Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Of ponies and puffballs

I'm desperate for the weather to turn autumnal so I can wear sweaters and eat more fattening food (which will then be concealed by said sweaters). Wild food and hedgerow fruits are starting to ripen, a good sign that autumn's coming. I've started harvesting a few things already.

Actually, I think the term harvest only applies if I've grown it myself. Otherwise I think it's foraging. Free spoils. Like finding a great chair on the curbside with a 'free' sign on it.

There's been a good show of fungi. We found a much-coveted prize: the giant puffball.

I think puffballs are coveted because of their size and ephemeral nature, and not their amazing flavor. It was palatable, although the texture is somehwere between a marshmallow and a nerf ball. I managed a few slices fried in butter and garlic on toast, but composted the rest. Next time I see one in a field, I might pretend that I didn't.

The pony paddock is awash in field mushrooms, which I pick as button size. They're your workaday mushrooms, nothing fancy like a shiitake or oyster, but they sure can bulk out a curry or an omelette. We've been eating those on an almost daily basis, while stocks last as they say.

All my harvests get collected in a horse feed bucket - is that in any way hygienic?

I guess the nature of foraging is the gamble. After you're sure it's not poisonous, then it's all personal preference. Having a good repertoire of cooking skills and appropriate recipes probably stacks the deck in your favor. A puffball in the hands of a decent chef who knows how to work with its nerfball-like qualities might have made all the difference. Where even a amateur like me can  muster up a passable chicken and field mushroom casserole.

I caught the crabapple crop just right this year. Crabapple jelly is a staple in our pantry and I have a bucketful of fruit to process. My favorite variety is Malus 'Dartmouth' and the one tree I know of is some 20 miles away in a public garden. Foraging for these apples verges on stealing, though I only pick up the windfalls. I tell myself that I'm simply clearing them up for the gardening staff. That will also be my defense in court.

Still life with crabapples and puffball in horse bucket

In England, foraging for windfall apples has a particular name: scrumping. Many young children have had a slap 'round the ear, or incurred the wrath of an angry gardener for scrumping apples. Even the windfalls are used in cidermaking. Bruising, clods of mud, and the odd worm count as 'natural flavorings' in a bottle of cider.

I thought I would collect a few hazelnuts this year too, as I enjoyed the foraged sweet chestnuts last year. I envision rich chocolate hazelnut puddings (wearing sweaters means I can eat as many as I want). I thought I would do double duty: take the horses for a ride and pick nuts as I went. On horseback I could reach the higher branches. I put some panniers on Alan and expected to come back from our ride with both sides full. I was congratulating myself on my efficiency and genius.

I didn't know horses like hazelnuts too, or that they're quicker than me at finding them.

One for me...six for you...

When I stopped at a tree to pick the nuts, Alan and Kitty joined in. For every one I found and picked, they ate a branch with several clusters on it. I only managed a few meagre handfuls in total. They ate their fill. Equine ingrates.

The hazelnuts will be around for a bit longer so my dreams of puddings and muffin tops aren't wholly lost. To improve my chances, I won't be taking the horses with me next time. But I'll still have to do battle with the squirrels and my money's on them. I'll accept my fate. As long as I don't have to live on puffballs.


Poppy Cottage said...

We had puff ball the other day. I know what you mean about the texture. I used to hav a freezer full of mushroom soup. Some of the things I really miss about the 'old' life.

Still, one day x

Paula said...

We should be able to get native filberts here (a kind of hazelnut) but the darn squirrels eat them green- they're not even ripe before they're gone. Oregon is also supposed to be great for mushrooms, what with all the rain and all, but I've only found chanterelles on my sister-in-law's property near the coast. Truth be told, I haven't actually had the opportunity to look for any others, nor do I recognize any others. But I've never seen any in the park near the house, either. I have two books on the subject, and maybe someday I'll be able to do a good mushroom hunt some justice.

Wild blackberries I can do, though. Good luck with your next hazelnut outing!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I've never had the pleasure of a giant puffball, but I've eaten my share of lackluster wild mushrooms. The key seems to be small pieces, long cooking times, and lots of butter and wine. It's like the Stone Soup story ...

As for the hazelnuts, I envy you those, even if you do only get what the horses turn their noses up at. We've got hickory trees on our property, and I've taken a stab at them, but you need a jackhammer to get the open.

Regardless, here's to sweater season! Pass the sausages!

Laurie said...

Last year I froze a giant puffball processed as "duxelles" - it was wonderful on top of pizzas and in soups thruout the year and totally changed my mind about puffballs. Simply peel, chop, saute with lots of butter, garlic, and onions. Put up in those cute little 8 ounce jars and freeze. It is worth the effort!

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - Since I'm so late relpying, it's gone quiet on the mushroom front now. But rain is due next week so keep an eye on your puffball patch!

Paula - I'm so unschooled about mushroom identification that I scarcely forage for them. When I lived in France, you could bring any musrooms you found to the local pharmacy and they would ID them for you. A great service I wish we had here.

I'm loosing the battle for hazlenuts, but I scored some plums yesterday. Enjoy your blackberries.

Tamar - Thanks for the tip on dealing with Stone Soup mushrooms. Maybe I'll give the puffball another chance. Mike had never heard the Stone Soup story and I recounted it for him as best I could. It was right up his street..eh woods.

Laurie - I should have spoken to you and Tamar before I composted the beast! I have the Julia Child cookbook and I will take your advice and make it into duxelles. Thanks so much for your culinary guidance.

Trevor said...

This probably won’t be seen, as I’m a little late to the party, haven’t had time to be reading the blogs. We start finding Giant Puffballs this time of year in our area, and have been harvesting them since I was a little kid. Though there is many ways to prepare them, probably our favorite is to fry them. What we do is to first slice the entire mushroom into 5-10mm thick slices, the thinner the crispier the end result will be, and then cut the slices into manageable pieces. We then dip them into an egg wash, followed by a coating of course flour and seasoned Italian bread crumbs. Then take and fry by whatever method you prefer to a golden brown. Salt and season as desired. I like a little smoke paprika, or chipotle thrown in. Also, experiment with dipping sauce. We treat the puffball more as an appetizer or snack, rather than a side dish.