I was much braver as a child.
At least I thought nothing of picking – and, more to the point, eating – field mushrooms when, at around this time of year, they would poke their heads above the soily parapet in the field across the way. My adult self, I’m afraid, wouldn’t dream of plucking so freely now – at least not without spending more time in the company of someone who knew what they were about, mushroom-wise, where a very fine line can exist between deliciousness and death.
Mary Bulfin, luckily, can navigate her way around the mushroom kingdom with more confidence than most, and when an invitation came my way to spend a weekend at Farnham Estate in Co. Cavan, which would include a foraging walk, as guided by Mary, through the estate’s extensive woodlands, I packed my wellies and headed north.
As it turns out, I was far from alone in my welly-wearing woodland enthusiasm. A goodly group had made the trip to Cavan to join Mary, and while everyone who came for the walk was inevitably curious about mushrooms, Mary was quick to point out that there is, of course, an awful lot more to foraging than fungi. There are greens and berries and nuts to gather, and many plants whose virtue we have long forgotten or neglected, like nettles – one plant that I have absolutely no trouble in identifying. Said nettles are eminently useful, both as a green manure and as food, and are also notable for being the sole food source for a number of our Irish butterflies, a reminder that ecosystems are delicately balanced things and that no plant or animal exists in a vacuum.
And while foraging is, first and foremost, about being able to identify those edibles that don’t come in a supermarket packet, it is also bound up with the art of preserving the bounty of the wilds, and Mary talked about preserving green leaves in oil, using rose hips to make jellies, elderflowers to flavour cordials and Turkish delight, young beech leaves to make a kind of beech leaf gin and any number of items, from elderberries to dried oak leaves, to make wine.
Yet, despite the possibilities presented by a whole host of other wild foods, mushrooms – embodying, as they do, the possibility of both extreme culinary delight and mortal bodily danger – are the sexy ones, the kings of the foraging castle, at the top of the foraging heap. They demand a healthy respect and, as Mary puts it, when mushroom hunting, you should “leave your ego behind – until you know everything, you know nothing.”
I took it as a good sign, then, that, as we proceeded through the woods, there were plenty of times where the answer to “is that edible?” was “I don’t know” – in such cases, samples were often picked for consultation with other mushroom hunters and with reliable, well-illustrated guides, like The Great Encyclopedia of Mushrooms or the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook. In the mushroom world, you can’t be too careful, for the dangerous and the delectable can wear very similar clothes.
As we walked, we talked more generally about foraged food and how it can broaden the palate. We also tasted the evidence, nibbling, among others, on tangy sorrel, parsley-like ground elder and woodruff, which has an aftertaste not unlike cinnamon and can be dried and used to flavour custard. While the walk in the Farnham Estate woodlands was wonderful, we were reminded, too, that foraging doesn’t necessarily require a 1300 acre spread (though that, of course, it is a rather nice thing to have access to). Polytunnels, for example, are fantastic places for a forage, home to edible items otherwise considered weeds, such as chickweed.
The distinct advantage of foraging on the grounds of Farnham Estate, however, is that the bounty gets put to expert use in the hotel’s Botanica Restaurant. Newly arrived executive head chef Philippe Farineau – late of Mount Falcon Hotel in Mayo and winner of the Restaurant Association’s Best Chef in Connaught in 2011 and 2012 – is enthusiastic about the wild food possibilities. With dishes like barley risotto with woodland mushrooms and slow-braised Cavan beef cheek, or elderberry sorbet with rose hip jelly, he’s making sure that what’s found on the estate can be found on your plate, and that is just as it should be.
If you fancy a bit of foraging yourself, you might like to avail of Farnham Estate’s foraging specials. These include overnight accommodation with dinner in the Botanica Restaurant, buffet breakfast and unlimited access to the health spa’s indoor/outdoor infinity pool, thermal suite, gym and 7km of woodland walking trails.
You’ll also get to spend a morning with Mary Bulfin, who will introduce you to the world of foraging, followed by a guided walk of 2 to 3 hours through the woodlands identifying plants, collecting samples and spotting what’s available. Mary will also give a short demo on what has been collected, depending on the success of each forage.
If you can afford to drop everything and head almost immediately to Cavan, you could be there for the next scheduled date, which is this coming Friday and Saturday October 26th/27th, with rates of €125 per person sharing or €175 single occupancy. If you’re a little less spur of the moment, further foraging dates will be announced, so check with Farnham Estate for details.
If you find that foraging is enough to drive you to drink (or even if you don’t), you might also like to check out the Dublin Whisk(e)y Fringe Festival which is happening in the city over the next few days. More info below.