[fungi pun]

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I’ve been learning about mushrooms. Everyone tells you to go picking with an expert, and only eat anything they personally examine; I don’t, unfortunately, have such a tame expert, so I’ve been relying on several books and websites, as well as the online hive mind. There is, it turns out, a keen community of mycologists eager to help out a beginner; hopefully they know what they’re talking about. I was looking forward to roaming the countryside with my battered (second-hand) copy of Food For Free, looking back and forth between description and specimen, but unfortunately the book’s previous owner had the same idea, and ripped out the relevant colour plate. Instead I pick a few and attempt to identify them when I get home, which means the place is littered with possibly-toxic fungus.

People often ask me if I worry about poisoning someone with one of my various ferments and cured items; honestly, I don’t. I fussed a bit about botulism the first time I made salumi, but since I had used both salt and the legal maximum of saltpetre, I needn’t really have worried. The key with ferments is to create an environment where harmful bacteria will not thrive, and then to leave the others to it; a sort of intelligent design, if you like, with the microbiome of each jar guided by your invisible hand. Mushroom hunting, on the other hand, requires constant and informed decision making, with the possible price of a mistake being a prolonged and quite unpleasant death.

Most toxic mushrooms (or fungus, rather) will just make you slightly ill, and possibly hallucinate (these are features that some people seek deliberately, of course), with, it seems, not universal effects. If you look through a mushroom guide, you’ll see that many are ‘reported by some people’ to be toxic; there are so many possible influences on our stomachs, not least the psychosomatic contribution of paranoia, that I suppose it’s hard to be sure. A lot of fungus are tiny or not very nice, anyway, so there’s little point in risking sickness. The noble exceptions, of course, are the aptly-named Death Cap and Destroying Angel mushrooms (the latter of which [SPOILER ALERT] plays a starring role in John Lanchester’s excellent debut novel), which look and probably taste like delicious white mushrooms but are in fact viciously, horribly poisonous, turning your organs against each other and shutting down the entire mechanism which keeps you alive; stay away from white mushrooms unless you know what you are about.

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It seems an unfortunate part of the British disconnect with our food culture is the lack of general interest in (and therefore confident knowledge of) wild fungus. In Italy, wooded France or Eastern Europe, for example, mushroom hunting is a popular and respectable pastime; such delicacies as the cep are there for the taking, so why not? We have them here, too, of course, called Penny Buns and just as lovely – alongside various poisonous cousins. Some, luckily, are much easier to identify, even for a beginner. The Shaggy Inkcap, for example, has an inky cap and is distinguishable from the (rarer) Common Inkcap by being shaggy; it looks rather like an old-fashioned lawyer’s wig, hence its other name Lawyer’s Wig. I found some this morning, on a little verge by the road, where they were just starting to deliquesce and stain the fingers, but still whole and edible. I took them home and sautéed them with just some salt – I had no garlic – and ate them on slightly stale sourdough toast, and they were very good, the more so because I picked them with my knowledge and my hands.

Clammy Cells

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I’m sure I say this every year, but autumn really is an extraordinary time for British food. We spend the height of summer eating greenhouse tomatoes and endless gluts of courgette, wishing we were south of the thick black coffee line drinking something cold and pale in a cafe by the sea; it’s a season that we are not fully equipped to deal with, and so we spend it semi-conscious, drifting between shore and field in a sort of gentle fever dream, punctuated by ice-cream. Autumn, on the other hand, is the time to wake up. The hedges are making good on the promise of the early blackberries, with damsons, crabapples and soon sloes weighing down the spindly branches; country roads are once again teeming with semi-wild game birds, running idiotically between their Scylla and Charybdis of front wheel and gun. On the days after the first shoots, the flattened corpses of young partridge carpet the roads.

At least partridge tastes quite nice. The strange situation with pheasant is that these birds are bred in protected environments (often to the detriment of other, perhaps more native creatures), then released into the wild to be shot at, in such numbers that ‘hunters’ give them away for free; no-one wants to eat as much pheasant as can be killed, because, finally, it’s just not very interesting. A sort of dark white meat which dries out easily, it has none of the bloody excitement of a duck or pigeon, it’s too big to tear apart with your hands … to make matters worse, people often don’t prepare them properly, so the legs are full of tough sinews which must be picked laboriously from the meat. All in all, a waste of everybody’s time. If you do get given one, best to brine it in salty tea and then joint it so you can roast the legs slowly, the breasts quickly. Like all game birds, it goes nicely with a jelly or compote of appropriate fruits.

The chickenish paleness of their flesh is, I assume, due to both their early captivity and to their lifelong habit of walking everywhere, even out of the way of oncoming cars; it is certainly shared by the similarly-raised partridge, though the meat of these latter birds is somewhat finer, capable, I’m sure, of a rewarding blush when carefully and delicately cooked; I like to brown them in hot oil and then pickle them. This is a treatment native to Andalusia, but it seems appropriate for an English autumn, and as a recipe it is about as simple as that – just make up a vinegary brine, flavoured appropriately, and pour it, hot, over the browned birds. You don’t need to worry too much about acidity and salinity unless you intend to put them up in a barrel for the winter, in which case you are on your own; fermentation is one thing, but the sterile preservation of protein is fraught with danger. Just put them in the fridge and eat over a few days, and no-one will get botulism.

If you roast or stew your partridges, remember that, as with all pale, wild flesh, they will need a good helping of fat, having very little of their own, either in layers or running through the meat. It’s traditional to roast such birds covered with little strips of streaky bacon, which the cook can then silently eat while preparing the accompaniments; another way is to wrap them in prosciutto or similar and pack them tightly into a casserole for pot-roasting. I once cooked this for Julian Assange, oddly, though I don’t know if he liked it. He certainly never came back. I don’t know if partridges traditionally hide in pear trees because they are themselves pleasingly pear-shaped, or even if they do so at all, but they certainly go nicely with pear, perhaps pickled; or possibly it is just the pleasure of the association. Either way, worth a try.

So much for these sort-of game birds. My own personal favourite is the pigeon, as I think I’ve said before, but as they are easily availably year-round, they don’t carry the seasonal thrill of, say, a nice mallard (smaller and neater than the fat, farmed Gressingham duck), which is what I happen to have in my fridge right now, next to the pot of pickled partridge. Duck is perfect with the sweet tartness of the season, the hedgerow fruits, the heavy, honeyed flavours; there are so many options that I’m not quite sure, having briefly considered Pekinese and Venetian treatments, what I should do with it. Duck and damsons sounds nice, but if you have any suggestions, I would be glad to hear them.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Lunch

I have never had much time for lunch. At primary school, lunchtime could bring the whispered excitement of macaroni cheese, swiftly spreading round the hall; it could also bring the dishwater grey of poorly-drained spag in under-reduced bol, our generation’s equivalent of the thunderous cabbage of school dinners past. Pudding might be jelly, with that weird sweet cream which tasted like cake mix, but it might equally be a heavy sponge in a pond of thickening custard, smelling strongly of furniture polish. A packed lunch was a more predictable procession of Marmite-and-cheese sandwich-Petit Filous, except when said fromage frais exploded in my lunchbox; possibly the first but definitely not the last time I would regard my meal through blinked-back tears.

As a teenager, eating is the last thing to do on your lunch break, and food the last thing to spend your lunch money on, while for the student, lunch is the same as breakfast, and both are taken more medicinally than gastronomically; we’ll draw a veil over those years. Then I started working, and a chef rarely eats lunch. It, rather, eats you.

For most of my life, in other words, dinner was the thing. By then, you and your tastebuds have woken up properly, open to spice and fish and offal and, of course, booze – it’s a social occasion, with a dinner party often turning imperceptibly into an actual party. If you’re going to be up until seven in the morning, it doesn’t really matter if dinner starts at 11pm; perfect for a young chef’s lifestyle, but not something I can do any more. The open-endedness of dinner could be its downfall, with any memory of the truffled pork ravioli we had spent all day making dissolving in a slurry of cheap red wine. If you’re already tipsy by the end of dinner, you may as well keep drinking. Lunch, on the other hand (with the honourable exception of the Sunday roast), is a neatly finite affair.

The key to lunch is the proper procession of drinks, for which you need to look to France and Italy – it was there, at least, that I learnt about lunch. The adman’s 3-martinis and the clubman’s magnum of claret are no good for a lunch where you intend to move about afterwards, which is the greatest promise of lunch; what you need is wine by the carafe and a good coffee afterwards. The caffeinated line this draws under the booze is the defining part of the meal for me, whether a thick Neapolitan espresso or a gentler French press. “Enough!” it says; “On with the day.” This done, you can go back to your symposium or your museum or simply your street-wandering, though preferably not your heavy machinery, with a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step from that carafe.

A lunch wine, of course, should be light. If you’re struggling to agree on one, or if one of your party “only drinks red”, and there’s nothing suitable, get prosecco instead; this goes with everything, at least at lunchtime. You might have to get it by the glass, but if you can get it in carafe (especially on tap), you’re onto a winner. The flattening effect that decanting has on prosecco’s effervescence turns it into the perfect lunchtime drink, especially if you are enjoying it with deep-fried seafood. Soft-shell crab is best, I suppose, but whitebait, calamari or plaice and chips (with a scattering of scraps, of course) will do almost as well, with a shower of rain, starting just after you ducked into the restaurant, the ideal accompaniment; and salad, of course. In fact, you should probably have the salad first, then you can eat as much deep-fried soft-shell crab as you like.

A lunch like this, which, you might have gathered, is not hypothetical but in fact an actual, fondly remembered lunch, has as much of a medicinal effect as those student breakfasts; any tired- or illness, any arguments or problems which might have blighted the morning as you traipsed around an unfamiliar city, getting first thrillingly and then frustratingly lost in the maze of little streets and canals, weaken in the chink of cutlery on plate, the gently meandering conversation, the dying bubbles in the carafe, the espresso’s bitter full stop.

Meagre Bread

Our common food is no longer our daily bread, apparently; I’m not sure whether we should be alarmed by this. It depends who they’re polling, I suppose. Personally, I eat bread all the time. I eat it when I should, nibbling on the impeccable bread selection which precedes the stately procession of the tasting menu at The Sportsman; I eat it when I shouldn’t, using a stale end to transfer the last smears of carbonara sauce into an already full stomach. When I need food, I eat bread. Nothing calms the stomach like a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich from the petrol station shop. Now it seems this puts me in a minority. As I said, though, it depends who they’re polling.

It could be pernicious clean-eaters eschewing bread for its gluten; it could be people getting all their carbs from elsewhere, from porridges and pastas and potatoes; it could even be those so in love with bread they buy one impeccable loaf a week, and save it for their Sunday. Good bread – real bread, or as it used to be called, ‘bread’ – is expensive, as it should be. Good ingredients are expensive, good labour is expensive, time is expensive. If good food is out of the reach of many, then there are many other things which should be changed, rather than degrading the staff (and indeed the stuff) of life to the point where it barely nourishes. Nearly half of everything baked in the UK is thrown away, for example, a shocking waste which would be considered a crime in other cultures.

Bread in Islam is considered a symbolic food, a synecdochic representation of all nourishment as it comes from God, as it is also, I suppose, in Christianity (our daily bread being hopefully not just bread); they tend to take this more seriously, though. Walk old streets in Morocco and you will see stray khobz stuffed between buildings and in cracks in walls, saved from the street and awaiting charitable redistribution; like the feet of angels, it can not touch the base earth. More prosaically, Istanbul, for all its problems, feeds its populace from subsidised and strictly regulated bakeries, as London used to do. Buy bread from anywhere in the city and it will match in price and quality. The responsibility of government to ensure the poor do not starve has been steadily shrugged off in the so-called developed world.

Even with good flour, bread doesn’t cost that much to make, if you make it yourself, but it is hard, and it takes a long time, which is why we’ve always got bakers to do it, a strange group of people who scuttle about at all hours, covered in flour and little bits of dough. I like making bread, but I lack the skill and the patience to do it every day. I certainly can’t make as much as I like to eat, at least when it comes to sourdough. This sort-of focaccia is a good alternative when I want something fresh-baked, though. The initial rise is so accelerated it seems you’re watching it in time-lapse, and it tastes good, too.

CHICKPEA BREAD

1 tin of chickpeas

1 tsp honey

160g cold water

1 packet dry yeast / 15g fresh

260g strong white flour

14g salt

15g extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp caraway or cumin seeds

 

Empty the tin of chickpeas into a saucepan and bring to a boil, then blitz smooth with the honey and cold water. Let it cool to blood temperature, then blitz in the yeast. Tip the whole mush into a bowl.

Pour the flour over in a layer, then sprinkle over the salt, drizzle over the oil, and, I don’t know, throw in the spices. Leave in a warm place. In about 20 minutes it should have risen significantly; there will be deep cracks in the flour layer with chickpea porridge bursting through.

Beat everything together with a wooden spoon, and use this same implement to knead it – it’s too sticky to do by hand. Just use the spoon to drag up one side of the mix and fold it back down into the middle, a few times until it starts to resist and feel alive. Put the dough in a greased skillet or baking tray to prove for an hour. Heat the oven as high as it’ll go.

When the hour is up, bake the loaf for half an hour, turning and perhaps drizzling with more oil halfway through; it won’t rise a huge amount in the oven, but it will be soft and springy and golden, and, of course, sound hollow when you tap the bottom. Let it cool for 5 minutes before tucking in, for appearance’s sake.