Slow food: garden snails

Now I’m not going to lie to you. When Geoff appeared in the lounge brandishing a handful of what looked suspiciously like garden snails, my heart didn’t jump for joy.


They were indeed garden snails (Helix aspersa), which he’d found hibernating in part of a dry stone wall. If you want to eat snails at any other time of year, when they’re not hibernating, you have to keep them for a week and purge them. However, they purge themselves before they hibernate, so if you find them all tucked up for winter, you can eat them straight away.

So he went ahead and cooked them, with plenty of garlic, and I must admit they were OK. Not up there in my top ten, but they’re a good source of protein and iron, and heck, if the French can do it so can we.


Here’s the recipe, in Geoff’s own delicate words:

“First I dropped them in boiling water (to kill them).  After about a minute or two I drained the water, then removed them from their shells and washed them in cold water, removing any remaining gloop and dangly bits.  I then fried a bit of garlic in olive oil, then when the garlic had started to cook I added the snails and a bit of parsley.  Might have been better in butter.”

Beef and horn of plenty pie

P1070384Yesterday we found a huge patch of horn of plenty, so I thought I’d try out a recipe I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s loosely based on Jamie Oliver’s excellent steak and cheese pie, but with less meat, more mushrooms and no cheese (well, I did say loosely!). I’ve called it a pie, but it’s more like a casserole with a pastry lid, to be honest.

It came out really well and makes a great winter warmer. The horn of plenty has quite a delicate, aromatic taste, and complements the beer nicely. I think it’s worth layering the meat and mushrooms, rather than mixing them, so you get both tastes. The following serves 3-4.


2 onions
2 cloves of garlic
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
400g horn of plenty
300g diced beef
fresh rosemary
half a can of Guinness
1 tbsp flour
100g ready-made puff pastry
salt and pepper

Chop and fry the onion, garlic, carrot and celery. When they’re starting to brown, add the beef, rosemary, salt and pepper. Transfer to a casserole dish, pour over the Guinness and stir in the flour. Put in the oven at 190C. After 1.5 hours, stir and return to the oven for another hour or until the mixture thickens. Remove the lid (the casserole dish is about to become a pie dish).

Fry the mushrooms, then spread them in a thick layer across the meat mixture. Roll out the pastry, and tuck it over the mushrooms and meat. Brush the top with egg or milk, and return to the oven for 30-45 minutes.

Cost: £5.53
Beef: £2.34
Guinness: £1.89
Pastry: £1.10
Carrot: 10p
Celery: 10p
Onions: 20p

Wild mushroom and sweet chestnut pâté

sweet chestnutsI nearly left it too late for experimenting with sweet chestnuts – the squirrels have had most of them. But while there are still a few around, I decided to have a go at making a vegetarian pâté. I also used some lovely horse mushrooms that we found growing on a verge, and some winter chanterelles (girolles), which are still out in full force. The winter chanterelles can be quite hard to spot, until you get your eye in, because they blend in with the fallen leaves – see the photo below.

I couldn’t find any existing recipes that used both mushrooms and sweet chestnuts (though while searching I did find an awful lot made with chestnut mushrooms!), so I adapted a mushroom pâté recipe from BBC Food.

It makes a subtly flavoured but tasty pâté, and is lovely on wholemeal toast. The chestnuts give it a bit of sweetness and crunch. I’m giving myself a pat on the back for this one.

winter chanterellesIngredients
To make about four servings:
50g butter
300g mushrooms (I used 200g horse mushrooms and 100g winter chanterelles)
75g sweet chestnuts
1 small onion
1 clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
100g ricotta
1 tsp nutmeg

Use a knife to score an ‘x’ into each sweet chestnut, then roast them in the oven at 200C for 30 mins. Fry up the onion, garlic and mushrooms until soft. Add the lemon juice, then strain the mixture in the colander. (Keep the juices for using in something else, such as gravy.) Shell the chestnuts and add to the mushrooms. Roughly blend the mixture, then mix in the ricotta and nutmeg, plus salt and pepper if you like. Chill before serving.

mushroom and sweet chestnut pate

Cost = 95p
50g butter – 20p
1 small onion – 10p
half a lemon – 15p
100g ricotta – 50p
That’s 95p if you already had the ingredients, or £3 if you had to go out and shop from scratch.

Damson, apple and passionfruit jam

damsons and apples

If you’re going to have a go at jam-making, first can I recommend you get this song in your head. Where it will stay all day. No need to thank me.

On our way back from a walk, we passed a wild damson* tree laden down with fruit, so we stopped and picked some. The rest of the ingredients I’m using are from the garden, so not strictly foraged – some cooking apples, and a variety of passionfruit with orange and green spotty skin and red pulp.

I followed two separate recipes, one from Gransnet for damson and apple jam and one from Cooksnet for damson jam. I added passionfruit to the latter.

passion fruitIngredients
For the damson and apple jam:
1kg damsons
500g apples
1/4 litre water
granulated sugar (weight to be determined later)

For the damson and passionfruit jam:
500g damsons
150g passionfruit pulp (about 15 fruits, skin and pith discarded)
500g sugar
200ml water

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For the damson and apple jam:
Wash and destalk the damsons, chop the apples (no need to peel), and boil both gently until soft. Push through a colander to remove the seeds and skins. (I say ‘push through’ like it’s a serene thing, but it’s more like a jammy wrestling match.) Weigh the puree, and add the same weight of sugar. Mix it well, then boil for 15 minutes.

For the damson and passion fruit jam:
Simmer the damsons for 30 minutes, then add sugar and stir for five minutes. Remove the stones. Add the passionfruit pulp. Boil for 10 minutes, and two extra minutes if needed.


Two important jam-makin’ things to know before you start:
1) You need a cold plate, so put one in the freezer in preparation. To test if the jam is ready, you drip a bit onto the cold plate, leave it for a couple of seconds, then push it with your finger. If it wrinkles, it’s reached setting point. If it behaves like a liquid, it needs a bit longer.
2) You need warm, sterilised jars at the ready. Wash them in hot water, then put them in the oven at 140C for half an hour before the jam is ready.

Cost: 33p a jar
The only cost was 1.5kg sugar, at £1.30ish from Asda. For that, we filled four big 750g jars (courtesy of a lodger with a love for Dolmio pasta sauces).

*I’m saying ‘damson’ for simplicity. Here’s the Geoff version: “I think what we found might actually have been bullaces, but the whole group – blackthorn (sloes), bullaces, damsons, plums and cherry plums and wild cherries (cherries are just small plums) are all inter-fertile and it is not even clear what the true wild ancestors were, apart from that blackthorn was one of them.  So there are trees growing all over the UK, some of which were planted, others self-seeded which are basically sloe-bullace-damson-cherry-plums – they are a bit like mongrel dogs.  It’s where our concept of what is a “species” starts to break down.  They are all edible, and the taste ranges from sweet to sour to tasteless!”

Wild mushroom and leek tart

prep2This was a success, and I’d definitely make it again. I used a mixture of hedgehog mushrooms (pied de mouton), winter chanterelles and some rare wavy capped chanterelles.

The hedgehog mushrooms get their name from the thousands of tiny spines on their undersides. The spines are edible but slightly bitter, and they detach themselves during cooking and make your food look weird and speckly. So this time I scraped them off using a teaspoon.

The recipe takes a couple of hours if you make the pastry from scratch. But if you used a ready-made base, you could have it on the table in half an hour.



For the pastry:
240g plain flour
50g grana padano or other hard cheese
160g butter – chilled and cubed
2 egg yolks
fresh thyme

For the filling:
350g leeks
400g mushrooms (I used 250g hedgehogs, 100g winter chanterelles, 50g wavy-capped chanterelles)
2 cloves garlic
4 eggs
100ml double cream
50g grana padano or other cheese
olive oil



For the pastry:
Mix the flour, thyme and cheese together, then rub in the butter until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolks and bring together. Chill for 30 minutes then roll out and place in 30cm tin. Chill for another 20 minutes. Bake blind for 20 minutes at 180C then bake open for a further 20 minutes.

For the filling:
Fry the leeks in olive oil, then set aside. Fry the mushrooms in olive oil (I put the hedgehogs in first because they have a sturdier texture, then added the others) then add the butter and garlic. Combine the leeks, mushrooms, cream, cheese, parsley and eggs. Mix well and add seasoning. Pour into the pastry base and bake for 20 minutes at 180C.

Penny bun soup

Today we found four lovely penny buns (or porcini, or ceps), and decided to be decadent and try out a pure fresh penny bun soup. The results were delicious, but a bit too rich and thick.

In future, I’d probably go for a maximum of half penny buns and half some other, milder mushroom. And more water/stock/wine than I used below. I might also replace the double cream with single cream or milk.

penny bun soup


500g chopped penny buns 
5 shallots
1 clove garlic
500ml chicken stock 
50ml white wine
100ml double cream
butter for frying
salt, pepper, dried thyme


Chop the garlic and shallots and fry in butter for four minutes. Chop the penny buns and add them to the pot, frying for a further six or seven minutes. Add the stock, wine, salt, pepper and thyme, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add cream, blend, reheat to hot and then serve.

Fig and fairy ring cookies

P1070272Err, mushroom cookies? Yes, that’s what I said too. But Geoff assured me this wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. I’m still not quite convinced he was right.

Fairy ring mushrooms are one of the few fungi that grow in the summer in the UK, starting in June and going right through to November. The reason they can survive the hot weather is that they have a high concentration of the sugar trehalose. Even if they dry out completely, the sugar protects their cell structure and as soon as the next rain comes along they spring back to health.

I made a basic cookie mix and added the mushrooms, then got rather disheartened at how unpleasant the mixture looked. So I decided to add some fresh fig to half of the mixture, for a bit of seasonal colour.

They came out OK, but I don’t think I’d have been able to guess what the brown bits were if I hadn’t known they were mushrooms. The cookies were sweet, but not particularly tasty. The ones I’d added fig to were more interesting – and looked better too.

I think in future I will experiment with drying the fairy ring mushrooms first, to get a more concentrated taste and interesting texture. I might also reduce the proportion of sugar. This one definitely needs some work!

(makes about eight)
50g butter
30g caster sugar
70g plain flour
20g ground almonds
50g fresh fairy ring mushrooms 
1 fresh fig

Heat the oven to 180C. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the flour and almonds and mix. Chop the mushrooms and fig and add them to the mixture. Line a baking tray with baking paper, then roll the mixture into balls and flatten them into cookies. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.