There was a time when all people were deeply connected to the food available to us in the wild. We knew how to collect it and prepare it, what to preserve and what to avoid. Our tables followed the ebb and flow of the seasons. Many of my personal food heroes maintain this connection to the land and to our food heritage. They gather for the table from the hedgerows, forest and coast using knowledge and skills that date back to a time before the plentiful availability of shrink wrapped uniformly sized button mushrooms and supermarket blackberries that stay fresh for an unsettling length of time in the fridge.
The recent New Nordic food revolution has made wild food fashionable again, emphasising the importance of cooking what grows around us. Chefs don wellies and water-proofs to stalk the countryside in search of wild garlic, wood sorrel, monksbeard and ceps. As the days cool and shorten, I could not resist adding a warming whisky twist to this produce collected from nature's larder. In sherried whisky we find a perfect partner for the dense mushroom flavour that captures the magic of the forest floor. Maritime whiskies complement the saline tang of seaweed and the fragrance of softer unpeated whiskies complements the sweet fruit of the hedgerow.
If there was ever an activity that embodied Keats' Autumn of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' it is mushroom hunting. Walking across a forest floor dappled with syrupy sunlight, basket in hand on the hunt for puff balls, fairy bonnets and wood urchins, it has the makings of an Enid Blyton adventure.
Mark from Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms describes the search as addictive. He jokes, "My partner Lucy would describe me as akin to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings searching for my precious!" Such obsession goes hand in hand with a respect for the wild. Mark cautions against over harvesting, "Most foragers are very in tune with nature and the environment and are respectful of nature. If they over pick there will be nothing there in coming years."
I have used Mark and Lucy's oyster mushrooms here, but you can use any combination of mushrooms, including cultivated. A warning: do not pick and consume wild mushrooms without the strict guidance of an expert mushroom forager, it is not worth the risk.
Mushroom Bruschetta with Wood Sorrel and Sherry Whisky
Dried wood sorrel provides an acidic contrast to the mushroom's earthiness but lemon zest is a good substitute. It is important to keep the pan hot throughout, to create a caramelisation in the mushrooms. If it gets cold or overcrowded, the water from the mushrooms will flood the pan rather than evaporating.
Heavy frying pan
• 250g mushrooms, coarsely chopped if large
• 50g unsalted butter
• large pinch sea salt
• four slices sourdough bread
• dried wood sorrel or unwaxed lemon zest
• 30ml whisky, I used Redbreast Mano a Lámh
• 15ml cream (optional)
• cold pressed rapeseed oil
Heat butter in pan until foaming and add in the mushrooms. Season with the salt and cook over a constant heat until softened and caramelised. Add in the whisky, wood sorrel / zest and cream if using and allow to heat through. Remove mushrooms from pan. Wipe out pan with paper kitchen towel and brush the pan with oil. Toast sourdough on pan until crisp. Arrange mushrooms on the sour-dough and serve alongside a glass of sherried whisky.
Patience and perseverance are essential for foraging. Dark coloured clothes and a hip flask to stave off the Autumn chill are also recommended if your quarry is the blackberry. Glossy and plump on the hedgerows, often perched tantalisingly out of reach, the fruit is now finally ripening at the end of a disappointing summer. Once captured, the rich fruit is bursting with juice, staining both hands and clothing a vivid purple giving the effect of a 1970s tie-dye. Maybe it will come back in to fashion, as foraging has.
Forager Sharon Greene's of Wild Irish Foods explains that blackberries were once prized for their antacid properties, "They were known years ago as the goutberry and used to treat gout and aid digestion." Sharon feels wild foods have a huge part to play in our overall wellbeing. "They put us back in touch with our surroundings, they make us aware of the beauty of the hedgerows, they help us see that 'weeds' are not a scourge. In this way they help with our diet by changing the way we look at food."
Blackberry and Whisky Jam
• 900g blackberries
• 900g golden granulated sugar
• 50ml unpeated whisky, I used Tullamore D.E.W.
Put the fruit and whisky into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes, the fruit should be soft. Tip in the sugar and reduce heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat, bringing to the boil for ten minutes or until the thermometer reads 105°C. Remove from the heat and leave aside for 20 minutes. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. It will keep, sealed, for six months.
Walking the coast, tasting seaweed changed my view of cooking forever. Dillisk, carageen, kombu and the brilliantly named bladderwrack each surprised me with diversity of their flavours. One dark brown seaweed, introduced by Sally McKenna, author of Extreme Greens: Understanding Seaweed as pepper dillisk, tasted like truffle, umami with a rich nutty finish. Historically, seaweed was such an essential part our diet that an Irish woman's responsibilities were 'práitai, paiste, feamainn' ('spuds, children, seaweed'). As well as being delicious, seaweed can also assist with nutrition. Sally explains, "Minerals in seaweed include selenium, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iodine."
Seaweed and Whisky Butter
Use seaweed as a seasoning, simmered in a casserole or baked in to bread. Using it in butter offers the opportunity to pair with a drop of whisky. Dried seaweed is available from health food stores.
• 500ml cream
• sea salt
• seaweed of choice minced, if using dried, rehydrate for five minutes in room temperature water
• 30ml maritime whisky, I used Talisker
Beat the cream in an electric mixer for ten minutes until the butterfat has separated from the milk. It looks like scrambled eggs suspended in milk. Remove the butter and place in the sieve to strain out the buttermilk. Place the butter in a bowl and add in seaweed and whisky, beat gently to combine. Form the butter using butter bats or spatulas, keep the utensils cold. Serve on top of vegetables, steak or on soda bread made from the buttermilk.