Blackberries

September is the best month for blackberries, although they may be ready for picking during August depending on the weather and location. Traditionally Old Michaelmas Day was known as Devil’s Blackberry Day – the day on which the Devil spat on the blackberries. With the change from the Julian to Gregorian calendar this fell on 11th October, although often the 1st October is cited and certainly by this time the blackberries are past their best. The pairing of blackberries with apple is classic, although September is early for many cooking apples. The varieties to look for at this time are those that are considered dual purpose, i.e. they make a good cooking apple at the start of their season but will ripen to a dessert apple over time. James Grieve is perhaps the best known of these varieties, although in its native Scotland rarely becomes sweet enough to eat; Charles Ross or Peasgood Nonsuch are other varieties to look for, they will not cook to the same froth as a Bramley but will make a good September Blackberry and Apple Pie. It is worth freezing some blackberries for later in the season and Blackberry Vinegar is another way of preserving the flavour. All blackberries should be soaked briefly in salted water before using. This brings out any maggots. But don’t overdo the salt or leave soaking for too long or the blackberries themselves will taste salty. I am always amazed when I see cultivated blackberries for sale when the wild are free and tasty. However, it has to be admitted that in common with most cultivations of wild fruit, the berries are larger and you therefore suffer fewer pips. To get around the pip problem, many of my favourite blackberry recipes start by making a purée – for ice cream or mousse for example. Finally there is one other pairing that deserves to be considered a classic – blackberries with rose scented geranium leaves. I believe Elizabeth Davis may have been the first to suggest this, although I first came across it in a Darina Allen recipe. Now I always add a few leaves whenever I am cooking blackberry and apple – as in the recipe below.

Blackberry, Apple and Rose-scented Geranium Meringue Pie

11-inch/28cm metal pie plate (Serves 6-8) Pastry: 5 oz SR Flour 5 oz Plain Flour 6 oz butter 2½ oz caster sugar Grated rind of an orange 2 egg yolks Filling: 2 lb Charles Ross or other dual-purpose apple (weighed before preparation) 8 oz blackberries 6 rose-scented geranium leaves Sugar to taste Meringue: 3 egg whites 6 oz caster sugar To make the pastry, Sieve the flours together, add the sugar and grated orange rind then rub in the butter. This can all be done in a food processor. Add sufficient egg yolks to bind. Chill in the fridge for an hour. Meanwhile peel, core and slice the apples before gently stewing them with a couple of tablespoonfuls of sugar and the geranium leaves. When the apple is beginning to collapse add the blackberries and cook for a few minutes more. Now taste and add more sugar if required. Remove the geranium leaves. Roll out the pastry and line an 11-inch/28cm metal pie plate. This pastry is quite difficult to handle but don’t worry if it falls apart when rolling as it pieces back together again well also. Return to rest in the fridge whilst you pre-heat the oven to 190˚C. Bake the pastry blind for 15 minutes. During this time make the meringue. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks then add half the sugar and whisk again. Fold in the remaining sugar with a metal spoon. When the pastry has had 15 minutes in the oven add the filling and top with the meringue. Turn the oven down to 150˚C and bake for a further 45 minutes to give a meringue that is crisp on the outside but still soft within.

BRAMBLE MOUSSE

Serves 6 1 lb blackberries 4 oz caster sugar 2 leaves of gelatine 1 tbsp lemon juice ¼ pint double cream 2 egg whites Put the blackberries in a saucepan with the sugar and simmer over a gentle heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and rub through a nylon sieve. Stir in the lemon juice. Soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water to soften, then remove and squeeze out the excess water. Stir the gelatine into the blackberry purée until it has dissolved. Cover the bowl and leave until the mixture is beginning to set. Whip the cream until it is thick and fold through the purée. Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them through the mixture, making sure they are thoroughly combined. Spoon the mixture into individual ramekins or glasses and chill in the refrigerator until set.

RICH BLACKBERRY ICE CREAM

The following recipe produces a rich smooth ice cream that makes a perfect accompaniment to a Blackberry and Apple pie. 1lb/450g blackberries 4oz/115g light muscovado sugar 2 tbsps Blackberry Liqueur such as Bramley & Gage or French Crème de Mûre lemon juice 6 fl oz/175 ml double cream 6 fl oz/175 ml milk vanilla pod 5 egg yolks 3oz/85g caster sugar Place the blackberries in saucepan with the muscovado sugar, cover with a lid and heat until the sugar has dissolved and the blackberries have begun to release their juice. Press through a nylon sieve to remove the pips. Add the Crème de Mûre and sharpen to taste with lemon juice. Meanwhile heat the milk and cream in another pan with a vanilla pod until just below simmering point. Whisk together the egg yolks and caster sugar until pale and fluffy. Pour on the hot milk and cream, whisking as you do so, and remove the vanilla pod, which can be washed and kept to use again. Return the custard mixture to the pan and heat until it thickens slightly. Pour this into the blackberry purée and leave the mixture to cool. Transfer to the fridge when the mixture has sufficiently cooled and leave until thoroughly chilled before transfer to and ice cream maker or the freezer. If you do not have an ice cream maker, remove the ice cream from the freezer as soon as the edges begin to freeze and beat well. Repeat this process again before the mixture is fully frozen.

BERRY LEMON PUDDING

This is a variation on the classic lemon self-saucing pudding. The mixture miraculously divides to create a sponge on top and a lemony sauce below. Fills a one-pint soufflé dish to serve 2-3 people ½ lb blackberries 1 oz unsalted butter 4 oz caster sugar 1 un-waxed lemon 2 eggs ¼ pint milk 1 oz plain flour Cream together the butter and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Add the finely grated rind and juice from the lemon and beat thoroughly. Separate the eggs and beat the milk into the yolks. Add this little by little to the creamed mixture alternating with the sifted flour and remaining sugar. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold them through the lemon mixture. Put the blackberries in the base of the soufflé dish and pour the creamed mixture over. Place the dish inside a roasting tin containing about an inch of hot water and bake at 190ºC/Gas Mark 5 for 40-45 minutes or until the top is golden brown and no impression is left when pressed with your fingertip.

LEMON POSSET WITH BLACKBERRY COMPȎTE

Serves 6 1 pint double cream 6 oz caster sugar 100 ml fresh lemon juice (2 lemons) finely grated rind of 1 lemon Put the cream, sugar, lemon juice and rind into a saucepan. Bring to the boil and boil for 5 minutes. Leave to cool slightly then pour into 6 small glasses (it is quite rich). Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve with cooked blackberries.

MUSHROOMS IN BLACKBERRY VINEGAR

Marinated button or oyster mushrooms make a simple but delicious starter or side salad. Make the Blackberry Vinegar several days in advance. For the Blackberry Vinegar: 1 lb blackberries 1 bottle of white wine vinegar To marinate the mushrooms: 1 lb mushrooms (oyster mushrooms work particularly well) 1 mild sweet onion salt and pepper 5 tbsp hazelnut oil 3 tbsp blackberry vinegar chopped parsley To make the blackberry vinegar simply crush clean blackberries in a large bowl and pour on the vinegar. Cover with a tea towel and leave for a couple of days before straining. Slice the mushrooms and chop the onions and mix the two together in a dish. Sprinkle with salt and grind over some pepper. Heat the vinegar almost to boiling point then mix with the hazelnut oil and pour over the mushrooms. Leave for several hours until the mushrooms have softened. Garnish with chopped parsley.

PERFECT ROAST PHEASANT (or Partridge)

I make no apologies for the simplicity of this recipe.  All the hard work has come before, in finding and preparing the bird. For more information about sourcing your pheasant, see my article http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/11/good-game  .  For those who have a bird in the feather and would like to hang and pluck it themselves – good for you!  Some notes to help follow the recipe.

 

 Whilst pheasants are at their best I follow the general principle of roasting them on the bone.  After Christmas, when they are a bit older and I’ve had my fill of them this way, they are jointed and served in a variety of dishes.  There is a slight deviation from this, for the first pheasants of the season.  These are hung for a minimal period (about 3 days), then plucked and drawn before taking them to the local smokehouse to be lightly cold smoked.  They will still be roasted in the method described below, but these I use for salad starter, where one pheasant will serve 6 people.  The only reason that I do this with the first brace of the season is that if I leave it any longer the smokehouse is too busy smoking salmon for Christmas.  Most smoked pheasant you are ever likely to have tasted has been hot-smoked (so no further cooking is required) and usually just the breasts have been smoked, off the bone.  This is far too severe for pheasant as they have no fat to protect them.

 

There is only one secret to roasting a pheasant perfectly – use a terracotta brick.  I know chicken bricks are terribly old fashioned, in fact it is quite hard to find one nowadays.  They were relevant in the days when chicken too were truly free range with very little fat.  Do invest in one if you intend to roast game regularly.  In the absence of a terracotta brick, a roasting bag provides a rough approximation of the method, but it is not really as effective. In a roasting bag, you would cook in an oven which had been pre-heated to 200˚C for about 45 minutes.  A chicken brick needs to be soaked in cold water first and placed in a cold oven.  The exact cooking time does depend on how quickly your oven heats up, for this reason I use my smaller oven for this recipe, and the bird is cooked in just under an hour.  In addition to keeping the bird moist, the chicken brick has another advantage over open roasting – all of the juices are retained for delicious gravy.

 

PERFECT ROAST PHEASANT

Serves 2

1 pheasant

3 slices of good smoked streaky bacon or pancetta

Clay baking pot

Soak the clay pot in cold water for at least 30 minutes.

Truss the pheasant and cover the breasts with the smoked bacon or pancetta.  Put the pheasant in the soaked clay pot and place this in a cold oven.  Set the temperature to 220C/Gas Mark 7 and roast for just under an hour, or until the juices run clear then you insert a knife into the thickest part of the leg.  Rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with bread sauce (recipe below).

Partridge can be cooked in exactly the same way but will take only half to three quarters of the time.

BREAD SAUCE

1 small onion

4 cloves

½ pint milk

2 oz fresh white breadcrumbs

½ oz butter

salt and pepper

Cut the onion in half and press the cloves into it.  Place in a saucepan and cover with the milk.  Heat the milk to just below boiling point, then remove from the heat, cover and leave for an hour.

Strain the milk and return to the rinsed out saucepan together with the breadcrumbs and butter.  Heat and let the sauce simmer for 2 minutes.  Season to taste.

This sauce can be frozen, so I often make a larger batch.

HANGING AND DRAWING A BIRD

Tales of game hung until crawling with maggots have done much to put people off game and certainly the notion of hanging it themselves.  I have heard more than one TV chef say that game doesn’t need hanging.  True, this stage is often omitted in hotter climes.  However, allowing rigor mortis to set in and then pass will relax the meat and make the bird tender.  If birds are roughly handled after death, this can prevent rigor mortis setting in.  The Code of Good Shooting Practise has included guidelines covering this and ensuring that game is hung as quickly as possible, rather than being left in a heap in a truck all day.

Unless you have a professional game storage larder, the time needed for hanging will depend on weather conditions.  In October, if the weather is warm, I might leave them for just three days.  By December/January, if there is a frosty snap, they can be left for 10 days or more without coming to any harm.  Start at the lower end of this period and then gradually experiment to find out your preferred hanging time.  Partridge need less time (3-5 days).  Game birds are usually hung as a brace, from string tied around the neck.  Ensure that air can circulate around them.

Plucking….. If it is your first time I would start with partridge – they are smaller and the skin is less inclined to tear.  Hang the birds over an open bin bag to catch all the feathers and do the job outdoors or in the garage unless you want to be chasing feathers around the house for days!

Start plucking the bird on the breast – holding the skin taut and plucking against this will help prevent tearing.  Remove the feathers up to half way along the neck and as far along the wings as you wish to eat (on small birds you may decide not to bother with the wings).

If removing the wings cut the skin around the joint and then sever with a sharp knife.  Cut the head off where you have stopped plucking – half way along the neck.  Remove the lower leg joint by cutting, bending the leg upwards to dislocate the joint so that it can be cut through.

Dressing…Turn the bird onto its breast and pinch the skin around the neck at the front so that it is taut at the back.  Cut along the neck bone that should now be visible and then cut off the neck as far down into the body as possible.  Use your fingers to gently ease the crop away from the body trying to keep it intact.

Turn the bird over onto its back and point the neck end away from you.  Make a slit in the hollow at the tail end a short way above the vent and then cut down to just above the vent.  You are aiming to create a slit large enough to insert a couple of fingers into whilst not cutting into the intestines.  Once you can insert your fingers, carefully slide them up into the body cavity as far as you can keeping close to the bone and proceeding very gently to avoid cutting yourself on any broken ribs.  Try to feel for the heart and then pull this and the rest of the innards out through the hole away from the bird until you can sever the intestinal pipes from the body.  Wash the bird now to get rid of excess blood and debris and then feel around the cavity to remove lungs from the rib cage and anything else that has been left.

A diagram would help illustrate this, and I would recommend trying to find the excellent but out of print Game book from the Time Life Good Cook series.

Good Game

Brace of Pheasants

Substantiating what happens to all the game shot is nigh on impossible, as the records are so fragmented, but my personal experience suggests that this particular objective has been met, and according to a survey by Mintel in 2008, UK game sales have increased by 64% since 2001.

So where does game fit, as regards both sustainability and good eating?  To answer this I think we first have to consider the variables that exist under the heading of Game.
Firstly there is truly wild game, some of which is a pest for farmers, such as rabbits and pigeon.  In Argentina, where a much greater gap between rich and poor exists than in the UK, organised shooting holidays help keep these pests under control and at the same time provide a daily meal for as many as 1500 underprivileged children.  Don’t let this mislead you into thinking that there is anything substandard about the game as food – it is also served to the paying shooters who eat to a wonderfully high standard throughout their holiday.

Within the wild game/pest category in the UK is venison and although many food writers will tell you that farmed venison is better, I’m certainly not one of those.  But then I’m used to the full flavour of game, and perhaps wild venison is not the best place to introduce someone to game – for that I would probably choose the mild tasting partridge.  Another possible reason for preferring farmed venison could be that they have eaten wild that has been inexpertly shot, hung or butchered.  Those who have not reared meat for the table, whose livelihoods may not depend on repeat orders, may not have the facilities, nor pay the care and attention that these matters require.  This is also a potential problem in reared game, for it is reared not with the consumer in mind but the shooter.   Since the beginning of 2006 rules to meet an EU directive on food safety have required that any game supplied to a game dealer approved by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) must comply with certain rules for meat handling.  Whilst stemming from a concern for food safety, game is in fact one of the safest meats you could eat as according to the FSA there has never been a case of food poisoning either directly or indirectly attributed to any form of game.  Nonetheless, whilst food safety is not the concern, if you don’t know and trust the abilities of those supplying your game, buying from a registered game dealer provides some assurance of quality, but note – only some.  My experience has been that many game dealers, and not just the large ones, actively prefer to purchase game that has been hung for only a minimal period, believing that this will extend its shelf life.  A very unwelcome development, from a taste perspective, was the inclusion within the shooting fraternity’s Code of Good Shooting Practice of the suggestion that shoots should provide their “guns” (shooters) with an oven ready brace at the end of a day’s shooting.  I understand that this was all part of the measures taken to ensure that all game shot was eaten – thus transferring the onus for preparing game from the shooter to the shoots, but I will always ask for my game in the feather.  Some quarter of a century ago, when I first learnt to cook game, I was shown how to tell the age and condition of a bird in the feather, decided how long I preferred them to hang, and finally plucked and dressed them with care.  When people of a similar age tell me that game doesn’t taste like it used to, I don’t think it is just in their imagination or faded taste buds.  Sadly the traditional skills of preparing game are now practised by only a few.

So how do you go about acquiring game that “tastes like it used to”?  Direct from the shoot is often the best way because then you can select a shoot on the basis of its management practices.   The best breed their own birds rather than transporting young poults, and concentrate on creating a naturally attractive environment rather than being heavy-handed with the feed to keep their birds.   This answers the part of my original question that asked about the sustainability of game.  As with other farming, there are sustainable shoots and those whose methods I would not describe as such.  A sustainable shoot would work either in partnership with other food production on the land or, as is often the case, make viable land that would not be suitable for farming.  Some of the best shooting is to be had over deep wooded valleys or on moorland that would revert to scrub were it not managed for shooting.  I have explained many times to those not familiar with shooting why its main representative body is called the British Association of Shooting and Conservation and how these two aspects are, or should be, entirely complementary.

Having found a shoot that meets these criteria, those that are prepared to do the hanging, plucking and dressing themselves might even not have to pay for the game.  Typically it will cost a shoot around £4 to present each shooter with an oven ready brace, whilst foreign buyers will pay them £1.50 to take the birds in the feather.   The cost of rearing game is paid for by the shooter making it the best value meat you can buy.  Shooters will pay far more to shoot game than most people would to eat such free range meat, so that where a farmer can incorporate a shoot within his other farming activities it can make the whole operation viable.   If you want the hanging, plucking and dressing done for you, you will need to look to the larger shoots that can afford to have their own cold storage and preparation facilities.  Don’t forget though to check that their hanging times and preparation methods are also up to the mark.

Having so far discussed both reared and wild game, a few more words are required for a sort of hybrid category.  Some wild game is actively managed to provide shooting.  Grouse is one example, and in this instance it is usually a shining example of how shooting helps conservation.  Duck are another matter.  These are not in the “pest” category, could be encouraged to the benefit of wild life, but sadly are often fed to an extent that they are semi tame.  Ducks are greedy birds, and there is a world of difference between eating one whose diet has been obtained through natural forage (and the exercise involved in this) and one that never moves from the same pond being fed corn regularly.

So, as with all other food, the consumer has a lot to investigate when buying game.  But the best is fantastic value, extremely healthy, wonderfully tasty and, I believe, has a role to play in feeding our nation.  Once you have such a source, what the shooting campaigners really need to do to win converts is spend time and care on preparing it for eating.  In their efforts to make it attractive to the masses, I think this point is often missed.  For example, sausages may be reassuringly familiar in their presentation but game, with its low fat content, does not make the best sausages, nor sausages make the best of game.  I think it is hard to beat a bird roasted on the bone with all the traditional trimmings to really appreciate their flavour and for my tips on achieving this see this month’s seasonal recipes.

(This Article was first published in November 2010, updated November 2019)

Apple Recipes

Apple Recipes

Apple Cheese

In Food in England by Dorothy Hartley there is a description of Apple Cheese as part of the Christmas dessert

Apple Butter…in its stiffest form this was sometimes called Apple Cheese.  Then it was almost candied, and turned out as a dessert dish, at Christmas, apple cheese was set at one end of the table, amber golden, and garnished with hazel nuts and whipped cream, and Damson cheese, ruby dark, garnished with white almonds, and with port wine poured over, at the other end of the table.  It was made in all country houses at windfall time.  The best was made of one type of apple, but mixed apples, of all sorts, with a quince or two, made a delectable apple butter.

It is an excellent use for windfalls.  Here is the method:

Wash and roughly chop the apples without removing cores and skins.  Add spices as you prefer – a few whole cloves, cinnamon sticks or cardamom seeds and cook gently to a soft pulp.  Put this through a coarse sieve and weigh the pulp.  Return to a large pan with an equal weight of sugar.  Stir over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved then bring to the boil and continue to cook until the sticky pulp is caramel coloured and thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.  Pour into ramekins, cover with waxed paper and foil.  Leave in a cool larder to mature until Christmas.

Apple Pie and Variations

I am not that fond of pastry, so a classic double crust fruit pie doesn’t  usually do much for me, but I came to realise this has a lot to do with the British habit of making pastry, even for sweet dishes, with a mixture of lard and butter – or even worse the dreaded margarine.  I was moved to ask for the following pastry recipe when my friend, Patti, served a delicious double crust apple pie.  It transpired that the recipe had in turn been given to her by her friend Katie.  So to the unknown Katie, thank you.

Katie’s Fruit Pie Pastry

8 oz SR Flour

8 oz Plain Flour

10 oz butter

4 oz caster sugar

Grated rind of an orange

2-3 egg yolks

Sift the flours together, add the sugar and grated orange rind then rub in the butter.  This can all be done in a food processor.  Add sufficient egg yolks to bind.  Chill in the fridge for an hour.

This pastry is quite difficult to handle but don’t worry if it falls apart when rolling as it pieces back together again well also.

This quantity of pastry will comfortably line and top an 11-inch/28cm metal pie plate.  Metal is vital for conducting the heat to cook the bottom pastry adequately, as it is not blind-baked.  This size will take approximately 2lb/1kg of fruit filling, which I always pre-cook so that I can adjust the sweetness to taste and also ensure there is not so much liquid that it will make the pastry soggy.

Variations:

Blackberry, Apple and Rose-scented Geranium Meringue Pie

Blackberry and apple are a classic combination but last year I learnt a tip from Darina Allen that takes this to a new level – the addition of a couple of rose-scented geranium leaves whilst you cook the apples, which are then removed before filling the pie.  The colour taken on from the blackberries is echoed by the light rose-scent these leaves impart.  I must confess that despite the vast improvement the above pastry makes to a double-crust fruit pie, I still prefer this topped with meringue.  In this case it is best to pre-cook the bottom pastry for 15 minutes at a high heat (190˚C), then turn the heat down to 150˚C, add the cooked filling, top with meringue and bake for 45 minutes to give a meringue that is crisp on the outside but still soft within.

Now is a too late for picking blackberries, so unless you have some in the freezer, that particular combination will have to wait for next year but fear not – I have an equally delicious alternative.  Apple and Raisin Meringue is a favourite I remember from my childhood.  For 2lb of apple add 4 oz of raisins, the rind and juice of an orange and two tablespoons of spiced rum.

I make up and freeze both of these fillings in bulk with windfall cooking apples.  Not only are they great for pies, but also make a special breakfast dish.

Fresh Bay Custard

Bay Leaves are usually associated with savoury dishes, but fresh, not dried, bay makes an unusual custard that transforms even the simplest apple dish such as baked apples.

Custard made with fresh eggs is much thinner than that made with dried eggs in the form of custard powder.  If you prefer thicker custard add the cornflour to the eggs and sugar or use an additional egg yolk.  Single cream or a mixture of double cream and milk can be substituted for the double cream for slightly less fat but of course less flavour!

Makes ½ pint

3 fresh bay leaves

½ pint of double cream

2 egg yolks

1 oz caster sugar

1 tsp cornflour (optional)

Heat the cream with the bay leaves to simmering point.  Draw off the heat and leave, covered, to infuse for half an hour.  Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and, if using, the cornflour.  Strain the cream onto the eggs and return to a clean pan.  Heat gently, stirring all the time until the custard thickens slightly, you can take it just to simmering point without the eggs curdling, which the addition of cornflour will also help to avoid.

Dorset Apple Cake

Best served warm, ideally with the Bay Custard above, but can also be served cold.

1 lb cooking apples

4 oz self-raising flour

Pinch of salt

½ tsp. cinnamon

2 oz butter

3 oz caster sugar

2 eggs, beaten

Grease and line a 7″-8″ deep cake tin.  Peel, core and chop the apples into approximately ½” chunks.  Cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy, then gradually beat in the eggs, alternating with sifted flour.  Fold in the apples and turn the mixture into the prepared cake tin.  Bake at 180C/Gas Mark 4 for 30-35 minutes until firm to the touch.

Somerset Rarebit

A Somerset Rarebit includes a ring of apple beneath the cheese.  Heat a couple of tablespoons of cider and then stir in grated cheese until thick.  Grate in the ends of apple left over from making the rings and a few drops of Worcester Sauce.  Spread a thin layer of the cheese sauce on top of slices of toast, place an apple ring on top and then cover with the remaining cheese sauce.  Place under a hot grill until bubbling and brown.

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!

Mushroom Sauce

I most often serve this sauce with pasta but, up until the stage that the butter and cream are added, it would also make the base for soup.

If using dried porcini, cover them in lukewarm water and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes.  The strained liquid can also be added to the sauce and then cooked off until only the flavour is left.

Serves 4-6

1½ lb of cultivated mushrooms (including some shiitake if possible), sliced

Wild mushrooms – a couple of fresh or an ice cube size of cooked and frozen, or ¼ oz dried fungi, reconstituted as above

3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic

2 tbsps chopped flat leaf parsley

1 oz butter

4 fl oz double cream

salt

freshly ground black pepper

3½ oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add chopped onion, cook gently until they are just beginning to take on some colour. If using reconstituted dried mushrooms, add these next, with their liquid, so that you can cook until all the liquid has been driven off.  Then add the garlic and parsley and cook together for a minute.  Now add the cultivated mushrooms and plenty of salt and pepper.  The salt will help to draw liquid out of the mushrooms and you should continue the gentle cooking until this has simmered away, which will take about 10 minutes.  Now add the butter and cream, turn up the heat, and boil until the cream has reduced by half. Toss the sauce with drained, freshly cooked tagliatelle and the grated parmesan cheese.