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Where the wild things are

Good blogger for all things foraging and food, Maxine Bennett, shares how she found her passion for foraging with a delicious Chestnut, pumpkin and leek pie, with rosemary-herbed pastry recipe. 

High mountains, white-water and multi-day tramps are not for me. These days my contact with nature is domesticated, contained in a tight circumference from home by short-leg walking tolerance and demands for swings; lidded by the need to put-on-dinner and put-to-bed. Fortunately, nature-sweet-nature in even her most sparing incarnations never fails to repay attention, and I have gradually come to notice things altogether wilder than a “but I don’t want to go home…” child in our mundane green spaces; and I haven’t left the house without a knife in my nappy bag since.

Astonishingly, my entirely accidental first forage was of the revered porcini mushroom. Perhaps then it was inevitable that as I cooked, ate and preserved these magnificent creatures from the treed end of the park, the dormant urge to hunt and gather was stirred in the kitchen too. In the year since then few streets, verges or riverbank stretches have remained un-frisked by my then novice, now literally ‘seasoned’ eye and hand; the repeated appraisal of each eventually offering all manner of gourmet seasonal greetings. Watercress, fennel, and tiny wild cherries; rocket and onion weed, and slightly pecked plums. My meager food garden is grown now it embraces my neighbourhood and my cooking repertoire has blossomed to tame these wild gifts. Even my attitude to the great outdoors has matured, and is slowly ripening.

The unforgettable fragrant perfection of a time-stood-still sunny sunday plucking elderflowers; the will-I won’t-I, watched-kettle-never-boils waiting on the ripening of a walnut tree coveted by others; the embarrassment-fuelled eventual-mastery of distinguishing bitter from sweet almonds; and the repeated retreat, head hung and empty of basket from beach hunts for mermaid purse, then a lone success; all stories of adventure with delicious punch lines. Barefoot and branch balanced eating apples, as I and the counties-worth of backyard birds pecking windfalls pause as a staring person passes, then resume, I thought “I am the wildlife!” and finally grasped a lesson I needed to know; that nature’s marvels and adventures are as possible in suburban parks as in national parks. That, and don’t climb trees in gumboots. 

And so here we are at the other side of midwinter, the earth a lazy-susan turning springwards. The “never again” agony of bare-handed chestnut collecting is forgotten in a full-bellied fireside stupor.  Marsala-simmered chestnuts eaten and the kids in bed, I mentally graze the possibilities of the foraging year ahead. Beechnuts, puffballs, gooseberries, I have received word of your whereabouts. Morels, horopito, quince; I have your demises all planned. Pinenuts, miner’s lettuce, sorrel; please garnish the feast of the coming wild food year.

And maybe it’s the marsala gone to my head, but I fancy my eldest child as truffle hunter, her sharp nose for fungi having become apparent in our combings for kai. She would refuse it at the table of course, her taste dragging its feet behind her other senses, but in the field, on wasteland and in the domain, foraging seems intuative to kids, unlike us. So now seek-to-eat has joined hide and seek and dawdles on our a-to-b’s have replaced food miles with footfalls, these brief releases from the captivity of garden and supermarket rewarded us with free food, highly seasoned with freedom.

For a 25 x 19 cm pie dish. Serves 4.

Pastry

300g/10 oz Plain Flour.
165g/6 oz Butter & Lard, cubed
One free-range egg yolk.
4-5 TBS ice cold water
¼ teaspoon of salt
One tsp of chopped *fresh ‘foraged’ Rosemary, chopped almost to powder

For the filling:-

450 g Chestnuts (350 g canned or vacuum sealed)
400g Pumpkin
One medium Leek
A tbs of *fresh ‘foraged’ Rosemary, chopped almost to powder
325 mls Vegetable stock
A small glass of Marsala 
One tbs Flour
40g Butter
Ground black pepper
One egg, beaten; to glaze

*Rosemary is a year-round eminently foragable ingredient, if low on the ‘wild’ scale. In my town it can be found on most streets, and in several spots in the town centre close to where commerical rosemary is sold. Watch out for bees and always ask permission to pluck a sprig if it appears to be on private property.

Cooking timeline

Assembling your pastry ingredients but keep the cubed butter, lard and water in the fridge until ready to use.

Mix the flour with the salt and then in a food processor or bowl, rub in the butter and lard. Mix in the egg yolk next followed by just enough water to make dough. Briefly squeeze the dough together then press into a disk shape and place in a zip-lock-bag with air excluded, in the fridge until ready to use.

To prepare fresh chestnuts-score crosses into the base of each then boil half for approx. 7 minutes Peel off the outer and inner skins whilst still hot then cut each in half. Repeat with the second half. Return them to the boiling water for briefly if the inner skin is still hard to peel or if they cool.

Sauté the leek in butter until soft, then add the pumpkin and cook for a few minutes. Next stir in the flour, quickly followed by the marsala. Once evaporated add the stock; simmer for a few minutes then stir in the chestnuts, rosemary and pepper and remove from the heat.

Roll out the pastry to fill the pie tin (and lid it), then add the filling. Dab the edges with beaten egg, and then top it with pastry. Press the layers of pastry at the edges together with a fork. Glaze with egg and fork holes through the pastry lid to release steam as it cooks.

Bake at 200.c (Fan assisted) for 45 minutes/until nicely browned on top.

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