruit trees.  You can also enjoy fruit that has been left on the tree to achieve full ripeness and been sprayed far fewer times than their supermarket counterparts.  In return you will need to accept that apples are not of uniform shape and size and that they may also have a few blemishes.  But the superiority of taste and texture is winning a new generation of fans for British apples.

An appreciation of the seasonality of apples is another thing that we have lost with supermarkets.  Apples are available all year, not just from abroad, but our own can also be kept in storage year round in an atmosphere where not only humidity but also the “air” is controlled to remove gasses that affect the ripening process.  Picked early and stored in this state of suspended animation, British apples can also be offered year round.  No wonder we get bored with them.  Understanding the changing nature of apples throughout their season provides a fundamental lesson in getting to grips with the vast range of native varieties.

In their natural state, the first apples ripen in August.  With the exception of a modern variety called Discovery, these early apples are not often available commercially, even on a small scale, since they have a very short lifespan, softening rapidly from the moment they are picked.  These are a treat known almost exclusively to those with their own tree.  Because the whole crop will need using in such a short space of time, I find juicing an excellent way of storing them for longer, but be aware that the quantity yielded is very low.

September apples will keep for a week or so once picked and so we start seeing apples available for sale.  Dual purpose varieties are useful at this time, although it is rare that any apple is truly great in more than one aspect.  James Grieve is a good example of how the use of an apple can change during its season and also dependent on where it is grown.  It is Scotland’s best known apple and here usually considered a cooker, whilst in southern England it moves from being used for cooking at the start of the September to a crisp eater by the end.  Blenheim Orange, primarily considered a dessert apple from October onwards, will hold a good slice when cooked towards the end of September.  It is worth noting here that developing apples just for cooking is something uniquely British.  On the continent all apples are considered dual purpose.  It is the acidity in apples that causes them to break down when cooked.  Our famous Bramley’s Seedling is one of the most acidic, hence its ability to cook to a frothy pulp.  However, this is not always the required result, for example in a French Tarte Tatin or our own Apple Charlotte – for which an early Blenheim Orange is ideal.  Mary Berry’s Canterbury Tart perfectly illustrates the different characteristics that may be required from a cooking apple.  It utilises the sharpness of grated Bramley to cut through a rich, creamy egg and butter filling before being overlaid with slices of dessert apple.  But whilst these slices provide both visual appeal and texture, it is the Bramley’s acidity that ensures the flavour of apples really comes through.  The recipe already appears online, so I won’t repeat it here, but you can find it by following this link – http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/canterburytart_72796. Before leaving September, I’d like also to mention my favourite of the month the aromatic Lord Lambourne.  Its depth of flavour is unusual in mid-season apples making this my juicing apple of choice.

October marks the peak of the British apple season.  Apples that ripen in this month are of a firmer texture than those that have come before and the only ones that will store for a lengthy period.

By the 16th century the term “Pippin” had come to denote a hard, late-ripening, long-keeping apple of acid flavour although originally it referred to any apple that had been grown from a pip rather than by grafting, so the name is not a foolproof guide to these qualities.  Of those that are,  Cox’s Orange Pippin is the best known because it was so widely planted over southern England in the latter half of the 1800’s.  There are numerous regional variants including the Ribston Pippin (Yorkshire, 1707), from whose pip the Cox was reputedly grown, Sturmer Pippin (Suffolk, 1800), King’s Acre Pippin (Herefordshire, 1899), and Wyken Pippin (Warwickshire, early 1700s).  Cox’s Orange Pippin was also crossed with other varieties to produce other notable late-season dessert apples including Laxton’s Superb (x Wyken Pippin), Tydman’s Late Orange (x Laxton Superb) and Winston (x Worcester Pearmain).

Many of the Pippins will still not be ripe for eating in October and will continue to develop in storage.  Similarly the category generally referred to as “Russets” will not reach their peak until December.   Egremont Russet is the best known of this group and the only one widely available on a commercial scale.  However the term Russet refers to the dull brown and rough finish on the skin of some apples, which may be full or partial.  This is found in many late apples and whilst, as a generalisation, russeting does appear to equate to an aromatic flavour of which the British are particularly fond, there are exceptions to this general rule.  My favourite in this group is Ashmead’s Kernel, although I have yet to taste Rosemary’s Russet, said to be one of the finest flavoured.

In addition to the russet and pippin dessert apples, most cooking apples also store well, although their sharpness will deteriorate over time.  Annie Elizabeth is particularly valued for its keeping qualities but where the acidity of a Bramley means that the apple flavour comes through no matter how many spices or added flavourings you use, Annie Elizabeth is more delicate and best cooked more plainly.  Newton’s Wonder is another such, making both of these apples ideal for serving raw in winter salads.  If you are looking for a lesser-known alternative to Bramley’s Seedling try Dumelow’s Seedling, an older variety that was very popular until the Bramley became the commercial favourite.

Having established the variety is suitable for keeping, remember that only unbruised apples will store.  Windfalls, including those you drop when picking, should be used quickly.  Those that are to be stored should be placed, untouching, on trays, in a cool outbuilding.  If stacking the trays, ensure that air can still circulate around them and remember to check them regularly – you know the saying about one bad apple! Setting a mouse trap or two is a good idea, as they will certainly be attracted by the smell of ripening apples.  Dependent upon variety and your storage facilities, these apples can see you through until March, but certainly until the first forced rhubarb arrives.

For those apples that won’t store, see this month’s recipes for inspiration.

Fungi – an essential cook’s ingredient

In Rose Prince’s first article for her new Saturday Telegraph column she wrote…

If in the future, food stocks are compromised, as doomongers predict, fungi are designated a vital survival food. We need to know more about them. A ministry of mushrooms might be going too far – but an interest that goes beyond reading macabre tales of agonising death is not.

You can read the full article, which talks of the health benefits of fungi, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8009976/Rose-Prince-starts-her-new-column-in-the-Saturday-Telegraph-today.html but as one of these “doom-mongers” I want to add my own thoughts on why we do indeed need to embrace fungi.

The ability to forage for wild food is, as Rose Prince suggests, an essential survival technique, but cultivated fungi will also have an important part to play in sustainable food production.  They can be grown in places, such as caves, that would be entirely unsuitable for most other food production (cheese storage is the one other use I can think of for caves).  Up until only a few years ago the extensive network of caves and tunnels in the Bath/Bradford -on-Avon area, some of which were utilised during the war for weapons storage, grew much of the fungi that was sold in our supermarkets.  This has discontinued since it is now cheaper to import fungi from Eastern Europe.

The flavour of wild fungi is undoubtedly superior, and few varieties can be cultivated, but nonetheless those that can are immensely valuable to a frugal cook.  Their value lies in the Free Glutamates that all fungi contain, which make them high in the taste sensation we now call Umami.  This taste was only identified as recently as 1907, by a Professor Kikunae Ikeda.  The name Umami comes from Umai meaning delicious in Japanese and mi meaning essence – the essence of deliciousness.  Glutamate is an amino acid that is found throughout the human body and also in protein rich foods such as cheese, meat and fish.  When it is present in its free form, i.e. not bound together with other amino acids found in protein, it stimulates our glutamate receptors.  In meat, the glutamates are freed from their bound state by the cooking process, but my husband, an inveterate carnivore, will happily eat a meal of mushrooms where he would not be so happy with other vegetarian meals.  So, without dismissing the health benefits to which Rose Prince refers, I would put the ability to produce satisfying non-meat dishes as fungi’s greatest attribute.

To make wild fungi go further I tend to mix them with cultivated mushrooms – as in the recipe for mushroom sauce.   Boletus edulis (known as Penny Bun in England, Porcini in Italy and Cep in France) is widely regarded as the best flavoured wild fungi and is available dried.  Whilst dried fungi have a use, I find that too many of them in a dish will cause it to taste musty in a similar way that many dried herbs do.  But a small amount of dried porcini will impart their flavour throughout a whole pan of cultivated mushrooms.  Shiitake mushrooms, which can be cultivated, are especially good at absorbing flavour and also have a similar texture to porcini, so include some of these in your mix if you can.

If I have collected enough fungi to preserve some, my preferred method is freezing.  Providing they are cooked in plenty of butter this method works well for many of the finest flavoured, including Boletus edulis and Chanterelle.  If they are perfect specimens I keep the pieces as large as I can, but trimmings are also useful for flavouring.  These I press into ice cube trays for ease of use later.

Whilst many people do shy away from picking wild fungi, there are an increasing number who would like to do so.  It is not a skill that can be learnt overnight, but once bitten by the bug it is an absorbing and rewarding hobby.  For many years my husband and I had collected only a limited range of wild fungi.  We thought we recognised others but were not certain enough that we could tell them apart from poisonous lookalikes.  Two things helped grow our knowledge to a point where we can confidently indentify over 40 edible species.  Firstly, we joined our local fungi group, and there is one in most parts of the country, you can find your nearest here: www.britmycolsoc.org.uk .  I should perhaps warn that these groups are not solely interested in edible species and their use of correct botanical names can also be a tad off-putting, but they can provide a very sound foundation on which to build.  The most useful sessions that I have attended are their identification courses.  It matters not whether you are identifying an edible or non-edible variety, you will of course need to be able to do both, but the most important skill they can teach you is the systematic process of identification.  As we had found in our own efforts to identify species, if you just try to find a photograph that looks like what you have picked, you will soon find another equally likely candidate!  Learning how to use a good key is the first step and from one course you might expect to be able to identify several key groups of fungi if not many of the individuals within that group.

I mentioned that there were two major factors that grew our knowledge to its present level.  The second was an exceptional fungi season that coincided with a whole week of foraying.  At last we were able to find not only the species that we had suspected were edible but also the poisonous lookalikes and so be sure that we knew the difference.  I’m afraid I can’t predict when such an abundant season is next likely to occur, but it does prove the point that plenty of practical experience is required.

It would, of course, be wonderful if we could take fungi into our pharmacists to get a positive identification as happens in parts of the continent, but that is unlikely to happen overnight.  But that needn’t prevent anyone from gradually building their own knowledge.  Happy hunting!