Sloe going in the search for free food

This mushroom may look good, especially in children's books, but it is known to be poisonous to humans.
This mushroom may look good, especially in children's books, but it is known to be poisonous to humans.
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I HAVE always liked the idea of food for free. What’s not to enjoy in wandering around the countryside, searching out some great fresh food, taking it home and then cooking it?

The only problem is that it doesn’t really come for free. It takes a lot of time, effort and knowledge and not a little skill. Aside from that, it is important to know that you will be committing an offence under the Theft Act 1968 if you forage for commercial gain in England and Wales.

Once I’m out there searching for stuff I quickly start to think that the qualities required for the task might not be the attributes that I have developed a particular aptitude for.

I can manage alright when it is something simple. So, in the autumn, I’m out there with the best, picking local blackberries from wherever the traffic hasn’t dumped fumes over them. I can even manage to turn out a pretty respectable blackberry and apple crumble, particularly when I smother it with my home-made cardamom custard.

I have more trouble when it comes to things that are a touch harder to recognise. Like mushrooms for instance. I have seen experts on television hunt through the woods and come back with a tremendous bounty of wild and exotic mushrooms. I have even cooked with some of them after buying them from the deli when the price has dropped sufficiently. But actually recognising which ones to pick in the wild is a different thing altogether.

Heading out into the woods with my mushroom book doesn’t help much. It happily tells me how important it is that I recognise which kind of tree the mushroom is growing under. Then it warns me that if I identify the tree wrongly that I will probably identify the mushroom wrongly and we all know what can happen after that. I want to live off the land - not die horribly whilst listening to my loved ones mutter about how reckless I’ve been.

After a lot of effort I’ve managed to work out a couple of wild mushrooms which are pretty hard to get wrong. One of them is the bright red one with spots that is in all the children’s books - the exotically named amanita muscaria. Apparently it was highly prized by Siberians as an hallucinogenic and it is generally considered poisonous to humans.

The other one I think I can reliably detect is the Parasol mushroom which is shaped as the name suggests and has clear markings which make it grey with brown bits. It’s supposed to be very tasty although must not be eaten raw because of their toxic qualities.

I spotted many varieties all through the autumn, poking their heads through the soil and looking absolutely wonderful. I ached to pick those that were edible to fry them in butter and garlic. Then I bottled it. I didn’t have the nerve to pick and cook them.

I don’t know why I should trust supermarket supply chains to sell me potentially dangerous mushrooms for a high price when they appear to be capable of selling horsemeat disguised as beef. Nevertheless they have me hooked - it seems that I still trust them more than my own judgement - and I’ve settled for buying supermarket buttons.

But I did have one success in my search for free food. Sloes. Admittedly the gin and vodka that we soak them in doesn’t count as food for free - but you can’t be a purist about these things. A pleasant hour picking sloes from the local hedgerows; a quick freeze to break their skins; a bit of sugar; a few almonds, and a lot of gin or vodka, and you’re there.

It takes practice of course. As does the drinking of it. I figure that if I keep sampling the different batches that my wife made up last autumn then I may be able to give her a very professional view on what tastes best by the time we are ready to pick next year’s crop.

It is a sacrifice of course. But it is one that I am prepared to make in the cause.