Winter Foraging

The arrival of the first frosts can be a melancholy time for the foraging adventurer, as they signify an end to the mushrooming season. Where the fields and woodlands were, but a short time ago, littered with all manner of colourful and delicious fungi, now there are merely soggy, blackened remains. Gone too are the abundant fruits, berries and edible wild plants of late summer and autumn, replaced by stark, bare branches, and sodden leaf litter.

However, things aren’t actually as bleak as I’m making them out to be. True, there are fewer edible species available in the winter, but that simply makes those that are still growing all the more rewarding to find. In the Collins Gem edition of Food for Free, Richard Mabey provides a useful guide to some of the plants and fungi available in the different months of the year. December features the fewest species, listing Blewit; Chanterelle; Chickweed; Fairy Ring Champignon; Honey Fungus; Oyster Mushroom and Velvet Shank, all of which apart from Chickweed (Stellaria media) are fungi. This list is, however, by no means exhaustive, and many other species of edible plant, such as cleavers Galium aparine and fungi, such as the seemingly unappetising Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricular-judae), are also available.

In my own experience, while I may have found examples of Fairy Ring Champignon and Honey Fungus in December they are rarely in good enough shape to consider eating. This is not true, however, of Blewits, which seem to be particularly hardy against the colder weather and a reliable late season find. Field Blewits (Lepista saeva) are unmistakable mushrooms, appearing smooth and brown on the cap surface, but once picked from their grassland habitat reveal a striking lilac-tinged stem.

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Wood Blewits (Lepista nuda), are less modest, displaying vibrant lilac colouring on all parts: stem, cap and gills.

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The late season appearance and lilac stem of the Field Blewit means it is unlikely to be confused with any other species. However, the Wood Blewit can be confused with two members of the Cortinarius genus- commonly known as Webcaps. All members of this genus should be avoided as many are poisonous and some deadly. A key feature of webcaps is the weblike fibres covering the gills in young specimens, with fragments still often evident on the stems of mature specimens. The most reliable way to confirm identification of both Field and Wood Blewits is to take a spore print – both have pale pink spores, whereas those of the Webcaps are rust brown.

I have to say that despite being considered an excellent edible species in many guides, I find the Blewits’ taste a bit unusual. Although they are meant to be very good with garlic, I wasn’t that big a fan. They must be cooked as they contain a chemical that may destroy red blood cells, which is broken down by heat.

Despite my less than enthusiastic recommendation you can try my recipe for making creamy Blewit spaghetti below:

Finely chop 4 shallots and two Field Blewits (removing the stem) and fry in a saucepan with some butter and vegetable oil on a medium high heat until the onions are browned and most of the juice has evaporated from the Blewits and they are beginning to brown too.

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Begin cooking the spaghetti. Then turn the heat on the mushroom pan down to medium low and crush 2 cloves of garlic and lightly fry with the mushrooms and shallots. Finally add salt and pepper and enough cream to the pan to make a creamy sauce in which the contents can simmer.

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Add the sauce to the drained spaghetti and finish with some grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

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