Mushroom hunting

I always have a little canvas bag, or just a paper bag, in the rucksack when we go for a long walk in the country. In my pocket, if it’s a short walk. Because you never know when you might find… mushrooms!

I love finding stuff in the countryside and then eating it. Ransoms in spring, bilberries in summer, mushrooms in autumn. It’s not a serious interest, I wouldn’t know wild sorrel if it bit me and I certainly draw the line at roadkill! Mushrooms are my favourite, as there are so many different varieties and identifying the edible ones makes the whole thing more of a game. If I’m ruthlessly honest, shop-bought mushrooms have a better taste and texture than many of the ones I find wild (although there are definite exceptions). It’s still fun to cook and eat something you’ve collected.

Today we were lucky, we went walking up on Clee Hill where there aren’t even any woodlands and basically stumbled over loads of field mushrooms and puffballs.

These are good to eat. I had lamb chops back home, so we ended up with oven-roasted lamb chops, pan-fried mushrooms, fluffy mashed potatoes and a few beans. The field mushrooms were just like shop ones, the puffballs had tough skin but a nice marshmallowy flesh inside. I also decided to experiment with a black pepper sauce similar to the one we enjoyed so memorably with crab in Singapore. PHEW. Turns out I slightly overdid the chilli and along with the massive fragrance of toasted pepper I almost blew a gasket. Superb. But I might try it again and get something that sane people can eat before I put a recipe up!

I’ve gone out mushroom hunting at least a couple of times every year for the past six or so years, and haven’t poisoned myself yet. I didn’t take any lessons, I just bought a good book on mushroom identification and behaved sensibly. So don’t be scared, go and find some mushrooms. Here are my tips:

  • If you can’t positively identify it, leave it
  • If it seems a bit like an edible one from the book, but some features are a bit different, leave it
  • If you’re pretty certain it’s an edible one from the book, but there’s another one in the book it could also be, leave it
  • If it’s an old and yucky looking specimen, leave it
  • If it is really young and not surrounded by older specimens that can be properly identified, leave it

In summary: just make sure you’re really certain of your identification. If you hear yourself say the words “it’s probably…” then don’t eat it!

Even with all this caution, I think you’ll still find a bunch of mushrooms you can identify properly and take home to nom. Of course, this assumes you can find mushrooms at all. As I said, I’ve been looking for a while and I’ve still never found the bountiful supplies of mushrooms that the real enthusiasts and experts boast about. Some expeditions I come back with enough for a meal, other times scarcely enough for a garnish. I probably haven’t found the right places, or being a lazy soul I’m going out too late in the day when some other bugger has already been along and got the best ones. Who knows! It’s still fun, and it’s a lovely surprise to find some really good mushrooms when you’re just out for a walk.

If you want a beautiful book which includes a good identification guide, I love Antonio Carluccio’s Complete Mushroom Book. It’s a bit big to take out on a stroll though, maybe get something pocket-sized too.

Scones, cream, jam

Or as we like to call it, The Cream Tea. It’s been one of my favourite things about any day out ever since I was knee-high to a garden gnome. We were on holiday in Cornwall and took a boat trip up the Fal estuary which stopped at a place called Smugglers Cottage for the ubiquitous cream tea. I’ve no idea now whether it was actually a good one, but it started a life-long affair.

Enough with the frivolity. This is a serious matter. There are an awful lot of crap cream teas out there, and I vaguely imagine that thousands of foreign tourists return home from a holiday to Britain wondering what all the fuss is about, having had a dry scone with a niggardly portion of jam and vowed never to touch the stuff again.

There are three absolutely key elements to a good cream tea. I ‘splain…

  1. The scone must be fresh and ideally warm. Yesterday’s scone might be bearable if warmed through first, but the day-before-yesterday’s scone is bird food
  2. The jam must be sufficient to put a good dollop on each side of each scone provided
  3. The cream must be sufficient to put a good dollop on each side of each scone, and must not come out of a squirty bottle
  4. The tea must be brewed in a pot

Whenever I stop for a cream tea and get given a measly thimble of jam and a shrew-sized scoop of cream I want to scream. It’s jam, not bloody marmite! This is supposed to be a lusciously naughty snack and the crowning glory of a Nice Day Out, you penny-pinching, miserly, old harridan! Instead I feel like Oliver Twist when I have to go up to the counter with my thimble and beg “please Miss, can I have some more?” They don’t look horrified though, they just calmly charge 50p for another thimbleful.

Is it so hard to follow three simple rules? Or four. Haha, can’t count. That’s all you need for a pleasant cream tea experience. Now, for the perfect cream tea you should be making buttermilk scones. And it should definitely be strawberry jam, fiddling around with other flavours is just not necessary. The cream should be clotted cream, of course. But to be honest the world won’t end if it is freshly whipped double cream. Your scones can have dried fruit in, I care not. Loose leaf tea is better, but a couple of bags in a pot makes a fine cuppa.

Yesterday I baked scones for the first time ever. I had to think long and hard about this. Will I still think of a cream tea as the perfect end to a Nice Day Out if I can make them myself whenever I want? They are stupidly easy, after all. I think it’ll be okay though.

Simple buttermilk scones
225g self-raising flour
50g lightly salted butter
25g golden caster sugar
150ml buttermilk

  1. Pre-heat an oven to 200C. Sieve the flour into a mixing bowl then rub in the butter along with a good pinch of salt. You want a crumbly mixture. Then you can mix in the sugar
  2. Add most of the buttermilk and mix with a palette knife, do it gently as you don’t want a tough dough. You’re looking for a ball of slightly sticky dough, if it’s too dry you can add a drop more buttermilk until it works
  3. Plop the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead just a few times, then pat it gently until it’s about 2.5cm thick. No need for a rolling pin, really
  4. Use a 6-7cm round fluted cutter to cut out scones, then gather the bits together and pat out again to cut a couple more scones – you should get about 8 or so
  5. Place on a greased baking sheet, sift some flour over, and bake for 10 minutes or until they’re going golden brown and have stopped rising

I don’t have to tell you how to spread jam and clotted cream on, right? Study the photo! Oh, and eat them all within 24 hours, they don’t keep well even in a sealed container.

Quick courgette pasta

Vanessa was feeling uninspired about courgettes last weekend, so I’ve decided to try and help. Remains to be seen whether I can.

So, courgettes. I think courgettes are a great part of the summer and a lovely calming presence in a dish. Although when I think about it further, there’s really only two ways I use courgettes in my day-to-day cooking. This article is the sum total of my knowledge of courgettes, at least until I do some more experimenting.

Approach 1 is to char-grill them in a pan. For this an aluminium pan works just as well as a really heavy metal one; the important thing is the ridges to get the lovely black stripes on your courgettes.

  1. If you have a mandolin or enjoy showing off your knife skillz, the very best way to cut the courgettes is into thin ribbons the whole length of the fruit, no thicker than a coin. If this is too much hassle, just cut them into slices about 5mm thick but at an angle so your slices are long ovals. Either way, the skin should be left on.
  2. Next lay all your slices out and sprinkle them with salt. Over 20 minutes this will draw a lot of the moisture out and you can toss them in a colander to drain it off. I usually do some patting with kitchen roll too, and I’m often in a hurry and only give them 10 minutes.
  3. Now get the pan hot, rub oil over all the courgette slices, wash your hands and then put them in the pan to char. The courgettes, not your hands! They’ll need turning half way, and they don’t take long if the pan is hot enough – you’re aiming for some nice dark brown stripes on each side.
  4. Once all your courgettes are done and in a bowl you can pour on a bit of fresh olive oil, squirt on some lemon juice, grind on some black pepper and throw in chopped fresh mint or parsley or basil or thyme. They shouldn’t need salt as they get enough from the de-watering process.

And these courgettes are magic served with almost anything from lamb chops to skate wing. With their oily coating they’ll keep a day or two in the fridge as well.

My second courgette thing is a really simple pasta. Really simple. This is supper for two.

Grate a couple of medium courgettes with your cheese grater, skin still on. Grab them all up in your hands and squeeeeeeeze over the sink, squeezing out as much water as you can. In a pan warm up some olive oil and add finely chopped garlic and chilli (optional). As soon as it is sizzling, throw in the courgettes and fry them gently. Two or three minutes should be fine. Season with salt and pepper, add some fresh olive oil and a handful of grated parmesan. Stir this mixture into whatever pasta you have chosen to cook and there you have it. Two entirely optional refinements to this are: 1) add a couple of chopped-up rashers of crispy bacon, 2) add a handful of torn-up basil leaves.

Enjoy courgettes!

Review: Texture, London

Well, phooey. We were put in a jolly cosy corner of Texture, the kinda-Scandinavian restaurant on Bond Street, but that also meant it was really quite dark and none of the photos I took turned out gorgeous. What can you do? I doubt they’d have appreciated me whipping out a huge DSLR at table.

This picture of my pudding is rubbish, but it’s the best I’ve got. You’ll have to trust me, this dish was the high point of the meal. Okay, it came after two bottles of wine and a sticky but that was shared between four so I think I could still appreciate a good dish.

By happy chance we bumped into chef Agnar Sverrisson as we were leaving, so I could tell him how much I enjoyed my final course. Dessert is very seldom the high point of a meal for me so I was glad to pay a compliment. To deconstruct that yummy photo, my dessert here was a white chocolate trio of mousse, ice cream and foam, with the addition of finely chopped dill and tiny dice of translucent cucumber. These savoury touches lifted the dish right up among the clouds. Mmm.

That’s what you can look forward to at Texture. Some sense of a Scandanavian influence, some highly polished cooking, and inventive elements that knock some of the dishes off the predictable track and make them worthy of comment and memory. I’ll remember that pud for a long time. By contrast I can’t remember anything I ate on my one visit to Le Gavroche; it was just an evening of beautifully cooked but entirely predictable fine French food.

The bread that started our meal was earthy and brown with gnarly burnt edges, a promising beginning. After a nifty amuse bouche my starter was a platter of three beetroots. This was a dish for the true beetroot aficionado, there wasn’t much else on the plate to hide behind, but since I am that aficionado it was good. Maureen’s crab salad bathed in gazpacho was a delight, lifted from merely yummy by the clear-as-a-bell taste of lemongrass in the crab. All our main courses were strong, though with less obvious daring. My pig three ways consisted of a nice dense loin, some unctuous belly and rich cheek. The cabbage accompaniment was obvious and perfect, the addition of quince was bound to win my heart. Being picky, the quince purée was a little sharp and had lost the perfume which is the essence of quince. I can’t fault the attempt, and to be honest I have never ever found a chef who can keep the true bouquet of a quince once it’s cooked. The best option is probably to go all Blumenthal and simply provide a spritzer of quince-water to spray in the air while eating your pork.

Dessert was a hit, as I’ve said. I think we agreed on this right around the table, although I think I probably had the very best. The whole evening was relaxed and enjoyable, the service being friendly and personable while the ambience is a good example of grown-up contemporary London dining – sleek furnishings and cosy dark browns and smoky greys. You are paying central London + Michelin star prices, but certainly not overpriced for the quality; with a bottle of champagne and a bottle of excellent Riesling from their excellent and idiosyncratic wine list (nine different Madeiras, I couldn’t resist a 33 year old one with my pudding) we paid around £120 per head for our table of four.

This is certainly my favourite meal since returning from our travels, and a restaurant I’ll be actively looking for excuses to take people to.

Ludlow Food Festival

I can’t decide how to write about the Ludlow Food Festival. For a start, we’ve been to it a few times before; the first time was about seven years ago “before it was famous.” So of course a whole lot of it is familiar. Festivals are rather like film sequels, it’s very rare for your second visit to recreate the magic of your first.

But we’re actually living in Ludlow now and it seemed daft not to go when it’s only a five minute walk from our front door. No worries about how many beers, wines and ciders to sample! Nor about buying too much stuff; we took a break around lunch to deposit a load back home and have a cuppa. Then we plunged back in to taste and buy some more. It’s a hard life.

There certainly were plenty of great producers and makers at the show. Among my favourites were:

  • Trealy Farm, fine British charcutiers who displayed dozens of beautifully prepared chorizos and salamis as well as an irresistable spicy boudin noir which I can now report is delicious with parsnip and potato mash
  • The Best of Taste Co, whose fruit sauces are intensely packed with fruit and exactly the right sweetness. Nothing better has ever been invented to put on greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream
  • Once Upon A Tree, who make ciders, perries and apple juice all with a great deal of class and elegance
  • Oliver’s, makers of the very best cider and perry I’ve ever had. The guy just has a gift with fruit and also looks after the Slow Food Presidium for perry. I like perry
  • Little Round Cake Co, a bakery from Shrewsbury whose stand was covered in delicious looking single-serving versions of old favourites such as the coffee cake that I took home and scoffed later

There were lots of others. Without even stopping to watch a cookery demonstration or listen to a talk we took a good six hours to explore the whole show in the baileys of Ludlow Castle. To be honest, I’m not really interested in sitting down to watch a famous chef cook something, certainly not unless I’m going to be eating it afterwards. But if that’s your thing then you could fill the day even fuller.

So that was Friday. On Saturday we did some of the Festival trails instead. The sausage trail involves wandering around the town trying a sausage from each of the four local butchers as well as a “guest butcher”. My winner was a black pepper Old Spot sausage from Andrew Francis. D W Wall had foolishly gone for brie and cranberry. Brie really has no place in a sausage, even I could have told them that. As though five sausages wasn’t enough, when you hand in your completed trail leaflet (so your score can go to deciding a winner) you get a free sausage in a bun of your choice.

The ale trail is even more up my street: fifteen different ales to try, each offered at a different pub around the town. Beer + moderate exercise = win. Also helped digest the sausages. I’ve found some of my favourite beers at past Ludlow ale trails, such as Hobson’s Mild and Twisted Spire. Alas, this year nothing really stood out for excellence, though several were good. Weirdness award goes to “Tonka beer” from the Ludlow Brewery, the tonka berries giving a very pronounced vanilla-y aftertaste to the ale. I’m a snob about putting flavours in beer, but in a moment of enlightened charity I’m going to admit that this worked quite well.

When I started this article I was intending to moan about the crowds in the festival and the rugby scrum you have to push through for a sample nibble of some cheese or relish at a popular stand, and how I wished to visit an unpopular festival for a change so I could have it to myself. But it turns out that this is my most trivial recollection of last weekend and the Ludlow Food Festival remains a jolly good few days of food and booze.

I recommend it to all.

Tips to enjoying the Ludlow Food Festival

  1. Make a long weekend of it and visit the main festival in the castle on Friday – it’s less thronged
  2. Also stop in any of the butchers on Friday and buy a sausage trail ticket for Saturday, or you’ll be queuing for one on the day
  3. If you want to combine the festival with one of Ludlow’s Michelin restaurants, try booking six months in advance. Or more
  4. Oh yeah, and book accommodation very very early too