Earthly Goods

Earthly goods

As the Samhain festival quickly approaches it is hard to believe we are soon to be shrouded in the darkness of winter. Warm sunny days have been plentiful and welcome this October with blazing autumnal colours to make a walk in the forest the perfect sensual experience to ease us toward the chillier weeks ahead. Earthiness is palpable when we stroll under a canopy of tall trees; our figures seem smaller, we are closer to the ground.  Our senses are alerted to the magical, sometimes spooky, environment of the undergrowth. It is no wonder that woodland flora and fauna has inspired the imagination of folk cultures throughout the world providing a landscape for fairies and goblins and all sorts of mischief.

mushroomsweb

Some fungi specimens like puffballs can be large enough to suggest a small dwelling. Some, like the oyster, have flesh as white as porcelain.

mushroom1web

Others, more strangely ,like the Trumpets of Death, are as black as charcoal. All have a unique symbiotic relationship with the living trees they grow under or the dying wood they thrive on. These mushrooms that we see and savour are in fact only the flowering part of a much larger and complex body of a fungus called mycelia.  Mushrooms reproduce by spores (not by seeds like plants) which germinate to produce a mass of interwoven cell structures known as hyphae. Masses of hyphae are called mycelium. The mycelium layer is a truly fascinating underground network of thin cells which has been likened to a communication system which connects the growing roots of other plants.

mushroom3web

 

The variety and abundance of mushrooms that are on display at the moment are a thrill for any observer and a treat for the eager forager. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the many edible wild mushrooms that can be found throughout the months of autumn which should be picked with all the usual caution and respect for their sustainability. Always be sure of what you eat and learn how to identify them with a guidebook relevant to Ireland (many on line guides are American), or better still in the company of a local expert.

mushrooms2web

Mycology is a fascinating subject and the identification of different species is a skill that won’t be learned overnight. It can however be a rewarding and tasty hobby to make the onset of winter less dreary and all the more pertinent because mushrooms contain vitamin D which is rarely found in plants. Once you can confidently recognise what you are looking at it will encourage you to explore further and lessen the risk of any fatality. Get to know the vital details which are necessary to distinguish the common edible species if you are foraging in the wild. As a beginner surfing the web for facts about fungi it can sometimes be quite baffling to glance headings such as ‘ Trumpets of Death; Recipes’ or figure out the conundrum….chanterelles have false gills and false chanterelles have true gills.

Chanterelles (the real ones) are one of the tastiest wild mushrooms that can be found and the winter chanterelle (below) is quite plentiful at the moment, though they are not as obvious to the eye as some photographs would suggest. Looking down on them, they are incredibly well camouflaged.

chanterelle1web

They have a much darker, browner colour from this angle but underneath their characteristic yellowish stem and funnel shaped cap are more distinctive. An experienced forager might qualify a chanterelle by its fruity aroma, often likened to apricot.

chanterelle2web

It is the waft of chanterelles cooking that will eventually draw your attention to their earthy goodness. They have a very tempting aroma and a typical ‘meatiness’ that nominates them for a broad selection of delicious classics.

Add the trimmed and cleaned mushrooms to a dry hot pan and wait until they begin to release their juices. Gently stir them until the liquid has evaporated and then add enough butter and/or olive oil to continue sautéing for another few minutes. Use this base of sautéed fresh wild mushrooms as the main character of a risotto, soup or omelette. Combine with leeks and diced celeriac to fill a luscious pie. Mix with fresh thyme, rosemary or sage to create a versatile breadcrumb stuffing. Combine with discs of mozzarella and dried oregano to top a pizza. Simplest of all, splash with some balsamic or wine vinegar as they saute and enjoy on a slice of toast.

mushroomdux2web

Whatever your preference for mushrooms is, wild or cultivated, do try to get out and into the forest at this time of year. There is a living underworld to entrance or spook, depending on your imagination.

spookyfungiweb

Ita

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spring Greens

As the first swallows have started to inscribe the sky (we saw two yesterday) it is even more wonderful since we have had hail and snow not so long ago.

Thankfully the wild garlic hasn’t been deterred by the inclement weather either.  Now is the time to enjoy their lovely green ribbon leaves which are easily spotted on the forest floor and identified by their distinct garlicky smell. The stalks, leaves and flowers are all edible, the latter making a dainty addition to a fresh green salad. The three cornered leek is very similar, though less pungent, and is identified by its three cornered leaf cross section. It can be used in the same way as wild garlic.

My favourite use of wild garlic is to make a pesto which will keep for several days in the fridge, though it rarely lasts that long. A few spoonfuls added to cooked pasta and a few florets of purple sprouting broccoli will make a simple but nourishing meal. Don’t lose all the pasta water when you drain it. Retain enough to extend the pesto into a creamy coating to add to the pasta before serving.

Wild Garlic Pesto Recipe

The proportions for this pesto can be varied but is basically the same as Basil pesto.

  • Large bunch of wild garlic
  • 60g Pine Nuts
  • 60g Parmesan cheese
  • 150ml Olive oil
  • Sea salt to taste

Rinse and dry the garlic leaves in a salad spinner. Chop them roughly before blending them with the salt and oil in a pestle and mortar. You can use a processor if you find the pestle and mortar too laborious. Lightly toast the pine nuts on a dry pan, being very careful not to burn them. Add the nuts and finely grated cheese to the garlic mix before storing in a sterilized jar. Pour a little oil over the top to seal.

If you wish to preserve wild garlic by freezing it is advisable to just combine with the oil as above and add the nuts and cheese after defrosting.

Pesto can be made with parsley and walnut, nettle and sunflower seeds … Experiment with it but be sure to use the best quality oil you can afford. This will make a huge difference to the flavour.

wild garlic

wild garlic pesto

pesto

Small amounts of this pesto will go a long way to liven up any plain pasta, rice or bread. It can be smeared on warm toast instead of butter and topped with scrambled eggs, a sprinkle of chives or spring onion and a squeeze of lemon juice for a delicious breakfast treat.

Each time you dip into your jar of pesto, clean down the sides of the jar with a spatula and top up with a layer of olive oil to seal it (use a good quality organic oil to ensure the best result).

Coinciding with the flush of wild garlic there are abundant young nettle tops which are now just right for making a soup that will give a timely boost to your system. Pick the topmost two or three sprigs (using gloves) and remove the stalks before dunking the leaves into a bowl of boiling hot water to scald and remove the sting. Strain and use the leaves for the soup recipe.

There are various ways to make nettle soup and quite a lot of them include a potato to add body. I have also made it without, adding lots of onion greens and fresh parsley which makes a light uplifting soup. Many recipes include milk or cream which will obviously enrich the flavour. I prefer a dairy free broth using a vegetable stock, some dried nori or dulse (seaweeds) and quite often a spoonful of miso paste  which is added at the very end of cooking. The simplest recipe is advised if you are making nettle soup for the first time. That will give you a better sense of the subtle taste which you can add to as you wish.

Basic Nettle Soup Recipe

  • Quantity of nettle tops (about a pan full)
  • 1 litre of stock
  • 1 onion or several Scallions
  • 1 potato (optional)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Prepare the nettles by scalding them with boiling water. Reserve this liquid which will already have a green tint. Sieve this into stock. Sauté the onions gently, add the cubed potato if using, and finally the chopped nettle. Pour in the stock and simmer until the potato has dissolved.

Take every opportunity to incorporate spring greens and herbs, cultivated or wild, now as their vigour is unfurling. There cannot be a more pleasurable way to restore a depleted energy.

And then there were three swallows, heralding a promise of summer.

Ita

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