Learning to Mushroom Forage with John Wright

With last year’s extra bonus from work, I did something I had been wanting to do ever since I saw the amazing, super-forager, John Wright on the various River Cottage programmes: I booked a mushroom foraging course, led by him, at River Cottage in Devon.  I caused untold havoc with the holiday schedule at work because the courses were only run on weekdays, but I was determined.  You see, my sister is keen on mushrooms, I quite like them though they disagree with my condition, and they grow abundantly around this area being grassland, woodland and farmland, but I’ve never known what is safe to eat when my sister has visited, apart from the obvious Chicken of the Woods, which is a rare fungus that I’ve only seen twice, the first time someone else got, and the second time was at Leeds Castle, where my sister and I could not pick it.

As both my sister and I had never been able to eat at the River Cottage Canteen when we visited the Axminster area, I was also determined to book in for a meal.    So, as the time drew near, I telephoned to book, only to find out they were not open on the Sunday evening, when I arrived, or on the Monday night before I left.   Cue internal scream: was I never to enjoy the food of River Cottage?  As it happens, even the extensive listings provided by my chosen B&B, Hedgehog Corner, didn’t yield any options for a Sunday night meal.   Being somewhat superstitious, I did not hold out much hope for my trip to River Cottage or the course with John Wright.  Knowing how my condition can flare up with stress didn’t help, either.

Sunday came and my bags were ready, I packed my DSLR camera, put my coat on the bed beside my umbrella, took everything in hand and headed out to the car.   I was 2½ hours into my drive, in Wiltshire, before I realised I had left my coat (the one I had ordered via the net never having arrived) and umbrella on the bed,  with only my cotton t-shirt packed for the next day, with storms predicted.  I could not turn around because I had been issued with specific instructions to arrive between 16.00 and 16.30 at Hedgehog Corner – for reasons I won’t go into here, which were a one-off and perfectly understandable they had to have someone come in to greet the guests that night – and, besides which I wanted to eat before retiring, not having had my breakfast and being unable to stop for lunch in order to arrive on time.   As it happens, I only really just made it on time because of traffic.

Luckily for me, the person who greeted me at Hedgehog Corner was extraordinarily helpful and telephoned the pub up the road to see if they were open, they were, and also hunted down an umbrella for me, as the forecast was for rain the next day.    It was only when I was left alone I realised I had left the memory card for my camera in my laptop.  *doh*   No pictures of mushrooms for me, then.   After unpacking and settling in, I headed up to the Hunters Lodge Inn for dinner.  And, what a dinner it was.  A lovely goats cheese and read onion tart with salad,  followed by steak, peppercorn sauce, mushrooms, peas, onion rings, chips, and salad.  The service was super-friendly and the food was gorgeous for the price, though I must admit, I could not finish my one meal of the day.

I went back to Hedgehog Corner, and my lush, comfortable room, overlooking extensive gardens, and settled in for a bit of tv before attempting to get to sleep (working evenings makes sleeping for day courses a little difficult).  The bed was huge and comfortable and I got quite a few hours in before my alarm went off.  I dressed and headed down to breakfast, where I encountered two couples, one of whom I had seen arrive the day before in walking gear.  I was amazed by the amount of food on offer, and the menu for breakfast was the most extensive I’ve ever seen in a B&B, truly.   I had ordered my cooked breakfast the night before, so I started with some orange juice and a glass of water.   When my breakfast arrived, the other couple headed out and I heard them mention River Cottage, so I asked the young lady if they were on the course, too.  It turns out they were, but they had already left by the time I realised I could have driven them up to the meeting point.

I finished a delicious breakfast, headed upstairs and picked up my backpack and the umbrella kindly lent to me.   I drove to River Cottage and found myself in a muddy car park, where I saw some people huddling out of the rain in a galvanised tin, bus shelter.      Turns out there were a lot of people attending the course.   We waited for a bit, and I saw my fellow guests from Hedgehog Corner arrive.  I approached them and offered to give them a lift back at the end of the day.  Apparently, they were also returning to River Cottage  for dinner that night, so I offered to bring them back, too, which would turn out to be unnecessary, as we were all staying.

A bus turned up, and then Steve Lamb came up from HQ, which was in the valley below us, on some sort of four wheel buggy.   He brought baskets of goodies with him, some kind of apple hooch, coffee, tea and brownies.   Having just had breakfast, and not being an imbiber of the alcoholic, I didn’t partake; however, the general consensus among the group were that the brownies were the best ever tasted and the hooch was strong, but warming and delicious, being something akin to apple schnapps.    For me, though, stress started to set in as I found myself in need of the toilet.  I approached Steve and asked if there was a bathroom nearby, after which I found myself on a precarious trip down the muddy, slippery slope to HQ on the buggy.   If my stomach wasn’t churning enough before, this was enough to really make me in dire need of the bathroom.    When we arrived at the bottom, my head was down focussing on the slippery ground between me and the necessary facility, which meant I failed to notice a certain media personality being greeted by my friendly buggy chauffeur, alas he had gone by the time I returned.

As I arrived back at the car park at the top of that awful drive, I noted John Wright had arrived and was enjoying a tipple.   After a short wait for one participant that never arrived, we decided to set out to the secret location where we were to find our mushrooms.   Oddly, having had negotiated my way to Hedgehog Corner by car, on back roads, I actually had passed this secret location the day before and noted it because it seemed so beautiful.   John Wright informed us that he had been given special permission to forage, with the occasional student group, in the area by the owners and caretakers of the area, and he informed us of the rules and regulations surrounding foraging for food, for both personal and commercial purposes.   It’s not as straightforward as might be imagined by those starting out and it’s always good to look up the law before setting out, researching whose land you are harvesting, and what the consequences might be if they encounter you and a large basket of produce from their property, even though its wild and on common land.

So, with instructions about where we were heading, not to let the group out of our sight and not to pick anything before John arrived and identified it and make sure we didn’t already have it in one of the two baskets, edible and inedible, being carried by two participants, we spread out and started looking.    Time sped with certain people seeming to find everything, John‘s name being shouted out, and echoed around the area constantly, lots of short talks when a mushroom was found, followed by a gathering around the master for an informative and sometimes hilarious introduction to each specimen, punctuated by good-hearted, light banter with Steve Lamb, which helped all the important facts fix fast in the long-term memory.   At the end of each short tutorial, we all headed off in different directions again, each hoping to find the next, unique and interesting, fungus.   And thus, hours passed by.   Strangely, my body went on for hours without realising I was a long way from any facilities, I was so concentrated on finding anything.  Lamentably, my eye just wasn’t set for finding fungi.

After what seemed like a short hour, though was more like three, Steve called us all back to the bus for a break, consisting of sausage rolls, water, tea and coffee.   My first taste of food from River Cottage was a revelation; who knew sausage rolls could taste so divine?   I sat on the bus to get out of the rain for a bit, get warm (because I had no coat, one shirt and had been drizzled on all day), and get off my feet.    This was a mistake as apparently Steve had smuggled in some more brownies, so I missed out.  *cue very sad face*.     Our little group headed off in a different direction this time, and I actually spotted some mushrooms (not knowing others had already spotted them) and felt quite proud I was beginning to truly “see”.    We walked through some very wild areas, one NZ ex-pat tripped and muddied herself and we thought that would be the only mishap of the day (having heard from John that one past participant had managed to get themselves lost), only I had to go and step off a slight rise into a boggy area up to my thigh.  Though my hiking boots were firmly tied on, I felt as though I would lose the right one as I tried to extract my leg from, indeed prevent my whole body from entering the mire; it took another forager to help me free myself from the muddy trap.   So embarrassing, more so when we returned to HQ and there was no place to clean up before our dinner.

Another good few hours passed by before the bus ferried us back to River Cottage and I managed to snap a pic of John on my phone as he sat on the other side of the aisle from me.    Arriving back in the car park we found a less-precarious-than-the-buggy, tractor bus waiting to take us down to HQ, where we were ushered to a yurt with a wood fire, and more coffee, tea and cordial for me (yippee).    After being warmed up, we filed into the main function room, which had been set up for a cooking demonstration, with an amazing mirror over the chef allowing us at the back to see everything.   The bonhomie of the day continued with instruction, served with a generous helping of humour on the various ways to cook mushrooms.    We were treated to samples of various fungal treats, my favourite being the cauliflower cheese made with the cauliflower mushroom, though many seem to prefer the scrambled eggs and English truffle; the truffle having been smuggled in by John, who spoke of an exchange with a fellow, northern forager so that we could have the experience of tasting this elusive, and expensive fungus.

As part of the course, we had all been supplied with a copy of Mushrooms: River Cottage Handbook No.1 by John Wright when we went into the cooking demonstratoin, though if we already owned it, as I did, we were able to swap with any of the other handbooks produced by River Cottage of which there were many.  Continuing with the warm, friendly theme of the day: the bar was open throughout so we could indulge and I chose non-alcoholic ginger beer: I still prefer the homebrewed version of ginger beer we used to get at Petrie Markets when I was younger.   As the cooking demonstration was taking place, John was in the corner, sorting the mushrooms into a display, complete with latin name cards, ready for the presentation he would give on all the samples we had collected that day, so those who had not caught each talk out in the woods were caught up and everyone else had a refresher.  This was ideal as with our group spread so far and wide and John leaping and running to each location, very few of us caught all of his wisdom out in the field.

Another unexpected turn of events was learning we were to have a mushroom-based, three course dinner to be served following John‘s summation of the day.   My fellow travellers from the B&B would not need to return as all participants were attending, and guests were allowed, too.   I had not invited anyone, thankfully, as I felt awkward enough being covered in mud.  The chairs from the cooking demonstration were moved, tables brought in and we sat down to mushroom bourguignon on toast,  pork, tomato and mushroom pie, followed by apple cake, glazed with the same hooch imbibed that morning, apple.    For me, though, the pie ended up being the limit, the pastry being delicious but so thick and heavy that I just could not eat any more, though I made a good go of the apple cake and cream.   Finally, a meal at River Cottage; the most amazing meal I’ve ever had – it had the effect of waking up my previously dozy, taste buds.    In my life, I’ve eaten in award-winning, five-star, highly acclaimed restaurants, but nothing – and I truly mean none of them – has ever come close to the flavours, textures and experience of the food created by River Cottage.    Even the sausage roll was the best I’ve had in my life; I mean, how do you go about making a sausage roll a culinary delight for !*^(£’s sake?    I can still remember the food now, two months later, as I am writing this.   I am definitely going to have to take my sister to a River Cottage canteen when she visits again.

So, the day ended with everyone getting John‘s autograph in their free handbooks, I bought one for my sister and had it signed, before we were taken back to the car park via a trip on the tractor bus.    All in all, the best value for money course I’ve done in a long time.   The extras just kept coming.     Thank you River Cottage and thank you, John and Steve for being such wonderful teachers and taking the time to share your experience.

When I returned to the meticulously clean B&B, I had to ask the owner if she had a broom as mud was left on the outside step when I took of my boots and socks and rolled up my trousers, and I didn’t want anyone returning after me to walk it over her pristine carpets.   Fortunately, she had a broom handy and we put my boots out on the wood pile to dry out overnight.   That night, I suffered.   Mushrooms are one of the foods that can aggravate me, but it’s my own fault; I knew what I was doing as I ate everything offered to me but I was not missing out on a single taste explosion, no matter the consequences.   The next day it took twice as long to get back home as it had getting to River Cottage as I had to stop everywhere I could find a bathroom.   Fortunately, I made it home without incident.   I was so glad to have gone.

If anyone is curious, I did snap one or two pictures with my dodgy camera and these can be seen on my Flickr account.  If you are thinking of doing a course at River Cottage, I firmly believe you get more for your money than you might, at first, think.   I cannot figure out how they made money from our day given the number of staff on hand for us, the transport employed, the hours spent by John and Steve with us, the food, drink, and handbook provided in relation to the number of participants.    We had just the right amount of people on our day, not too big so you felt lost, and enough for everyone to interact, generally mingle and have a laugh while learning.   I will be returning, as I am keen to learn more about foraging, and because  River Cottage also do courses on game that look interesting, and within budget.   Certainly makes for a different birthday, or seasonal gift for the keen foodie and HQ is a lovely venue – I remember commenting to one of my fellow participants that it was the neatest (read: tidy and clean) farm I’d ever been on.   Besides all of this, the food they prepare for students is worth paying the course fee for on its own.

Best day out in a long time, and so glad I went as I now feel more confident about mushrooms and I hope to attend another mushroom hunt with John Wright in the future, as I learned so much; so much more from books, website and my own efforts alone.   Roll on spring with the St. George and morel mushrooms.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Britain, Health

One response to “Learning to Mushroom Forage with John Wright

  1. Pingback: Holiday Overtime | Letters from a Briton

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