Late Spring Come Early

Two weeks ago there was still ice in the lakes in the north-east, the forest floor was bare of green shoots due to the lack of the spring rains, and the migratory birds (notably the storks) were conspicuously absent, waiting for wind and weather more favourable for the flight back north. Now the season has arrived, and has hit the ground running, so to speak, tearing along with the speed at which it got here.

From a hobby-naturalist’s point of view, things couldn’t get much better; for a forager, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the task of keeping up with it all. The coltsfoots are already gone to seed (having had to push their flower-heads through a foot of snow), the nettles are at their absolute most tender and there are rumours on the online mushroom forums that the morels are out in Brandenburg. This last bit of information is perhaps most personally distressing, as the already-ephemeral-enough morel season might be even shorter this year if the conditions for the mycelium don’t favour pushing up masses of fruit-bodies.

It is true that the esteem in which the early mushrooming season is held varies from culture to culture; in North America they seem to be fanatical about their morels; in the UK, France and Spain we canonize the good Calocybe gambosa with the name of St George. In Germany I’ve not heard the morel praised very highly or even considered as choice outside of the realm of mushrooming guidebooks, and linguistically the St George’s mushroom is deprived of its saintliness, being known merely as Maipilz (May-mushroom). For me the early season has its own maddening vernal allure which seems only to intensify from year to year.

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Part of the magic has roots in the archaic remnants of the joy of the hunt; you are in no danger of morels jumping out and biting you. Even getting close (or positioned, as I think of it) requires a basic knowledge of the ground and its underlying geological make-up, and quite possibly the relationship of the dominant plant species. Local knowledge is important too, and difficult to come by: one Brandenburg morel enthusiast with an internet connection swears that cleavers (Galium aparine) and birch trees over a good amount of sandy soil signal the mother lode for him each year, and he has the photos to prove it. The sheer complexity of conditions and factors mean that often even seasoned mushroomers have never once in many years of seeking had the rare pleasure. Neither have I, for that matter, and on that particular day my suspected morel spot turned out to be far too dry to produce what I was looking for even if it could have done.

So the search continues, and as I have said elsewhere, for me foraging is about adapting to your surroundings, and there is plenty to miss right now by desperately hallucinating morels out of pine-cones. A recent forage brought home a massive list of edibles; lesser celandine, common sorrel, wood sorrel, ground ivy, bristly oxtongue, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, hairy bittercress, hop shoots, perennial wall-rocket, charlock, and, of course, lots of nettles.

Marine biologist, lover of Asiatic poetry and Gregorian chants, and minor existential theorist Ed Ricketts once said that we should interest ourselves not in the rare but in the most commonplace species we encounter, because their proliferation is more astounding than the scarcity of the other. Often it seems that with foraging, the goal is toward seldom-encountered plants and fungi, whereas logically the successful forager would have been the one who can make best use of the abundant resources. If there were one single plant that could be said to lend itself to this propensity, it would have to be the stinging nettle.

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Though for the sake of research and the thrill of novelty it should be otherwise, there is currently no better plant to be gathered than the ‘humble’ nettle, which altogether doesn’t have that much reason to be humble. On the last forage I packed a jute bag full with pressed-down nettle tops, and getting home I wished I’d spent another hour in the field when I got to cooking, having several things I wanted to do with them. I have come to the conclusion that, if you come home from a forage with nothing more than a bag of nettles, it was a good day all the same. Current plans for nettle-related fun are right this moment ‘brewing’, so to speak, so more about those at a later date.

The persistent cold weather up until recently has held back more than a few plants, and I managed to catch the dreaded Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) just as it was sprouting, having decided I fancied dessert to go with my foraged Sunday dinner. The tender stems are crunchy, sour, and distinctly rhubarb-like when cooked (the plants belong in the same family, so one could say that Japanese knotweed is a kind of unwanted feral rhubarb), and are well worth gathering. One consideration is site: only harvest Japanese knotweed from areas where it is highly-unlikely that the plants have been sprayed: that means unassuming, sheltered clumps far from agricultural land, roads or towpaths; the possibility of glyphosate or other herbicides having been used to tackle these plants in certain areas is relatively high. Having taken that into consideration, a good harvest can be gotten in no time at all, and, unfortunately for the native plants, it is likely to be an inexhaustible resource for some time to come.P1080378

So, adapting from the very-much-desired morel hunt of a forage that I had been planning, I decided to enrich the end of the day’s rummage with a bit of wildlife, and stopped off in Chorin where I had seen a huge towering stork’s nest while visiting with a friend in the depths of winter. On the rolling pasture-land it was much easier scanning the skies than scanning the forest floor for mushrooms, and sure enough the enormous birds were wheeling around with their inimitable slow and gravid flight.

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I must have wandered under the circling storks for about half an hour when I realized that I was first quite dizzy and second quite dehydrated from the pouring sun, so I made for the shade of some birches at the edge of the larger pasture. As my eyes were adjusting from the glare I noticed some stone-like spheres embedded in the grass, and had to give one an exploratory prod before I would believe my sun-beaten brain: a perfect cluster of puffballs!

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As can be seen from the photograph, they were rather on the small side but plentiful, and I filled a paper bag with about 500g of the whitest and most plump-looking of the lot, and did my bit to help the future generations by kicking around the dried fruit bodies. I hadn’t been overly-hoping for much fungi in my basket after the habitual lack of morels, so I was doubly happy about being able to put on the menu:

Spicy Nettle Soup

Mushroom Burger with Puffballs and Wild Leaves

Wild Salad with Beetroot and Pine Nuts

Japanese Knotweed and Apple Crumble

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Afterword: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, goes the saying. Last autumn I experimented with the beautiful elfin saddle (Helvella crispa), a ‘false morel’ in the Ascomycetes group which contains the ‘true morel’ morels. These I took through the standard MOT test (Mushrooms On Toast) employed to assess any ‘edible’ but non-choice mushroom for viability. They were fairy good, with a fine texture on cooking a bit similar to cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa), and there were no symptoms of any kind of poisoning. Doing further research, it turns out that the ‘edible/poisonous’ qualification usually given to this family is justified: mushrooms of the Helvellaceae family apparently contain a chemical called monomethylhydrazine, which can also be found… well, in rocket fuel! Despite no retro-propelled experience on the first try, this is a family I will be steering clear of from now on.

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