Category Archives: Found

Treasure Chestnuts

Sweet Chestnut jam

The sweetest of chestnuts

I really love sweet chestnuts. Seasonal, run-up-to-christmas, eat-with-game, things-that-help-make-sprouts-bearable, isn’t-it-brilliant-when-you-find-a-tree-of-them-in-a-park-(though-really-infrequent-in-a-country-with-few-hedgerows), lovely chestnuts. I like to find them in the wild for all to take advantage of, I like to cook with them, I like to thicken soups with them, I have never eaten them in marron glacé form, but I expect they are also lovely.

I haven’t found any in any great quantity while foraging over here. You might be much luckier than I am, or just get them at your local market. I bought some very cheap ones, but the reason why they were so cheap was that they were a little past their best, and a number contained insect larvae (probably moths), which is the same as if I had foraged them anyway! I had to go and get some slightly less cheap ones from my local greengrocer’s. Still, it was nice to watch the jays pick through the discarded ones this morning, as I made the jam.

Serve peeled chestnuts at a party, and people think that you have gone to a lot of trouble for them. And the fact is, they would be  right too. I always go into it thinking that it will be a quick job, and always forget how fiddly the damn things are.

Today, I spent a good few hours peeling chestnuts. I suspect this is because I am a little bit too anally retentive about removing the skin from all the folds of the nut.  I also spent a considerable time online trying to find ways to speed up the process. I did come across this video from the people at badgerset.  I think this method has a lot of potential, but it will take practice to recognise how long is enough boiling time. For the record, I found that my chestnuts needed much longer in the boiling water to allow the skin to detach. I guess I need more practice. And possibly a decent pair of pliers. One brilliant thing about this method, is that you get to see the ones that have insect larvae in before you eat them.

After I had done all that peeling, I made Melissa’s Chestnut Jam, from the River Cottage Preserves book, by Pam Corbin. I have had my eye on this jam for a little while, not least because Pam recommends them to be eaten with meringue. I usually have a glut of egg whites around, due to my fondness for egg-based sauces and real custard (As a Brit who loves her puddings, vla does not really cut it for me). We are having are christmas minced pie and mulled wine party soon, so I will make the meringues for these, and I will serve them with this jam. I also gave a jar to my friend, for her recent birthday. She has been hankering for egg-free chocolate mousse for a little while, so I hope this jam will be a fitting accompaniment for the one that I made her.

A few things to note about this jam. Firstly, do not try to blend too many chestnuts at a time – they quickly clog up the food processor, and take quite a lot of mixing in to avoid lumps. I didn’t manage it. It would probably be easier to blend them all together at once, with a little cooking liquor,  in a bowl, using a stick blender. I am a little gadget-averse, and won’t buy one on the grounds that I have a food processor, so why have two things to do the same job? Seems my tight attitude has not paid off in this case. I also used to  whip meringues by hand, until one time I broke my collarbone, so had to ask the Big Guy to whip them for a party we had. The next day, he came home with an electric whisk, saying that it would have saved him a couple of hours of his life, that he will never see again.

The chestnuts and the cooking liquor form quite a thick paste. Being much more used to fruit jams, I was very worried that this would not be liquid enough to form a jam. I was wrong, when it is added to the sugar syrup, it quickly liquefies. Do not be tempted to add more than the recommended 100 ml of the cooking liquor to the chestnuts when blending them.

My top tip for this jam is not to cook it if you have children or animals in the vicinity. Pam mentions that it sputters, but not how much, and it is very, very sticky. I have spent ages trying to remove it from the splashback, random bits of kitchen work top and my utensils pot. I also recommend wearing a long-sleeved top when you cook this. Those little splashes hurt.

The jam also sets quite quickly off the heat, so probably keep it on the lowest simmer when you fill the jars, so that the rest remains liquid enough to pour into the rest of them.

It is very nice, and not too sweet, although I think I will up the amount of brandy in the next batch I try. So, try it with meringues, chocolate mousse, or even on toast with some chocolate spread, if you are feeling lazy.

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Foraging: Free Food or Foolish Foray?

Nature's Larder

I really enjoy rootling about in the countryside to find plants that I can eat. I love nature, and all the things in it, so I have invested time in learning common edible species, and then going out to find them. I often take the Big Guy, but am also happy to go alone, although a dog would be great company.

I do this both because I am concerned about eating local food, and also because I get a bit bored with cabbage in the hungry gap, come early spring. I think it is a useful skill to have, beyond the usual brambling that I am sure almost everyone I know has indulged in at one time or another.

Flowers and Fruit

I have tried a number of plants, some of which I have really liked, and some of which I have not. It is a pleasant way to pass a few hours, and mostly you will be eating weeds, so many gardeners will appreciate your efforts.

I also have a fishing rod, and do eat food that people who I know have hunted themselves. I think that this is a sustainable way to eat fish and meat – catch only what you can eat, eat game.  However, this is not the focus of this post. I may get back to this topic at a later date.

When you forage for your own food, you do run risks. There are many plants and fungi about that can make you mildly to quite ill, and there are some that will make you quite dead! Some really tasty species are very easy to confuse with some really deadly ones. Common sense and caution are your friends if you decide to go and sample nature’s larder.

There are also a number of laws and bylaws governing foraging, so try to make sure you know what they are in your area, in order to avoid having your collar felt!

I go by the following basic rules, which should help to keep you safe, and largely legal. You may wish to add your own in the comments.

  1. The laws on foraging tend to be fairly complicated, there are differences between countries, and there may also be local bylaws in effect. Please make sure that you know and follow the laws governing foraging where you are. You can generally find out what may apply through your local council, although be aware that this can be time-consuming, and you may get passed onto to different departments and agencies.
  2. There may well be more complicated laws, and outright bans in some places, on gathering mushrooms for commercial purposes.  I would not take the risk of attempting to gather mushrooms for sale. Unless you are an expert, I really don’t recommend that you do either.
  3. It is polite, and probably a very good idea, to get permission from the landowner before you gather food from his land.
  4. Don’t remove all of the plants in one area. If greedy people have taken them all before they can reproduce, there will be none left for next year. Besides the conservation aspect, older mushrooms and fruits are likely to be unappetising, either through ‘going over’ or by becoming infested with maggots.
  5. Try not to gather food too near to the roads – the things you find there may look really juicy, but they are likely to be contaminated with all sorts of chemicals that result from burning petrol. I also try not to use plants from areas where there is heavy dog use, or at least I make sure that I have washed eveything thoroughly.
  6. Take a good field guide with you. I usually take a few with me, because plants and  mushrooms are not uniform, and you need to have a good idea. A good field guide will have photos, classification charts, and will have information on habitat. I also find taking a tree field guide with me to be very useful, to help me double-check the species that I have. Similar looking mushrooms sometimes grow under different trees, or in different habitats.
  7. Careful identification of the plant or mushroom is required. Only by learning its identity can you be sure if it is poisonous or not. The best way to do this is to proceed with caution. Note the habitat, its appearance (if you can, both young and old specimens), the colour of its spores. Again, good field guides will have this information.
  8. People have different tastes, and different reactions. Once you have identified an edible species, only try a small amount at first, to gauge if you have any adverse reactions.
  9. MOST IMPORTANTLY if you are in any doubt of the identity of your plant, or if it is easily confused with a similar, but poisonous species please err on the side of caution and do not eat it. You must be aware of what happened to that cat who was a little too curious?

Many mushroom  foragers that I know tend to stick to a few patches that they know well, and to two or three species that they are sure of. You could also enlist the help of an expert, and there are many courses that you can go on to improve your knowledge. Whichever way you choose, I am definitely not to blame if you do have ill effects.

Even if I cooked it for you. You shouldn’t suffer, though,  because I am careful to follow these simple rules.

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Wild Garlic Tarts

Wild Garlic Tarts

Wild Garlic Tarts  

Wild Garlic – it is more than likely available in a wood near you right now. It looks quite innocuous, and is easy to walk past. However, walk on it, and there will be no mistaking the smell of garlic.

I love the stuff, and have it in soups, salads, as pesto, I use it as a pot herb, and anything else that I can think of. You can eat the leaves, bulbs and the flowers (although it should be noted that in many places digging up the entire plant is illegal, so only use the flowers and leaves), and all of them have that distinctly garlic taste.

Of course, there are a few basic guidelines to stick to when foraging, and don’t take the whole patch. Apart from needing to leave some for next year’s crop, wild garlic does not keep all that well, lasting about a week in the fridge. And it bruises easily, which only speeds up the deterioration.

One word of caution is that it is possible to confuse the leaves with lily of the valley early in the season, but there really can be no confusion once you smell the plant. If it doesn’t smell of garlic, just don’t eat it!

I had invited a couple of friends over to dinner, and happened to have had a foraging session the day before. I also collected nettles and other wild greens, but these can sometimes be a little ‘niche’ for most people. I thought introducing them to the delights of wild garlic would be an easy and very tasty way in.

As  this was to be a starter, I decided that little tartlets were the way to go. Plus, I had been given some beautiful little individual tart dishes that I wanted to try out.

With savoury tarts, I often prefer cheese pastry. Back in Britain, then only a good cheddar would do for this pastry, but now I live in the Netherlands, and I am not prepared to pay a small fortune for cheddar in a country that prides itself on making its own cheese. I have not necessarily bought  into the fact that Dutch cheeses are the best in the World, but there are enough specialty shops that you can find a good, tasty cheese. For a good cheddar substitute I usually use a piquant belegen boerenkaas (literally ‘sharp mature farmer’s cheese’, which is often unpasteurised).

These are great served with a salad (you can even use foraged leaves if you like), and a fruity dressing. I used home-made blackberry vinaigrette, but balsamic or raspberry would do equally well.

The recipe below is enough for 6 tartlets. If you have fewer people, then both the pastry and the filling will keep in the fridge for up to a week (although the pastry must be tightly wrapped, or just freeze it and thaw before use).

Recip: Wild Garlic Tarts

Ingredients

For the pastry

75 g butter

175 g plain flour (or a mix of half white and half wholemeal plain flour)

50 g of a tasty cheese, such as mature cheddar or piquant belegen boerenkaas

1/2 tsp dry mustard powder

Good pinch of cayenne pepper

For the tart filling

50-100 g wild garlic leaves, cut to a chiffonade

100 g good camembert, finely chopped (any well-flavoured rinsed-rind soft cheese would be good in this dish)

3 eggs

100 ml cream or milk

Freshly grated nutmeg

Paprika

Method

Firstly, make the pastry. I have had very little success in getting good results from using a food processor to form the dough. If you find this easy, combine the ingredients in a food processor, then add cold water to form the dough.

I rub the butter, mustard powder and the flour together by hand. For this I use cold butter, and often have cold hands, so I’m not working the dough too much. You can achieve cold hands by dint of poor circulation, or running them under a cold tap for a few minutes before working the dough.

Once the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, I add the cheese and the cayenne. I don’t add salt, because the cheese should contain enough. Then I combine the lot with just enough cold water to form a dough.

The pastry needs to rest in the fridge for at least half an hour, but I often go and do something else, then get back to it when I have finished.

Roll out the pastry thinly, and put into the greased tartlet tins. You can also make one large quiche with this recipe. If making individual tarts, I find it easier to cut out smaller discs from the pastry, using a side plate as a template, then gently transfer the thin pastry to the tart tins, and cut to size. Pastry will shrink when you cook it, so it  is better to be generous. You can always trim it later, but you can’t unshrink it.

Blind bake in a hot oven at 180°C. To blind bake, I cover the pastry with rice in greaseproof paper, you can also use beans or ceramic beads. Once rice has been baked in this way, you can no longer cook it normally, so I keep mine in a jar to recycle for every blind bake.

Once the base of the pastry is dry (usually 10 mins) remove the blind bake and put back in the oven until the pastry has browned slightly, and is crisp.

Meanwhile, make the tart filling, by lightly beating the egg and cream, then adding the wild garlic leaves, cheese, paprika nutmeg and mixing well. Season to taste.

When the tart cases are out of the oven, allow to cool slightly, and fill with the filling. Return to the oven, and bake for 15 minutes, or until the topping has just set (could be up to half an hour if making a large quiche).

Serve warm or cold.

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