Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Magic mushrooms

"You know what you should be doing?"

That's the kind of loaded question you might hesitate to answer when some people present it, but I've known Mícheál Bathe a long time and I knew he wouldn't be setting me up.

"No, Mícheál. What?"

"You should be going out picking mushrooms. The Inch is white with them."

And that bit of conversation on the footpath last Saturday morning triggered a lot of memories. I don't think I'd picked mushrooms since I was a teenager.

"Right, Mícheál. Maybe I will ..."

And at six o'clock the next morning, I was out on the road, heading for Berney's Inch, that bit of riverside up opposite New Abbey. Just as much as I hadn't picked mushrooms, I hadn't walked the Inch for a very long time either. My walks by the Liffey tend to be on the New Abbey side, maybe because that's the side of the town I live on, and always lived on.

Still, I thought I remembered how to get there, so I headed down through O'Connell's Field -- now with the more grand title of Riverside Manor -- and made my way across the grass to the fence that separates it from the Inch.

Well, there were signs of a bit of a gap, all right, but it had recently been well wired up again. And I'm out of practice at negotiating anything like this: at my age, you get sensitive, or sensible, about the ability of bones to handle big jumps.

So I took the long way, across to the old lane that runs up from the back of Brennan's to the Berney farmland. That was easy enough, and after climbing over a few nice steel barred gates that made handy ladders, I was only a field away from the inch, crossing a lot of thistle, it has to be said.

I kept an eye for mushrooms as I crossed, though, using a sweeping visual technique because I'd forgotten how you look for the things.

Didn't find any there, anyhow. And I know that mushrooms don't grow as easily in the wild of modern farms as they used to. Something about the fertiliser, and whatever way the animals are grazed. I did remember, though, that where sheep were had usually a good chance, and I'd spotted a few of them from that first fence I'd balked at.

Still, once I got to the Inch field, my sweeping ocular efforts were still bearing no fruit, let alone mushrooms. I was trying to be efficient, quartering the area, and pretty soon I was beginning to think that Mícheál Bathe had indeed been setting me up. It was, after all, early August, and maybe a bit soon?

Then, literally, I stumbled on one. And remembered at last that the 'efficient', sweeping technique had never been the way to find them.

The buggers have a great way of hiding, in the clumps of rough grass. Behind or under even a very few blades. And once I found one, it was by meandering in the same way that sheep do, and looking almost straight down as I did so, that I had the best chance of finding more.

And for the next half hour or so, that's what happened. One mush would indirectly point to another, so to speak, and though the Inch wasn't exactly 'white with them', there were more than enough to make my early morning cross-country effort worthwhile.

Other things did, too. It was the beginnings of what was to prove a very decent sunny Sunday, and it was a good time to be out and about in the quiet of its birth. The only interruption from the noises of the river and the sheep was the first Aer Lingus flight from Cork sweeping down serenely in silver and green as it prepared to traverse the Wicklow hills and make its turn in by Howth to Dublin Airport. And even that didn't intrude on the beauty of the morn.

When I deemed that I'd enough in my plastic bag for more than ourselves at home, I gave up looking. And, with that decision, I never saw another all the way back to the lane. There's something of the 'magic' about mushrooms in this, maybe?

The plastic bag was a deliberate tilt to modernity: in my youngest pre-teen days of gathering I'd carry my harvest home on a brace or more of 'hanks', the funguses speared on long reeds of some kind of grass that I've forgotten the name of, but which had a strong stem and a thick head to hold the bottom one as the foundation of the stack.

I used to sell those, too, hoping for sixpence a hank from passing motorists as I wended my way home, but usually settling for tuppence or maybe even the odd threepenny bit.

At home, the spoils of the morning hunt looked very well on the table once I'd stripped off the bits of grasses that had come with them as I picked.

I have to confess, though, that I made a bit of a hames of cooking the first batch later, as part of a Sunday brunch that having the fresh mushrooms begged to happen.

In the old days, I'd never have considered washing them. A wipe with a cloth, the stalks twisted off, and then straight onto a hot pan with a knob of butter and a shake of salt, and that was it.

Washing them made them a bit on the soggy side. The ones I'd not washed and which were cooked tonight, two days later and after drying out in the fridge, had all the flavour that I remember from my teenage years.

So I'll go out again one of these mornings soon, because there's still no comparison between the taste of the field mushrooms you gather yourself and those that are raised in the commercial way: kept in the dark and covered in s**t.

No comparison at all. Not least because there's a sense of achievement when you bring them home. Probably something to do with the long-dormant food foraging that was once the most important part of our makeup.

Thanks for the reminder, Mícheál. But I've since heard that the GAA field -- much closer and more accessible -- is also producing a wealth of early-morning food. Maybe I'll leave the Inch to you for the rest of the mushroom season.

1 comment:

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