Well, that was the winter that seemed like it would never end, but the sun is currently beating down on the English south coast, and it has been a good few days for me, foragingwise. A couple of days ago I broke my morel hoodoo. Well, strictly speaking it wasn’t me who broke it… People often ask me if all of the photos in my book are mine, and my answer is that over 95% of them are. But almost without exception, the 5% that aren’t mine are of species I stood little or no chance of finding in England anyway. The biggest exception were the spring-fruiting morels, for which I have been searching in vain for over thirty years. The two famous edible European morels (Morchella esculenta and elata, Common and Black) aren’t that rare. Other people seem to find them. But spring after spring I’ve been out looking for them, and wherever they were fruiting was somewhere I wasn’t.
Then on Monday evening, a friend of mine tipped me off that he’d spotted some morels growing in a flowerbed somewhere on the campus of Sussex University, and I agreed to meet him there the following afternoon. He had told me exactly where to look. I went to the location, looked as hard as I could, and could see no morels. He was late. Eventually I decided that the Mushroom Gods had decreed that I would never see a morel growing wild, and began trudging home empty-handed. Five minutes later my phone rang and it was Tim, asking me where I was. I told him that the morels had gone, and he replied that that was very strange, because he was looking at them right now. So I went back, and there they were, about ten Black Morels growing exactly where I’d looked 20 minutes before. I have to wonder how many times I have looked right at them and my visual system has “edited them out”. Anyway, having now actually seen them growing wild, I am hoping the spell is broken and that I will find many more. Including some Common Morels, which are more highly ranked than these black ones, and which are now the only important British edible wild fungus I am yet to encounter.
The second wild food that’s been crossed off my list in recent days is Hop shoots. I have seen
plenty of Hops before – but I’ve never found them anywhere close to where I live, and it has always been in the summer or autumn when the plants have their characteristic flowers (famous for their use in beer making), by which time the shoots are shooting no longer. Spotting them at this time of year if you don’t know exactly where to look is nigh on impossible, and unless you have a local patch then it is hard to keep an eye on them so you can be there at the right time when they start growing in the spring. Last year I found a large patch just half a mile from my home, and en-route between my house and my dog’s favourite beach for walking. I have been keeping an eye on it closely and today the shoots were just right for the picking (although this involved walking through nettles to get there).
Hop shoots are perhaps the ultimate in ludicrously-expensive trendy foods. There are reports of them selling for £1000 a kilo (yes, you read that right). And that is for cultivated Hop shoots – doubtless wild ones are even more highly prized. The reason they cost so much is that they take
so much time and effort to collect – they don’t weight much each, and they have to be picked by hand, which involves a lot of bending down, searching and fiddling about. The other reason they cost so much is that they are very tasty, at least when cooked. Raw, they are nothing special. But very briefly sauteed they are delicious – something like mini-asparagus, or marsh samphire, with, as my wife put it, a hint of freshly-mown grass.
So this morning I decided to combine my two finds, and serve them as part of a traditional English breakfast. Truly scrumptious!