Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Nadine, Honey - Is That You..?

Having spent the weekend working in The Wirrall, Monday was supposed to be my day off to recuperate and go fishing at Bewl with Harry. Unfortunately, the tattered remnants of Hurricane Nadine chose the weekend to hit the UK  like a steam train, with gale force winds and skies full of rain causing flooding, traffic chaos and general disruption.

This made our journey back from Liverpool incident-filled, long and frustrating. That notwithstanding, Monday dawned warm, misty and oppressive. The rain started again about mid morning leaving winding rivers running down the middle of roads and trees dripping a melody of water music. As that cleared away around lunchtime it was followed by huge gusts of wind that bent reed beds horizontal, shook trees as if they were shrubs and clattered telegraph wires on their poles causing a  disconcerting threnody of rattles and whines like a wheezing old machine of uncertain maintenance.


We went fishing anyway - hardened as we are and inured against the British weather as all serious fishermen must be. Naturally, we started with cake! Having avoided the vast expanses of Bewl we arrived at the Lodge at Brick Farm in time to see the hopeful sun nudging its way through the bullying clouds and in fact we didn't see the rain again that day.

Trout and Ragwort

We caught though - me on a floating line and Harry on the intermediate. The fish seemed to be as wary of the weather as we were and stayed deep coming to goldhead damsels and Scottish hairy wet flies, perhaps resembling drowned daddy longlegs or other wind blown insects. 

And Harry was right - it was good to get out, the wind blew away all the cobwebs of a busy weekend and the fresh air brought sleep in front of the hot wood fire, red wine remaining in the glass as I drowsed in front of the TV....remembering a long forgotten lyric...

Nadine, Honey - is that You?

Friday, 21 September 2012

Birch Bolete (Leccinum scabrum)

Birch Bolete

Another tasty mushroom to find, and easily identifiable due to its sponge underparts and obvious colouring, this fungus is micchorizal with the widely found silver birch. This means it co-exists with this type of tree and likes the habitat that the birch offers it. As the birch is common, so too is this fungus and its wide availability and taste make it a favourite in the mushroom hunter’s basket. 

This happy circumstance of great taste and wide availability is not always prevalent in mushroom foraging. Unfortunately many fungi that are desirably delicious are usually rare, drab in colour or both, this particularly applies to the King of Mushrooms – Boletus edulis or the Porchini. Also known as the cep or penny bun it is so porcine in its nature and look that it almost squeaks when it is growing, hence its Italian name of ‘Little Pig’. It is, however, a fantastic mushroom to eat and cook with. Hopefully I will blog more about this fine, fat fellow when I next find one. Actually, it's more likely to be my wife who locates one first - she has eyes finely tuned to the seeking out of delicious fungi.

The robust nature of the Birch Bolete makes it an ideal cooking all-rounder, equally at home in an omlette, risotto or stew. This mushroom can also be found in orange as the Orange Birch Bolete (Boletus malaneum) and is found just as widely and is just as edible.

 Remember to take care when foraging mushrooms, take a book and if you’re unsure do NOT eat it. 

All mushrooms are edible……ONCE.

An orange birch bolete (Leccinum malaneum) 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Mike and Harry's Birthday Fish In.

Fishing Chum(p)s

My good friend Harry is older than me - by 4 days! It might not be much, but at my age, I'm starting to care about such fine detail. Like my hair, opportunities to be younger than someone in the same vicinity are beginning to thin and as my 55th birthday approaches I become more circumspect about these things.

We try to fit in a fishing trip each year sometime around our birthday week if we can and although most of our trips involve cake of some kind, it jumps higher up the priority order for this particular day. So we arranged to meet at a local Trout Fishery in Herstmonceux where they have a small, but very nice Lodge Cafe within the complex. We relaxed over a nice cup of tea and a slab of Coffee and Walnut sponge while we caught up with each other's lives, ruing the intervention of work and family life into our fishing time. We're both Grandfather's now but I don't think either of us can believe that, I certainly don't feel as my perception of old age tells me I should - I feel fit, healthy and just as broke as I was in my youth and Harry is trimmer and fitter, but also better off than me! I, however, have more hair - for the moment. Yet we can't chat for very long as the water beckons and trout are waiting to be fooled with the fly.


Not today.

Four, nearly five, hours later, we both found ourselves with one trout each.

If only the trout had been as greedy...
You can always tell when the fishing has been difficult. Open up any Fisherman's Fly box and it becomes obvious. If he has done well and caught with relative ease, there will be regimented ranks of matching flies, each correctly positioned in its own sub section; nymphs, dries, buzzers, hoppers and wets - and of course, by colour. If he has had a trying time, as we all seemed to on this afternoon, flies will explode like furry, feathery snow as the box is opened, nothing will be in its place and the sodden, intermingled lures will be a sad testimony to the increasingly frenetic search for "The Catching Fly" as the afternoon drew on.

Harry takes care with his Fish
Such was this day. The sun was warm for September, the breeze stiff at times, sending clouds scudding across the skies and casts into reeds, trees and bankside water mint. The high temperature kept the trout near the bottom away from floating lines and  light flies and thus were unable to see our crafily concocted wonders of natural pheasant tail and hare's ear fur. But the company was good, nobody showed us up with a bagful of fish - we all struggled equally, and, of course, there was cake.

Birthday Cake!

The "Catching Fly"?

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Season of Mists....

Autumn has been heralded here in the south by misty mornings and hot days. For a week or so we have made the most of the late summer sunshine coming at the end of what has been a very wet spring and summer. 

Yet the year presses on apace; mornings are cooler, dampened by heavy dews creating swirling, short lived mists, evenings in the garden are over sooner and the time for relaxation between work end and night time seem to be filled with manic activity in an effort to make the most of the shortening gap - the shortening day.

Most people will tell you that they like autumn - Keats' 'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' - the changing colours, the fire lit evenings- yet still a sense of sadness prevails. We say as we get older that time flies faster - tempus fugit and all that, but the speed at which the seasons are spinning by remind me of HG Wells' Time Machine - particularly the 1960 movie in which Rod Taylor plays George Wells -sitting in his chair as the years, the fashions and the Changing world flash by faster and faster. As Autumn approaches each year we take the opportunity to look back and wonder 'where did that year go?' We assess our part in it - was it successful, was it a good year, did we enjoy it, did we make the most of it? 

Winter can be depressing - dark nights and mornings, barely any time for outdoor activities - but we should make the most of what the season offers. We can embrace the hearty fireside occasions, a time to catch up with friends and families, hot, robust stews, casseroles, soups and curries - but we can also get outside. 

Dress up warmly and go walking, even if it's just around your local neighbourhood, a good pace will soon warm you up - the hardest part is finding the motivation to put on the clothes and pass the front door. Sunlight on your skin, even on a cold day, will soon banish a few winter blues as any fisherman knows. Winter sunshine has a greater capacity to cheer; its  low angle creates wonderful clarity, long shadows and the joy at seeing its winter face so rarely. 

There are many foraging opportunities too; chestnuts, rosehips, sloes and myriad mushrooms to pick up along the way. There are warm pubs to make toward with hot fires and smooth ales, and then the comfortable walk back home, smug in the knowledge that one didn't languish stagnantly in front of the television, an accomplishment seemingly rarer these days. Should you pass anyone along the way then a secret smile and a nod will be tacitly transferred between kindred spirits, souls content with the robust ruggedness of autumn and winter wanderings, weighed down with the pockets full of hips, haws and husks that such a walk can produce.

Smugness can be healthy too, sometimes.....

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Pot Roasted Pheasant with Blackberries and Spiced Wine

Essential ingredients

This is a simple dish, really, but the art of a great blogger and amateur chef is to make it look difficult.....nope, I can't. It honestly is simple enough.

My pheasants are obtained from a shoot on which I am a beater each year, they are dressed by me and I skin them rather than pluck them. This is because there is very little fat on the birds - and skinning them is far easier. However, if you buy yours from a butcher then, although it will almost certainly have retained its skin, you will still need the bacon with which to cover the bird. This adds the necessary liquid to prevent the pheasant drying out - a common complaint about game bird recipes.

So I place half a lemon and half the blackberries (I start with about 100 grams - these were picked right outside our cottage) into the cavity, season the bird with salt and black pepper, wrap the entire bird, legs and all, in bacon and place it in the pan on top of three or four halved red onions and four cloves of garlic. I sprinkle in the thyme and rosemary add two or three juniper berries and, in this instance, I also added two all-spice berries for a little depth and heat. About half the mulled wine was poured in around the bird and the pot placed, lid off in a hot oven (200 degrees) for 30 minutes or so.

Now, after 30 minutes, you have a choice; the bird is certainly cooked if you like your game rare-ish, just take it out of the oven, place the lid on top and leave while you prepare the vegetables, this helps retain the moistness. Or, you can add a touch more wine if it looks as if it needs it, put the lid on, turn down the oven to about 150 degrees and allow it to slowly cook until the meat falls off the bone.

Isn't that marvelous? A meal with a choice and I can't honestly say which I prefer, it depends on the occassion and how hungry I am.

Ready for the oven

With which vegetables to serve it is another wonderful choice laid before you....roasted butternut squash is seasonal as would be a spiced red cabbage dish or perhaps sweet turnips and potatoes...Or if cooking slowly you could at this stage add frozen peas and chopped carrots to the pot before putting the lid on. I have a garden full of beans and carrots so that is what I will have this time. As with all my recipes, you can change it around as much as you like to suit your tastes and needs.

Please give Pheasant a try, if you haven't done so, it's cheap, usually local and adds back to the community. These shoots employ locals, the gamekeepers are custodians of the Countryside as are the Farmers on whose land the shoots are held. Every beat I've been on has shown the care and concern of the woods and fields that one would expect from the pragmatic approach of country folk. Life is not taken needlessly,and never wasted. If there are too many birds, then we give them, fully prepared, to the local Care Homes, Hospices and Churches. We enjoy the fresh air, even when the ground temperature is in negative numbers, we get plenty of excercise, keep an eye on the woodland and the birds are given a good, plentiful living and every sporting chance during the shoot. This would only apply if you buy your meat from a butcher rather than a supermarket. Supermarkets are rarely concerned with local food sourcing and almost never give anything back to the local community, I avoid them as much as I can.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


What can one say about the ubiquitous Blackberry? What more can be added to the list of uses that this wonderfully abundant and tasty fruit already has?

Well, obviously something or I wouldn't be writing this blog I suppose.

My use of this wonderful berry is, like simple origami, threefold; Bramble vodka, blackberry and apple jelly and game sauce/gravy.

Blackberry Vodka is a drink that reminds me of dark winter evenings sitting in front of a flickering wood fire, shadows dancing across the watercolours on my wall, a good book on my lap - probably Dickens but possibly Conrad or Lawrence - and the cats sprawled around the room in various careless positions. It is a drink easily made but not casually drunk. Not if you value your head the next day.

The recipe is the epitome of simplicity too; sugar, vodka, blackberries - that's it! Put however much vodka you like/can afford into a Demi-Jon add sugar, blackberries, shake and leave for up to three months. I'm always asked "how much sugar?" but that's an individual requirement. I would start at 100 grams per 70 CL bottle of vodka and then taste it after a few weeks. Their are friends who think my bramble vodka too sweet and those who find it not sweet enough - so taste it and add more if you want. Mine usually ends up around 150 g per bottle. As for the fruit, I always decant the liquid off after about 3 months but for goodness sake don't throw the leftover berries away - put them in a kilner jar topped up with either sugar syrup or more vodka and use it at Christmas it's just too good to waste.

It's been hiding away for months....
As for the Game recipe, well I just add a tablespoon full of soft brown sugar to about 100 grams of berries and half a bottle of mulled wine, which can be purchased from all good stores around Christmas and saved for such emergencies as cold winter, spring, summer and autumn evenings - or game recipes. The spices are included in the red wine for you so all you need are 3 or 4 juniper berries and herb of your choice, depending on the Game, rosemary, thyme and sage are the natural favourites. Reduce the sauce to the consistency you require and serve. It's wonderful. The sugar removes some of the bitterness and adds depth of flavour to the jus.

The Apple and Blackberry Jelly is a bit more complex, but there are recipes for jam making available everywhere, I use the River Cottage one mostly as it's straightforward. I cook the fruit on one day and hang it in a jelly bag until the next. Then I make the jelly by adding the sugar and jar it up for presents plus a couple to keep for ourselves.

Just with two of these three ideas, Christmas Presents become easier to consider. Most of my friends and family look forward to their booze, chutney or jams, and those who are ambivalent towards these, love my wife's home-made chocolates - and she's a professional!