Our foraging among the hedgerow drew a variety of comments from the genial rustics of Surrey. "Searchin' for your breakfast?" barked one plum-faced cove from the window of his P-reg Range Rover. Female passers-by proved to be much more aware that mushroom hunting has become all the rage. "How lucky you are, knowing about mushrooms," said one svelte equestrienne. Of course, the truth is that we know next to nothing about them, but you're pretty safe if you stick to a few unambiguous species, like the three named above. The Parasol Mushroom looks exactly like one of the fashion accessories which decorate the Quality Street packet, while in appearance the highly esteemed Penny Bun is a dead-spit for one of those tiny, tasteless rolls which are presented with your mulligatawny in dusty restaurants. In A Passion for Mushrooms, Antonio Carluccio describes the Giant Puffball as "one of the most rewarding as well as the most distinctive" species.
After peering at any number of stones, decaying golf balls and other less savoury items of canine origin, we eventually filled the trug with a haul of more or less edible fungi. There were several large Parasols, an enormous boletus of an unknown species (though I insisted that the extensive nibbling which it had previously undergone was a good sign) and - joy of joys - a Giant Puffball. They were pure white, almost perfectly oval and surprisingly heavy. Near where we picked them, there was a prime example of the inedible Phallus Impudicus. Though entertaining in shape, this bizarre fungus has one minor defect - an "olive-green spore mass which smells unpleasantly of carrion". Colloquially known as "Stinkhorn", it has a spooky, extra-terrestrial, quality. We left it well alone.
Back home, I began to prepare our mushroom feast. First of all, I cleared a host of tiny wiggly creatures (I thought it best not to point these out to Mrs W) from the deep gills of the Parasols. Cooked in the manner recommended by Carluccio - sliced, coated in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and fried in olive oil - the fungi were light, delicate and juicy. For the highlight of our feast, I decided to saute the sliced Giant Puffball in garlic butter. But when I started slicing it up, the fungus turned out not to be what I had been expecting. Instead of the pure white flesh, it was filled with stiff, translucent jelly. In the middle, a pale, glaucomatous eye looked up at me.
It was, I think, my most deeply disturbing encounter with any vegetable life form. Mrs W tracked the thing down in the pages of Garnweidner: "Egg- shaped, consisting of a hard white kernel which is surrounded by a thick, transparent, jelly-like layer." It was an immature Stinkhorn, known as the "Devil's Egg". I gingerly scooped up the object and flung it in the waste-bin. As it stared blankly back at me, I felt a little like John Hurt in his best-known movie role. I had brought home the alien.
I was about to muse on the topic of drink - perhaps a few words on my extensive collection of exotically shaped spirit bottles - but I was put off by the damning words of Dr Thomas Stuttaford, The Times's medical man: "Many alcoholics... are not only heavy drinkers but also interested in the history of alcohol and its artefacts." So much for my consuming interest in life. I hope, however, it might still be possible to mention the forbidden topic in polite society by talking about the use of alcohol in food - though this too turns out to be unexpectedly controversial.
In the white corner, we have none other than Elizabeth David, who writes in French Provincial Cookery: "With the exception of two or three recipes, no dish calls for more than one large glass of red or white wine, often less, and of course the wine used is inexpensive table wine or vin ordinaire." Over in the red corner, there is our own Keith Floyd, who I once saw on TV tipping two bottles of Puligny-Montrachet into coq au vin. His recipe for moules marinieres, in The Best of Floyd, similarly specifies two bottles of muscadet. But either approach is infinitely preferable to an oyster recipe in Jane Grigson's otherwise excellent Fish Cookery which shockingly calls for a half-bottle of champagne to be boiled "until there's barely a tablespoon of liquid left". The resulting meal is described as: "One of the most delicious cooked oyster dishes I've ever eaten." But at what cost?
In my view, a dish in Lizzie Spender's admirable Pastability best demonstrates the remarkable catalytic quality of alcohol in cooking. In the following form, it makes a regular appearance at Weasel Villas. To feed two: empty one pot of creme fraiche (200ml) into saucepan; stir in two to three generous glugs of vodka and heat until simmering; add one packet smoked salmon bits (cut up into little pieces) and some chopped fresh dill. Mix the hot sauce with 200 grams (12 lb) freshly boiled pasta quills. Serve immediately. Seduction is guaranteed, but I wouldn't serve it to Dr Stuttaford.
It has been announced that the Pompidou Centre, designed by Lord Rogers and Renzo Piano, is due to close for extensive repairs. Lord Rogers blamed the high volume of visitors and provision of inferior materials by the French government of the day for the problems which have dogged the revolutionary structure since it opened in 1977. Similarly, when news broke last year of severe corrosion suffered by the Lloyds Building, Lord Rogers again confirmed that his design was in no way responsible. I only mention these points because a few years ago I dined at the acclaimed River Cafe, which is run by Lady Rogers. Across the courtyard, in the windows of her husband's partnership, it was possible to see wooden models of his famous structures. The curious thing was that, like the real things, these miniatures were suffering a degree of decay. The "Lloyds Building" was in a particularly decrepit state, its external piping and elevators sadly adrift. I expect there was something wrong with the glue.
Sir Cliff Richard's deeply asinine remarks about playing Heathcliff attracted a spot of adverse comment last week. "There's so much emotion in it and I get to be so violent," declared the embarrassing knight-bachelor. "Beating up the wife was fabulous and I get paid for it and no-one can sue me." But it is hard to work up much genuine outrage at such fatuity simply because it is impossible to imagine Sir Cliff ever getting married. The same thought struck me 30-odd years ago, when the chanteuse Sylvie Vartan married Johnny Halliday, the bad boy of French pop (who, incidentally, has now clocked up wife No 6). In an effort to convey the momentousness of the union, a BBC journalist said: "It was as if Cliff Richard were to marry Dusty Springfield,"a suggestion so rich in ironies that it has continued to resonate in my mind ever since.Reuse content