Fungi fever and the forager within – 5/9/11

Every year, round about mid July, I start to get twitchy. My driving gets even more erratic, I start to walk with a stoop, and my pulse quickens whenever I catch a glimpse of mossy woodland. This is the onset of Influenza mycologica, or Fungi Fever, a peculiar complaint, whereby, as summer moves to autumn, the  willing victim becomes increasingly obsessed – often to the point of derangement – with finding and picking wild mushrooms. There is no respite until the hard frosts of December force the subterreanean network of fungal mycelium – nature’s internet-come-recycling system – to put their reproductive business on hold, cease producing mushrooms and break the spell. Until then every verge, hedgerow, lawn, field, treestump and patch of woodland – especially woodland – that the victim comes near will be systematically scanned for any sign of mycological life. What would be a pleasant stroll at any other time of year becomes a full-on fungal stalking session, where brambles, rivers and barbed wire fences must be crossed, just in case a prized carpophore lies beyond. In severe cases (such as mine) this goes well beyond just gathering delicious food, and mutates into a twitcher-come-trainspotter obsession with compiling a mental log of special fungal places.

For example, Glen Cloy – an often overlooked broad, generous glen near Brodick on the Isle of Arran – is where I honed my mushroom hunting skills, and despite not having stepped foot in her verdant folds for nearly 5 years, I could still go directly to hundreds of very specific spots where I have found certain mushrooms. For example, I can still see every knot and lichen on a scots pine that yielded my first ever cauliflower fungus, and an old beech stump close by from which I used to gather chicken of the woods each September. I can even recall a particular clump of grass at the foot of an aged birch tree where enormous chanterelles grew year after year.

In Galloway I  navigate the backroads through what they yield, rather than where they go. A 50 mile route that I regularly drive unfolds in my mental foraging sat-nav as chanterelles, oyster mushroom, watercress, horse mushrooms, elder berries, giant puffballs and sea buckthorn. Foraging is temporal as well as geographical, so 3 months or so ago the same route was signposted by cow parsely, sea beet, seet ciceley, sea kale, elder flowers and sea radish.

All this is a little perplexing for my family, who are regularly embarrassed by my inability to remember the name of a person, while being able to retain several names (including foreign and latin ones) for an obscure plant or mushroom and the precise spot where it comes up each year. A similar anomoly occurs with my vision, whereby I can’t find a sock in a sock draw and need to be less than 2feet away from TV subtitles (I really am borderline blind), but can spot and often identify a mushroom in thick roadside grass while driving at 60+ mph.

Obsessiveness apart, I think this reflects the way in which human memory and perception works. Memory performers regularly use sensual images joined by a linear journey to perform amazing feats of recollection. What could stir the memory more than a steady progression of tasty and distinctive things to eat? And is it any surprise that things are easier to ‘see’ when sight is supplemented by instinct. I would go further and say that the reason that a ‘chain of senses’ engages our memories is due to our hunter-gatherer lineage. Foraging is in our DNA. The fact that we have favoured the imagined convenience of shops for the blink of an evolutionary eye is insignificant.

I think that this ‘foraging instinct’ is so entrenched in our humanity that it still drives many of the pleasures we derive from seemingly modern consumer behaviour. For example, most people who enjoy good food (and have the time), enjoy visiting a range of shops where they can gather the ingredients they require. I know few people who enjoy supermarket shopping, but do recall a friend recounting with great delight all the reduced items he had bought – or more accurately foraged. I also wonder if the people who spend an unhealthy amount of time and money shopping are suffering, at least in part, from a frustrated and misdirected foraging instinct.

I notice foraging behaviours in myself all the time, and not necessarily when I am on the hunt for wild foods. Thus, the foraging pathway I mentioned earlier would more accurately go: chanterelles, free scone, good coffee, pasties and oatcakes, oyster mushrooms, cuppa etc….

Its all about knowing where the good things are, and flowing between them. Of course I am fortunate that my day job involves travelling around gorgeous galloway visiting food outlets and realise that not everyone gets that kind of freedom. But everyone knows where to find the coffee they like, and who sells their favourite cakes. I would contend that part of what makes them feel good when they buy these things is not gastronomic gratification, but a sating of their frustrated foraging instinct.

In today’s hectic world, I think it is important to acknowledge, respond to and enjoy our foraging instincts. So whether its stopping in a lay-by on the way home to pick a few blackberries, walking a bit further down the high street to get to that really excellent butcher or going out in the autumn woods with some pals and a guide book, I think we should all embrace the forager within.

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