Fungus Among Us… In the Wild Larder

“The world is apprehensive about food shortages and yet our countryside is full of untapped treasures.”

Ok, so, it’s really very much not mushroom foraging season…. but, no harm in getting in training early.  I found this wondrous book, published in the 1950s to build on some wartime rationing pamphlets, ‘Britain’s Wild Larder: Fungus by Claire Loewenfeld,’ and bought it for a lovely someone dedicated to mushrooming… but in the event it never left my custody.  So, I have read it cover to cover to much amusement and interest and here are the highlights as sifted by me…

“Somehow [our dietary habits] still seem more reminiscent of the Victorian age than do our houses or clothes, and in strange contrast to present-day nutritional findings.  We still aim at a protein intake – not always inside our economic possibilities – which is based on protein requirement figures worked out around 1900.”

Ms Loewenfeld’s sentiments fast become apparent; she turns out to be a very progressive thinker on food who wouldn’t seem out of place writing in the last couple of decades, expounding as she does on the virtues of salad and muesli and increased energy.  She laments our “…more sedentary life in which not only is most of our work carried out sitting or standing in front of some mechanical contraption (*I shall herein refer to my computer thus), but also our travelling is done in an armchair.”  Seems like this particular lament has been in circulation longer than our RSI and obesity blighted masses would imagine.  She also focuses in on the current trend for self sufficient, seasonal and foraged foods saying that “Dire need and newly acquired nutritional knowledge of the essential vitamins and minerals brought everywhere a new impulse to revive old traditions and additional zest for new combinations.”  Written in reference to the needs of WWII, it seems we have a short memory as we go through yet another revival!

Promising that mushrooms, nuts and other wild gathered vegetarian foodstuffs will “cease to be the ‘meats of the poor man’ and instead become the ‘meats of the wise man'” she amusingly brushes off the pulses saying they “have dietetic disadvantages and therefore should be taken in moderation.”  Being of German extraction, the author frequently refers to the European traditions in regard to Fungi… apparently the Germans favour the woodland dwelling mushroom and are suspicious of the field mushroom, in contrast to the traditions of the UK.  She states that fungi knowledge and identfication is learned from childhood and “It seems psychologically quite natural that people who have many woods and feel at home in them should have no anxieties about their products – berries as well as fungi.  At an early age children hear of all the legends and fairy tales in which other children, errant knights, princesses with bad stepmothers or wandering craftsmen were lost in the woods and lived on the wild foods found in them, until they were rescued.  All this has nothing to do with reality.”  Possibly one of my favourite qualificatory comments I’ve come across.

“If the light of reason is allowed to shine into the darkness of irrational fears, it should be possible to recognise them as what they are.”

Brilliant, I love that this profundity is employed simply in the quest to demystify the mushroom.  Ms Loewenfeld then embarks on a wondrous bit of bet-hedging:  “There is no ‘black magic’ about fungi, nor are there any ‘hard and fast rules on which to rely.  There is also no dark abyss of millions of poisonous toadstools into which, when selecting the few edible ones, it is easy to fall.  Neither are there any magic rules by which the poisonous ones can be detected or the poison rendered harmless.”  Her ‘at your peril’ attitude and blase vagueness hardly inspire the would-be hunter gatherer to strike forth in confidence and embark on mushrooms for tea, but she does later recommend first familiarising with the true enemies before getting out on the chase.

There is some debate as to nomenclature and, in the end, as a result of the culturally perceived mushroom/toadstool dichotomy she decides to call them ‘edibe fungi’ leading later on to some pricelessly unattractive sounding recipes for things such as ‘Fungus Souffle.’  “It seems desirable that the scheme followed by Dr Ramsbottom in his small Penguin books on edible and poisonous fungi, giving popular English names to most fungi, should be continued.”  She then translates the German common names as “‘Tubelings’ (boleti), ‘Knightlings’ (blewits), ‘Pepperlings’ (chanterelles), ‘Inklings’, ‘Dustlings’ and ‘Powderlings'” – all of which sound terribly endearing!  A fresher approach to naming, Ms Loewenfeld asserts would “help make fungi as popular here as they are throughout Europe…In all these countries the fungus trade is officially recognised and the authorities help to avoid risks by appointing fungus-inspectors.”  I cannot relinquish the amusement of the word ‘fungus’ personally.  Although I have felt the benefit of a ‘fungus-inspector’ in a rural French pharmacy green-lighting some foraged delights for dinner, it’s true.

To be continued…

About The Potter

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