On the Fungi Hunt

Top local food and drink Editor, Nicky Findley, recently joined our Chef Patron, Alex Aitken, for a foraging trip in the New Forest. Here she details her adventure, from forest to feast!

Stick to spongy bottoms and avoid anything red. This has become my mantra as I root around in the undergrowth armed with a wicker basket and a small, sharp knife. My mission is to find edible fungi for my lunch which, if all goes according to plan, will be a wild mushroom risotto prepared by chef patron Alex Aitken at The Jetty.

Fungi foraging has become hugely popular thanks to outdoorsy chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. But this practice is nothing new to Alex and his wife Caroline, who have been picking their own for the past 30 years or more. It is very addictive,” says Caroline. “I’m usually out every other day foraging.”

Most of what the couple find in the New Forest ends up on customers’ plates at one of Harbour Hotels’ three Christchurch restaurants. Today the husband and wife team have invited me to join them and their black Labrador for a fungi safari in the New Forest. “This is the best year in memory for fungi,” says Alex as we stroll through the woods, our eyes scanning the ground and barks of trees. “The New Forest is ideal because there is so much rotting vegetation and moisture. It is very climate linked and we’ve had the perfect conditions. We’re finding top quality fungi at the moment.”

Although I love the idea of finding wild food, I live in fear of poisoning myself. On a previous fungi forage some years ago, I picked an innocuous looking pale mushroom which my guide identified as a highly toxic fungus known as Angel Destroyer. “It’s best to stick to one or two varieties to start with,” advises Caroline.

“As a general rule, avoid anything red and go for spongy bottoms rather than gills.” Although they have years of experience, neither of them have lost their enthusiasm. When Alex finds a large Penny Bun (also known as boletus edulis or porcini) – he can hardly contain his glee lifting it aloft like a prized trophy. And food foraging isn’t just confined to autumn. The couple forage all year round. Depending on the season they pick elderflowers, elderberries, roan berries, sloe berries, blackberries, crab apples, and herbs like bog myrtle.

“Gorse flowers smell like coconut – Alex makes a wonderful gorse flower panna cotta,” says Caroline. Within an hour and a half our baskets are brimming with an array of colourful fungi.

We find Chanterelles, Wood Hedgehogs, Oyster mushrooms, Millers, Yellow Swamp Russulas and Saffron Milk Caps to name a few. When we get back to the kitchen at The Jetty, he examines the contents – we have 12 different varieties in total – and selects a few handfuls for lunch. Moments later I’m sitting down to a wild mushroom risotto in a rich Madeira sauce, topped with a poached egg and truffle shavings.

It is served in a Kilner jar so that when you pop the lid off you can savour the aroma. The rice is perfectly cooked and the fungi, which has been pan fried in butter and olive oil with garlic and chives, is exquisite, fresh and full of flavour. Although I’m a long way from stocking my larder with wild mushrooms, it certainly adds a new dimension to a country walk. I will definitely be hunting for some spongy bottoms next time I’m in the New Forest!

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