It all started because of Hugh’s early TV series, A Cook on the Wild Side, in which a cheeky, tousle-haired young Hugh would cook his supper (on a pedal-powered camping stove, if I remember correctly) from ingredients he’d foraged – dandelion tempura, woodlouse fritters – stuff like that.
It was Hugh that introduced me to the joys of mushroom hunting - to the realisation that, in certain places at a certain time of year, these extraordinary sprouting things, which were highly prized and served for loads of money in fancy restaurants, were growing freely and there for the taking by anyone with the patience to look for them.
It was when I lived in Perthshire in Scotland that I found my first proper haul of winter ceps and chanterelles. They were everywhere. Some of the ceps were bigger than my head. And they were so delicious. But it wasn’t just the mushrooms themselves that made this sort of foraging so appealing. It was the places that you had to go to find them, and how special and secret they appeared at the time of year I typically went foraging, which was late autumn. Majestic ancient forests with spongy moss-covered ground, the smell of humus and the cool umber under the tree canopies, the sweet smell of vegetable decay, the kaleidoscope of autumnal colour, and, here and there, like an exotic secret waiting to be discovered, these strange and beautiful fungi…
It’s a wonderful feeling, walking in the whispery depths of a wood or forest, with an image in your mind of the treasure you’re looking for, and then discovering exactly what your mind’s eye has prefigured right at your feet. My favourite mushroom by far is the cep, (aka porcini, penny bun). As far as I’m concerned, the rich, umami flavour of this king of shrooms is unsurpassed (apart from truffles, but that’s another story altogether). If I have a big haul of ceps I’ll dry as many and use them to season stocks, to flavour soups and stews, or to rehydrate and fry with any number of things. But a nice fresh young cep sliced, seasoned and cooked in garlic butter will sit on top of a nice steak like a create the most gorgeous, rich umami treat imaginable… just the thought of it makes me drool…
Mushrooms can be really fun to wine-match with too. Those creamy, earthy, uniquely mushroomy notes can often find their analogue in the secondary notes of many wood-matured reds and the tertiary notes of wines of any colour with a bit of age on them; even with fortified styles like oxidative Sherry or Madeira. Basically, any wine which, when you stick your nose in it, has any suggestion of autumn, will find a friend in a cooked mushroom. (See a few favourites below.) And this time of year, more than any other, is for me the best in which to bring together these irresistible twin fruits of glorious decay.
A Cook on the Wild Side is available to stream at channel4.com. Highly recommended!
Written by resident Swig Scribe, Darren Smith