…you just might find there really is such a thing as a free lunch. Discover wild mushrooms, or berries for a juicy jam in the untimate foodie treasure hunt. By Caroline Hennessy for The Irish Mail on Sunday on Sunday 13 September 2009.
No matter how busy things were for my Grandad, there was always time to go looking for mushrooms in autumn. If he spotted a patch of them down the fields, he would gather his army of grandchildren, supply us with buckets and lead us to the spot. We’d spread out, eagle-eyed for the tell-tale whiteness of field mushroom caps, bringing them back to Grandad for inspection. Once he saw that we had our eye in, he’d head off to another job on the farm, letting us scour the field before bringing our bounty back to the warm kitchen to be peeled and cooked for supper by my mam and aunts.
As a child, every walk in autumn was a feast waiting to happen. My cousins and I picked blackberries for Nana’s jam, every second one a treat for ourselves, hunted for the tiny wild blueberries – known to us as hurts, to others as fraocháns – on walks in the hills, bit into crab apples for dares, puckering our mouths up against their astringency. I quickly learned how to tell if a blackberry is infested with worms and, when bringing in the cows for milking, how a grass stalk can be threaded with an unexpected find of mushrooms.
Sloes for soaking in gin, rose-hips for syrup and rowan berries for jelly: autumn was always my favourite time of the year. Growing up in a house where all jams and preserves were homemade, I was early indoctrinated with the benefits of getting something for nothing – never mind if it took hours in the process! I pored over old recipes, excitedly introducing elderberries into apple jelly and had to be discouraged from trying to make hedgerow wines long before I reached legal drinking age.
You can gather wild food all year round but the bright, crisp days of autumn make it the best season for variety and sheer flavour. If you’re a nervous novice, there are many foraging courses on offer that will open your eyes to the abundance of edible food available – and remove the fear of picking and eating the wrong thing.
Aisling and William O’Callaghan at Longueville House in North Cork host an annual mushroom hunt in the grounds of their 18th century country house that is very popular with beginners and families. Aisling O’Callaghan attributes the origins of the hunt to her chef husband’s own interest in wild food: “he was always foraging. [William is] a real hunter-gatherer and then he cooks everything that he collects. It’s something we do with friends and with our kids.” On the hunts, when mushroom expert Jim Fraser leads groups through the woods and fields that surround Longueville House, they have found a wide variety of edible fungi including ceps, chanterelles, girolles, blushers, chicken of the woods and hedgehog mushrooms. For those people worried about the possible dangers of mushroom picking, O’Callaghan has reassuring words: [Jim] will always have a chat beforehand to say this is what the poisonous ones look like and please do not pick. We also have a safety code and they’re briefed on that so they’re well prepared. It is vital, especially with children.”
Although the hunts have been taking place for the last eight years, recently O’Callaghan feels that there is a lot of interest in going back to the simple things: “People love to come out and feel that they’re learning something on the day. There’s nothing as nice as tearing off down there with the dogs and the kids and the freedom of it. It’s a fantastic day’s entertainment.”
For children who spend a lot of their lives indoors, going down to the woods and fields to look for berries and mushrooms is a completely new and very enjoyable experience. Keen forager Rachel O’Grady from Askeaton, Co Limerick feels that our lives have become so packaged that the tradition is in danger of being lost. “Children aren’t taught anything, parents don’t know what to pick,” she comments. But there is a way of making a new tradition. “Get people out in the countryside, walking around and observing what’s growing,” O’Grady says, “that’s the first step.” She points out that foraging is part of a new interest in things that are local and seasonal, especially if people have more time on their hands these days. “Growing up in the country you’re more aware of these things but they are accessible to everybody.”
Whether you are out in the depths of the countryside or in the more urban setting of a city park, nature is freely and easily available. Sometimes it is just a matter of grabbing a basket, gathering the family, getting out there and seeing what’s available. This gives us the opportunity to re-connect to our own childhood memories of these foods, to remember golden autumnal afternoons spent hunting with our own parents and grandparents for something edible amidst the trees and brambles.
“It’s the passing of that experience and interest on to a younger generation,” agrees botanist Olivia Goodwillie who has been running a foraging course at Lavistown House in Co Kilkenny for the last five years. Eating wild food can be very evocative, she finds, as people experience “the memories of picking blackberries from childhood rather than the actual taste of blackberries.” Goodwillie emphasises how much children enjoy the chance to get outside, to climb fences, get wet and slop around: “It is a real kids’ day – the big kids showing the small kids how to do it, how it was done in their day.”
As well as foraging, Goodwillie is also passionately interested in good food so making something edible out of what’s been picked is an integral part of the course at Lavistown: “The morning is spent foraging and the afternoon we light a fire, boil up our berries to make jelly and we boil water to make funny tea with things like dandelion roots and pine needles.” Sometimes,” she points out, “things may be edible but you might not know what to do with them after picking.” One of the most popular things that she makes is a jelly, using a collection of different berries, including sloes, rose hips and elderberries. “The hedgerow jelly is absolutely delicious and especially if you make it over a fire, as we do, it has a smoky flavour which no jam that you buy will ever have.”
Months later, on a cold January morning, as you eat the jelly on your toast, you’re able to sit there and taste all the flavours of the time you spent outdoors. “You’re eating memories,” Goodwillie laughs, “you’re eating your day.”
Long gone is the era when knowing what to pick and when to pick it was the difference between eating and going hungry but discovering a hidden crab apple tree or beating squirels to the hazelnut crop still offers a primordial thrill. It’s real hunter-gatherer stuff – even if you just eat all the blackberries as you go – but cooking with or making preserves from your gleanings is a tangible and delicious way of capturing the moment.
Foraging for wild food can be as simple (those blackberries again!) or as complex – mind the mushrooms – as you like but it’s rarely less than satisfying. You may not quite manage to pick your dinner but you’ll definitely have fun trying.
Sunday 4, Sunday 18 October – Mushroom Hunt at Longueville House
Longueville House, Mallow, County Cork. Tel: 022 47156 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.longuevillehouse.ie
Slow Food Ireland often run foraging events around the country. Check www.slowfoodireland.com for details.
Wild Food by Roger Phillips: a well-illustrated reference book which includes good recipes.
The Easy Edible Mushroom Guide by David Pegler: pocket-sized, with accurate photos and drawings.
Crab Apple and Rowan Berry JellyThis is good on toast, great on scones and fantastic with roast lamb. Makes 4 small jars.Crab apples – 900g (2lbs)Rowan berries – 900g (2lbs), stalks removedZest and juice of 1 lemonWater – 1.8 litres (3 pints) approxSugarRinse the crab apples and cut out any bruised parts but do not remove the peel or the cores. Put into a large saucepan with the rowan berries, lemon zest and juice and just enough water to cover. Simmer, covered, for 20-25 minutes until the fruit is soft. Strain through a muslin bag or jelly bag overnight.The next day measure the strained liquid into a heavy-based saucepan, adding 450g (1lb) of sugar for each 600ml (1 pint) of liquid. Heat slowly, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, then boil briskly without stirring for 10-15 minutes until it reaches setting point.Skim if necessary, pour into warm, sterilised jars and seal immediately.Apple and Elderberry CrumbleElderberries can taste very sharp but, when mixed in proportion with apples (and some sugar!), the fruit make great partners – and the colour of the crumble is fantastic. Serves 6.Ripe elderberries – 225g (8oz), stalks removedCooking apples – 675g (1½lbs), peeled, cored and cut into thick slicesCaster sugar – 150g (5oz)Plain flour – 30g (1oz)For the crumble:Plain flour – 225g (8oz)Butter – 115g (4oz), cut into cubesDemerara sugar – 85g (3oz)Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.Mix the elderberries, apples, caster sugar and flour together in a bowl then tip into a shallow ovenproof dish.For the crumble topping, rub the flour into the butter using your fingers or a food processor until the mixture resembles large, rough breadcrumbs. Add the demerara sugar, mix well and sprinkle over the fruit.Cook in the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes until the the crumble is golden and the juices bubbling. Serve warm with cream, ice cream or custard.Mushroom KetchupThis is not thick, red, tomato-style ketchup but a liquid that is pure essence of umami. It is great for adding flavour to soups, casseroles and stews. Use the large, flat, fully grown field mushrooms for this and make sure you pick them on a dry day.Field mushroomsSaltBlack pepper, coarsely groundWhole nutmegPack the mushrooms into a deep oven-proof earthenware container, sprinkling each layer with salt. Put into an oven at 180ºC, allowing to simmer for 1½ hours without losing too much liquid by evaporation. Pour through a muslin- or J-cloth-lined sieve.Measure into a saucepan and for each litre of liquid add 30g black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Bring to the boil, strain again into clean sterilised bottles and seal.This ketchup keeps indefinitely but, once opened, keep in the fridge and use quickly.