Fungi foray in the New Forest

DISCLAIMER: I’ve labelled mushrooms on this blog. I’m new to foraging and my labels may be wrong. Refer to a professional. We had the knowledgeable Lisa of Edulis and Matt of Eden Wild Food by our sides to show us the ropes.

Showering at the end of today reveals little pin-pricks on my skin from brambles, itchy raised bumps of stinging nettles unnoticed until now, and “foraging fingers” of yellow, brown, and slime. This all gives way to an overwhelming sense of a thrill which, until recently, I’d have reserved for discovering a new piece of music from my favourite artist or experiencing some new culture or cuisine.

New Forest mist at dawn

Rewind the clock back 2 weekends, and I was camping in the New Forest. Camping is not a pastime I had ever relished. I had taken every opportunity over the last 15 years since my teens to scald the stupid types who trade warmth, civilisation, slated pitched roofs and other first world comforts for a night in an undersized, cold, damp figleaf of canvas that barely covers enough floor space to lie in the foetal position. I’m not an outdoorsy type.

But after 16 years of refusing to camp (I last camped in my teens), I gave in, on the proviso that there would be a minimum of 18 inches of air between me and the ground at night – oh – and on the proviso we would find a room with a view.

The reason for all of this camping nonsense? Mushrooms. I’ve long held a great deal of respect for fungi, although I’ve not until now known the first thing about the subject.

We booked onto a mushroom course, and within a day of meeting the wide-eyed Lisa Cutcliffe of Edulis Wild Food, I was bitten by more than one type of bug.

A basket full of edibles - with one exception

A basket full of edibles – with one exception

Lisa Cutcliffe - look what we have for lunch

Lisa Cutcliffe – look what we have for lunch

The mesmerising gills of the porcelain mushroom

The mesmerising gills of the porcelain mushroom

The common reaction to “I’m going to pick some mushrooms to eat” is “goodness, isn’t that dangerous?”. Well it only took a day with Lisa to realise how much I have to learn in the coming years about the enchanting world of fungi, but this one day certainly set me on the right path. Now I’m able to confidently identify 20+ mushrooms from 10 paces. Since the course I have become somewhat obsessed with how to determine the right environment for different types of mushrooms, and this seems to me harder than making sure you don’t poison yourself.

It’s hard to work out where mushrooms grow.

But if all else fails, you could do worse than starting with a wood that looks like something out of a fairy-tale:

How to find the perfect woods for foraging - choose the ones that look most fairytale

How to find the perfect woods for foraging – choose the ones that look most fairy-tale

Lisa taught us about the trees that fungi seem to latch on to most, I won’t spill the beans here but these are two of the main four:

Learn your leaves

Learn your leaves

An early success: some beautiful Chanterelles.

A single Chanterelle

A single Chanterelle

Beautiful yellow gold colour of the Chanterelles

Beautiful yellow gold colour of the Chanterelles

One of the memorable pieces of advice given to us by Lisa was this:

Start off by learning the 50 tastiest edible mushrooms, and the 50 most poisonous ones, and don’t bother with everything in between.

To my mind, the safest place to start is to look for the Boletes. These are mushrooms with tubes underneath the cap, as opposed to the more common gills. Apart from one or two of the more rare Boletes, they are all pretty harmless, and the best Boletes can be some of the most valuable and delicious mushrooms. The Cep (aka Porcini or Penny Bun) is one of the superstars of the mushroom world, as such they can be a great find.

Here are some Boletes. Had I seen the bruised underside before, I would have thought “ugh, that’s a rubbish mushroom”. Now I have a great fondness for seeing the tubes under a Bolete bruising blue. Combine this with brown flecking on the stem and this means you’ve found a Bay Bolete:

The distinctive gentle blue bruising of the Bay Bolete

The distinctive brown stem and gentle blue bruising of the Bay Bolete

Brown Birch Bolete, hidden in the heather

Leccinum Versicolor (Mottled Bolete) , hidden in the moss and bracken

Another Birch Bolete

Another Mottled Bolete

Despite turning a scary electric blue when cut, the Scarletina Bolete is edible and delicious

Despite turning a scary electric blue when cut, the Scarletina Bolete is edible and delicious

These slimy looking mushrooms are called Porcelains, and they are edible. They are very fond of Beech and they grow in this tufted manner. I’ve found quite a few since our day with Lisa but I’m yet to take the plunge and cook them up! They are exquisite to look at and touch.

A tuft of porcelain mushrooms on a tree

A tuft of porcelain mushrooms on a tree

A pair of Porcelain Mushrooms

A pair of Porcelain Mushrooms

We met quite a few weird fungi on our travels, including this little coral:

Coral Fungi

Coral Fungi

The Tawny Grisette with its strongly grooved cap edges and tall elegant stem:

The Tawny Grisette mushroom

The Tawny Grisette mushroom

Mushrooms on a mound of moss

Winter Chanterelles on a mound of moss

Some tufted mushrooms growing from a log

Some other-worldly tufted mushrooms growing from a log

Golden mushroom cap in sunlight

A Blusher looking golden brown in the sun

Lisa opened our eyes to so many wonders of the natural world, including this Beefsteak mushroom found by one of the course attendees. You can pull these straight from the tree and eat them raw. Surely this is the closest thing in the natural world to eating cured meats?

Cutting the Beefsteak Mushroom

Cutting the Beefsteak Mushroom

Looks like pancetta - tastes like mushroom

Looks like pancetta – tastes like mushroom

Cross section of the majestic Beefsteak Mushroom

Cross section of the majestic Beefsteak Mushroom

A vegan's delight - the blood of a Beefsteak Mushroom

A vegan’s delight – the blood of a Beefsteak Mushroom

Although this was a fungi foraging course, we also took some time to get to know a number of other special things in the New Forest, including edible flowers, mosses, hawthorns, sloes. Here is a plant known as Butcher’s Broom, said to have been used by butchers to clean their block as the leaves are very tough and scratchy.

Butcher's Broom - used to clean butchers blocks

Butcher’s Broom (poisonous) – used to clean butchers blocks

We did concentrate on edible mushrooms, but a lot of time was given to the inedibles which can be equally (if not more) alluring. Here’s Lisa and her Fly Agaric, with its own mini-me:

The Fly Agaric Mini-Me - mushroom jewellery worn by Lisa Cutcliffe

The Fly Agaric Mini-Me – mushroom jewellery worn by Lisa Cutcliffe

It's poisonous but pretty

The pretty and the poisonous

The quintessential fairytale posionous toadstool - the Fly Agaric

The quintessential fairy-tale poisonous toadstool – the Fly Agaric

A pretty young Fly Agaric (amanita muscaria)

A young Fly Agaric (amanita muscaria)

The perfect Panther Cap (don't eat one)

The perfect Panther Cap (don’t eat one)

Our group of 20 stopped for lunch. Lisa had dreamt-up an amazing 4 course meal, starting with the mushrooms we had picked that morning fried up in butter and garlic and served with bread, followed by a feast of venison, ale, and wild mushroom stew, then a selection of cakes made with foraged goods, and finishing up with lots of impressive home made tipples (birch sap syrup, raspberry vodka, and many more!)

Cooking up the freshest mushrooms I've ever eaten

Cooking up the freshest mushrooms I’ve ever eaten

Home-baked apple and blackberry cake with elderberry icing and marrow flowers

Home-baked apple and blackberry cake with elderberry icing and mallow flowers

Vegan chocolate tray bake

Vegan chocolate tray bake

In the afternoon we were set free to practice what we had just learnt. This is what we found:

Young Panther Cap specimen

Young Panther Cap specimen

The white scales of the Panther Cap

The white scales of the Panther Cap

I don't think these are magic mushrooms as they don't have the distinctive nipple but they certainly look magical

I don’t think these are magic mushrooms as they don’t have the distinctive nipple but they certainly look magical

What to look for when identifying mushrooms

Matt Normansell shows us what to look for when identifying mushrooms – (Honey Fungus shown here)

Charcoal Burner Mushroom - mild flavour

A Brittlegill mushroom

The beautiful edible amethyst deceiver

The beautiful edible amethyst deceiver

The wicked Webcap

The wicked Webcap

Cleaning a Hedgehog Mushroom

Cleaning a Hedgehog Mushroom

mat-smith-photography-edulis-wild-foods-foraging-course-new-fore

The beautiful (but inedible) Mycena

A mushroom collector's delight: a basket full of edibles

A mushroom collector’s delight: a basket full of edibles

Oyster mushrooms on a tree fallen over a stream

Oyster mushrooms on a tree fallen over a stream

Grooved upper ring of the Blusher Mushroom

Grooved upper ring of the Blusher Mushroom

Cramp Ball growing on wood

Cramp Ball growing on wood

The Cramp Ball - used as fungus firelighter

The Cramp Ball – used as fungus firelighter

It’s no over-statement to say that Lisa’s course has re-invigourated my love of the outdoors. As a city dweller I’m seeing more and more the benefits of taking a 1-2 hour drive and spending hours just wandering and looking at things.

Ancient forest roots

Ancient forest roots

Oak leaf on a five bar gate

Oak leaf on a five bar gate

Caterpillar-nibbled leaves of an oak tree

Caterpillar-nibbled leaves of an oak tree

Excuse the Instagram-styled photo here (edited on the iphone in situ – never a good idea!), but isn’t this spread just gorgeous?

New Forest Final Spread

New Forest Final Spread

We weren’t exactly “glamping”, after all how can sleeping a mere 18 inches off the ground in a tent as long as my own body ever be considered glamourous? But I must say waking up to the stunning view of the New Forest sunrise the next day, pulling out the travel coffee kit, and cooking up a mushroom breakfast in front of a couple of wild ponies was experience never to be forgotten.

Breakfast the next day - smoked streaky bacon and mushrooms

Breakfast the next day – smoked streaky bacon and mushrooms

And the dinners have started to look a lot more like this ever since:

Wild New Forest foraged mushroom and butternut squash risotto

Wild New Forest foraged mushroom and butternut squash risotto

Mat taking photos of the sunrise

Mat taking photos of the sunrise

New Forest Ponies at sunrise in Hollands Wood

New Forest Ponies at sunrise in Hollands Wood

Review and photos of Commonwealth Kitchen Published

The photography and writings of Mat Smith Photography are featured on a double page spread in this month’s edition (September 2011) of the Royal Commonwealth Society magazine.

Click here to see the original review (this might make your mouth water!)

Click here (see pages 18-19) to see the online copy of the magazine to read the publication in full.

mat-smith-photography-blog-royal-commonwealth-society-magazine-september-kitchen-food

Wish You Were At Topshop

Whilst the iPad 2 is probably one of the bluntest photographic tools imaginable (even my out-of-date iPhone fares better in terms of image quality), I have always believed the quality of a photograph depends not on the lens itself, but what happens in front of it. And of course the light.

One of the joys of the sorely-missed Polaroid era was its instant gratification appeal; where friends could see the image straight away, burst out laughing, and take another. As a photographer who adored working with Polaroid SLR, it makes my heart flutter just thinking about it.

Even just working with a single model, Polaroid SLR created this incredible synthesis between photographer and subject that has so far not been recreated even in the digital age we now live in. Just take a look at the excellent work of Lou O’ Bedlam, one of the superstars of Polaroid for example. Or take a look through my own little love affair with Polaroid.

This week I’m photographing for Topshop in Dublin, and next week the same in the Broadway store in New York. It’s for Topshop’s “Wish You Were Here” promotion. This is one of those inspired ideas of the digital age which you only really ‘get’ once you see it in action. But within a matter of minutes of greeting shoppers who agree to step-in to the studio, they are induced into fits of giggles and delight – and handed a gorgeous postcard print-out of their shot. With their permission, the photo may optionally be uploaded to their Facebook profile as well.

The concept features an interactive style of photography using an iPad 2 connected wirelessly to a nearby table of iMacs.

Mat Smith Photography - Topshop Dublin Floor Setup

Topshop Dublin Floor Setup

Shoppers are invited into the mini-studio which has been set up on the shop floor, and they are allowed to dress up using a rail of clothing and accessories. Promotional staff, personal shoppers, and stylists are on-hand to help out. Mirrors and a makeup station are provided. In special cases where shoppers have their eye on a particular outfit they have seen in the store, they can change into it and come for the shoot.

We then work with the models to get the very best out of them for the few minutes they have in front of the lighting, suggesting poses and offering encouraging words. The studio lighting is adjusted for each model so as to get the best catchlight in the eyes and offer the best level of diffusion for the skin tones. This takes a matter of seconds during which time models can get themselves ready in front of the lights and prepare.

A couple of test shots are taken on the iPad which allow the models to check they are happy with their poses and expressions.

Then we hand over the iPad 2, and let models choose their preferred Instagram filter.

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Choosing Clothes

Dress-up

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Taking the Shot

Taking the shot

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Girl in Pink

Taking the shot

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Previewing the shot

Previewing the shot

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Instagram - Choosing the Filter

Choosing the Instagram Filter

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Instagram - Choosing a Filter

Choosing the photo style

In many cases, we have a filter in mind when we take the shot. Sometimes you see a face and you just know what works…

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Shoppers - Models

The Instagram Result - Day 2 @ Topshop Dublin

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Instagram Girl with Hat

The Instagram Result - Day 2 @ Dublin Topshop

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Instagram Girl with Blue Dress

The Instagram Result - Day 2 @ Dublin Topshop

Mat Smith Photography - Dublin Topshop - Instagram Girl with Head Scarf

The Instagram Result - Day 2 @ Dublin Topshop

Mat Smith Photography - Fresh Networks - Dublin Topshop - Dancing in Red Dress

The Instagram Result - Day 1 @ Dublin Topshop

Mat Smith Photography - Fresh Networks - Dublin Topshop - Girl in Hat

The Instagram Result - Day 2 @ Dublin Topshop

Mat Smith Photography - Fresh Networks - Dublin Topshop - Girl in Stripey Dress

The Instagram Result - Day 1 @ Dublin Topshop

Even after the first two days of shooting – as I write – the overall concept of the ‘Wish You Were At Topshop’ promotion has been a huge success. For me it somehow captures that same cult spirit of Polaroid.

It’s one of those projects where the technology becomes a little bit transparent, allowing the visual and kinesthetic pleasures of making photographs to take the stage again. This is mostly thanks to the great system design by FreshNetworks which automates the entire process and packages it beautifully.

And the concept itself? The combination of the grabbable iPad, the playable Instagram, the ubiquitous Facebook, the gleaming iMacs, and plain-old good quality 6×4 instant printing is clearly one that has already won a number of hearts.

I’d be surprised if the whole thing didn’t turn into a craze in itself.

In fact, at times, it makes you want to throw away your 5D and use an iPhone to take photos for the rest of your life.

Okay – maybe I’m not ready for that quite yet …

Best of the Polo Calendar shoots 2010-2011

Here are a few of my favourite shots from the two Polo Club Calendars photographed by Mat Smith Photography over the last year or so.

The unauthorised publishing, copying, or distributing of the below images is prohibited. Copyright Mat Smith Photography.

Hannah and Mini, Nottingham Polo Club Calendar 2010

 

 

Rosie and Horse, RVC Polo Club Calendar 2011

 

Five Bar Gate, RVC Polo Club Calendar 2011

 

Emily with Boots in Hay, Nottingham Polo Club Calendar 2010

 

Horse in River at Sunset, RVC Polo Club Calendar 2011

 

 

Horse Trailer, RVC Polo Club Calendar 2011

Champagne and Puppies, RVC Polo Club Calendar 2011

 

Eloise on Horse, Nottingham Polo Club Calendar 2010

 

Beth in Hay, Nottingham Polo Club Calendar 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive Preview Dinner at the Commonwealth Kitchen

In the heart of the Westminster Bubble, a stone’s throw from Downing Street (and trust me, I threw stones*) and Trafalgar Square, and on the slightly undesirable pink Monopoly board square of Northumberland Ave (£160 to buy the whole road**), lies a historic monument to the Commonwealth history of our nation. Actually, they lie all around, but the one I’m talking is the Commonwealth Club. This private members’ club has recently thrown the doors of its kitchen wide open to the general public. They even let women in now too!

* metaphorical stones

** in real life, it’s an extremely desirable place. In fact, I hazard it’s one of the loveliest walks around the block you could take of an evening in central London, and certainly one of the most romantic, save for the omnipresent nature of the police clustering on every corner.

I rarely blog about non-photo things, but sometimes life and food are so good that they deserve a little space on here (hence the ‘life’ part of my blog title ‘photolife’).

Last night I was kindly invited by Qype (my favourite foodie reviewing site) to sample the tasting menu at Searcys at the Commonwealth Club – or the Commonwealth Kitchen. And what a find this place is.

At 6.30pm we checked in for a Champagne reception. I say checked in – they took our coats and we techie types hit a button on our iPhones to signify our arrivals… (it’s all the rage – honest):

You would be forgiven for walking past the Commonwealth Kitchen without even noticing its existence. It has none of the street presence you’d expect from a London restaurant (e.g. Prezzo next door has a big blue neon sign…) and such hidden gems are often the best.

The tasting menu consisted of four courses plus a perfect picking of palate cleansers and matching wines.

I absolutely love a tasting menu as it’s the chef’s chance to take the diner on a journey that he has thought about in great detail, and it’s his chance to show-off. In my perfect utopian world, people wouldn’t be allowed to choose dishes in restaurants at all. I have this sneaking suspicion that choice is the nemesis of genuine food diversity in the world of good dining.

I digress – here’s what we were given to start the evening’s food journey: scallops!

LJ had the non-fish option of a broccoli velouté:

Smoked Wild Duck with Curried Lentil Soup and a Pomegranate Salad. Duck and pomegranate is a clever combination.

Onto my favourite savoury course of the evening, a superb North Scotland Monkfish with Mussels and Orzo Pasta.

Monkfish is one of those foods that can be very bland indeed, and can be forced to rely on its surrounding ingredients, but the plus side is that it has an amazing buttery (excuse the cliché) melt-in-the-mouth texture.

The Commonwealth Kitchen really got it right here. Great variation of textures within the plate, perfect sidekick of shellfish, some zesty greens, and a creamy pasta.

It looks so innocent and beautiful here, but I photographed monkfish a week ago at Selfridge’s Food Counter and can confirm it is the ugliest beast imaginable. Google Images it.

And here’s the monkfish with baby gem purée, the alternative dish to the above for those selfish shellfish spurners:

Onto the more serious stuff of venison.

Ever since a fatal high speed encounter between my car and a deer on an unlit stretch of the M11 last year (fatal for the deer, thankfully nobody human was hurt), I have approached venison dinners with more glee than usual. It’s a shame, I’m sure not all deer are stupid as hell, but I was most pleased this one was cooked in more than one way; roasted and braised.

Chard Farm Venison ‘roast and braise’, Confit Celeriac, Red Cabbage and Bitter Chocolate Jus.

Or as I like to call it, “Take that, Bambi

This next dish was another alternative to the one I ate.

So jealous. (of the bark. I wanted bark.)

Butternut Squash Risotto with Iron Bark Pumpkin Purée.

There’s a fine line between minimalism and vacuousness when it comes to this kind of food. I have especially found that wedding catering companies working to please a sophisticated palate often try way too hard, and end up producing mere fashion food (“H2O jus served on a bed of essence of lark’s vomit with an accent of deep sea fish shoulder” etc.)

Well, this gorgeous side dish of Romanesco Broccoli was exactly the right side of that line. It’s little details like this, when I bite into them, that make me understand why I am not a real cook, nor should I ever try to be one. This mathematically interesting vegetable (an example of fractals in food) was probably the tiniest most sumptuous thing I have eaten this year so far.

Perfection.

How to follow that? Here’s how. A pre-dessert dessert. Sorry, palate cleanser. (But we all know it’s a pre-dessert dessert.)

Blood orange sorbet with candied ginger. Two perfectly-formed bullet shapes of sorbet: tangy, but not sour and no strong aftertaste.

Despite the exceptionally well-controlled portion sizes (I mean: small), I am by this point happy.

Of course, we all know humans have a different, special stomach, though. A stomach that has actually remained completely empty throughout a filling meal. A reserve stomach, if you will.

Thank god.

Next up, a delicious Spiced Apple Cake with Blackberry Variations specially designed for the reserve stomach.

The photo speaks for itself; this dish was brilliant. The chef is a guy after my own heart. A dish that tells a little story.

I should like to recommend a new name for the menu (I don’t like the way the dish’s title fades away into the word “variations”. Rubbish!) It should be named: A Boat of Blackberry Sets Sail from Spiced Apple Island upon the Shores of Jus, Past the Rocks of Crouton, Guided by the Scent of a Blackberry Sugar, Alas, the Crunchy Sharks Are Biting at the Hull of the Ship! What to Do!

There’s so much going on visually here. The little rocks of tornaway Spiced Apple Island near the bottom of the plate. The delicious crunchy sharks surrounding the ice cream.

Virtuosic presentation, I think you will agree.

Wine Tasting Conversation

Who needs a dessert wine for afters when you have Ice Cider? The Leduc-Piedimonte Ice Cider is a Canadian treat, aged for 24 months and fermented, and was a huge hit with fellow diners.

It had a strange sweetness profile; a strong apple nose which was very dry in the mouth, but similarly there were medium-sweet vanilla notes and pleasing spice oak. As such it makes for a wonderful replacement of a dessert wine. You could almost imagine you are drinking a sweet wine if it weren’t for the overpowering apple.

As a huge fan of artisan apple juice, this hit the spot for me.

It tasted of real-real apples, I don’t mean your bottled-fresh-real-apple-juice-from-the-store, I mean your sourced-locally-and-found-in-farmers-market taste. If my knowledge of apples were better, I could doubtless have distinguished what varietal we were drinking, I don’t think it was a blend.

I met some lovely fellow London foodies. Here’s Chris, Qype’s resident London Guru. I fully understood the significance of this Guru status had when I indicated I liked cigars, and he began to reel-off his favourite twenty or so cigar lounges and terraces in London. (Maybe I exaggerate with twenty, but Chris is certainly the London food and drink equivalent of a London Cabbie; he has The Knowledge.)

Here’s a link to his blog.

I must admit I’m not a fan of New World wines. I know people who swear by them, but maybe my tastes haven’t matured enough for them yet. (I’m trying to be diplomatic.) There is no question the wines here were of a good standard, great clarity and depth, and they will leave drinkers with a happy organic glow as opposed to a slight headache. It’s just the flavours, they are a little unsubtle. Actually the Chardonnay was good, and I really enjoyed the superb Champagne (Champagne equivalent?) presented to us on arrival.

Either way, great line-up, and of course well-matched with the various courses of food.

And the aftermath of my tasting…

Aftermath of the Wine Tasting

The service and hospitality we received as a large-ish group was wonderful, waiting staff and restaurant manager took time to chat with us about the origin of the foods and the restaurant’s values. Looking at the menu prices I will definitely be paying the restaurant another visit, and I cannot recommend Searcys at The Commonwealth Club highly enough.

Thanks Qype for an evening of great food and wine, and it is lovely as always to meet new lovers of fine dining in London. To the Commonwealth Kitchen, thank you for your hospitality.

Photographing Ambridge’s Finest

Just before Christmas 2010 I was invited to photograph Tom Archer from BBC Radio 4’s epic radio soap, The Archers.

Although it was nothing to do with the highly publicised 60th Anniversary of the show, it was great catching up with a leading actor behind the soap opera that has seen through more British history than any other soap on TV or radio.

Tom (his name in real life too) has played a leading role in this quintessentially British drama for 13 years.

Here are a couple of shots from the session.

Mat Smith Photography - Radio 4 Actor Tom Graham (Tom Archer) at home

Mat Smith Photography - Radio 4 Actor Tom Graham (Tom Archer) outside in December 2010 Snow

Simple mobile lighting allows really great results even for family photography in the home. Here is a really tight crop of the first photograph shown above to show the detail and clarity in a higher resolution:

Mat Smith Photography - Radio 4 Actor Tom Graham (Tom Archer) at home - studio quality sharpness