Tuesday, 3 November 2015

November in Somerset - Alfred's cakes and shamanic mushrooms

As I dipped into my monthly chapter of Stephen Moss's natural  history of a Somerset village,  I chanced upon his evocative description of woodland mushrooming and English fungi lore.  It also happily links my last two blogs.

"We are going on a fungal foray: to learn how to forage for free food, ideally without wending up in the local casualty department.
…We are walking through a dense woodland: little stands of oak and beech surrounded by great swathes of Norwegian spruce: the fast-growing, economically profitable 'Christmas tree' we know so well. Wildlife is thin on on the ground and hard to see among the dense, inky foliage. The only evidence that anything is here at all is the occasional snatch of sound: the trill of a wren, the peeping of gold crests and coal tits, or the harsh screech of a distant jay.  Closed, claustrophobic, this is not a place in which I feel at ease.

…We spread out through the woods like a police forensic team, carefuly scanning every inch of the ground in front of us.

Landscape of the Brown Fungus  Paul Nash, 1943
National Galleries of Scotland

Walking through the wood at such a slow, deliberate pace, changes the way you appreciate the landscape.  I begin to notice the patterns of the fallen beech leaves arranged in a random collage, ranging from chocolate-brown, through chestnuts, to buffs, yellows and the occasional tinge of lime-green, the summer shade retained even at this late stage of the year. The veins of the leaves overlap each other to make abstract patterns, intermingling with the greens of the surrounding brambles, ferns and moss.

Many fungi are picked, but few are chosen; and as Adrian [Boots] inspects our baskets he discards most of what we have found.  The temptingly named honey fungus is, he tells us, often sold in markets as an edible variety.  If you do eat it, you may get a nasty stomach upset, though it won't actually kill you.  Coral fungus does indeed resemble bright orange corals -- you wouldn't want to eat it, even if you could.

The edible varieties bear out Adrian's warning that appearance cannot be used as a guide to safe eating, as they could hardly be more different from one another. … We find wood blewits and a beautiful orangey-yellow chanterelle, which when gently squeezed emits a delicate scent of ripe apricots.

….Another fungus rich in folklore, though not edible, is King Alfred's cakes -- so called because when you cut open these hard little lumps they look as if they are burnt inside, a feature which would have reminded our ancestors of the famous royal cake-burning incident that took place a few miles south of here.

Daldinia Concentrica, Alfred's cakes, or coal fungus - cross section
© see Woodlands.co.uk
Just before lunchtime, we come across what looks like a cluster of bright red apples strewn across the forest floor,  these are fly agaric, whose name comes from its traditional use as an insecticide.  However, its main claim to fame is that indigenous people across Siberia have historically used it for its hallucinogenic properties, as part of their shamanic traditions.

We decide against trying to recreate this ancient practice.  Instead, Adrian heats up his Primus stove, chops up the few edible fungi we have managed to gather together, and sautes them in a mixture of butter and oil….

As we eat,  Adrian tells us about the complex relationship between trees and fungi.  Tree roots are not very good at obtaining nutrition, so they use the networks of underground fungi to do it for them.  What we see on the surface -- the fruiting bodies we call mushrooms and toadstools --are but a tiny fraction of what lies out of sight, beneath the soil.  The time and effort it has taken us to collect this meagre offering is a salutary reminder of just how tough life was for our hunter-gatherer ancestors; and how good they must have been at knowing where to look and what to pick...

By late afternoon the light has turned soft and even as it percolates through the trees, and the smell of woodland begins to intensify: a not unpleasant blend of dampness and decay.  As we return to the warmth of the Swan Inn [at Rowberrow] for a welcome pint, a solitary raven croaks unseen overhead; reminding us of the wilderness we have shared with nature for the past few hours."

November Moon   Paul Nash, 1942
Fitzwilliam Museum © Estate of Paul Nash

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