Bimbling about the Forest of Dean
Peter and I spent this weekend at Lydney in Gloucestershire; home of Taurus Crafts. They were hosting a “Wild Food Weekend” and I was asked to do two workshops as part of it; “The Wild Food Year – an introduction to foraging in wild and not so wild places” and “Dehydrator magic, from fruit leathers to beef jerky”*. In the future, Taurus Crafts and I hope to work together to bring various workshops, classes and wild food walks to the area and this weekend was the start of that journey.
I’m moving into a new house in Leeds and what with one thing and another, we left Bristol slightly later than we were hoping. Knowing that we wouldn’t have time to go foraging between us getting back to Bristol and me having to leave again for Leeds, I quickly rushed to my favourite Bullace hedge to pick some of the luscious fruit before it was all gone.
A bullace is one of the smallest of the wild plums. With its sweet flesh and tart skins, it makes wonderful (if a bit time-consuming) jam and even nicer spiced jelly. T his weekend last year, I was out with the BBC’s film crew recording footage for “The Edible Garden” and the trees were covered in firm, ripe fruit. This year however, most of it had fallen off and what was left was a little over-ripe. In the 30 or so minutes it took Peter to go fill the car with fuel and get back to my hedge, I picked roughly 3lb of fruit compared to the basketfull I picked last year. It was hard going and I had to do battle with the thigh high nettles before I could get in closer to pull the higher branches down to picking height.
We dashed straight from the bullace hedge to my damson patch, hoping to have more luck there. Once again, most of the fruit was gone and we picked barely 2lb of fruit. Given that this is the fruit that I will be using in my Chritmas Hamper workshops in a few weeks’ time, I was rather despondent. Luckily for us however, we spotted a series of heavily laden damson trees on our way to Lydney that yielded enough fruit that we had a total of 6lb. Perfect for two batches of damson jam. Damson jam is the most exquisite flavour. How an unassuming, slightly lacklustre fruit can transform into the most divine of wild jams is a mystery to me. The alchemy that is jam and jelly making yields interesting results at the best of times but the most fantastic changes happen with the plums, crabapples and quinces. The flavour of plums (and especially damsons and greengages) deepens and turns into a symphony of sweet tartness. Quinces go from a bright yellow to a deep sunset orange that gets darker and darker the longer you boil the fruit for before adding your sugar. And crabapples becomes this stunning golden pink reminiscent of a sunrise on a clear day.
After our speedy fruit forage, we dashed over to the Garden Room at Taurus crafts where a full audience was waiting. The presentation went really well and was followed by an interview with a journalist from BBC Radio Gloucester that should air some time this week. We finished the day with an exquisite dinner cooked by the Taurus Crafts’ Chef out of the wild mushrooms that that day’s foray had picked in the forest of Dean.
Peter and I started Sunday with a quick forage where we picked some apple mint, sweet chestnuts, chanterelles, clouded agarics**, amethyst deceivers, deceivers and a lone charcoal burner. Until this weekend, I had avoided eating clouded agarics. My guru Roger Phillips says that it is “edible but causes gastric upsets in some people” who according to my other books, are roughly 50% of the population. This mushroom is however very popular on the continent and Taurus’ resident mushroom expert Raoul Van den Brouke regularly serves it up after his foraging walks. After chatting with him about it, he told me that the problem with this mushroom arises when people pick older specimens and don’t consume the mushroom when it is fresh. Taking his advice on board (and having had no ill effects from consuming it at dinner the night before), I joyfully gathered all the lovely young specimens that had caps between 1 and 2 inches wide. This mushroom isvery common in Leeds so knowing that I am able to eat it made me very happy indeed!
What was fascinating about it however was its mycelium.Mushrooms tend to grow in what are known as mycorrhizal relationships with the roots of various plants and trees. Fungal mycelium forms a web of strands beneath the surface of the soil or within the host tree and the fruiting body of this mycelium is the mushroom. Mostly, you only see the mycelium when you pull mushrooms out of their host medium and see it clinging to the base of the fungus, dig in the soil, disturb leaf litter or, as in the case of honey fungus, it appears as black bootlaces under the bark of the tree. For the clouded agarics we found however, it formed a dense mat of white that shone from between the leaf litter and whose stark white colour was amplified by its proximity to the dull browns and fiery reds of the autumn leaves.
Sunday was a stunning autumn day. The air was crisp when we left our hotel in the morning to go foraging and went on to become bright and sunny with a crystal clear blue sky. We weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the stunning vistas and were trumped by all the lucky souls we saw being carried aloft by their hot air balloons. The perfect end to this wonderful day came when a balloon landed in the green near our house. Peter spotted it from our bathroom window and I managed to snap a few shots before it disappeared behind the rows of houses.
* I will be posting some of the recipes that were in the presentations in the coming weeks so do keep an eye out for them
**Should you want to give this mushroom a try, do be cautious. While Peter and I had no ill effects from consuming it, you may not be as lucky as we and could end up worshipping the toilet god. So start off with a small amount (say one mushroom), see what happens, then go on to eat more of it. And never pick it if it’s cap is bigger than about 2 inches in diameter.