It’s 11pm and I’ve just got into my flat, after four nights at Medicine Festival. Beautiful and healing to be at a careful sober festival in these maddening times. I was getting an early bed every night which is virtually unheard of when I’m in festival mode. I was sober, and any music that was playing late night was bollocks anyway and clashed with the nature and purpose of the weekend. The stupid late night vibe helped me exit once the important ceremonial bits were done. Maybe I’m just getting old. But it felt like there was a push and pull between two forces at this festival – the force of good intentions and the force of capital. If good intentions beat greed and lack of imagination then this could be the beginning of something very necessary and wonderful in the UK festival calendar. An international healing festival. The land is remarkable, ancient and fertile.
I spent quite a lot of my daytime absently looking for mushrooms as I wandered through the site and through the surrounding woods. A lot of people don’t understand mushrooms at all. They think of them like plants. “You’ve killed it!” they squeal as you pluck the fruiting body from the earth.
Fungi are an incredible, varied and extremely weird lifeform, and mushrooms are a small part of the mechanism of some of them. The organism itself can be absolutely vast – there’s an Armarillaria Ostoyae mycelium that covers 4 square miles in Oregon. That’s a single living organism. They call it The Humongous Fungus. It pops up mushrooms in large numbers over the whole area, and pulling them up does no harm to the actual organism. Mycelia pop up mushrooms to send spores into the wind. You can actually help them spread their stuff by moving the mushrooms around and getting their spores into the wind – helping them travel. The bit you can see – the mushroom – is basically just an egg sac for the mycelium. The mycelium lives in the tree or in the earth, and consists of loads of microscopic threads interwoven through the root systems of trees or in the bark itself. Huge living webs connecting things underground. It’s kind of hard to get your head around how they work, which is why so many people just imaginatively group them with plants – like thinking an octopus is coral because they both live in the sea.
Some of them work symbiotically with the trees around them, like the Cep, ferrying nutrients to the root system and feeding off unwanted by-products – mutually beneficial.
Some of them work parasitically and eventually kill their host, but continue to live in the body. Like Laetiporous Sulphureous – The Chicken of the Woods.
I found a Chicken of the Woods on the first day at Medicine, but left it there as I didn’t want it to dry up before I could get it into a kitchen to be cleaned and eaten. I would have left it until Monday morning until I realised on Saturday that there were other people from the festival shrooming. It’s considered a prize. “Have you seen any chicken?” I was asked. I went and grabbed it and carried it to the car in my hat.
This morning, Kate brought what I thought might be a Cep to me having found it on site and, knowing I liked foraging mushrooms. A Porcini! Omnomnom. I wasn’t certain at all though, even if it rang a huge bell. She told me where she found it and I went to survey. If there’s a mycelium, it will likely extrude multiple fruits. Sure enough I found another one. I might have found more but I didn’t give myself much time as I had other festival things I wanted to do.
Problem is, despite obsessively ‘shrooming for something like 7 years now, I rarely if ever trust my own identification. This is a necessary caution, as the price for a major fuck up is total organ failure with no antidote.
I started learning mycology to overcome my childhood fear of and adult distaste for all things mushroom.
Now I like them. Exposure therapy. It’s habitual when in nature to keep an eye out for a growing list of specimens with which I feel confident. I’m certain of Chicken. It’s unmistakable. And it only kills you if it’s growing on a yew tree. Here’s the one I found:
As for the Cep, this was my first rodeo. I was nervous. I got a second opinion, which was very positive and aligned with mine. Eventually I decided to go for it. But I recruited a friend who is knowledgeable in the kitchen.
After getting Helen and Tash safely home from the festival, I swung by my flat in a flying visit just to grab my mushroom book and then hared it up to Richmond to share the findings with Tristan and Tanya. I knew damn well that Tristan would cook them better than anyone I know. Here’s the smaller of the two Cep. No gills.
I’m still not sure it’s a Cep – (boletus edulus). But it was tasty, and I’m sure enough that it’s from the boletus family, so could discount anything genuinely harmful. I didn’t take photos of it surrounding trees which would have helped in identification. Something to know for next time.
The Chicken of the Woods is a truly surprising and filling meal on its own. It served three and we were full. A rich deep flavor, a thick consistency. A bit of a bitch to clean but Tristan did that while I was dissecting the Cep looking for a solid ID. I want to find more of them. So unusual, so filling, a free meal, and the sense of nature’s bounty.
As for the Cep, whatever it was it had a delicate flavour, but I limited my intake as I wasn’t 100% on identification despite being clear on family. Some of them can make you puke. I’ve been freezing my tits off for three nights in a tent. A night on the spew would just about finish me off.
And now I’m finally home, I’m full of strange food, I’m just about to have a hot bath, and it’s midnight. This has taken a clear hour to write.
Luxury time at last.