A Helvella dinner party

First of all, I do have to apologise for the appalling title of this blog post. The reason why I chose it will become clear soon enough but in my defence in the meantime, I just couldn’t help myself.

It’s been a very busy week for me work-wise. So when my PhD supervisor told me that there was going to be a trip to Hardcastle craggs on Thursday for the new Masters students I jumped at the opportunity to get a free ride there and back. For those of you who have never been, Hardcastle Craggs in Hebden Bridge is a beautiful National Trust property that has some stunning scenery and a beautiful 19th Century cotton mill – Gibson Mill – that is now a model of sustainability. It is also a great spot for bilberries and certain wild mushrooms. With my housemate Jo in tow, we soon left the new students behind and beat our own path through the undergrowth, stopping periodically for snacks and sips of thermos tea. It has been raining quite a lot in the area and the entire forest was a giant soggy patch with waterfalls cascading down the hillsides onto the paths. It made for beautiful viewing, but not so fun walking. I am embarrassed to admit that my mucky foraging jeans are even muckier now than when I started given the amount of time I managed to spend on my bum.

After several hours of trudging through the wood trying to find bilberries that had mysteriously all vanished, we decided to call it a day and go back into Hebden Bridge and go charity shopping. By this point, our basket was carrying lots of Deceivers(Laccaria laccata), someSlippery Jacks (Suillus Luteus)Jelly ears (Auricularia Auricula-Judaea), Sorrel and the stunningly beautiful White Saddle mushroom (Helvella Crispa). I know my pun in the title is a poor one, but in my sleep-addled brain, it sounded a hell of a lot like a ‘hell of a lot’.

This mushroom is a real beauty with its undulating cap and geometrically fascinating stem. Cut into thin slices, the stem of this mushroom looks like little snowflakes.

It is described in Roger Phillips as “edible but poor” and my other mushroom king Michael Jordan says it’s “Edible but uninspiring”. Given the quantity in which we found them as well as their size, we decided to ignore the senseis and pick them anyway. I racked my brain as to what I could make them into. A clear miso broth with shredded sorrel and my little snowflakes floating in them…or as a filling for spring rolls with glass noodles and a thai-style dipping sauce…All would have been wonderful but I decided to wait until the weekend when I could take my hubby Peter out foraging with me and we could find more fungi to bulk up what we had and make it more inspiring. While the White saddles look beautiful, they don’t have much of a flavour. Their asset is their texture which is pleasantly chewy.

As is the case most of the times when I go foraging, the biggest haul was spotted growing under a silver birch on the side of the road. Lots and lots of perfect , un-maggoty Brown Birch Boletes (Leccinum Scabrum). By the time I’d registered what they were, Peter had already driven past so we turned round and went back. With its scabby scaly stem, brown cap, brown pores and firm creamy white flesh, this mushroom is one that is very difficult to confuse with anything else and as such, make a great beginner’s mushroom. Not only are they easy to ID, but they also taste very nice. The older harder stems have a more nut-like texture when cooked while the younger stems and caps are much softer. They also dehydrate very well and this is what I did with all the mushrooms I didn’t cook up. 

Once we got our haul home, I decided to share my good fortune with my close friends and invited them to cover over on Sunday evening for an impromptu wild food dinner party. After much thinking, I decided to make some tomato and Alexanders soup for starter, pasta pillows stuffed with my wild mushrooms in a sage butter, cheese and cream and for dessert, macarrons aux myrtilles – almond macarrons sandwiched together with a white chocolate and bilberry ganache.


Alexanders and Tomato Soup

I really wanted the flavour of my two star ingredients to shine through without being overshadowed. To this end, I used very simple ingredients, cooked for a long period of time to accentuate the sweetness of the tomatoes and the unusual flavour of the Alexanders (Smyrnium Olustratum). Alexanders are also known as “Roman Celery” and the highly perfumed stems make a wonderful addition to soups as well as meat and fish dishes. Sauteed in butter with freshly chopped parsley, they make a delightful side vegetable to have with fresh fish. They are best picked in the spring or autumn when the leaves first come up and ideally before the plants flower. While they do have a rather strong smell raw ( somewhat like that of chervil) the longer you cook them, the more delicate the flavour becomes and the softer they become. So it’s a trade-off between strong flavour and strong texture. Just experiment and see which you prefer!

3.4kg tomatoes, chopped

100g Alexanders stems, chopped

4 large cloves garlic

1tbsp each Fresh basil and oregano

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Knob of butter

Put all ingredients in a large pot with a tight fitting lid and place over a low heat. Cook till all ingredients are soft. Leave covered overnight for flavours to infuse then push through a mouli to remove all pips and bits. Heat through and serve with slices of fresh buttered bread.


Pasta pillows :

Unless you have a spare 6 hours to spend making, rolling , filling and cutting your pasta, it is a lot easier to just make pasta pillows. Once you roll out your fresh egg pasta (I give my recipe below), you dollop spoonfuls of the filling on top of your sheet of pasta, brush it with beaten egg (being careful to only use a very small amount) then carefully place a second sheet of pasta on top. Squeezing out as much air as possible, seal the edges of the pillows and cut out. I just used a knife because I couldn’t find my pastry cutters. Boil them a few at a time in a very large pan of salted water. Given the rich, complex flavours of the pasta, I prefer to serve them tossed in a Sage Butter with some toasted pine nuts and grated parmesan. I couldn’t find my parmesan and forgot to buy pine nuts so mine was just served with the butter and a fresh rocket and lettuce salad with home-grown Super Marmande tomatoes. These tomatoes have a wonderfully robust flavour and firm flesh. Any beefsteak type tomato will do but make sure you select the ripest fruit you can find.


500g tipo ’00′ Flour (plain flour will do)

5 eggs

pinch salt.

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor with a dough hook attachment ( I use Baby, my ’80′s Kenwood K-Beater) and work till you get a smooth, soft pliable dough. If your dough is too hard, add some beaten egg until a consistency like new play dough or pottery clay is reached. You want to be able to pull it buy not too easily. Leave it to rest for 1-2 hours then work it with your pasta machine (or a rolling pin) until it’s very thin. Try to avoid using flour to dust the surface your working on as it makes the dough hard and tough.


1 tub ricotta

200g Extra thick double cream

400g of mixed wild mushrooms, chopped (I used 300g Boletes and 100g Helvella)

2 shallots, chopped

3 Cloves of Garlic

1 egg

1tbsp each fresh basil and oregano

Knob of butter

Salt and Pepper to taste

Sautee onions in butter over a low heat till translucent. Add garlic and herbs and cook till fragrant. Add chopped mushrooms and cook till excess water has evaporated and mushrooms are soft. Leave to cool and stir in cream, egg and cheese. Use to stuff Pasta and cook for 2 minutes.

Sage Butter:

125g butter

20 Sage leaves

Cook sage leaves in butter over very low heat until they go black and crispy. Be sure to cook it for long enough to get rid of the medicinal scent and flavour of sage.


Macarrons Aux Myrtilles

This Recipe I won’t share with you. I have to save something for The Msitu Cook Book

Muhaimina Said-Allsopp