Monday, 23 April 2012

St. George's Day Mushroom

A wet St. George's Day - perfect for the mushroom who takes the Saint's name.

The St. George's mushroom, is, of course, so named because it is always found around St. George's Day when the fungus fruits. Sure enough, each year, I return to the same site to harvest this delicious, and free food. I have spent hour upon hour searching for Porcini in the Forest of Dean, Chanterelles in Scotland, Pied de Mouton in the Lake District, and Morels in Gloucestershire, only to find they aren’t growing where I found them the previous year!
First St. George's mushrooms of the season

Not with the St. George's mushroom, for about 4 consecutive years I have found them growing in the exact same location – in large rings around the base of Hawthorn trees. I know under which tree I will find most, and always make for that one first. I went to my secret hunting ground last week, 7 days before St. George's day itself, to see if the mushrooms had begun to grow, and they were had. Amazing how they come up almost to the same week every year.

There weren’t many, but the ones I did pick were in excellent condition, with their caps just opening, and their flesh firm and free from maggots. Leaving the mushrooms to grow too big before picking often means they will be watery and slimy in texture, and full of little maggot.

Picking wild mushrooms can be a risky business, not to be advised unless you know what you're doing, but the St. George's mushroom is just about the easiest of fungi to correctly identify. The vast majority of mushrooms, both the edible and the deadly ones, fruit between late summer and late autumn, when the soil is moist and still warm from summer sunshine.

At this time of year, very few mushroom species are growing, apart from St. George's and Morels, so the likelihood of picking the wrong one is greatly reduced. The St. George's mushroom is a creamy, ivory colour, with gills of the same colour (never pick a white mushroom with white gills later on in the year, both Death Caps and Destroying Angels have a similar appearance, but are full of amatoxins, which will destroy your kidneys and liver and potentially kill you), and often gron in tight clusters on open pastures.

With this year's first harvest, I made a risotto - slicing the larger specimens, and adding the the base of sloftened onions, garlic, celery and thyme. I kept the smaller mushrooms whole, and quickly sautéed in plenty of butter, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a good amount of both salt and pepper. Whilst beating cold cubes of butter, and grated Parmigiano into the risotto, the stage known as “mantecatura”, I threw in a fistful of finely shreaded wild garlic leaves (abundant in damp woods at this time of year).

As with many very seasonal foods, the St. George's mushroom eats very well with what is naturally growing or being produced at the same time of year - think of ingredients such as asparagus, duck eggs, pea and bean shoots, milk-fed lamb, and fresh goat's and ewe's milk cheeses. I like to cook the mushroom quickly in butter, until they start to soften, then add a little white wine, and reduce until almost all the liquid has evaporated. A glug of double cream goes into the pan, and I let it all bubble down until thick and luscious.

Finally, a handful of chopped and blanched wild asparagus (living so close to the Vale of Evesham, the traditional centre of asparagus production, I find the vegetable growing wild, or at least feral, in hedgerows) and a little wild garlic join the mushrooms and wilt in the cream.

I lightly toast thick, doorwedge slices of chewy sourdough, and pile the creamy, mushroomy mixture on top. I lay slices of new-season, soft ewe's milk cheese on top – cheeses such as Flower Marie from East Sussex, or Wigmore from Berkshire work well, as would a fresh, lactic curd. This goes under the grill for a few minutes until the cheese is molten and coating the mushrooms, a very delicious, and extreamly seasonal lunch!