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October Star Species: Fungi

Most of us see mushrooms as an everyday food but have you ever stopped and wondered exactly what they are and why they exist? Here's the lowdown, along with a delicious River Cottage recipe.

We are cheating a little this month as, of course, fungi is a whole kingdom, which is estimated to have up to 5 million separate species (only 5% of which have been identified). We take a look at this mysterious kingdom and what defines it and then we home in on a couple of the species we eat, with a great recipe from our friends at River Cottage.  

What makes a mushroom a mushroom?

What are the characteristics of fungi? They were once classified as plants and, surprisingly, they also share some characteristics with the animal kingdom. But they have now been given their own kingdom because actually they are neither plant nor animal. 

The key characteristic of fungi is that they break down and eat dead matter and this makes them crucial of the cycle of life - they are the tidy-uppers of our messy planet. They are also the basis of many of our modern medicines, including antibiotics. And of course, some species are very tasty and highly nutritious. These are the ones that interest us here.

Foraging for mushrooms

Before we go any further, a warning: We recommend that if you are foraging for mushrooms, go with an expert and don't eat anything unless you are 100% sure it is safe. Often the difference between a tasty delicacy and a deadly killer is indiscernible - until you eat it.

The best time to find your mushrooms is early on an autumn morning after a rainy night. The best places to look are in woodlands and meadows. Take with you a sharp knife, a basket, a little brush, a guide book - and a mushroom expert (we're not joking!). Read on to meet your very own expert…

Wild mushrooms

The most familiar mushroom to most of us is the field mushroom (Agaricus campestris). It is the closest wild mushroom to the ones you see in the supermarkets but foraged fresh from the field it bears no comparison. These are very versatile and can be used in almost any savoury dishes.

Another favourite is the penny bun (Boletus edulis), also known as the cep in French or porcini in Italian. These brown-capped woodland mushrooms are swollen towards the base with a white neck just below the cap. They can be eaten raw in salads, cooked in to add depth to a dish, and dried out they are great for stocks and sauces.

Cooking with mushrooms

We are delighted to have permission from River Cottage to bring you this yummy recipe for Wild Mushroom Tart, which features in "River Cottage Handbook No 1 - Mushrooms", published by Bloomsbury Publishing plc.

This is the simplest of tarts and a good option if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own pastry. You can use any mushrooms you fancy and the whole thing takes little more than half an hour, start to finish.

Easy wild mushroom tart

Serves 2 as a starter or snack

Ingredients: 

• About 200g mixed wild mushrooms

• 25g butter

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

• Breadcrumbs made from 1 thick slice stale white bread, crusts removed

• Finely grated zest of ½ lemon

• 1 heaped tbsp grated Parmesan

• 250g bought puff pastry or home-made rough puff pastry

• 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley

• 1 egg, beaten

Instructions:

1) Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

2) Clean, trim and slice the mushrooms.

3) Heat the butter in a small frying pan and add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. As the mushrooms start to soften, throw in the garlic and fry gently for another 2 - 3 minutes or so. You want the mushrooms to be tender but not coloured and their liquid evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, Parmesan, parsley and a few grinds of black pepper.

4) Roll out the pastry into a rough circle, no more than 5mm thick. Use this to line the base only of a 20cm-diameter tart tin or ovenproof frying pan and trim off the excess. Heap the mushroom mixture into the pastry, leaving a couple of centimetres uncovered around the edge - this will make a nice puffed-up, crisp, golden rim to the tart. Brush this edge with the beaten egg and bake for around 20 minutes, until the pastry is puffed up and golden. Serve hot or cold.

Fungi spotting with your Forest Ranger

Our Forest Rangers are out and about in the woodland every day and they are quick to spot the effects of the changing seasons. Mushrooms have been in short supply so far this year as the usual damp conditions of autumn are holding off. However, they can show you some of the most amazing fungi formations which, while not edible, are certainly a visual feast. Gail, the Forest Ranger at Blackwood Forest has photographed and identified over 50 different species!

Take a trip into the woods with your Forest Ranger when you stay at one of our 10 UK forest locations and find out more about the mysteries of fungi, foraging and the signs of a British autumn.

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