A Walk in the Woods

When Dédé and Françoise proposed a walk in the woods, little did I imagine what a unique moment this would be, for me.  Françoise’s email ran as follows “Mercredi,  à 14 heure veut tu venir avec André et moi aux champignons?   Nous serons de retour pour 17 hr.  On vient te chercher si tu peux ? Gros Bisous.   ‘Aux champignons?  In December?!!  I concluded that ‘aux champignons’ would be an expression, a watchword if you like, to denote a gentle ramble in the countryside.

Since Nick and I bought our French house eleven years ago we have never been for a walk in French woods!  IMG_5347 (2).JPG

When I think about that it is rather extraordinary.  We have walked often enough along the shores and coast of the Cotentin, round La Hougue many times, and less frequently inland within our neighbourhood.  But we have not experienced true French countryside at first hand.  One reason is that ‘the right to roam’ does not exist in France.  Much land is in private ownership and much of that is managed for hunting.  ‘Chasse garde’ or ‘Chasse prive’.

We were picked up at 2 o’clock and the first surprise was that we would be going by car.  Dédé drove us to a bit of well-established woodland that he has known since he was a boy.  Indeed as a boy he used to forage for mushrooms. I think it was a clandestine activity; I am not even sure we should be here today, there are wooden signs nailed to trees all around.  img_5333-2 It would not be giving too much away to say that the locality is called Montaigu, a sprawling area of woodland either side of the main road to Valognes.  Montaigu la Brisette covers an area of some 1500 sq. km.  We drove down a few lanes and then a track.  Dédé parked the car.  There was a very fine drizzle, at times more like a swirling mist, which persisted throughout the afternoon.  It was rather pleasant: humidity and fungi are happy companions.  We walked into the woodland with some purpose and before long our hosts were stopping and staring at the ground.  And there they were, small brown circular shapes with fluted edges, the caps of Chanterellesimg_5336-2Chanterelles, also known as Girolles, Cantharellus cibarius, are probably the best known species of the genus Cantharellus.  Wikipedia tells us that the mushroom is orange or yellow, meaty and funnel-shaped. On the lower surface, underneath the smooth cap, it has gill-like ridges that run almost all the way down its stipe, which tapers down seamlessly from the cap. It emits a fruity aroma, reminiscent of apricots and a mildly peppery taste and is considered an excellent edible mushroom.

Our mushrooms, my expert mycologist sister has since told me, were  Cantharellus infundibuliformis.  img_5339-2A common mushroom that grows in large groups in wooded areas and damp places. They are characterized by dark brown caps that measure up to two inches across and brownish-yellow stems. The underside of the cap features narrow veins rather than gills. They are known as Yellow Legs and have a pleasant aroma but are very bitter if eaten raw. They are best when added to dishes that are slow cooked which makes them tender and much more flavoursome. They will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week and they are very easy to dry.

We browsed our way through the woods, stooping to gather freely where the toadstools were fruiting.  img_5349-2Once you knew what you were looking for their congregations were not difficult to spot.  They appear, in pockets, in much the same places year after year.  We all gathered a magnificent haul of the dainty mushrooms.  Along the way we saw other fungus species.  Dede gave me their names and I later emailed Françoise: “J’ai trouvé les autres champignons dont nous avons parlé aujourd’hui, Peziza orangée, Clavaire choufleur, Pied de mouton.  Il y avait , je pense un autre quatrieme ‘quelquechose de bois’ que j’oublie?  Donc Peziza s’appelle Orange Peel fungus (zeste du orange), Clavaire choufleur s’appelle Coral fungus, Pied de mouton s’appelle ‘Wood Hedgehog fungus’ cela veut dire Herisson du bois!!  Ce nom-là est tres drôle.”img_5356-4

At the end of our walk Dédé stopped to take some small pine tree branches for Christmas decoration then we took a circuitous route back to the car.  img_5350-2As we swished our way through the thick and loosely packed leaf litter, with the starkness of the tall skinny pine trees and the prickly holly scrub all around, I was reminded of Middle Earth, and hobbits, and hidden places where secretive and unseen beings may be watching.  These woods are known to be home to wild boar; we saw plenty of evidence of scrapes in the rich, vegetative soil, especially beneath trees.  Wild boar root for acorns but there were few oak trees around.  I wondered if the animals had been searching for truffles.  Ever since I read Richard Fortey’s homage to woodlands  I have learnt that truffles might be more widespread than is believed.  The locations where you can find truffles are not often shared between fungi officinados.  They are expensive.  I checked one supplier’s prices: a smooth black truffle about the size of a conker would cost you £49.  There is so much mystique around the subject. img_5361-2

Delivered to our front door we thanked Dédé and Françoise as profusely as we could in flowery French, for such a wonderful and very special afternoon with them.  Fungi foragers do not easily share their haunts and expertise with others.  Once indoors I set to and sorted my haul into mushrooms that would be dried, others to cook within a few days and, following Dede’s advice, I removed all the stalks which would be used to make a veloute.

The following day I sautéed some in a pan with butter then folded them through some saffron tagliatelle with crème fraiche.  Another way to eat the fresh little mushrooms is to fry them in a pan until crispy and then make an omelette around them.img_5370-2

Drying mushrooms is a very straightforward process.  Various methods are suggested although I discovered that putting them in a very low temperature oven did not work as the mushrooms started to cook and yield their liquid.  Better was putting them on a wire rack on top of the wood-burning stove.  I have a proper food dryer and dehydrator but not where I need it!

Gathering wild mushrooms then taking them home to create tasty dishes; it doesn’t get much better.

 

An Elephant called Brexit

If only packing clothes, assembling collecting kit, provisions, wine and all the other preparations needed to close down one’s base in order to establish another temporary one could be seamless. And without contretemps.  It seems that even after 48 years of marriage it is not to be.

So we get up on Friday morning early and stow the car, lock our front door and set off.   At least the morning has gone smoothly.  Five minutes into our journey I realise I have not brought quite enough of my current medicaments.  If that is the only oversight I will be pleased indeed.

Before we fetch up at our holiday house at Bantham we are calling in to see my sister who has a consultant coming to advise on the installation of a borehole and Nick is going to help Liz with her decisions.  It is a big step but a necessary one since the fouling of her water supply by a local farmer with his accidental polluting spillage on his land.  After the meeting Nick and I have some spare hours so we drive into Lyme Regis where we have to call in at a shop to change a tee-shirt.  Lyme is very busy, lively, with tourists, and the sun is shining.  We think it would be a great place to bring Martine and Alain when they come to see us.  We did indeed come here with Claire and Ty earlier in the year, on a wet May afternoon and the place was still steeped in atmosphere.  I discover a second hand bookshop down by the Cobb and whilst Nick plods up the hill to collect our car I indulge myself for half an hour and find four additional Booker nominee titles to add to my collection.  Turns out that the book shop, called The Sanctuary, is also a B&B.sanctuarybookshop1

We hope to call in and see Paul and Viv but they are not at home so we drive back to Hawkchurch where Liz will cook us an amazing supper of Escargots aux Cepes.  It is a confection of snails and wild mushrooms and consists of garlic and parsley buttered escargots removed from their shells which are lightly stewed with a tasty melange of fungi.  Liz has gathered Chanterelles from her private source, up her lane, which it seems no-one else has noticed.  Together with her own dried Cepes the fricassee is then placed in a flaky pastry base and topped with a coil of pastry to form a cap.  Well it is beyond just tasty.

In the morning Nick and I must rise and shine and head for Bantham to open up the house for the others.  Our task this week, inter alia, will be to ignore the elephant in the room as far as is possible.

 

Grande Dame goes to York

When the car pulls out of the drive at 6 a.m. I have my two young passengers in the back with their breakfast jam sandwich.  We are bound for Ouistreham, Caen, a journey that will take us about one hour twenty minutes.  They chatter away and occasionally engage me in conversation.  Ruby out of the blue tells me that sometimes she tries to imagine what nothing would be like if the universe were not there.  Wow!!

We park up outside the ferry terminal and check in and wait to board the Normandie.  This is a larger vessel than the Barfleur having two small cinemas and a small stage in the bar where entertainments are staged during the passage.  On this day there will be a quiz, a magic show, face-painting and pumpkin-carving.  It is, after all, October 31st.

Arriving in Portsmouth and disembarking we come through passport control to find waiting parents.  It has to be a quick handover as I will need to check right back in for the return crossing during which I am able to sleep in the very comfortable recliners.  We are half an hour late docking and I am a bit apprehensive about the drive back to St Vaast, not being a great night driver.  But it’s fine as I tune into a French radio station and try to follow rugby final babble.  It is 11.30 p.m. when I pull back into the drive.

We are only going to have 4 days in St Vaast before it is time to travel back to the UK for a couple of fixtures.  I am booked for an AEA conference at York University, an archaeology meeting to mark the retirement of Terry O’Connor.  And in the week that follows there will be meetings of my bridge group in preparation for our class with Barry on the Friday.  For the time being however there is a yoga class in Quettehou on Monday morning, a brief visit to see Fefe who faces a hip operation in the next couple of weeks and a brief catch-up with la Poulette.  My friend Bibi delivers the galet which I have commissioned her to paint using a photo of Fefe’s Siamese cat, Rachel.  It has turned out really well and I hope she will like it.  The tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs left over from my Winterborne K planting are potted up and I plant the Fritillary corms deeply around the bee orchid plants which have re-appeared, leaving just a few of these to plant with the ‘bees’ in our Dorset garden.  I take a few photos of the colour we are still enjoying, including the raspberries which continue to ripen and sprays of the fragrant lemon blossom.

We are weary peeps when we board the ferry on Thursday.  I face a day of scurrying before I must board an early train at Wool bound for York.  I enjoy the meeting very much and renew some connections with former ‘clients’ and associates.  Despite my hang ups over bridge, when the class with Barry is over I don’t feel too wrung out although I cannot stop yawning my head off.  On Saturday Nick and I join the village walk followed by a pub lunch.  After a very long nap I make a batch of Indian pickle and start to think about readying ourselves and the house for our departure for France, storm Abigail permitting, on Monday morning.

A Walk in the Park

Nick has a favourite local attraction to offer visitors.  At Tourlaville you can visit the parkland within which sits the Chateau de Ravalets.  The gardens have been the property of the city of Cherbourg since 1935, and in their present form are the creation of Viscount René de Tocqueville. The layout of this huge 30 acre site, based on a predominantly English design, dates back to 1872 and makes it one of the most attractive gardens in the Cotentin peninsular, with its two lakes and a glasshouse rotunda. It is currently under restoration to bring it back to its former splendour.

We discovered this local monument a couple of years ago when we were looking for places to walk and pass a few hours.  At that time the Chateau housed a very macabre exhibition which consisted largely of animal bones of all sizes, and small mammal corpses.  Now the chateau is closed for the winter and perhaps more restoration.  As it is, at the present time very few of the rooms are open to the public.

Whilst Mike and Carolyn were visiting we drove to Tourlaville to spend Saturday afternoon walking in the parkland.  There were late bloomers, trees and shrubs in autumn colours and occasional fungi.  At the end of the walk I met a Frenchman who was walking his beautiful grey and white cat.  The cat lives with its owner in a flat but from kittenhood has been brought to the chateau for walks.  The owner showed me a yellow rose, beautifully perfumed, which he said is the rose he would choose above all others.

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Sadly there was no plant name tag to give a clue as to the variety, although the opened bud which the Frenchman picked and gave to me strongly resembles the strongly fragranced Lawrence Johnson.

 

 

Filey Brigg and Hayburn Wyke

Field work continues with a brand new shore each day.  Filey Brigg is a long narrow peninsula on the North Yorkshire coast.  Its steep cliffs are 20 metres high and consist of a variety of Jurassic rocks containing fossils of dinosaurs and ammonites. In 2001 the substantially complete skeleton of a plesiosaur was found by an amateur collector, Nigel Armstrong in the Speeton Clay.  The well-preserved skeleton was removed from the clay in one block weighing about one and a half tons. The skeleton was identified as being that of an elasmosaur, a long necked plesiosaur of which there are several types and the Filey specimen is about 140 million years old.  As we scramble over the large blocks on the north side of the Brigg trace fossils are conspicuous and abundant.

Ian finds the tiny sea slug Limapontia capitata in the grazed green algal turf at the top of the shore.  He is a very competent ‘finder’.  At Hayburn Wyke later in the week he uncovers a young lobster in the kelp zone of the boulder shore.  You can’t help admiring the brilliant Prussian blue carapace of the live animal.  There are still quite a few people who believe the animals sport their red colour in life.

Talking of red we have a great treat in store when we leave the shore.  We trawl ourselves up the cliffs and wooded slopes above Hayburn Wyke to rejoin our cars parked at the Hayburn Wyke Inn.  Just before we leave the woods to cross the fields we come across a clearing with a cluster of Amanita muscaria, Fly Agaric.  Continuing on our way we repair to the Inn for welcome refreshment.

 

 

All Set Fair for Scarborough

Saturday morning and there is much scurrying around at The Old Workshop.  We face a 6+ hour journey north and would like to arrive no later than 6pm and preferably earlier.  We are pretty much used to leaving the house to her devices when we travel, but this time there will be guests in our absence; Ted is bringing his parents and South African grandparents for a long weekend.

The trip is uneventful and at last we find our way to Manor Farm in Hutton Buschel, a rather smart village just off the York-Scarborough road.  Here we will share a week with friends with whom we have had similar sojourns at the beginning of September in such spaces as Skye, Pembroke, Roundstone, and last year in an NT lighthouse at Hartland Point.  Theoretically it is all about seashores and in practice we enjoy a week of lively conversation and gastronomy.  We like to cook, and it is my turn on Saturday evening.

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We are not required to present ourselves at the lab. in Scarborough until Sunday evening so a walk in Raincliffe Woods allows us to stroll and catch up with each other. The area is a mixed woodland area designated as Planted Ancient Woodland, and combined with Forge Valley Woods is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  There are fungi about, notably Russula, my favourite toadstools not least because they provide an opportunity to search for the Lemon Slug (Malacolimax tenellus) a fungivore with a rather limited geographical distribution in the British Isles.  Anyhow I do not find it but it is an excellent photo opportunity which I seize.

After supper Bas, Terry and I drive over to the lab to catch up with the other field trip participants and meet Paula Lightfoot, our convener.

Of Portesham and Parasols

On Oct 12 it was our turn to lead the Winterborne Walkers on their monthly ramble, on the day of our 45th wedding anniversary.  We had chosen a roughly figure of 8 walk around Portesham and the Hardy Monument.  Despite torrential rain the day before, and a bit on the morning we accomplished this walk in the dry and it was deemed a success.  I think the excellent lunch we enjoyed in the Kings Arms helped.

Descending the final hill down to Portesham Nick spied some field mushrooms nestling in isolated clumps of slightly higher turf than the rest of the sward.  He gathered these, enough for a helping on toast.  Earlier in the week, on a return journey from Poole, he had spotted some parasols growing beneath trees along the verge which bounds Wareham Forest.  These mushrooms are particularly tasty and found their way into a risotto.

Katharine was staying with us this weekend.  She comes to Dorset to visit her grandmother and I also think she likes to escape from London.  On Saturday night we went round to the Greyhound for supper and a family lunch was scheduled at Katie’s for Sunday.  During her visit we tempted Kat to try the waterbed, this proving to be a great success.  Another guest has been won over.

During the ensuing week Nick and I fulfilled various appointments and on Saturday drove to the Natural History Museum in London for the annual all-day Council meeting of the Conchological Society.  This was my first council meeting for some months and it was good to meet up with fellow officers and get back into the swing of things.  I am very glad to re-involve myself with matters relating to marine shells, their identification and recording………… and very content to give all matters electronic a wide berth.   Afterwards we drove across to Hackney to visit Lola, Ruby, their parents and our beloved Rooney.  We spent a very happy evening with them, enjoyed a delicious roast chicken supper and drove home later, arriving at WK at 1.15 a.m. after such a satisfying day.

A Time for Friends and Family

On the Saturday after our return from Devon we joined the Winterborne Walkers for a round trip along the Dorset coast taking in Ringstead Bay, led by Mike Griffin.  The evening before Katharine had arrived from London to spend the weekend with us.   This was a repeat of a weekend earlier in the year when she had come to spend some time with my mother and to see some of the family.  This is a very happy arrangement, particularly as Kat likes to escape London and I was delighted to find another guest who would happily sign up to sleeping in the waterbed.

Later in the week Nick and I enjoyed a gastronomic highlight, another Lobster evening at Le Petit Canard, a delightful restaurant in Maiden Newton.  This was a welcome opportunity to spend some time with Maddy and Andrew before they set off for their holiday in Canada.  We dropped them at Poole on Monday morning then drove up to Surrey for an important rendez-vous.  A few minutes out of Godalming Nick suddenly braked and pulled the car onto the verge.  He had spotted some mushrooms, field mushrooms as it turned out and which he picked.

Andy who prodded us, then helped us create our splendid tiered garden at Peperharow Road was over from California and spending a couple of days in Godalming on a bit of consultancy work for Charterhouse School, his alma mater.  This was a wonderful opportunity for him to see the garden and us, his alternative family.  Barney drove across from Oxfordshire and together with Charlotte and Ryan we walked down to the Charterhouse pub for a curry.  We had just been seated and ordered our drinks when a tall figure hove into view.  To everyone’s delight Dan had made the trip down from London to join the ‘family’ gathering.  We had an amazing time with so much laughter over tales retold, and some tales Nick and I had not heard before.  It was a one-in-a-long while memorable occasion.

The following day my friend Diana and I visited the Compton Pottery having made an appointment the previous day.  It is owned by an extraordinary lady, Mary Wondrausch, who at 89 continues to pot and paint.  I was searching for gifts for Harriet and Briony, which I found, but I also fell in love with a series of paintings Mary has recently been working on which combine watercolour, gouache and patches of printed media incorporated on the surface.  These give a texture to the paintings which is very pleasing.  I bought two of her pictures, ‘Field Mushrooms’ and ‘A Glass of Riesling’ as a gift to Nick for the French house.  He likes them very much indeed which is fortunate as the last picture I bought for him, an artist’s sketch by Peter Thursley, fell flat.

Back in Dorset it was time to wind TOW down and depart for a week in France.  On Thursday morning we boarded the morning ferry and settled in for the four and a half hour cruise across the Channel.

Foragers afield

It would be tempting to look back on the summer and feel that one was short-changed.  It seems that the annual heat-wave occurred back in April-May when we struggled to keep gardens watered, and spring plants which are unadapted to water shortages, alive.  July and August were indifferent months in terms of good weather.  Nevertheless nature has been bountiful in fruit yields.  Then again my tomatoes are now rotting.  You need optimum weather conditions to get the most out of your crops but some foodstuffs are indifferent.

The littoral zone of a beach is the area of shore that is subjected to exposure during the twice daily cycle of tides.  Plants and animals living in that zone are adapted to extremes of heat, cold, drying out and immersion.  Barring drastic events such as oil spillages life ticks by, you could say at a steady snail’s pace.

Nick and I headed for Ringstead one sunny afternoon when guilt at having been housebound by chores and computer-based activities drove us outside.  You have to pay a hefty toll of £5 to use the private road which gives you the right to park close to the shore.

The bay was beautiful in its tranquility and sparsely populated state.  We walked west towards the headland.  I poked around in rock pools on the limestone platform and found snails in repose in crevices and amongst tufts of algae.  It occurred to me that I had never tested the palatability of Osilinus against that of the traditionally eated winkle Littorina littorea.  I collected both, cooked them separately and subjected them to a taste test.  There was a slight difference in flavour but the Littorina  won hands down because they could be removed from their shells with a pin much more easily.

Then again, I know a verge where Boletes grow.  We first collected some in 2009 when Nick spotted them whilst we were parked up at garage on the A3 buying a newspaper.  They were growing beneath a group of small pines and silver birch.  Returning to Winterborne the other day I pulled in at the garage to check for the mushrooms.  There were many large, overly-ripe adults to be found on our original plot, but also a flock of the young toadstools under some distal pines.  I collected these, noting that there was a mature Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) growing amongst them.

Back in Dorset I unpacked the car and it being a whole two days since I had logged on, opened up my machine.  On Facebook I found a fresh post from Kitchen antics with a posh recipe for mushrooms on toast which I followed, with some minor modifications.  They were delicious!

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Smocked Frocks and Lulworth Rocks

As a tail-piece to the Hackneys’ hols, an unscheduled ride on a relay truck fetched them up in Winterborne K. A tired exhaust and an exhausted tyre contrived to ground them on the lane coming up out of Prussia Cove. Safely delivered to us they were able to hole up whilst the Calibra was fixed. Dan had an appointment in Liverpool which necessitated a 5 a.m. start on Friday and whilst I drove to Cholsey to collect Charlie, Ems and the girls spent the day at TOW with Nick. Charlotte drove Ted from school at the end of the afternoon, and arrived just ahead of Charlie, me and a consignment of F and C.

After supper on Friday the children played with bamboo staffs outside and created another Mouse Restaurant 🙂 They found my horde of scarves, hats, gloves and played winter-time. Lola and Ruby both tried on my vintage smocked frock, one of a pair made in Hong Kong for Christina and me. They were made in the 1950s, hand-stitched, for best. After a night-time tub and stories the children went to bed like lambs.

Nick had gathered some horse mushrooms from a stretch along the road to Poole. We ate these with a hearty cooked breakfast on Saturday before Emma set off for London. During the day Ted and Charlie played; they invented their games with an assortment of props: Playmobil figures, blankets, floppy woolly hats. They were golden. Charlotte worked pretty much all day and I pottered in between laundry, catering, and time at the computer screen.

On Sunday the wild weather subsided enough to take the boys to the coast. We drove to Lulworth and walked down to the cove and spent an hour on the shore, doing beachy things. We ate a late lunch of fish pie before Nick drove Charlie home and Charlotte and Ted took to the road a bit later on. It was a weekend well spent.