How to eat like a vegan Pirate (a.k.a Salting Wild Fungi)

I have been reliably informed by every single pirate movie/story I’ve ever read/watched and the Torygraph Telegraph that 16th to 18th Century sailors lived on a diet of salted meat preserved in giant wooden barrels and hard biscuits. My husband (an avid reader of naval literature) recounts with glee stories of sailors tapping weevils out from their vittles and gleefully pouncing on rats they found on-board (possibly in afforementioned vats of salted meat) to enrich their diets with much-needed protein.

  
In our hunter-gatherer days, ways of preserving our foods would have been key to the continued survival and ability to flourish of societies. Soldiers may well march on their stomachs but they’re not the only ones who need to eat! We would have dried, salted, fermented, pickled, cured, smoked and clamped our way through the times of plenty in order to see us through times of lean*. Nowadays, however, we live in a time of consumption and convenience. We (largely) don’t work for our food so we have lost respect for it. We don’t need to worry about how to preserve the food we’ve got because we can always go buy more from the local shops when the stuff we forgot in the salad rotting drawer in the fridge needs a name. When you start to grow your own food or even forage for it, suddenly, that carrot we have unearthed after months of lovingly tending the ground or that mushroom that we found after hours of trecking through the undergrowth and crawling on our hands and knees to find is something…precious. We spend hours thinking of the perfect recipe for it. We dream of Damson Cheesecake Brownies, Sweet Chestnut Dacquoise and Terrines filled with Beech Nuts.

  
We find a pigeon on our drive while on holiday and build an entire meal around it that somehow feeds 6 adults as a starter.

 

But what happens when we end up with a glut? Our forefathers and mothers would have found a way to preserve it and we should too! 

  
Whether you turn your basket of sloes lovingly picked from your local hedgerows into cordial or jam, or painstakingly string up mushrooms to dry in front of your windows or in your dehydrator, you should find a way. 

  
The go to option for many is to just chuck it in the freezer. The freezer has its place and I couldn’t survive without my three. But more thought should be put into preservation methods that can survive ambient storage, and that is what I’d like to talk about in this blog post and why you too can eat like a vegan pirate…on salted mushrooms!

Salting mushrooms is something that is significantly more popular in Eastern Europe. The standard method is to layer your mushrooms in a large bowl/crock, sprinkling a thin layer of salt and herbs/spices in between each layer before weighting down with a plate, leaving to ferment for 4 days before transferring them to sterilised jars and keeping them in the fridge in their brine. If you want the mushrooms to keep their colour, you initially boil them for 5 minutes in salted water.

My method is a bit different. I didn’t want to keep all my mushrooms in jars in the fridge. This is what I do:

Thickly slice my fungi if they are large or, in the case of fairy ring champignons (which are divine done this way) I leave them whole. I choose only the young, firm specimens to do this with and the older ones just go in the dehydrator.

  
Pour a thick layer of salt into the bottom of a glass or plastic bowl. Then cover this with a layer of mushrooms, then another thick layer of salt (keep pouring it in until your mushrooms are covered by at least 2-3mm), mushrooms and finish with salt.

 

Leave your mushrooms in the salt for 2 weeks. At that point, you will notice that your salt is damp and will have sunk in.

  

And your mushrooms have changed completely in appearance and texture. They will be firm and flexible and a darker colour. Fish your mushrooms out of the salt and tap the excess salt off. Pack them into jars (or in my case old yoghurt tubs) and store them in your pantry.

  

My experience is that the longer you leave them in the salt before transferring them, the better they taste. Their smell changes into something deep and delicious and gives an intense hit of umami to whatever you put them in. I’ve never bothered adding any herbs, etc to the salt as I like the flavour of the fungi to shine on its own. But feel free to experiment!
To use them, rinse them off to get the salt that has got stuck in between the gills etc off. I find the easiest way to do this without wasting too much water is to put my mushrooms in a bowl, cover in water, and rinse them with my hands, lifting out and squeezing them dry in batches. I do this twice. Then you can put them into stews and soups, blend them with cream cheese to make luscious dips or even mince them and cook them into breads. Just remember, they are very salty so adjust your recipes accordingly! You can also enjoy them on toast by first soaking them in water to remove the excess salt (as you can for Halloumi cheese). 

To turn them into antipasti, bring them to the boil in a flavoured, unsaltedvinegar and leave to steep for anywhere from 1 hour to 5 depending on the size/thickness of your fungi and how vinegary you like your pickles. Then pack them into clean sterilised jars with some good oil – I use some fabulous cold pressed yorkshire rapeseed oil a friend of mine makes now or you can also use sunflower seed or light olive oil. If you want to flavour them with garlic, add the garlic cloves to the vinegar, boil it, leave it to cool completely, before removing the garlic and adding the mushrooms. Do not add them to the oil as this can be dangerous. Same goes for herbs which should always be dried first before steeping in oil.

  

If you do pickle them, do not throw away your boiling vinegar! You have essentially made a fermented mushroom ‘ketchup’ of sorts that you can use as you would soy sauce to give an incredible depth of flavour to all sorts of savoury dishes.

 

And that salt? Don’t throw that away either! Spread it onto trays, let it dry and use it again. 

  
My batch of salt is one I started using 5 years ago and you would not BELIEVE how incredible it smells. You can use it as ‘mushroom salt’ in mashed potatoes, gravies, pies, soups, wherever you want a mushroomy salty yum!
Enjoy!

*If you’re interested in reading more about the amazing processes used to preserve our food all over the world, I highly recommend “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, and as for the practicalities of every other kind of preserving, “The Complete Guide to Home Preserving” is my go-to book for inspiration and ideas.

Muhaimina Said-Allsopp