01/09/2017

Suddenly, and out of nowhere, it was mushroom season. Little brown and white and yellow nubbins were popping up everywhere like a horribly infected rash.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not very good with mushrooms – partly because of the potentially drastic effects of picking the wrong thing, but largely because I’m not actually that keen on mushrooms. I enjoy them stuffed but generally think they’re a fine way to ruin an otherwise perfectly serviceable risotto. There’s also something alien about them, something inescapably “Other”. It’s the twee-ly named and otherwise magical “fairy rings” that freak me out the most: the mushrooms you see are all the fruiting bodies of one connected fungal mass beneath the earth in the middle of the circle, the mycelium. The largest known living organism on the planet is actually one of these – a huge honey fungus in Oregon, measuring 2.4 square miles across. Shudder.

“Like apples on an apple tree, the “mushrooms” we see are the reproductive fruit bodies of the “true” organism, which is called a mycelium.

The mycelium grows underground; it is a mass of elongated, hungry cells that feed on nutrients, pushing and growing through the substrate as long as there is food available.”

Kuo, M. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/fairy_rings.html

Still, getting to grips with mushrooms seemed like a natural progression for my foraging endeavours – and besides, there were rather too many of them to be ignored, jostling for space beneath every tree.

In what I mentally refer to as ‘The’ Glade – the clearing beneath the largest horse chestnut in Wanstead Park – my friend Louise and I found an absolutely enormous specimen; the sort of thing that you might describe if asked what an archetypical mushroom looks like. In my memory now it was as high as our knees, pallid and gleaming bright white in the shade – through realistically, it was probably closer to shin level.

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Postively priapic!

We deliberated over what it might be, and whether it might be edible. If it were, then it was larger than a portobello, and would make a fine meal. I came to the conclusion that the likelihood was that if it were edible, someone more knowledgeable than us would already have snagged it, especially given its close proximity to the main path. We left it alone but catalogued it by photograph, along with the many others species we found crowding throughout the wood, planning to do some detective work once we reached the pub (The Manor House, Wanstead – previously a Tory HQ during the time when Winston Churchill was MP for Epping).

 

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It turned out that these portobello-looking bigjobs were actually the easiest to identify: parasol mushrooms (macrolepiota procera). They were all over the woods: we even found a large ring collection of fifteen together beneath one tree. As a member of the occasionally fatally poisonous Agaricus family, the identification was not without its risks, though my copy of Food for Free (by Richard Mabey – a great foraging primer for beginners and intermediates) reassured me that there was little – in the UK at least – to mistake it for; with the exception of its sister mushroom, the slightly more unkempt shaggy parasol (chlorophyllum rhacodes, which reportedly causes mild stomach upset in some people). There is a practically identical and deadly mushroom (chlorophyllum molybdites, otherwise known as the false parasol or “vomiter), which can only be told apart from the parasol by its green spore print; however, this mushroom – while common in the United States – is generally not found in Europe, with only one recorded instance in the UK. I figured I was safe.

Sadly, on returning to The Glade the following day, the enormous parasol we’d found had been destroyed; kicked to bits by boy or dog. I made my way back to the spot where we’d found fifteen together and collected several smaller but still choice specimens.

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Parasol mushrooms – note the characteristic herringbone pattern on the stems.

Of course, when you’re trying anything from the woods you haven’t had before, it’s generally sensible to eat a very small amount and then gauge its effect on you, as – poison aside – everyone’s reaction to things can be different. I fried a sliver with butter, cracked pepper and garlic, then waited 24 hours to judge any ill effects before GOING AT IT FULL-ON DINNER-STYLE.

The next week, as quickly as they’d arrived, all the mushrooms were gone.

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10/07/17

I stopped off at the Golden Fleece for tea on the way home, slightly dizzy from lack of food and thinking to make the most of the joint remainders of sun in sky and book in bag. Aldersbrook – my estate, a conversation area of Epping Forest named after the Alders Brook, a tributary of the nearby River Roding – is a bit of a London oddity, in that it has absolutely no pubs. A Wikipedia entry (now deleted) blames this upon “the generally pro-temperance Edwardian era in which the estate was laid out”; either way, if I fancy a pint I have to walk 25 minutes, either to The George (in Wanstead), The Wanstead Tap (not in Wanstead), or The Golden Fleece (Manor Park).

The table to the left of me was home to a few of the most obnoxious men I’d seen in AT LEAST the past week, who were having some sort of “comedy competition” which seemed to rest upon which of them could make the loudest, most unintelligible grunting noises, occasionally interspersed with references to how much they all admired Keith Lemon. In short, a shower of absolute tosspotting cunts. The table to the right, on the other hand, seated a handsy couple who were deep in muttered discussion over how to covertly record a third party whilst also ensuring it would stand up in court. I necked a dispiriting butterfly chicken and chips and got the hell out of dodge.

My route home led over the Flats, which are – as their name suggests – very flat, an attribute which tonight seemed somehow to make the sky seem much bigger than usual. A couple of glasses of wine in, I gawped up at it, feeling slightly panicky and overwhelmed at the sheer size of it. The sun was low on the horizon, and the clouds were lower still; heavy, pendulous clouds in charcoal grey, heralding the thunderstorm we’d been promised for the past four days. “When I get home,” I announced to nobody in particular – because nobody was there – “I shall listen to The Big Sky by Kate Bush.” The burnished gold of the near-setting sun along with the oppressive darkness of the clouds made the world around me look like an under-exposed sepia photograph. Kids were on the playing fields, making the most of the last hours of daylight, the last days of summer; the texture of the light drenching them in nostalgia before the moment had even passed.

Wanstead Flats was historically part of the Forest of Essex; however, due to its reputation as a bit of a wasteland, it was less favoured by the nobility, something which commoners took advantage of by using it as a space for grazing. In the 1800s, during disputes between landowners and commoners over the ongoing enclosure of huge swathes of the forest, the Earl of Cowley attempted to enclose a large section of the Flats. This led to considerable protest from commoners, who were encouraged to “attend by thousands…to protest against the enclosures”.

Ongoing tussles over enclosure led eventually to the Epping Forest Act of 1878, which ensured the protection of Epping Forest and its continued use by the public by placing it under the management of the City of London. More on this here. On the Flats, local people were granted the right of common pasture, enshrining their grazing rights in law. It’s possible actually that I still have this right; however due to my current lack of cattle it’s not something I’ve looked into in any detail.

By Alexandra Lake – the largest of the lakes on the flats, and a particular haven for birdlife – I discovered an odd thing. It was roosting time, but instead of taking their usual nesting spot on the banks of the pond, a large group of geese (Canadian) had arranged themselves in a circle on the football field, like a fairy ring of mushrooms. I slowed and quietened my footsteps, trying to take advantage of the fact that most of their heads were stowed under-wing to get close enough to work out what was happening. No luck – they rose en masse and shifted off as soon as I drew closer than three metres. I carried on, leaving them to whatever sacred ritual they were performing.

Birds, of course, have a known history of performing black magic.

On the banks of the lake I met a good clump of the splendidly named black horehound (ballota nigra); a member of the mint family which is a deep purple-black in colour and Black Horehoundsmells – to me at least – like Walkers’ smoky bacon crisps. It doesn’t taste like it (believe me, I’ve tried); like many of the less palatable mints, it tastes a little of rusted metal, a little of rotted flesh. Not a great flavour for toothpaste.

(During my childhood, there’d been a plant in the front garden which we’d referred to as “smoky bacon plant”; I’m not sure it’s the same thing, though I suspect that that was probably also a mint. The lamiaceae family is a notorious cross-breeder, so when in doubt I tend to just gesticulate wildly & say, “Oh, yes, certainly a mint – could be a hybrid.” I literally know nothing about anything.)

I glanced back toward the fairy ring of geese before leaving. Another woman had stopped on the outside of the circle and was stood stock still, staring at the circle of geese in bewilderment. I paused, meeting her eyes in a brief flash of solidarity – solidarity for being so small, for being apart from nature, for not being able to go back to what we once were, for not understanding what was happening here. A fat raindrop landed on my shoulder; the beginnings of the storm.

 

09/07/17

I awoke at dawn with a brain full of bees, & so – following a brief session on the mat – decided to head into the woods to see what was what and attempt to calm down the hum inside my mind. I decanted my morning coffee into a plastic bottle, chastising myself for still having not bought a proper thermos flask, and hid my keys under a rock in the back yard. A vague wish to be unencumbered and so more ‘free’ in my surroundings. I hadn’t been out this early before, though I’d been out late; once, for a drunken night-time swim in Shoulder of Mutton pond, and once at full moon with bare feet, in an attempt at the trappings of witchcraft.

Passing St Gabriel’s, I stopped to check on the progress of the mulberry tree in the churchyard, which has recently begun to fruit. Last year I was lucky enough to spot the Leytonstone turaco in this tree – as my girl Louise identified it – an escapee which has been spotted around East London for the past decade.

Today, there was no turaco, and no fruit low down enough for me to pick; though I did find a recently dropped berry on the floor, and found it still sour.

The woods were still, and strange, and full of birdsong. I’m hopeless at bird calls and didn’t manage to identify anything other than the clicking of a coot & the chink of a wren – and the latter only because the book I was currently reading (To the River, by Oliver Laing) had described it as “the sound like a 10p dropped against a bottle”. To the River, I was finding, was a nicely fluid & feminine antidote to the currently hyper-masc world of new nature writing. Following a bad break-up, the author sets out to ‘clear out’ by walking the length of the Ouse, charting as she does the life, death and writing of Virginia Woolf in an aptly meandering fashion. I’d picked it up for obvious reasons; one, Virginia Woolf is my favourite author (I am a woman of few surprises); two, I felt an affinity with the Ouse, which ran through the town where I began; and three, it was (relatedly) the first river of which I’d ever known the name.

Map of Wanstead Park - from Wanstead Wildlife https://www.wansteadwildlife.org.uk/index.php/home/list-of-places?id=135

Map of Wanstead Park – from Wanstead Wildlife at https://www.wansteadwildlife.org.uk/index.php/home/list-of-places?id=135

I took my favoured track to the right of Heronry Pond, which heads slightly off the beaten, splitting away from the direct route along the lakeside toward the Temple and threading its way through Aldersbrook Wood before looping back around to the Tea Hut between Heronry and Perch Ponds. I love this time of year in the woods. Yes, the elderflower and the hawthorn blossom and the jack-by-the-hedge (my first and favourite foraging find, for reasons part gastronomical part sentimental) have all gone over, but the banks of the ponds are full of brazen yellow ragwort, and tall, nodding rosebay willow-herb. I love rosebay willow-herb – a plant so good they named it after four other plants! – despite its madly invasive nature. It’s a treat on the Flats in June and July, clustered pink spires against the yellow of the gorse.

Rosebay willow-herb on Wanstead Flats

Rosebay willow-herb on Wanstead Flats

I picked my way along the path, glad I opted for trainers instead of sandals at the last minute, enjoying the cool of the morning before the day started to heat up again. It had been a long and balmy heatwave for the past few weeks, and the faces of tube commuters in the evenings were beginning to look distinctly broiled. I’d caught the sun a little on my arms, I noticed; not the burnished gold that one might hope for, but the more pink and british look of mottled ham. ‘Dragonfly Corner’ was quiet, but later in the day the air here would be full of electric blue flashes. In the grassland just north of Northumberland Avenue (northnorthumberland) I met a black cat that I wasn’t initially sure was a cat (fox? muntjac? devil?) who eyed me haughtily, rightly suspicious of any human intruding on its patch at this time of the morning.

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Chicken of the woods from the same tree in 2015 (but a month earlier! WHAT DOES IT MEAN)

A little before the path doubled back around Heronry Pond, I set off through the undergrowth to check on ‘Chicken-of-the-Woods Log’. Last year was a poor year for it, and I was worried it might never grow back; today, I was glad to find two large frilly growths clinging parasitically to the dead tree. Apparently you should never eat chicken-of-the-woods growing on conifer, eucalyptus or cedar trees, as this will make the fungus toxic; here, it was on a fallen oak so perfectly palatable. Chicken-of-the-woods is one of only three mushrooms I can positively identify, and one of only two I’d be comfortable to actually bring home and work with. Always found on dead or dying wood, it’s easily recognisable by its huge overlapping yellow/salmon plates, and makes a fine chicken substitute (hence the name). Texturally, it’s quite similar to reconstituted chicken or quorn chicken, though drier – when cooking it, it’s best to add it to recipes with lots of liquid, like risottos or soups, as otherwise it can end up quite dehydrated and ‘woody’. The taste is similar to chicken, but with a lemony taste and a slight earthy bitterness. It can be frozen, pickled or dried – but I’ve never had much luck with drying, ending up with a box of mouldy mushrooms. I broke off only a little today, to keep fresh in the fridge for a stir-fry on Wednesday.

I cast a wider loop than usual and opted to walk on past Perch Pond before aiming back towards home. The park entrance gate on Wanstead Park Avenue was covered in screaming posters; three advising residents that there was new housing development planned in Aldersbrook Reservation Area and that this was A Very Bad Thing, and two warning that Heronry Pond has been confirmed to be full of blue green algae. Blue green algae is toxic to dogs, and common in hot weather (of which there has been far too much for my liking). I could see it from where I stood, a deep turquoise sheen across the surface of the water. The stinking, stagnant water of Heronry Pond is a perfect breeding ground for it; the ponds in Wanstead Park are man-made, and were constructed in the 1730s, back when the park was the grounds of the home of the Earl of Tylney (on which more here). Though fed by a dam from Perch Pond, to the north, the pond has apparently had issues with water retention since the early 1900s. This year, it had been completely dry throughout most of April and May, allowing me to walk across the lake-bed and visit Heronry Island, home to a vixen with a scraggy tail and her two rambunctious cubs which I’d watched chase each other in the twilight.

No herons on Perch Pond today, disappointingly. I set a course toward home, pausing near The Temple to gather some yarrow. I’m still not sure what to do with yarrow; to me, it tastes a little like oregano, but not pleasant enough to use as a herb. Some people use it to create a tincture which is used as a wound healer; my foraging has not quite progressed into the medicinal arena yet, which I still retain a hefty degree of scepticism about. I’m interested, historically, in how plants were used as folk medicine; less interested in trying it myself, and quite happy personally to stick with the (much beleaguered, woefully underfunded, desperately important) NHS.

It’s on my way home that I realised I’d been composing narrative in my head for the past half an hour or so, in a daze of words and sentence fragments that mirrored and matched my ambulations. I was reminded, once more, of a passage from To the River, where Laing herself quotes both Virginia Woolf and Kenneth Graham (a spot of matryoshka doll citation, there…)

I was getting anyway into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and  the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing requires. ‘Nature’s particular gift to the walker,’ Grahame explained in a late essay, ‘through the semi-mechanical act of walking – a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same degree – is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe – certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.’ As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of ­chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noonday sun. She compared it to swimming or ‘flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine thin sheet of perfect calm happiness. Its true I often painted the brightest pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.’

I hadn’t found myself talking out loud, at least, but I did realise that my mind had been whirling away in a manner that I’d found myself estranged from lately. Whether it was the rhythm of the walking, the almost eerie quiet of being out and about when no one else was, or the simple fact that I’d forced myself to leave my phone and book at home and come out here with nothing but myself for company – either way, my mind was loosened and I found in myself a more lyrical voice in my head; a voice which had been dormant awhile.

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Pineappleweed, chicken-of-the-woods, yarrow – terrible phone photo, terrible phone.

Back in Reservoir Woods and almost home, I found silvery mugwort and a fine collection of pineappleweed, peppering the ground with tiny yellow suns. Mugwort is a close relative of wormwood, and has long been associated with sleep and dreaming; pineappleweed is also known as wild camomile, and its flowers are small petal-less globules which do indeed look and smell like tiny pineapples. I collected them to steep later, for tea before bed.