Category Archives: natural history

Snipe

Last week I was very excited to hold of some snipe, a very rare treat indeed. I roasted them and got them on my menu. To eat them in the traditional way is, by our modern standards, rather macabre; they are cooked and roasted completely whole. Guts and brain are eaten.  It’s not for the faint-hearted, but, as is often the case, they make delicious eating. I was worried I had gone a little too far, but the people of Levenshulme did me proud.

So here’s a post all about snipe and how to roast and eat them in the traditional way.

A while back I wrote a general entry about game. Read it here.

 

Snipe in brief:

Season: 12 Aug – 31 Jan (England, Wales & Scotland); 1 Oct – 31 Jan (Northern Ireland)

Hanging time:  2-3 days

Weight: 150g

Roasting time:  10-15 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 80 000

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly marshes and wetlands, but also heathland, moorland and water meadows

Collective noun: wisp (when in flight); walk (when on foot)

 

What is a snipe? Well Laurence Andrew, writing in his tome The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles and fishes… (c. 1527) has a pretty good stab and describing it (though I’m sure the snipe does not get its bill stuck in the mud Natural Selection would have something to say about that!):

Snyte [Snipe] is a byrde with a longe bylle & he putteth his byll in the erthe for to seke the worms in the grounde and they put their bylles in the earthe sometyme so depe that they can nat get it up agayne & thane they scratche theyr billes out agayn with theyr fete. This birde resteth betimes at nyght and they be erly abrode on the morning & they have swete flesshe to be eaten.

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Weighing in at an average of 150g, the snipe is our smallest legal game bird. They are not an introduced species like the pheasant, red legged partridge or rabbit, but indigenous to the UK and Ireland (where most reside). There are around 80 000 breeding pairs in the UK, but these numbers increase substantially when around one million individuals flock to the country to overwinter.

Normally, shooting indigenous species holds up a red light for conservation – and rightly so, it should always come first, but in this case the snipe have the upper hand because they are so damn tricky to shoot.

common-snipe

They are secretive, highly camouflaged birds that use their very long bills to probe mud and sand flats for tasty creatures to eat. When driven at a hunt they fly in zig zags and are quickly gone again, this is why a group of them is called a wisp. (It’s no surprise, then, that especially good sharp shooters in the armed forces became known as snipers.) These birds are almost self-managing in their difficulty to hunt!

As a food they are delicious, indeed they are considered the finest eating. They are wonderfully rich and tender, and although they are small, a little goes a long way. Winston Churchill once demanded ‘a brace of snipe washed down with a pint of port’ as a hangover cure whilst on a transatlantic flight to Washington DC. Their carcasses make excellent stock.

Not just the leg and breast meat are eaten, but also the brain and the trail – in other words, the innards of the bird, usually scooped out and spread on the slice of toast it was roasted upon.

Don’t be repulsed by this! Your first worry is probably that the guts will be full of the bird’s faeces, well worry not, the snipe (and its larger cousin, the woodcock) evacuates its bowel as soon as it takes flight. Your second worry, presumably, is that you are eating gory intestines, liver, heart etc. Again, nothing to worry about here either! It is all very soft, rich and tender like a lovely warm pâté.

The head is cut in half lengthways so that the brain can removed or sucked out.

This is ancient finger food.

 

Sourcing snipe

As you will have guessed, finding snipe for the table is tricky. I’ve only ever seen snipe three times in butcher’s shop windows so my advice is to make friends with someone who shoots, because only a few will have been shot on any single hunt, and therefore it’s unlikely there will be any surplus for the butcher to pick up. The chances are you’ll probably have to finish the business of hanging the bird(s) yourself.

Most game birds are sold in ‘braces’, i.e. pairs, usually a cock and hen, but snipe actually come in threes, or ‘fingers’, so-called because that’s how many you can hold between the fingers of one hand.

These tiny birds do not need to hang for long, just 2 or 3 days. If it is unseasonably warm or being hung indoors 1 or 2 days should do the trick.

 

Preparing snipe for the table

You are to observe: we never take anything out of a wood cock or snipe

James Doak’s Cookbook, circa 1760

Snipe are extremely easy to prepare if you are roasting them:

  1. Pluck away the leg and breast feathers. If you like, remove the skin from its head.
  2. Truss the snipe with its own beak, by pulling its head down to its side and spearing the legs with its long bill.

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Some recipes as you to remove the trail before you cook it (sometimes to be fried up with butter and smoked bacon). To do this, make a small incision in its vent and use a small tea or coffee spoon to remove the entrails.

Snipe can also be cooked just like any other bird if you prefer (but you are missing out on a real treat). Pluck the whole body, or peel away the skin, and cut away legs, head and feet.

 

Roast snipe, and how to eat it

Per person:

1 or 2 oven-ready snipe

1 or 2 pieces of toast, as large as the snipe

Butter

Salt and pepper

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To accompany:

Mashed potatoes or game chips

Roast vegetables

Gravy made from game stock

A sweet jelly such as redcurrant, quince or medlar jelly

 

  1. If your snipe have been kept in the fridge, remove them and let them get to room temperature, about 30-40 minutes.
  2. Preheat your oven as hot as it will go, 230⁰
  3. Spread a good knob of butter on the toast and lay the snipe on top. Smear two more small knobs over the snipes’ breasts. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the snipe on a roasting tin and roast for 10-12 minutes for medium-rare birds. If you are roasting several, make sure that you leave a good gap between each one so that heat can circulate around them.
  5. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes or so.
  6. The snipe can then be served to each guest with various accompaniments. I think it’s best if each guest carves their own snipe.
  7. Take the snipe off its toast and cut of its head. Use a chef’s knife the cut its head in half lengthways.
  8. Next, scoop out the snipe’s trail with a teaspoon and spread it over the toast.
  9. Remove the legs and cut away the breasts using a steak knife.
  10. Eating is fiddly, so use your fingers to get every piece of meat from the carcass.
  11. Don’t forget the brain – pick up the two halves of the head and use the beak from one half to extract the brain from the other half, then swap. Alternatively, suck the brain out.

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The Glorious Twelfth

red grouse

Today is the Glorious Twelfth! The day in the countryside calendar that many await, for it is the beginning of game season.

I know it may seem a little unsavoury to look forward to the shooting of thousands of birds and mammals, but it is so woven into the tradition of country life, that it seems a rather romantic pursuit. Not one that I have been privy to of course, as it is a posh person’s game.

Technically, the 12th of August is the opening of the game season for the red grouse, though a couple of other game species can also be legally hunted from this day (see the list of game species, below).

There are two broad types of game: furred and feathered, i.e. mammals and birds. Fish are considered game too, but they do not follow the same laws as the others.

On a typical hunt for grouse and other game birds, there is a basic set up of beaters that walk in a loose line across a heath, in the case of grouse, or scrub in the case of pheasant, beating the vegetation in order to scare the birds so that they fly up and away toward gunmen to be shot. The bird is then retrieved by a gun dog such as a springer spaniel. I’m over-simplifying this, of course, but that is the basic process.

quarry

 A hunter after her quarry (Lax-A)

The hunt is such a huge event and requires such a large amount of organisation, that single hunts often cost up to £50 000 per day, raking £50 million into the local economies of Scotland and Northern England each year.

How Glorious is it?

The Glorious Twelfth is controversial, with the game industry and conservationists constantly at loggerheads, but the fact is that the Moorland Association has protected many at risk species in the British Isles such as the golden plover and lapwing. They put a lot of effort into the management of heathlands by selectively burning areas and reducing the numbers of predators such as foxes and weasels. It is here that the Moorland Association has been hit with the most criticism; conservationists say they should not be culling predators so that we can have more grouse for posh men to shoot. It’s a fair point.

Then, on the really dark side are the accusations of the killing of some of our most rare birds of prey like the hen harrier.

So on one hand predator animals are often persecuted, whereas on the other, well-behaved waders are looked after.

I view the situation the same I do zoos. I know they do good work for the conservation of animals and habitats, yet I can’t help but feel sad every time I see a poor old bored elephant, or a majestic tiger walking laps around its pen. They are part of our heritage, like it or not, but they can do good work.

The Game Act, 1831

This Act of Parliament was brought in to protect game birds by bringing in closed hunting seasons, and imposed game licences (hares and deer have their own Acts, which follow similar principles). Some species were protected completely, such as the common bustard (now extinct in the UK, but there are attempts to reintroduce it).

The Game Act was brought in to replace the outdated ide of their being Royal Forests, brought in during the 11th Century during the reign of William I, where it was illegal to hunt game unless you had permission from the king. As the centuries rolled on, the laws slackened more and more until they were pretty much useless.

At the time of writing the Act, hares were not given a closed season as they were a pest. The imposing capercaillie was not included in the Act as it was extinct in the UK at the time, being reintroduced to Scotland in the 1837.

Game seasons

Feathered game is further subdivided into two groups: game birds and waterfowl & waders. Some of the species are familiar and other are not, and of the ones I have tried, all taste delicious (unless they’ve been hung for too long, then they are decidedly rank).

Game Birds

Red grouse, ptarmigan                 August 12 – December 10

Black grouse                                    August 20 – December 10

Partridge (grey and red-legged)  September 1 – February 1

Pheasant                                           October 1 – February 1

As laid out in law, it is illegal to shoot wild birds between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. In England and Wales, game cannot be killed on Sundays or Christmas Day. If the 12th of August lands on a Sunday, the season will officially begin the next day.

I have never come across a ptarmigan to buy, so if anyone knows how I can nab one, do let me know.

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Game birds are often sold as a brace – a male & female. Partridges in this case

Wildfowl &Waders

Snipe                                                  August 12 – January 31

Ducks & Geese                                 September 1 – January 31 (inland); til Feb 20 at low tide

Golden plover, coot & moorhen   September 1 – January 31

Woodcock                                         October 1 – January 31

Several species of duck and goose can be legally hunted, though many in reality, are ignored by hunters, or shot in very small numbers, such as: gadwall, goldeneye, pintail, shovelers and tufted ducks, though pintails have been spotted in my butcher’s shop before now. You are much more likely to see mallard, wigeon and teal.

Geese are a bit tricky to get hold of, unless you know someone personally that hunts, and the reason for this is that whilst geese can be shot, it is illegal to sell them. I presume this rule is an incentive to hunters to shoot the numbers they need. Legal game species are: white-fronted (England & Wales only), pink-footed, greylag and Canada geese.

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A brace of mallard

The furred game can also be split into two broad groups: ground game and deer.

Ground Game

This is basically your small and furry game species:

Rabbit & brown hare                      January 1 – December 31

Mountain hare (Scotland only)  August 1 – February 28/29

Rabbit and brown hare have no closed season, this is because at the time of the Game Act, they were both considered pests. These days, everyone considers rabbits to be a pest, but the hare does get an effective closed season from March to May, due to their fall in numbers in recent times.

brown hares - telegraph

Boxing brown hare (Telegraph)

Deer

There are six species of deer inhabiting the UK: red, sika, fallow, roe, Chinese water deer and muntjac. The seasons get pretty complicated here, but generally the open season runs from August to April for males (bucks & stags) and November to March for females (hinds & does). The exception being muntjac that have no closed season

Pests

There are a few pest species that can also be eaten such as rabbits, woodpigeons and grey squirrels. In the past rooks were eaten, though this is very uncommon these days.

So there you go, a whistle-stop tour of hunting in the UK. In the coming months I’ll be posting some game-related posts as I hunt around my local butchers’ shops for some delicious seasonal treats.

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Chicken-of-the-Woods

I have written a few posts on foraging and natural history in Britain, here’s a little post about a lovely edible mushroom:

As I was walking in Lyme Park at the weekend I kept an eye out for edible goodies. Lyme Park is great for oyster mushrooms because of the large number of beech trees in the forests there. However, I did not expect to find a splendid chicken-of-the woods growing on a dead tree trunk just off the path to the children’s play area! Goodness knows how many had walked past it unaware of the delicious treat..

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Although I am by no means an expert, I recognised it straight away – a large bracket fungus with multiple brackets with a beautiful and almost garish orange and sulphur-yellow coloration. In fact, another name for it is the sulphur polypore (the polypore part is because it doesn’t have gills on its underside like a typical fungus, but many tiny pores). There really is nothing else like it, so you can be pretty certain of what it is.

However, before I go on: always confirm you have correctly identified the fungus and check more than one field guide. The two I use are the River Cottage Handbook No.1: Mushrooms, for quick reference and the Collins Fungi Guide for more detailed descriptions. If you are not 100% sure of what you are picking, don’t pick it!

As with all fungi there is a certain amount of variation – there can be many brackets or a few, they can be a range of widths from a few inches to a couple of feet, the brackets can be neat and flat, or can look as though they’ve poured out and frozen, like orange lava, in a Dali-esque manner. The one I found had grown around blades of grass, trapping them like flies on amber. I didn’t take it all because I thought I’d see if the intact part would grow back – if I’m lucky I might be able to collect a regular ‘crop’ over the next few months!

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo in situ because my phone has run out of batteries, but here’s a few pictures I have found in books and on the ‘net that shows off this variation:

2013-08-08 21.47.13   chicken wood tallchicken woods flatchicken woods tall

From (in order) John Wright, First Nature, Cornell University, Malcolm Storey

Chicken-of-the-woods, or to give its scientific name Laetiporus sulphurous, is only found on trees, and the trees can be living or dead. It is usually found in the Summer and Autumn, and occasionally in Winter if it is a mild one. It grows most commonly upon oak and also yew, cedar, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow. It is worth pointing out that all Laetiporus species are edible except if found growing on poisonous trees such as yew and cedar.

Whilst on the subject of edibility, I should also mention that Laetiporus sulphurous is only edible when cooked.

Cooking with Chicken-of-the-Woods

This fungus is called chicken-of-the-woods because it’s firm flesh is pale and fibrous but tender, like chicken breast. For that reason it makes an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians. What a coincidence it is that I have a friend visiting me who is vegetarian; we could put the chickeniness to the test.

I did hope it was good because the chicken-of-the-woods I found was pretty big, weighing in at 2 kilograms and bigger than my head! It therefore would keep me and my visiting friend Stuart in meals for most of the week.

Preparing it is simple. Separate the brackets from each other and trim away and tough woody bits then rinse it under the tap briefly to get rid of any soil and creepy-crawlies, then slice it reasonably thinly. Then it is just a question of integrating it into a recipe. As you slice, you’ll notice that the flesh is rather dry, so when frying it you should add a little water so that it can absorb it and become more typically mushroomy in texture.

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Its firm flesh is tender and yielding and definitely has a truffle aroma and flavour when cooked – there’s a lot of umami going on in that mushroom! It’s definitely the tastiest wild mushroom I have found thus far. We couldn’t understand why it hasn’t been cultivated as food because it was so substantial and satisfying, and better than any TVP, Quorn or other mock meats. Maybe I’ve found a gap in the market…

Here’s what I made with it:

One third was turned in simple mushrooms on toast  – a recipe can be found for that here – the only changes I made was to add a little water after a few minutes’ sautéing, and to omit the cream/milk. Whenever you try a mushroom the first time, this is the thing to cook for it shows it off in all its glory! It fed 4.

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The second third was used in a stir fry with the typical stir-fry veg, soy, (vegetarian) oyster sauce and, again, some water. This really showed off its meaty qualities. Excellent. This fed 2.

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The last third was a spinach and chicken-of-the-woods lasagne. I made a simple béchamel sauce flavoured with Lancashire cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, then sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil, added some water and steamed the spinach on top of the mushrooms. Everything was layered up in the usual way, finished with some Parmesan and breadcrumbs and baked. This fed 4….

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Now it is all used up, and we didn’t even get bored of it. I do hope another grows back on that tree trunk…

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The Eel Paradox

Around a year ago I wrote a post about jellied eels and eel, pie and mash houses in London and I have been meaning to write a sequel on the subject of eel fishing and conservation for a while, as well as looking at some traditional recipes for the slippery fish.

The European eel Anguilla anguilla is a threatened species; the IUCN has put it on its Red List as a Critically Endangered animal, yet it is perfectly legal to eat them – and fish for them if you have a licence – the funny thing is adult stocks of eel has remained stable for the last few decades. So why has the eel been given this Critically Endangered status? Well it is because the young eels – known as elvers in Britain, but more commonly known as glass eels – have had the drastic drop in population. Some of these populations have crashed by 95% in some areas. The paradox is: how can the adult population be stable whilst the young have diminished in number so much?

german eel

Well the short answer is that we don’t know! Elvers resupply our rivers of stock eels after a long migration from the Sargasso Sea where they were born. Understandably, this part of the life cycle is poorly understood, and all scientists and conservationists can do is count the number reaching our estuaries and rivers and monitor them carefully.

In Britain, the main inlet for elvers is the River Severn; indeed there are still a decent number of elvers swimming into its mouth every year. However, the population has dropped overall in Europe by 75% and so the spectacle of the great migration is no longer what it was:

In the month of April; the shores of the Severn are annually darkened with innumerable quantities of elvers, which are seen fringing the sides of the river a black ascending line, which appears in constant motion…When the elvers appear in the river they are taken in great quantities with sieves of hair cloth, or even with a common basket, and after being scoured and are offered for sale. They are either fried in cakes, or stewed, and are accounted very delicious.

Illustrations of the Natural History of Worcestershire, Dr Hastings c.1830

Elvers were an essential food source in more ways than one according to Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group: ‘entire communities would live on them; indeed … they were even used to fertilise the fields.’

elvers in the Severn

A smaller-scale version of what Dr Hastings saw on the River Severn

See the story and video here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8864000/8864173.stm

The UK ‘elvering’ season is from February to May with its peak in April and it is legal to fish for them if you have the appropriate license; and it can be big business when they sell for £200 a kilo. They go for these huge prices because they are snapped up by the Chinese in order to restock their fisheries.

Elver fishermen have an obligation to fulfill if they want to go fishing for glass eels – 35% of their catch must be relocated upstream. Tiny elvers entering estuaries are often impeded from reaching rivers because of flood barriers. By physically moving them upstream they can do as nature intended and live their lives in British freshwater before slipping back to the Sargasso to breed. This seems to be working – numbers of elvers in the River Severn are on the up, though this could just be population fluctuation.

elver net

The Environment find a poacher’s oversized elver fishing net (from The Guardian 2010)

The ethical elverer after relocating a third of his catch, then sells the remainder to eel farms. The nearest ones to Britain are in Ireland and Holland. This is what the people at the Sustainable Eel Group say is the sustainable thing to do. Unethical elverers sell their catch on to people that have a penchant for elvers. He also uses huge oversized nets and trawlers – some nets can be up to 18m; compare this to the legal 2.5m net. (Amazingly trawling for elvers is still legal in Britain, though the number of eel fishing licenses are restricted.)

Have a look at this BBC report about elver poaching:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8708000/8708514.stm

So what do we conclude here? Well jellied eels are not to be consigned to the history books – with careful monitoring there should be well-stocked eel fisheries. It’s simple: only buy farmed eels, not wild, and on no account never buy elvers.

The following two posts will be some eel recipes (some you should try and some you should not!)

 elvers

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On a Mushroom Hunt

The British crops have been failing left, right and centre because of the all the warm and very, very wet weather we have had over this growing year. The fields and orchards have been chock full of mouldy, diseased-ridden peas, beans, apples, plums and pears. It’s been a great year for mould.

Mould is caused by fungi and luckily, this year has also been great for the fungi we like to eat: the mushrooms, so as long as they are doing well, we shall always have a good meal.

Tricholoma scalpuratum or yellowing knight

I am pretty new to mushroom hunting, but there are a few species that I already know and love, but faced with 120 000 species worldwide, of which 1841 are recognised as edible (though not necessarily by all). Luckily, I have a background in ecology and evolutionary biology and so I’m okay at identifying and classifying. However, the obvious problem here is that being okay is not good enough when it comes to mushrooms, as you may be rushing down to A & E with the family in an ambulance clutching your Collins Fungi Guide in your clammy palms.

Shaggy ink cap

Mushrooms have been held in high regard throughout history because, except for a few European species, they cannot be cultivated in any consistent way. There is no evidence that prehistoric man ate mushrooms, but they were certainly enjoyed in Ancient Egypt and Rome, indeed the Romans were the first to cultivate them. This art seemed to die out with them and it wasn’t resurrected until Victorian times. It’s strange to think that mushrooms were such an expensive ingredient that often had to be exchanged for oysters in many dishes. How times have changed.

Because mushrooms are notorious for their often narcotic and poisonous qualities, there were considered magic during the Middle Ages. Many an alchemist pored over the life cycle of fungi in an attempt to discover the secret of life itself – mushrooms had the amazing ability to create life from decay.

I could go through all the edible species of mushroom in Britain, but that would be rather boring so instead I thought I’d mention the ones I have found so far in this post and then add to it in further posts whenever I come across them.

Identifying Mushrooms

As I said, I am certainly no expert in fungus ID, but it is for this very reason that I take appropriate precautions.

First of all you need at least two good fungus guides: there is such variation within single species that there can be a lot of overlap between them and therefore potential misidentification. More than one book covers more variation. I think it is best to have one book with drawings and one with photographs. The two I use are the Collins Fungi Guide – which is very in-depth – and River Cottage Handbook No. 1: Mushrooms – which is much briefer but is full of hints and tips.

Aside from the mushroom you are interested in, you need to look for other things: are they single or in clumps, or even patterns? Where are they? Fields or woods? If they are in woods, are they on trees, if you what kind? Therefore it is very important that you know some of the trees: the main players are oak, beech and birch, so make sure you know them, or take along a tree guide with you too.

If I am not really sure at all, I take a photo of them where I found them and pick them with their bases intact so I can classify them later when I have time.

Jew’s ear or jelly fungus grows almost exclusively on elder

Do not be tempted to take any advice from old wives’ tales as they are almost always wrong. However, most poisonous species have three features that are worth bearing in mind: scales beneath the cap, a ring and a small sac at the stem’s base. Not all will have all three qualities, so not take this advice as read either. The important thing to remember is that if you are not completely sure, don’t eat it!

Over the last week or so I have come across shaggy inkcap, shaggy parasol, wood mushrooms, the rather anti-Semitically named Jew’s ear fungus and a huge host of , commonly called yellowing knight (though the one’s I found were not particularly yellow).

Two mushroom recipes

I cooked several dishes with our mushroom crop, but I shall just report two here.

Creamed mushrooms on toast

Simple, fast and will show off your mushrooms to their finest. It’s not for dieters.

Ingredients (per person)

1 double-handful of wild mushrooms

2 ounces of salted butter

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp of chopped thyme leaves

salt and pepper

5 or 6 tbs double cream

freshly-grated nutmeg

one thick slice of hot buttered toast

Pick over the mushrooms, wiping away any soil with a damp cloth. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when it stops sizzling add the garlic and thyme and fry until the garlic is soft. Tip in the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Stir and fry until the mushrooms given up then evaporated their juice. Add the cream and stir, adding a little nutmeg. Serve immediately on toast. Poached egg is optional.

Dried Mushrooms

When you have a glut of mushrooms, it’s a good idea to preserve them in some way. This is a recipe from Elizabeth Raffauld’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper that turns mushrooms into a delicious, rich and dark seasoning. I’ll leave it to her to tell you how to make it (I have added the odd note in parentheses).

Mushrooms before drying

“Take the thickest large buttons you can get, peel them, cut off the root end but don’t wash them. Spread them separately on pewter dishes [or on baking trays] and set them in a slow oven to dry [around 60-70⁰C]. Let the liquor dry up into the mushrooms, it makes the powder stronger, and then continue in the oven till you find they will powder [they will snap easily].

Mushrooms after drying

Then beat them in a marble mortar [or a blender] and sift them through a fine sieve with a little Chyan [Cayenne] pepper and pounded mace. Bottle it and keep it in a dry closet.”

Mushrooms powdered

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