GILL MELLER’S TASTES OF THE SEASONS
This month WOODLAND AND ORCHARD FLAVOURS
The West Country chef meets local food producers, then creates recipes with the fresh ingredients they supply. This month: woodland and orchard flavours
In this inspiring series, West Country chef Gill Meller meets his favourite local food producers, then creates mouthwatering dishes with the ingredients they grow and provide
Gill Meller has lived in the west Dorset/east Devon area all his life. As head chef at River Cottage, he has been involved in sourcing sustainable and ethical foods, creating recipes and developing the cookery school, where he also teaches. He has often appeared alongside Hugh Fearnley-whittingstall in his TV series, and has lately been producing books as an independent food writer. The field-to-fork mentality of good ingredients, simply prepared, is key to his approach and he has built up relationships with numerous inspiring producers, growers and farmers in his area: “Everything I do hangs on these amazing people,” he says, “and respecting the part they play in the food I cook.”
I love walking through the woods at this time of year. It’s such a sensory experience, with the tone of the light, the way the leaves start to turn and fall, the softness of the ground underfoot and the scent of the air all around you. What’s more, if you wander off the paths that wind their way through the trees, you may well find a variety of edible wild mushrooms flourishing on the forest floor. for fungi is something I often do with friends and family. It’s good fun and gets everyone out into the fresh air. Coincidentally, there’s a beautiful piece of mixed woodland very close to River Cottage, so we will often head there to see what we can find. With mushrooming (like fishing), it’s not about the haul – or how much you have in your basket – the joy is found in the whole experience. I think it’s the atavistic allure of gathering your own food from the wild and then bringing it home that’s so satisfying. We tend to find chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms and the odd cep or penny bun – all of which make good eating. But of course, you need to be 100 per cent sure about what you’re picking, so having a foraging guidebook with you, such as John Wright’s River Cottage Handbook on mushrooms, any of Roger Phillips’ works on the subject or Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, is invaluable. On a recent foray with my wife Alice, daughter Coco and sheepdog Tinker, I took along my Swedish friend Johan, a wine dealer, who’s an accomplished cook and knows a thing or two about mycology. We’ve found that it’s the hedgehog mushroom that seems to grow the best in these woods. Happily, it is quite hard to mistake and it is one of the most delicious wild mushrooms if you catch it before it starts to soften. I like them simply sautéed in olive oil, butter, garlic and parsley, then served on toast. It makes for the best supper ever. It’s the purity of dishes such as this, using ingredients that you’ve collected yourself, that I like so much.
I think that’s what also appeals to me about traditional, craft-made cider – another seasonal treat that is easy to come by in our area. The Chideock Cider Circle – which appeared in one of the early River Cottage TV programmes – has been active in this idyllic Jurassic Coast village, just west of Bridport, for more than 100 years. The villagers continue to make the drink in exactly the same way as their forefathers, using an antique press and barrels that date back to the turn of the 20th century. Its flavour is therefore unaffected by anything other than the people who have made it, the fruit that is used and the quality of that particular harvest.
The Circle has the right to gather windfall apples, most of which come from the orchards on the Chideock Manor estate. “There are about 50 different sorts of cider apples there,” says Colin Hopkins, who’s been making cider with the collective for 54 years, and helped to build the current
shed in 1962. “I just picked [the skill] up from the old blokes in Chideock,” he explains. “Years ago, every farm had a press. Cider used to be half the workers’ wages.”
Once the apples have been chopped and shredded, they are put into the press, and then the juice is pumped into barrels to mature. As Colin (above right with Gill) says: “We add nothing at all – we just let the natural yeast in the apples work.” The fermentation process takes six to ten weeks, but Colin and co like to drink it after six months. The quantity they make each year varies according to the harvest, but it’s usually about 2,000 gallons or more, and it isn’t for sale. If locals or holidaymakers want some, they just put a donation to charity in the pot.
Made up of 16-18 local men, the Cider Circle meets every Tuesday evening. And when they’re not involved in the production of the drink (which typically lasts from autumn to the end of January), they sit in the rustic-looking shed and chat, savouring the fruits of their labour along with some bread and cheese. “What do I enjoy about it? It’s just keeping the old tradition going,” Colin says.
I find that using artisanal cider like theirs brings real character to whatever dish I happen to be cooking. If I’m making a lovely soda bread, for instance, it’s great to add cider instead of water. I use Colin’s cider for the delicious mushroom and blue cheese soup I’ve included here – it introduces sweetness, acidity and a real fruitiness.
The wild mushroom tart, also featured here, is something I’ve been making for a long time. It’s such a fantastic combination: the rich custard with the parsley and mushrooms, plus the salty pancetta, is just so hard to beat. I find this kind of food very fitting for the time of year. It’s hearty but still has a lightness to it. If you have some left over, a slice could be taken out the next day, back into the woods, so that you can enjoy a picnic while foraging for a few more mushrooms.
Raw mushroom, kale, celeriac and pumpkin-seed salad (recipe overleaf)