If you go down to the woods today

...you might find your Christmas lunch growing on the trees. In deepest Essex, Sudi Pigott joins chef Julian Owen Mold for a foraging lesson

Who says pine trees are mere clotheshorses for Christmas baubles? Julian Owen Mold, pine-needle shaker, inveterate forager and head chef of Mayfair's Noble Rot, clearly has other ideas for an early festive lunch for family and friends, which he's gamely offered to cook at his cousin Simon's picture-perfect thatched cottage in a tiny Essex village. Julian's four nieces, dressed up in gold-paper crowns, greet "Uncle Chef" excitedly and insist he don a cracker hat to cook.

"But we need to go up to the woods first," announces Julian mysteriously as everyone troops obediently up to the mini-copse beyond the garden. "Us villagers clubbed together and bought up the fields behind us to prevent them being developed," explains Simon proudly. "I gather chestnuts and acorns for infusing as oils, and the most fabulous wild mushrooms," says Julian, stooping suddenly as he spots a rare trompette de bleu. Four Little Red Riding Hood-style baskets are thrust forward eagerly for their share of the edible treasure. Then Julian spots a lone fir tree and proceeds to shake it gently into each of the baskets - "the missing ingredient I needed for lunch," he exclaims triumphantly.

Everyone troops back inside the cosy, chic-rustic, beamed kitchen, and culinary preparations start in earnest. Julian scatters a liberal helping of pine needles into a large baking dish of par-boiled baby fennel, orange peel and a token star anise, adds some gently steamed clams and mussels and expertly sears a slab of turbot. His inspiration is a French recipe he came across for eclade de moules. "It's fun to play with diners' preconceptions about ingredients and textures, especially at Christmas when too many chefs stick to traditional dishes," he offers by way of explanation.

Just in the nick of time, Colin, a neighbour and old family friend, arrives. Colin has cause for celebration - he retired from the fire brigade a fortnight ago after 30 years' service and is looking forward to "long lie-ins and lunches". A bottle of champagne is duly found and opened.

After the food, everyone retreats to the sitting-room to watch a performance - a curious blend of dance, jokes, giggles and bursts of song - from Julian's nieces. And then, of course, they all sit and admire the utterly convincing artificial tree.

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