Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Recipes and food styling by gill meller in­ter­view by alex reece pho­to­graphs by an­drew montgomery food and drink edi­tor ali­son walker

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)

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