Locavore Magazine.

Some exciting news – in between wrangling chickens and running away from wasps, I am going to be writing a regular column for Locavore Magazine.  “Who?” I hear you cry. Well, in their own words:

“Locavore is an editorial-led magazine, defined by beautiful photography and intelligent writing. Firmly based in the British Isles, we’ll also roam the world for the best local food stories and the most inspiring people.

Locavore will explore how food is found, grown, prepared and served. We’ll meet foragers, farmers, artisans, teachers and cooks, and learn about their ideas and what motivates them. We’ll discover flavour, variety, method, tradition and ritual.

We’ll look at community projects, networks and campaigns, and investigate the science and effects of modern agriculture and production. We’ll explore food philosophies that put the land, consumer and animal first and contrast these with a globalised food system that homogenises taste and commodifies nature.  And we’ll examine food security and sovereignty within a changing climate.

At 132 pages and perfectly bound, Locavore will be published quarterly and printed to a high eco-standard. It’s available via individual issue sale and subscription. The first issue will be published in March 2017, priced at £8.

Not just another trendy foodies’ magazine, we want Locavore to be the journal of local food, telling stories of slow, seasonal and sustainable eating, engaging in debate and delivering images and writing of the highest quality.”

Which sounds, well, marvellous.

If you should want to subscribe, or buy a copy of the first issue, I can offer a 10% discount. Simply head to http://locavoremagazine.co/shop/ and use the code loc01kj3104 when checking out.  This offer is valid until midnight on 30th April 2017.

Right, off to carry on planting shallots.

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Spring.

Spring, it seems, may finally be here.

It’s been a long, hard winter.  I have spoken of winter at length (thank you for your patience), but now my thoughts and my hands turn to warmer work.

We are still battered by the occasional gale, and in fact a great many trees in the area have succumbed to the winds in recent days, and the local rivers have burst their banks, turning fields into lakes.  We have managed to avoid the worst of this, have not (yet!) lost any trees, and the chickens now seem used to the occasional bath (although they still complain).  We have had no repeat of the now legendary Flood of 2016, and my daily clearing of the ditches and waterways around us seems to be paying off, paying back for the aches it causes.

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The fruit trees we planted are all waking up, little buds popping out along their branches, drinking in the March sunshine.  Daffodils are beginning to flower, tulips are pushing up through the earth, dandelions and daisies and bumblebees and butterflies, new life and hope.

We are visited by bluetits, goldfinches, robins, and the occasional nuthatch.  We have spotted lapwings and storks stopping by for a rest before continuing their migrations.  The buzzards circle in pairs, calling to each other and sending the chickens flapping for cover, tumbling over each other and trying to hide under me.

The cat (Mrs. Badcrumble) was taken to the vet to be spayed, and is, as I type this, sleeping off the effects of anaesthesia, waking now and then to glare at me accusingly and lick her stitches, and I feel like a monster.  The feral cat population in the area is quite large enough already.

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We have started a lot of our vegetables now, and every windowsill in the house plays host to trays and trays of seedlings.  We are growing things we did not attempt in the UK, such as sweet peppers and aubergines, in the hope that the hotter, longer summer will produce good specimens, and ML has planted over 40 tomato plants, which we hope will yield well, so we can preserve enough by drying and canning to see us through next winter.

We have worked hard at improving the clay soil that we have, adding topsoil and well-rotted horse manure, and the pile of kitchen compost grows ever bigger.  I hope to get to a point where the soil is much improved and we can leave it alone as much as possible.  Soil structure is paramount, and any digging or tillage can ruin this, as well as causing loss of nutrients.  We are experimenting with permaculture and no-dig methods, and are planning a small forest garden next year, and we hope for a good harvest.  I have been attempting to coypu-proof the veg garden with chicken wire and rocks, and I will be glad if  they and we can be good neighbours.

There is a chap that ML’s dad used to work with who keeps bees, and he has promised us a swarm (he does not prevent his from doing so), which means we will have bees already adapted to the local environment.  They will swarm sometime in May, all being well, so we are preparing the hive with a final coat of linseed oil, we will rub grass on the inside to make it smell less of human, we will put some lines of wax on the top-bars to encourage comb production, and we will be stupidly excited when they arrive.

The variety of wildlife around the farm in astounding.  When I foraged in the UK I would trek from forest to field in search of spots for wild spring greens.  I had good spots for many edibles, but they were often miles apart.  But here, just on our own land, I have found wild mint, wintercress (bitter!), chickweed, nettle, dead-nettle, hogweed, crow-garlic, dandelion, hairy bittercress (neither bitter nor hairy, confusingly), common sorrel, and comfrey (with which we shall make a foul-smelling tea for the garden).  A bowl of some of these plants dressed in some good oil and vinegar is a welcome crunch, and a taste of things to come.  I have found a spot for wild garlic (I would searched far and wide for this as it is essential, luckily I have found a good patch some half a mile away, in the same forest that provided such a glut of wild mushrooms last year), and when we visited today to pick a little for dinner, we spotted a pair of Alpine newts.  This bodes well, I have decided.  I plan on making enough wild garlic pesto to keep us in easy suppers for the rest of the year, as well as lacto-fermenting some for kimchi or just on its own, a salty crunchy pungent hit of microbiome health food.

The birds sing, the signs are good, and if the coypu eat all my tomatoes it will be roast coypu and wild kimchi for dinner, with a glass of nettle beer.

Booze.

Patience is required.  Although I wish that spring were here, it stubbornly refuses to be anything other than winter.  For every beautiful, frosty morning, there is a day like today, when the clouds hang low and dew forms in my beard when I step outside.  I can confirm that it does, indeed, drizzle in France.  I have planted trees, but they do not yet bear fruit.  I have dug vegetable beds, but they are still naked earth.  The beehive is an empty mansion, awaiting the waggle-dance of its masters.  Patience is required.

I had grown used to life in the city, where everything is available on-demand.  The shops and the bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (or near enough), I could buy any food or drink or ingredient I desired, at any hour, any time of year.  When one is able to access anything, anytime, the value of all is lost, becomes meaningless.  The recent ‘lettuce crisis’ is a case in point.  Why are we eating imported, often tasteless, lettuces and courgettes in January?  At what cost?  Why are we not waiting with baited breath for those first crisp leaves, in season?  We are accustomed to reaching out and having our cups filled with whatever we want.

As a side note, there is plenty of crunch to be foraged in the forests and fields at this time of year.  Wild winter salads are a marvel.

The shops here in Burgundy close for lunch.  They are shut on Sundays.  They often only open in the mornings on a Saturday.  I have to wait.  I am more aware of the worth of it, I think, for this very reason.  It is a small thing, though important.

As my own apples are at least a few years away, I am lucky that ML’s brother has an orchard in the village, a scant mile or so away.  It produces more apples than he can sensibly cope with, so we, selflessly, spent a happy afternoon in the late autumn sun collecting box after box.  Some we have stored to feed to the chickens (they of refined taste).  Some I cooked down into a compote.  The rest I pressed into juice.

Not possessing a scratter (the marvellous name for the mill one uses to crush apples), I resorted to improvising; a bucket and a sledgehammer and aching shoulders the morning after.  The apples were smashed and then pressed in the hand-turned fruit press we share with the rest of ML’s family, and the resulting juice was the colour of caramel, cloudy, and the sweetest thing I have ever tasted.  We bottled around 20 litres, drank some, froze some, gave some away.  Another 20 litres I decided to turn into cider.

I had never made cider before.  I’ve brewed beer (from kits) and country wines and elderflower fizz and nettle beer, but never cider.  I read on the subject a great deal beforehand, and everything indicated that drinkable cider was not an easy thing to achieve.  Vinegar was probable.  Success, it seemed, was not.  There are many ways to brew cider; measuring of sugar content and acidity, adjusting specific gravity (oh the irony, Mr. Newton), pectic enzymes, double fermentation, it all seemed a bit daunting.  So I decided to go full rustic.  I transferred the apple juice to a fermenting bucket, gave it a good stir, covered it with a tea towel, and put it by the fire.  After a week, it had certainly started to ferment, fizzing and frothing weirdly.  I fitted an airlock, and left it.

I am reminded of a recipe I came across for ‘hobo wine’: take 5 litres of grape juice, leave it in the sun for a month, drink it.

The maybe-cider sat for 4 months, seemingly doing nothing.  Fermentation appeared to stop after a few weeks, but I left it alone, too afraid of failure to test it.  Yesterday I summoned up the courage to bottle it (if that is not an oxymoron).

And it is, in fact, perfectly good.  A little flat in its ‘mouth feel’, not exactly delicious, but not too acidic, not sweet (which means most of the sugar is now alcohol), not too dry, not ‘eggy’ as some scrumpy can be.

Free booze.  It was worth the wait.

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Builders and Beehives

dscf4037Winter is all about preparing for spring. We tidy and dig and prune trees and wait and wait. We choose and buy seeds, and I’m already planning what to cook, preserve, and ferment with the produce we’ll grow. Next year we’ll save our own seed, but this year we buy what we need from the good folks at the Real Seed Catalogue, who specialise in heritage and non-hybrid varieties, along with a good deal of things you won’t find in your garden centre, like oca and cinnamon vine (no, I don’t know either).

dscf3989Mist hugs the fields, crystals of hoar-frost crisscross the hedgerows, and the oak trees all shimmer and glitter, white, like the frozen skeletons of gigantic ancient creatures (which they are, of course).

The builders have been here for a couple of weeks, repairing some rotten timber at the edges of the roof (don’t mention the problem with rest of the roof and it might go away), filling in holes in the earthen walls (holes, apparently, made by cows licking at minerals in the rock – I am unable to get over this fact), removing render from one end of the house, ready to replace it with a better lime-based one, and making a huge amount of noise.  The cat is furious.

Our house is old.  How old, we don’t know.  Over the last few months we have uncovered dscf3976many oddities in its construction.  It is a farmhouse made of a material called pisé – essentially a mix of earth, sand, and gravel.  It’s a very environmentally sound material, and long-lasting if treated properly.  Ours has not been treated properly.  It has been covered in a concrete render that does not allow it to ‘breathe’, which it needs to be able to do as it basically a giant sponge.  The lime render we are putting on one end wall will alleviate this, and we’ll eventually do the rest of the house when funds allow (never).  The walls have been repaired and rebuilt many times over the years, with an interesting mix of brick, breeze-blocks, stone, and Lego (maybe not Lego).  We also discover that the whole roof has been raised at some point to allow rooms to be placed in what used to be simple hay-lofts, and now seems to rest on piles of bricks that look alarmingly tipsy.  We are assured that this is safe and normal, but I feel my scales for safe and normal may be a little different.  It seems we may be repairing the house for the rest of time.  Time, though, is something we have.

The next big project outside is the start of our bee empire.  We are starting with two hives, and will expand if it seems necessary and I am not chased into the river by bees.

About eighteen months ago we went on a two day ‘natural beekeeping’ course (run by Heather and Tim of Bee the Change), which was fascinating and inspiring.  Natural beekeeping is more about the bees, less about the keeping.  Chemical fungicides and miticides are not used, the hives are opened and interfered with as little as possible, and honey is only taken if there is a true surplus (if ever).  Swarming is not discouraged (queens are regularly killed to stop bees from swarming in commercial beekeeping and, as swarming is part of their natural reproductive cycle, this seems a tad mean).  The queen is allowed to roam the whole hive (not the case in commercial keeping).  They are, in essence, allowed to be bees.

Bees are a vital part  of the ecosystem, and having a hive or two close by is beneficial for everything.  Our fruits and vegetables will have higher pollination rates, and thus higher yields, and all will be right with the world.

dscf4010We have decided on a hive type called a Warré, which is slightly different to the usual ones you may have spotted around the UK.  There are no ‘frames’ restricting the construction of the wax honeycomb, meaning the bees can build in their natural drooping architecture. Any new boxes are added at the bottom of the hive, rather than the top as is the case with UK ‘National’ hives, with the hope that this keeps the atmosphere and temperature within the hive – so carefully managed by the bees themselves – at a constant, and stresses the occupants to a minimum.  The bees will then migrate down into the lower box, leaving an upper one full of honeycomb, which we will harvest if, and only if, we judge it safe to do so whilst leaving the bees with enough honey to see them through the winter.

A bee colony is a mind-bogglingly complicated society of queen and drones and workers and larvae, and the more I read the more I am hooked, the more I cannot wait to don my suit, to sit and watch their comings and goings.  My one worry is if I worry about the chickens so much, I can see myself camping out by the hives to ward of any invading wasps or errant birds, becoming more and more crazed until I, myself, begin to buzz and waggle.

I am oiling the wood of the hives with linseed oil, as a natural preservative, and we may paint the hives with some natural paints (the hives at Bee the Change are painted bright and bold with flowers and colours).  When ready, we’ll situate them at the end of the stretch where we have planted our fruit trees, facing South and slightly raised.  We are planting many plants and flowers that are beneficial to the bees, providing as much forage for them as we can.

We have decided on black bees (Apis mellifera mellifera), native to Europe.  They are considered to be more aggressive and less easy to handle (yay) than the more commonly kept western honey bee (Apis melliferaconfusingly), but are hardier, with more resistance to the dreaded varroa mite (more on these beasties another time).  We will buy a swarm, which will come in a box.  We will then, gently and slightly nervously, introduce them to their new home.  We will stalk the fields in our beekeepers suits, like astronauts awaiting first contact.  We will not consider taking any honey for at least the first eighteen months.

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Much has been made of colony collapse and bee population decline, and we hope our hives, left pretty much to their own devices, will in some small way help to restore a balance.

A jar or two of honey will be a gift, if they choose to give.

Concerning Chickens (and a Recipe).

The mornings are cold.  Frost clings in sharp little lances to everything, the sky is a pale blue blanket, and we all shiver underneath.
dscf3960My morning routine is a chilly one; let chickens out, defrost chickens, feed chickens, stare at the sunrise until my eyes freeze over, drink tea.  I worry that the chickens are too cold, but the inside of their house is reassuringly warm.  We’ve taken to feeding them cracked corn in the evening as a last feed, as they digest it more slowly than pellets, and this helps keep them warm throughout the night.  The problem seems to be that they love the corn a little too much, and are beginning to turn a haughty beak skyward at the sight of their usual feed. Remaining strong and not giving in to their more ‘refined’ tastes is a battle of wills, as I am a softy.

They are eating a great deal more than they did when we first got them at the end of thedscf3954 summer, and they are still laying daily – a surprise, as the shortened hours of daylight should mean that their laying slows down during the winter months.  I am not complaining, although as chickens only have a finite number of eggs in them I worry about them running out.

A friend in the UK got in touch to let me know about the current DEFRA ban on moving chickens, and the fact that he has to keep his inside, due to outbreaks of bird-flu.  There is bird-flu in France, but far to the South and the West of us, and not yet in Saône-et-Loire, our département.  There is also a turkey festival in Marcigny today (no idea, I’ll tell you when I get back later), so the locals are clearly not too concerned.  I keep an eye on the news, and the chickens, and I worry.

I worry that I am worrying about chickens too much.

dscf3923The fruit trees are all planted.  As I planted them, I pulled even more scrap metal from the ground, along with sheets of plastic, and an entire car windscreen.  Even here, in what seems to be a culture that works more closely with the land, people buy things and use things with no plan of how to dispose of them.  Manufacture, buy, use, bury in the ground and hope no one notices.  A microcosm of capitalism, in my field.

On misty mornings we spy deer and wild boar, and there is a black woodpecker who pecks away at the same tree, each morning, Morse Code patterns in the fog.

In the evenings we light the fire, and eat hearty, warming food, and delay going to bed as it is so cold upstairs we can see our breath.

There has been no recipe here for a while (I wonder how many of you, Dear Readers, want or follow my recipes), but there is one today.

Boudin-Noir with Apples, Potatoes, and a Honey Mustard Sauce.dscf3945

(serves 2 if you’re greedy like me)

This is a properly seasonal supper (yes, pig’s blood is in season right now), and a rich, filling, simple way to push away the chill of the day.

Ingredients

(for the sauce)

2 shallots, finely diced

250 ml dry white wine

250 ml stock (I used pork stock, because I had some in the fridge, but a good organic chicken stock will do nicely)

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp honey

The leaves from 2 sprigs thyme

Salt

(for the rest)

300 g boudin-noir (or black pudding – they’re not exactly the same, but close enough for us), cut into 2 lengths

2 large floury potatoes, cut into chunks

1 large eating apple, cored and cut into thick slices

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt

A handful of curly parsley, finely chopped

Quite a lot of butter

Method

Cook the potatoes until just tender, drain, and set aside.

In a small pan, cook the shallots in a little butter until soft.  Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce and bring to a simmer.  Reduce by about 2/3 until quite thick, season to taste, and set aside.

In a large non-stick frying pan, melt a little butter and cook the boudin-noir until warmed through and a little crispy on the ends.  Remove from the pan, set aside somewhere warm, and cover.

Add more butter (yep) to the pan, and cook down the sliced onion until soft and just starting to brown.  Add the cooked potatoes, apple, and garlic, and fry until the apples have caramelised and there’s some lovely crispy bits on the potato.

Place the boudin-noir back in the pan, pour over the sauce, cover, and let it sit on the heat for a couple more minutes to warm it all through properly.

Season to taste, scatter the parsley over.

Eat straight from the pan, and try not to worry about chickens.

 

What We Learned From the Flood.

dscf3384When I was a child, we had an orchard.  I remember the day we moved in to that house like it was yesterday.  Me and my sister paced the length and breadth of the field, wading through grass as tall as we were.  We’d never seen so much space.  I remember dragging an old plastic sled around in the autumn, loading up apples for cider-making.  I remember picking ripe fruit from the branches, all crunch and sweet and juice like an ideal of apple. I remember climbing the trees in the spring, camouflaged in blossom.  I remember my Dad hanging swings for us to swing on, higher, higher.  I would lie in the tall grass in the summer, looking up at the blue sky, framed in blades, birdsong, buzz.  I remember.

The plan, such as there is ever a plan, is to create an orchard in the part of the field that adjoins our vegetable garden.  We will plant apples (of course), pears, quinces, cherries, plums, we will sow wild flowers, we will put the beehives here, and it will marvellous.

Winter is the traditional time to plant fruit trees, and our local garden centre had a ‘tree dscf3874day’ – special offers on trees, a talk on how to plant and tend them, a very lovely and knowledgable lady who helped us choose varieties that will pollinate each other and give a long harvest, rather than a week of oh-my-days-how-much-fruit?  So we bought two apple-trees (a Starking and a Reine des Reinettes), two pear-trees (a Conference and a William), one quince (a Portugal), and one cherry (a Sunburst).  ML’s brother loaded them up into his dscf3867trailer, and we took our new arrivals home to introduce them to the chickens and the cat.

After a day of digging holes, I went to bed, tired, sore, excited.  When the topsoil arrives, I thought (three tonnes of good earth; ours is a little clay-like), I can soak the roots of the trees, and get them in the ground.  I slept very well.

Then came the flood.

The next morning ML got up early to feed the chickens.  I stayed in bed for a few more moments, encouraging my stiffened limbs into some semblance of life and usefulness. Rising, I opened the shutters of our bedroom to be presented with a scene from a John Wyndham novel (specifically The Kraken Wakes – read it, it may stand you in good stead for the future).  The entire vista in front of the house had been transformed into a great silvered mirror, and the clouds above were dark and furrow-browed, moving too fast.  The chickens were huddled on a rapidly diminishing island in the middle of their run (should we have got ducks?), the cat appeared to be doing the backstroke, and ML was nowhere to be seen.dscf3892

I dressed hurriedly, pulled on my wellies, and waded out into the water.  It had not (yet) reached the house; panic did not (yet) set in.  ML reappeared from the lane that runs past the farm.  “We need to do something about this,” she said, and took me to the drainage ditches that separate the lane from our hedgerows, all along one side of the property.  They were clogged with branches and twigs and brambles and leaves, and rapidly filling with water.  So much so, in fact, that they could not cope with the deluge and eventually burst their banks.  The garden was underwater, the chickens were now balanced on top of one another, the lane became a river, and the water was gradually encroaching on the house.  I donned my overalls and plunged knee-deep into the ditch and began furiously pulling out the material causing the blockage, while ML did the same a little down-stream, in an attempt to encourage the water to pass us by, to not stay for tea.  It worked, to an extent, in that the water got no deeper, although neither did it start to recede.

I dug a ditch in the ground to drain the chicken run.  The chickens thought me mad, and told me so as I worked, but it was successful, and their island began to get bigger.

dscf3885I did this for seven hours (ML had to work).

When ML finished work, we jumped in the car and aquaplaned to Marcigny, and bought some sandbags.  We rushed back and used them to block up our driveway.  Miraculously this seemed to help, and the water in front of the house began to disappear, even as the lane became more submerged.

Satisfied that we had done all we could (would it be enough?), we went inside, closed the shutters, opened a bottle, and waited with crossed fingers.

We awoke to mist, but no rain, and the flood had all but vanished.  There remained a little water in the chicken run, and the holes I had dug for the trees were filled to the brim.  Well, I thought, that will delay the planting a little.

We are reassured to learn that this was an exceptional event, and that we need not buy a boat quite yet (although we are likely to have more, less severe, floods once or twice a year).

Five days later, no more rain, and the tree-holes are still full, the water having failed to drain away.  No good for fruit trees, who will do badly (die) if their roots are submerged for any period of time longer than a day or two (charmingly referred to as wet feet).

I do a little digging tour of the field, exploring how far down the water is.  It is similar in almost every place, and I am disheartened.  More work to do, then, putting some drainage in the field to we can grow more than watercress (I do like watercress, though am unsure I could live on it).  I am glad of the flood, we would have merrily planted the trees and then watched them wither and die (rather less merrily), if not for the warning the water gave us.  A silver lining, then.

I have found a spot in the field where we can plant the six trees we have, but we will then need to complete the drainage before we can expand the orchard as planned.

And the bees?  A hive on stilts?  Can I rig up a floating beehive?  Can bees swim?  Bee-snorkels?  All these questions (maybe not the last one) will be answered in the spring, when we get our hives and source our bees.

I remember those sun-dappled orchard hours, and we will get there again, but the path will be longer than it looked.  As it ever is.

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Mushrooms.

dscf3824We awake early to a foggy morning, wrap up warm (it’s cold now, summer didn’t last forever after all), and let the chickens out.  They, as is their wont, stare at us, gurgle weirdly, and then proceed to continue digging to China.  They seem to have settled in nicely.  The last few days we have received four eggs each morning, one from each chicken, and the eggs have increased slightly in size every day.  I take this as a sign that the hens are happy and well fed (as are we, thanks to the eggs).

As the sun burns away the last ghosts of mist, I wander the perimeter of the farm, gathering rosehips to make more syrup (the last batch having disappeared, mixed with sparkling white wine, fairly rapidly).  We have had deer and coypu visiting us, but no sign of a fox (although this may be deliberate on the fox’s part).  The day is warming up nicely, and my thoughts turn to the wild.

The forest near us can be seen from the farm, jagged tops of pine trees pointing to the sky on the horizon.  It’s a mix of managed pine woodland, and ancient, wild tangles of oak and beech and birch.  It goes on forever.dscf3832

I hop on my pink rusty trusty bicycle, and pedal along the lanes.  Buzzards and egrets, outraged by my presence, flap up and away from the fields as I pass, the sun warms my face, and I remind myself that is not yet spring, that we still have a winter to get through. I have been preserving and pickling the little bits of produce I have been given, or foraged, since we arrived, to bring a tang of warmer times to our winter meals, and the last on the list is mushrooms.

It was a very dry summer here, and mushroom season has been delayed.  In fact, there is talk in some regions of the poorest wild fungi harvest for years, although compared to my foraging in and around Bristol (dear Bristol, how are you?) it’s a positive glut.  We’ve had a few days of wet weather, and I’m hopeful.  One can buy foraged mushrooms in the local greengrocer; trays of girolles and hedgehog mushrooms and trompettes de la mort. Almost everyone here seems to pick some kind of mushroom, be it field or forest, and it’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s simply something people do.   We’ve had folk stop by with boxes of field mushrooms, and even someone who called in to let us know about a patch of parasol mushrooms he’d spied from his car.  I like these people.

I have a spot, not far into the woods, that I’ve had my beady eye on for ages, as it looks ideal for ceps and other boletes.  A bouncy, mossy forest floor, green and bright, beneath some old, widely spaced pines.  In my experience boletes like edges and clearings, a bit of breathing space, and I’ve spotted a couple of fly agarics (those fairytale toadstools), a good sign, as they like similar conditions to ceps.

Righto, warning time.  This all sounds very bucolic and lovely, and it is, but mushrooms could put paid to that, neither swiftly nor gently.  Eating a misidentified fungus or plant will end horribly.  I shall not go into the details of organs shutting down or the no hope of treatment horror.  Get some books, learn from an expert, never eat anything unless you are one hundred percent sure that it is what you think it is.  The saying ‘there are old foragers, and bold foragers, but no old bold foragers’ is worth remembering.  Even in France, where mushroom hunting is embedded in rural culture, there have been, this year alone, several cases of mushroom poisoning.  Be safe.

I arrive, sweaty and somewhat out of breath, all arms and legs perched like a heron on a too-small pink bicycle, at the forest edge.  I lock the bike to a tree, and start up the path into the woods.  I am passed by two cars, driving along the dirt track, departing.  Foragers, sir, thousands of ’em.  They got here before me.  Curses.  I get to the spot I have in mind, and it is covered in mushrooms of all shapes and colours and sizes – fly agarics, various russulas, false chanterelles, but nothing edible (or certainly not what I am after, anyway). I get an awful feeling that an hour ago, the forest floor was covered in a million perfect ceps, and they are now in those cars, the occupants laughing and joking to each other and juggling mushrooms.  This is probably not quite true.

There is an annoying habit that some mushroom hunters have of picking anything vaguely the right size or colour, and discarding it if it is not a bolete (boletes have pores instead of gills, so it is easy to tell by looking at the underside of the cap), so the ground is  littered with broken and overturned fungi; a sure sign that someone has been here before me, and an unnecessary, even damaging, thing to do.

The fact that, every year, the woods are combed and picked through by locals yet, every year, the mushrooms return en masse brings doubt to the recent controversial picking ban in the New Forest in the UK.

dscf3831From my days of tramping the woods of South-West England, I recall finding ceps in hollows in the ground and under piles of fallen branches, so I nose around, lifting things and generally getting covered in leaves and dirt.  But there they are.  Bay boletes, not as highly regarded as the cep, but delicious nonetheless.  They’re picked and cleaned in situ, and popped in my bag.  I untangle myself from the undergrowth, and head deeper into the woods.

I pass several people, all wandering around, eyes to the ground, baskets or buckets in hand.  We acknowledge each other with a polite “bonjour”, each silently cursing the competition.

I decide to get off the path, away from these usurpers, and fight my way past a huge pile of logs and into a clearing. Soft green grass underfoot, sunlight ribboning through the trees, and a fine collection of ceps, from tiny to huge.  Jackpot.  I fill my bag, resisting the feverish temptation to pick everything in sight, and head home.

“Holy Schmosbey!” exclaims ML (don’t ask) as I come in the door laden down with mushrooms.  Even the cat looks impressed.  Now to preserve them for later use.

Preserving mushrooms.

There are several ways to preserve mushrooms.  Cooking and freezing works well, and youdscf3835 can salt, pickle, then cover with olive oil for a classic anti-pasto style nibble.  With ceps and other boletes, drying is my preferred method; the flavour is concentrated, and the mushrooms may be reconstituted later in water, or powdered into an umami-rich seasoning for soups and stews.  It is advisable, of course, to eat a few straight away – butter, garlic, bacon lardons, hot sourdough toast.

To dry your mushrooms, simply brush them clean, removing any troublesome wildlife (maggots are not delicious, even fried in garlic and butter) and trimming away any blemishes.  If you have some older specimens, especially with bay boletes, it might be a good idea to remove the spongy pores with a knife or your finger.  Slice them thinly (though not paper-thin), and pop them on a rack so the air is able to get all around and in between.  Place them somewhere warm – I put mine in front of our wood stove – until they are completely dried out.  They will shrink alarmingly, but do not fear, all the flavour is still there.  They can now be stored in a clean airtight jar.

I picked around 3kg of fresh mushrooms, which yielded 2 large jars of dried to help see us through the months ahead, and I may well head back to the woods tomorrow.

There is snow forecast for next week, time to batten down the hatches.  It’s going to be a long winter, and we arrived too late to grow any produce to keep us going.  We’ll light the stove, and eat eggs and dried mushrooms.