Originally published November 2008
Hello everyone! For those of you who are not students of Celtic tradition, budding Wiccas or practicing Neopagans, let me explain this months title. In a word, food, or to be more specific, Harvest.
Lammas, a Christian holy day on August 1st, is based on the Celtic festival of Lugnasdh. The festival, named after the sun god Lugh (where did he get to this year!), marked the end of the growing season and the gathering of the first crops. The second of the three harvest festivals, Mabon, was celebrated at the Autumn Equinox (22nd or 23rd September). It involved giving thanks to the Earth Goddess for the bountiful harvest thus securing her blessings for the Winter months ahead. Now, for all you cult film buffs, no I do not have a 30ft wicker effigy in the back garden crammed full of produce, sacrificial livestock and members of the scottish constabulary! Mabon has evolved into the traditional Harvest Festival as celebrated by our school children with their creative and vibrant church service.
The festival of Samhain, more familiar today as Halloween, marked the end of the harvest season and the start of a new Celtic year. Variations of the word Samhain are used in gaelic languages for naming the month of November.
You don’t have to be Ray Mears, David Bellamy or even Catweazle to appreciate that our wild places are full of culinary delights! Hedgerows have been dripping with the fruit of Bramble, Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Elder. Bright red Rowan berries illuminate the countryside and the race is on to get to the chestnuts before the squirrels. Up and down the country, recipes for jams, jellies, crumbles and various alcoholic beverages are studied with enthusiasm; old gaffers are unceremoniously incarcerated in the potting shed until they reveal the secret ingredient for their triple strength sloe gin!
Our very own Quarry Wood is no exception in the provision of wild comestibles, although those squirrels do seem to be winning at the moment! It goes without saying that not all berries are edible and children should always be supervised when harvesting and sampling the fruits of the forest.
Of course what really gets those in the know to reach for their field guides and grab their trugs is the quest for fungi; for many, the Holy Grail of the foraging year. A stroll around the reserve will reveal a veritable cornucopia (oh yes, we have the Horn of Plenty!). The rather confusing terms, ‘mushroom’ and ‘toadstool’, are popularly used to describe those fungi you can eat and those to be avoided. I suspect (and hope!) that it is highly unlikely anyone would want to knock up a tasty stroganoff with those fungi possessing such justifiably lethal sounding names as Destroying Angel, Death Caps, Poison Pie or Sulphur Tufts!
However, the equally unappetisingly named Stinkhorn is edible, at least when young and before it acquires the odour of a rotten drain! Disappointingly, Apricot Fungus, Jelly Babies, Plums and Custard and King Alfred’s Cakes are all either foul tasting, insubstantial or likely to make you feel very unwell. However, fungi named after Beefsteak, Cauliflower and Honey appear in many a recipe book. The lesson to be learned here then is, do not collect the ingredients for your wild mushroom omelette solely on the basis of fungi nomenclature!
For many of us, identifying fungi is a daunting experience to say the least, and should not be attempted by botanical tyros looking to supplement their larder. The best way to learn is to go out with an expert, preferably with a primus stove and bottle of wine (the last of the ’07 elderberry of course!). Something to consider next year I feel! Even the best field guides may leave you baffled especially when it comes to identifying specimens at different stages in their growth. A prime example is the favourite toadstool of children’s illustrators for decades, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).
The infamous spotted red cap can, in its early stages, be mistaken by the unwary for some of the edible Puffballs species. This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least being that we don’t all have a best selling fantasy story lurking within, just waiting to be psychotrophically released. Curiouser and curiouser indeed!
As always, any thoughts welcomed at: