Wednesday, 1 September 2010


The contents of the baskets are mushrooms, not any old mushrooms. These orange and blue caps that emit an orange milk when bruised are so special that they don’t have a name in our great English language, even if it is the lingua franca of global business. In Polish, they’re called “rydze”, in Russian it’s “грузды”. The French call them “lactaire” meaning the milky one. The botanical name is “lactarius deliciosus”. Neither Brits or Americans offer a name because they don’t come from the supermarket. The poet Shelley sums up the attitude of most English speaking people toward wild mushrooms in the words,

“And agarics and fungi, with mildew and mould,
Started like mist from the wet ground cold
Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead
With a spirit of growth had been animated.”

That description suits me just fine. When I walk in the woods, I feel that they’re mine. My only competitors are the #!$%& young Polish immigrants who pop out from the undergrowth dragging a large bucket filled with their ill-gotten goods.

Lactaires, as we shall call them, are the best --- with the consistency of steak, a sweet fruity taste and a characteristic tang that belongs to the wood. They only need to be fried in butter, served on toast along with a small vodka. After one bite you’ll feel that even the best caviar doesn’t measure up. For the Scotsman in me, that’s especially good news, as the mushrooms are free. Being so prized, they’re not easy to find. You have to get to them before the maggots find them, and that’s usually a day or two after sprouting. Not every year is bountiful. Some years you won’t find a single one. Then there are years when they crop up everywhere, and this appears to be such a year. At Cottarton at least.

After three years at Cottarton, the mushrooms found us. At first I thought I was dreaming when mowing the lawn I found one in front of the mower. After a small look around I discovered one patch, then the next and them the nextunder the line of trees surrounding our property. But when I found them growing out of the gravel, and out of the bed that Amber had weeded, I let out a yell that, had it been heard by any neighbour, would have summoned an ambulance. Restraining myself from picking them, I waited for Amber to come home from work. I wanted to hear her shrieks. She shrieked --- evidence that the Polish/ Russian mania had properly infected her. We gathered a basket full. They were only a day old and scarcely contained a single maggot. We ate some – for two or three days, cooked and froze several baggies full, and took the others to Agata and my mother in Scone. Agata loved them, even if she was insanely jealous. It’s not fair that some people have our luck to have lactaires crop in their back yard.

They kept coming. Each time it rained, the Lactaires sprouted and we gathered another basketful. Bewildered about how to handle the bounty, I salted many of them --- arranged the freshest caps in a jar, salted each layer and then pressed them with an oak weight I had cut for the job. After a day they let out their water. A process similar to making sauerkraut, it will preserve them for winter. I pickled a jar and froze the rest.

The mushroom crop made me wax philosophical. Our piles of winter snow made Amber and I wonder about how many more similar winters we could take. We’re hoping last winter was one of a kind and not part of Scotland’s new and improved climate. Last “spring” Amber was looking at real estate in southern France. Now,the very Earth is sending us another message, offering us a gift that probably hasn’t come to anyone else in Scotland, telling us that this is our home, and where we need to be.