Oregon Grape Jelly

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mahoniaOregon Grapes (Mahonia aquifolium) aren’t grapes. They aren’t native to Europe either, coming, as their name implies, from North America, where they are the state plant of Oregon. In the UK they are more often simply referred to by the Latin name “Mahonia”, and they are a very popular ornamental garden plant. Their closest native European relative is Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – a species that was once common in Britain but was systematically exterminated in many areas because it is a host plant for a fungus that attacks cultivated cereal crops. Oregon Grape produces yellow flowers in spring, but by early summer (i.e. now) these have been replaced by masses of beautiful purple-blue berries. These berries are edible raw, but not particularly impressive. They have large pips, and are rather bitter and tart. They are much better used in jams and jellies, especially to accompany game.

oregon_grape_closeupOregon Grape jelly is very easy to make. First collect plenty of berries. This is quite simple, because they hang in long clusters and easily detach. Although you do need to watch out for the spiky, holly-like leaves and the juice stains everything seriously purple (so wear rubber gloves if you don’t want to stain your hands, and don’t wear your best clothes). When you get them home, rinse the berries to get rid of any debris. The only other ingredients required are sugar and water, and you need a berries/sugar/water ratio of 3/1/1 by volume. Oregon Grape has a high natural pectin content, so you don’t need to add any extra, although there are variations on this jelly that include other ingredients such as lemon juice and ginger. Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, then add the sugar and berries and boil gently for 20 minutes covered, mashing a couple of times. Uncover, raise the heat a little and boil for a final five minutes. Then strain through a sieve, using the back of a spoon to get as much of the juice and pulp through as possible, while leaving the pips and the skin in the sieve. Or you can use a food mill.

And that’s it! As it cools it will set firmly, and it is ready to be served with venison, turkey or other strong-tasting meats. (If it doesn’t set well, you can always return it to the saucepan and boil for another few minutes to reduce the water content, then leave to set again.)

Ramsons and Nettles

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“Wild Garlic” is one of those unhelpful common names that refers to more than one plant. There are at least 8 members of the genus Allium growing wild in Britain, several of which have been called “Wild Garlic” at one time or another. However, most people use the name to refer to Allium ursinum, otherwise known as “Ramsons”. It is the only wild vegetable that almost everybody has heard of, and it is very common in woodland throughout the whole of the UK. There are a few things people mix it up with, including the highly toxic Lily of the Valley. However, none of its poisonous lookalikes smell of garlic, so they are fairly easy to avoid.

What to do with it? The whole plant is edible, but it is illegal to uproot wild plants so it’s the leaves and flowers that actually get used. You can just eat them raw, as part of a salad – the unopened flower buds pack a serious garlic punch. Ramsons soup is another popular choice, and you can also use the broad blades of the leaves to make “dolmades” – the wild British equivalent of stuffed vine leaves. However, one of the tastiest ways to use them is to simply sauté them in butter. This works particularly well when combined with another wild vegetable that is abundantly available at the moment – Stinging Nettles.


Collecting nettles is a little tricky, of course. You need a sturdy pair of rubber gloves, and maybe a pair of scissors. You only want the tip of each nettle – the smallest 4, or at most 6, leaves. When you get the home, rinse them under cold water, then blanch for 30 seconds in boiling water. This will disable their stings, and allow you to roughly chop them. Then wash and chop the Ramsons, and sauté both in butter, making sure that the Nettles and Ramsons are well mixed together. They will be ready in about three minutes, or however long it takes until most of the water has been boiled out of the pan.

Wild Cabbage

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Velvet Shanks. Sussex, January 2016.

Velvet Shanks. Sussex, January 2016.

Midwinter is a lean time for foraging. We’re just heading into what is statistically the coldest month of the year, and properly cold temperatures have finally arrived in the UK. The only fungi you’re likely to find are Jew’s Ears and Velvet Shanks, and you’ll need a good dose of luck to come across those. Although I was rather pleased to find this lot, which were sneakily hidden inside a dead log, making them rather hard to spot but worth finding from a photographic point of view, because the very fact that they are growing in a restricted space,

Enokitake - the cultivated version of Velvet Shanks.

Enokitake – the cultivated version of Velvet Shanks.

with restricted light, has meant they more closely resemble their cultivated descendents Enokitake

than Velvet Shanks normally do. The Japanese force this species to grow into this strange, spaghetti-like form by growing them in the dark, in canisters, with an elevated level of carbon dioxide.

In terms of plant foraging, the most advanced Alexanders plants are just reaching their best for harvesting and using the succulent stems, although most of them are still much too small and won’t be ready for a few more weeks. Alexanders is a coastal specialist, and where it is present it is usually present in invasive quantities.

Wild Cabbage. Sussex, January 2016.

Wild Cabbage. Sussex, January 2016.

The same cannot be said for Wild Cabbage. Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea), is the wild ancestor not only of cultivated cabbages but also broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. It is native to coastal areas of western and southern Europe, but it doesn’t compete well with other plants and therefore tends to be restricted, naturally, to its most preferable habit, which is chalk sea cliffs. It is not particularly common.

However, it does also sometime thrive in disturbed ground near the coast, and not exclusively in chalk/limestone areas. Right now there’s loads of it growing in otherwise barren mud, all along the sides of the new Hastings-Bexhill link road. This is acidic, sandy soil, about a mile inland from the sea. It’s likely to be brief, localised hey-day for the Wild Cabbage. Come the spring this mud will doubtless become a sea of early-colonising “weeds”, hopefully (from a foraging point of view) including loads of juicy Fat-Hen.

Wild Cabbage leaves.

Wild Cabbage leaves.

For now I will enjoy this rare glut of Wild Cabbage. It is actually much tastier than any of its cultivated forms – the same taste, just stronger. The stems can be stringy, so you need to strip the leafy parts of the leaves before steaming for a few minutes and serving with melted butter.


Oh well, there’s always next year…

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winter_woodlandThere couldn’t be bumper years for fungi if there weren’t also duff ones. 2015 was a duff one. As explained in the previous post, the start of the season was promising and it was a great year for Chanterelles and Horn of Plenty, but after that it just went downhill and stayed there. Last October was also a bit dodgy, because it had been too warm, but there was a recovery in November. This November was the worst for fungi, both in terms of variety of species and number of actual mushrooms, that I can remember. It also ended early – in a normal year I’d still be out picking Winter Chanterelles now, but they stopped growing several weeks ago and now there’s none of those left either – not in good enough condition to pick, anyway.

On the bright side, it bodes well for next year. When a particular species of fungus has a bad year, it often does well the following year, and when all the fungi do badly then lots of them will do well the following year. I don’t expect to see many chanterelles, but there’s likely to be plenty of other stuff. Which would suit me just fine, given that I’m going to spend most of next autumn launching a book on fungi foraging…of which I have some news, because a decision has now been made on the title and release date.

The book is going to be called “Edible Mushrooms: a forager’s guide to the fungi of Britain and Europe” and it will hit the bookshops on Thursday September 29th. It will feature over 250 edible species and 50 poisonous ones, covering the whole of the temperate and mountainous areas of Europe (that is, everywhere apart from the Mediterranean climate zone and biome south of the Alps and Pyrenees, where the fungi are significantly different).

Some other news for next year: I will be running open-to-the-public sessions in Hemsted Forest (half way between Tunbridge Wells and Ashford). See link at the top of the page for details.

Enjoy your Christmas and see you next year.


The Cantharellales rule supreme

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Chanterelles - 31/10/2015, Sussex.

Chanterelles – 31/10/2015, Sussex.

It’s been a superb October for fungi…if what you were after were members of the Cantharellales. If you were hoping for something else, it’s been somewhat less impressive. Yet again, the wild fungi have demonstrated that the only thing that isn’t surprising about their behaviour is their enduring capacity to surprise.

It was a good start to the season. From late August to mid-September there was a nice selection of brittlegills, milkcaps, agaricuses and large boletes to be found – typical fare for that time of year. It was also obvious from the get-go that it was going to be a stunning year for Cantharellus cibarius – I’d seen more Chanterelles by the middle of September than I had in the last four years put together.

Horn of Plenty - Sussex, 31/10/2015

Horn of Plenty – Sussex, 31/10/2015

Then we had a period of dry, warm weather and almost everything ground to a halt. I have been waiting for the recovery ever since, and there’s still no sign of it. Trekking through the woodland of Sussex and Kent this afternoon, you’d be forgiven for thinking it hasn’t rained in weeks, at least as far as the fungi are concerned. Nearly all the major groups of fungi are absent entirely. I was out for three hours today and I saw not a single Amanita, brittlegill, russula, Agaricus, puffball, webcap, deceiver, honey fungus or oyster mushroom. And the only bolete I found was a solitary Peppery Bolete.

Wrinkled Club - late October 2015, Kent.

Wrinkled Club – late October 2015, Kent.

There are some good edible things still to be found in numbers, and they all belong to the same taxonomic Order (an order is two levels above genus – humans belong to the order “primates”). That Order is called Cantherellales, and in addition to the Chanterelles (family Cantherellaceae) it includes a variety of other fungi including the Hedgehogs (Hydnaceae) and a family of club fungi called Clavulinaceae that look entirely unrelated to the well-known Cantherellales but have recently been moved there as the result of DNA testing. One unexpected advantage to situations like this is that I go to the bother of experimenting with what is available, and it turns out that Wrinkled Club – widely dismissed as not worth collecting – is rather good to eat! Perhaps not so surprising given that so many other things in its order are considered to be delicacies.

Late October collection (31/10/2015). Horn of Plenty, Hedgehog Fungus, Winter Chanterelle, Wavy-capped Chanterelle, Chanterelle, Wood Blewit, Clouded Funnel, Scarlet Waxcap, Snowy Waxcap, Peppery Bolete.

Late October collection (31/10/2015). Horn of Plenty, Hedgehog Fungus, Winter Chanterelle, Wavy-capped Chanterelle, Chanterelle, Wood Blewit, Clouded Funnel, Scarlet Waxcap, Snowy Waxcap, Peppery Bolete.

My afternoon was rescued slightly right at the end by a trip to a local churchyard. Even here, things were not quite as you might expect for the end of October, but there were at least a few other things – a patch of Wood Blewits, another of Clouded Funnel, and few scattered waxcaps where last year there was a carpet.

So what on earth is going on? I have no idea why it is such a special year for the Chanterelles and their allies, but one thing this group tend to have in common is that they are slow growing and long lasting. That this was going to be a classic year for them was already decided long before the weather turned unseasonally warm and dry in mid-September. They also last for a long time once fruited, so the large numbers of Chanterelles, Horn of Plenty, Hedgehogs and Wrinkled Clubs were already growing before the weather changed. The other autumn fungi fall into two categories from where we currently are – the late summer and early autumn species, which had already fruited their hearts out by mid-September, and the later autumn species which hadn’t even got going. And even though November starts tomorrow, the average temperature hasn’t got low enough to trigger their fruiting. At least, that’s the best theory I can come up with, and if I am right then as soon as the temperature drops significantly there should be decent recovery, and maybe fungi all over the place.

So we must wait for the temperatures to drop, and see what happens. Unfortunately, the current long-range forecast is showing temperatures staying unseasonally high, well into November. Here’s a prediction: this mushroom season will see a second peak in the third week in November…


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Ella the Truffle Spaniel homes in on a Summer Truffle...or is it a dead mouse?

Ella the Truffle Spaniel homes in on a Summer Truffle…or is it a dead mouse?

Yesterday I found my first ever truffle! Well…strictly speaking, it wasn’t me who found it but a small black spaniel called “Ella”, but I was at least there when it was found.

I’d like to thank Sussex-based professional truffle hunter Melissa Waddingham, who kindly agreed to take me truffling in order to get some pictures for my forthcoming book, and so I could learn a bit about this highly specialised type of fungi foraging. The location must, of course, remain a top secret…although it was a patch of woodland I have visited regularly over the last twenty years, aware that there might be some truffles hidden away but with no means of finding them. You do need a dog, after all!

Professional Truffle-hunter Melissa Waddingham uses her own nose to confirm the presence of a Summer Truffle

Professional Truffle-hunter Melissa Waddingham uses her own nose to confirm the presence of a Summer Truffle

The first myth to be busted was that using a dog instead of a pig to find truffles means you don’t run the risk of the animal eating the fungus before you can grab it. Pigs famously love eating truffles, and aren’t exactly the easiest creatures to train, and one might assume that dogs are less likely to eat a fungus, especially one that smells of male pig pheromones. One would assume wrongly. Melissa has two truffle hounds, the elder of which (a labrador called Zebedee) is more than a little partial to truffles, to the extent that Melissa has to watch him like a hawk to make sure he doesn’t scoff the bounty within seconds of finding it. In the end Zeb found only a false alarm, at which point a second myth got busted. I had assumed that it would take the sensitive nose of our canine friends to smell a truffle, but no – Melissa hauled Zeb away from the

Tuber aestivum - the Black or Summer Truffle, in-situ beneath a beech tree

Tuber aestivum – the Black or Summer Truffle, in-situ beneath a beech tree

target spot and put her own nose to the hole, which must have once contained a truffle, because she could smell it. Even I could smell it – and my sense of smell isn’t great and the truffle itself wasn’t even still there!

A few minutes later it was Ella who actually managed to find what we were looking for. Just a centimetre or two below the surface, and looking superficially very similar to the blackened beech nut husks that littered the forest floor, was a Summer (or Black) Truffle – Tuber aestivum. It is a long way from being the most prized of European truffles, but the most important of the British species. The smell was very powerful indeed. Hard to describe the quality, but the strength was such that even zipped up the pocket of a

Black or Summer Truffle - Tuber aestivum, showing the veined, nutty interior

Black or Summer Truffle – Tuber aestivum, showing the veined, nutty interior

hoodie, with the hoodie zipped up in a bag, the smell was still strong enough to be detectable in the car on the way home.

So what to do with them? I followed Melissa’s recommendations and tried two dishes. The first involved mixing grated truffle with butter, and leaving it overnight before using the truffle-butter in a baked potato. The second was to grate it onto boiled egg. The flavour was delicate – nothing like as strong as I was expecting given the overwhelming smell from yesterday, but still

Summer Truffles on boiled egg, with Serrano ham and home-grown Latvian tomatoes

Summer Truffles on boiled egg, with Serrano ham and home-grown Latvian tomatoes

worth the bother and I’m very happy to have finally lost my truffle virginity!

If you are interested in experiencing a truffle hunt yourself, or would like to learn about training your own truffle hound, see Melissa’s website.

Hazel Boletes going nuts

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Hazel Boletes, early September 2015

Hazel Boletes, early September 2015

Mushroom season is now well underway, at least in more open areas. I came across my first Penny Bun of the autumn today, as well as my first Fly Agaric. Plenty of other stuff is also just starting to appear. And one species in particular is going bonkers, at least in my corner of the south-east.

Every year is different for fungi – some species do well, others do poorly, and its usually not obvious why. This year, at least at this early point in the season, it is the turn of a mushroom

Brown Birch Bolete

Brown Birch Bolete

that’s normally rather scarce and very frequently misidentified by foragers, even though a big clue in the name ought to make it easier to get right.

One of the first edible species most mushroom foragers learn and go looking for is a rather squidgy and tasteless brown bolete called Leccinum scabrum – the Brown Birch Bolete. It is popular with beginners not because it is any sort of delicacy, but because it is widespread, common and completely impossible to confuse with anything poisonous. I haven’t seen any of

Hazel Bolete - mature specimen from 2014

Hazel Bolete – mature specimen from 2014

them at all so far this year, but I have seen a vast number of one of its relatives. There are several similar species, all of them brown-capped members of the same genus, and for many years I just called all of them “brown birch boletes” and paid little attention to the fact that not all of them were growing with birch trees (in fact, not even all of the brown Leccinums found under birch trees are actually L. scabrum, but let’s keep this simple…)

The species that’s going bonkers is called a Hazel Bolete (Leccinum pseudoscabrum), and it

Hazel Bolete, final colour after 20 minutes exposed to the air

Hazel Bolete, final colour after 20 minutes exposed to the air

grows under (you guessed it) Hazels, and also Hornbeam. It differs from the Brown Birch Bolete in two other obvious ways – firstly it has a cap that is noticeably dented or wrinkled when young, and eventually darkens and cracks. And secondly when you cut it open and expose the flesh to air it slowly turns brown, then dark purple, ending up almost black.

From a foraging point of view it’s not a delicacy either, although it is better than the Brown Birch Bolete when young and firm. Can be rescued with a bit of butter, garlic and parsley, and right now there’s so many of them about that you needn’t feel guilty about picking them for the pot.

Happy hunting and keep safe,


…and they’re off!

Oak Bolete, August 2015

Oak Bolete, August 2015

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It’s that time of year again. The last two weeks have seen quite a bit of activity from the late summer species, especially the boletes, but also Brittlegills, Parasols and Agaricuses. In the last two days that activity has ratcheted up a notch, and that’s before the effect of the torrential rain and dropping temperatures starts to kick in. So it’s all looking good for the start of September. The forecast for next weekend is for more wet weather, but after that the long term forecast is looking better, and those conditions should be pretty much perfect for the start of the main show this year.

Shaggy Parasols, late August 2015

One of the three species known until recently as “Shaggy Parasols” (Chlorophyllum rhacodes), late August 2015. This picture shows Chlorophyllum brunneum, which is one of the species to be given a new English common name in my forthcoming book (Brown Parasol).

I also have some news about my forthcoming book. The publisher is now going to be Green Books, who are the UK’s largest and leading independent publisher of books in a very broad category of “environmentalism”. The release date is likely to be at the end of 2016, and the book itself is going to be even more comprehensive than originally planned, featuring over 300 species and extending the geographical range to cover important European species that are not yet recorded in the UK.

In response to Sara Cadbury’s attack on John Wright

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It’s nearly mushroom season, and the argument between mycologists and foragers is in the news again, this time because mycologist Sara Cadbury has attacked the activities of John Wright and other “celebrity foragers” in the New Forest, as reported by the Daily Mail.


All these TV programmes about the ‘wild food’ craze and foraging in the forest merely serve to popularise the idea of mushroom picking. People now come from all over the country to pick mushrooms in the New Forest and that just shouldn’t be happening. There are more and more courses in mushroom picking being run and the hotels in the area are jumping on the bandwagon too. The Forestry Commission needs to be brought into line because they are giving out the wrong message. The forest suffers as a result of all the picking local people are fed up with it. Fungus is a central part to the web of life – nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates. The only answer is to take the same measures as Epping Forest does and ban the picking of mushrooms entirely. A blanket ban is the only way to ensure mushrooms are not picked for commercial purposes.


Here we go again.

It is quite clear that there is a cultural change going on in the UK. Having been a mycophobic culture since forever, we are becoming a mycophyllic culture.

And it does lead to an obvious question. There are many European countries which have been mycophyllic for generations – Italy, Poland, Russia etc… Every year in these countries, a significant proportion of the population descends on the forests and take whatever fungi they can find that are good to eat. And oddly enough, the fungi in those countries seem to be doing just fine. So the question is this: why do mycologists in the UK fear that something terrible is going to happen to British fungal populations because foraging has become popular, when nothing especially terrible has happened in Italy or Poland? Do they think our fungi are different in some way? Or that some other factor makes a decisive difference?

People don’t like change, especially conservative people (with a small “c”). And it is not that surprising that people who have been recording fungi for many years, and who not so long ago had those fungi pretty much to themselves because almost nobody foraged in the UK, don’t like this cultural change. However, trying to stop it happening is like trying to stop the tide coming in. It’s part of a much wider cultural trend towards re-learning lost skills/knowledge, reconnecting with the natural world and eating more natural and interesting food. You might argue that you can do these things without foraging for fungi, but that won’t make any difference to the people who are interested in learning to forage for fungi.

What is her actual argument?

Firstly she complains that “people are making money” and “the forest is being exploited.”  Well, people were already thoroughly “exploiting” almost all of the woodland in Britain when the Romans invaded, and have been doing so ever since. This claim has nothing to do with conservation or ecology. Coppicers “exploit” woodland, and their activity is widely understood to increase biodiversity, so “exploitation” is not necessarily bad for ecology/conservation. It depends on exactly what is being done.

She also says that “people now come from all over the country to pick mushrooms in the New Forest and that just shouldn’t be happening.” She’s right. That shouldn’t be happening, and it is rather daft, because there’s plenty of woodland in other places. But it certainly isn’t an argument against fungi foraging in general, just that the New Forest is being inundated, rather pointlessly, by too many people from other parts of the country.

Then she says “The forest suffers as a result of all the picking, local people are fed up with it.”

“The forest suffers”? How does the forest suffer? She left that bit out.

“Local people are fed up with it” makes what is going on a bit clearer.  If people were coming from all over the UK to a small area in my bit of Sussex then I’d be pretty fed up about it too.

The ecological argument offered is this:

“Fungus is a central part to the web of life – nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates.”

And the problem with this claim is that, as John Wright points out, picking fruiting bodies doesn’t actually harm the fungus. Even if you pick every single penny bun beneath an oak tree, the tree is not harmed in any way, and neither is the fungus.  It’s ecologically no different to picking apples or blackberries. The only bit of the argument that actually works is the bit about the invertebrates. Yes, if you take all of the fungi in a particular area and if there are local populations of insects that are dependent on fungi to feed their grubs, then the population of those invertebrates will suffer. But I am not sure that a local decline in population of a few obscure species of beetle and fly which are either unthreatened or ecologically irrelevant warrants this level of outrage.


Slow-cooked pork belly with sea-purslane and wild fennel

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This creation is very loosely based on a dish by Lukas Pfaff. I couldn’t afford a suckling pig, so I re-invented it (today) using a much cheaper cut of meat.

Sea Kale

Sea Kale

The key foraged ingredients are sea-purslane, which can be found by the ton on just about any salt marsh or river estuary in the country, and wild fennel, which is a bit harder to track down but can be locally quite abundant, especially in coastal areas. I accompanied it with some sea kale which just happened to be in area I was foraging.



Main Ingredients (for 4 people):

Pork belly joint 1.5 to 2kg.
Several generous handfuls of fresh, tender, new-growth sea-purslane.
The top two-thirds of 6 or 7 wild fennel plants.



1) Wash the sea-purslane. Take half of it and spread it at the base of a casserole dish.

2) Separate the fluffy top leaves of the fennel and the smaller bits of stem from the thicker bits at the base. You don’t want any really tough bits of stem – nothing much wider than the diameter of a pencil. Reserve the stems for later. Put the fluffy leaves and the smaller stems in a layer on top of the sea-purslane.

3) The belly joint will usually come rolled in string, which makes the first part of the process easier: use a sharp knife to cut the joint into 4 strips. Remove the string, unroll the strips and place them on top of the fennel, skin side up.

Wild fennel

Wild fennel

4) Put the casserole dish (lid on) in an oven and cook for three hours at 165° (or fan 150°).

5) Pick the leaves off the stems of the other half of the sea-purslane. Keep for later.

6) Just before the three hours are up, start steaming the fennel stems, and put the potatoes on if you want to serve with mash. Add the sea kale a little bit later if you’re serving that too.

7) Take the belly strips out of the casserole dish, put in another dish and return to the oven to keep warm (turn the oven down low).

8) Take the layer of fennel out of the casserole dish (doesn’t matter if some bits escape). If you can get any juices out of the fennel, then add them back into the dish.

9) The dish will now contain the meat juices, including plenty of oil, and some very well-cooked sea-purslane. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mash the sea-purslane into a pulp, in the oils and juices from the meat, to make a sauce (you may want to remove some of the oil first, if there’s too much). Put the sauce in a jug and put the jug in the oven to keep warm.

Slow-cooked pork belly with sea-purslane and wild fennel, with sea kale and mashed potato and mushrooms.

Slow-cooked pork belly with sea-purslane and wild fennel, served with sea kale, mashed potato and mushrooms.

10) Heat some butter and olive oil, and plenty of freshly ground sea or rock salt, in a frying pan and then fry the belly strips, skin-side down. This is purely to make the skin go crackling-like and should take about 4 minutes.

11) Meanwhile, in another pan, sauté the second half of the sea-purslane for a couple of minutes in butter and/or olive oil. I also fried some mushrooms to go with the dish.

12) To serve, place the belly strips with their crackling side sideways, and drizzle the sea-purslane sauce over the top. Serve with the sautéed sea-purslane, mashed potato, steamed wild fennel stems (with plenty of butter) and optional sea kale (with plenty of lemon juice).

Sorry about the poor quality photo – I was in a bit of a rush to try my new creation!