A 61 with headphones

Driving down the A61 from Sheffield to Chesterfield I turn off Elgar’s Nimrod and I pull into a layby. I leave the car and with the dog on the lead I find a gap in the hedge and descend through an archaeology of cannabis, strata of clay pebbles and plastic bags. Generations of it now.

Generations of generations.  Generations formed in it, generations fucked on it, fucking on it. Generations dying in it, generations living it, regretting it, loving it and leaving it. And here it is, a mess on the ground.

I cross the stream and climb the hill, such noise and clatter I can’t even bear to restart Elgar, the most pastoral. Even my mind won’t combat and embrace utter noise, the anti-pastoral.

The dog jumps and we land on a forestry track so deeply rutted further up I can barely walk.

Such a young track this, most pastoral of all, a labour in the forest and on it young plants are forming, hollies, chestnut, oak and I have to leave behind solipsism in order to accept that I’m actually doing anything.

Further away from the noise now on the hillside, I’ve seen the map and I know the path is higher and I’ll reach something fit for feet.

Yellow Pimpernel, Climbing Corydalis and Figwort announce the limit of the road noise and with the sound of birdsong I start at the holly and arrive at a Holly Hagg, a proper deep Hollins.

The densest I’ve ever seen. Look at that, the size of oaks. 

Not crossing the road over the A61, but leaving Monks Wood and heading up the hill to Black Piece. Below Bull Close farm and Ouzel Bank cottage, I see from the map  at Black Piece there is a stream running in a gully. 

So I’m doing this, this nothing, this stopping in the car on the way to the market to walk my dog. I’m doing this with some inclination, with some force because.

I’ve only got one chance to do this and it’s now and it’s today and if I don’t it will be gone and I’ll be left alone with nothing.

Nothing at all.

And I need this to be alive.

So now with the road a murmur like a voice you hear and know it’s people from your village cutting wood; a bird you don’t recognise flying into the upper branches of young oak, buttercups amongst the long grass and a single Bluebell you recognise as Spanish.

Now let’s turn on Elgar.

Here where the Balsam has taken root and cleavers grow in the grass.  As if the names were magic and your voice anything other than an idiot’s,

A fool’s voice,

A dunce’s voice

just a liar maybe

who loves Stitchwort

and your dog going mad

So I’m doing it for a reason

and the reason is

because

I must

when I lie there

staring at the ceiling

it’s this that will

balance

out

what’s

coming

Because it won’t leave regret

and that’s the one thing we all must avoid

And first it’s some stupid vetches and then you start on the track to switch on Elgar but you can’t get anywhere. 

Such a great bloated world hits you, the great bloated world of the forest dwellers just keeps pulling you in.

Again and again and again.

Unbelievable badger diggings. 

Now try Elgar again and the dog shits in the woods and I notice it’s next to a badger latrine and I think of my astounding love of the sight of the sett and the badger’s love of getting home to that dug black earth.

As Elgar builds, this mundane little path now, at the top of the woods, some smells here and there, something to come, something’s been, something underground, nothing wrong, and as it builds its the brain that builds and ideas come and you think:

I should let them go…

Like some mindfulness practice…

But of course you’re always trying to remember, and you wish you had a notepad and you could write down the reminder to yourself, to tell someone that they should train the dog…

Your reminder to yourself about something you can’t even remember now because you’ve remembered it 1000 times and still you forget, still you try to remember, still you think about whether you should forget, whether you should remember…

And the point of it all? Is just to do it rather than not. To acknowledge it rather than not because it’s the only thing you do.

So we reach a fence with private land beyond that borders the path and a man who has lost his phone earlier while walking his dog is tracking it to retrieve it riding his son’s bike.

I am reading tea leaves.

Remember to track yourself, don’t be ashamed of your tracking device, just don’t lose it, if you do go back and find it, there’s nothing wrong with it.

So this is just a tracking device, this is today, a tracking device, I’m tracking myself.

And besides me lies a fence because somebody doesn’t trust me.

Doesn’t trust. Someone wants privacy.

And you can understand why because there is nothing wrong with privacy.

Except that it invites.

So you reach the Dell, the glade, the water.  Black Piece is there now, the marsh, with bulrushes and you keep away from the private property sign, way above it now, my goodness, like you thought you would, you’re above something and there you are, well above it.

Well next time you’ll come won’t you?

But the man can’t find his phone there is not enough data on his daughter’s phone to locate it.

So not everything will tell you something and a lot of the time you can’t be bothered, just like you actually said you’ll come back, to go into that underbelly, that marsh.

It’s an underbelly that doesn’t go anywhere except down into the ground. That’s where you’ll go back to. You’ll end up coming back here, won’t you? When you die.

Down at the deep little marsh, stuck there, smelling like that, clay under your feet, nobody can go there with you unless they want to sink as well, or they can watch from the edge.

You can hide there, like Alfred, waiting for a kingdom.

And you get rewarded as if that were possible by the broadleaf Helleborine.

As you near the road, thrown back to those voices you recognise, the most confusing of all, the loudest one, the one you recognise and you know exactly how dull it is, how dangerous it is.  But you also know how to avoid it until you can’t. And then it’s something you know you have to hide from. So it’s safe and you like walking on these little side paths down back on the woodsman’s tail, the woodsman’s trail.  The great ruts of the logger’s track.

And that’s your journey isn’t it?

You haven’t quite finished the Elgar, you’ve got that last quiet section because the badger shat and interrupted your crescendo and you made your own one because you found your bearings.

There, you remember now?

You’re tracking yourself but you didn’t find it, but you tracked yourself tracking yourself like some stupid philosopher.

So there you are making your way northbound on the southbound carriageway and you find a colombine in the grass and you can barely hear your own thoughts.  But you can actually – you can hear all your own thoughts regardless of what noise is going on. You can always hear your own thoughts, even without thinking.

You see your car in the distance and this last stretch of flowers and grasses bordering the woodland on the road.

You ended on ferns and now passing some silver fish, I don’t know what they are but I’ll call them silverfish.

19th May 2022

Not Yet

what’s on your mind? I asked.

After some thought

It’s just…

What is it I asked putting my hand on his shoulder…

It’s just…When is the end?

Not yet I explained and I don’t know when but not now.

We talked about wheelchairs and stairlifts and all the other (in)conveniences that were better than the end because

We are still here together.

And can do something.

So sod the rest.

Let’s have fish and chips shall we?

Of mushrooms and maggots

Which is the finest wild food? This changes with the season but one mushroom—the cep, the porcini, known in English as the Penny Bun—has risen from the forest floor to stake its claim.

I’ve been dreading writing this: the story of the king mushroom.

The problem with ceps is that they decay very quickly. When small they retain their form longer, but the larger specimens, when the spongy under-flesh has already matured to yellow or green, will putrefy if left too long. You can keep them in the fridge for a few days, where they may exude small white maggots overnight.

Keep them in the fridge with the caps uppermost on a plate. That way you can remove the maggots.

The old meaning of the word ‘maggot’ comes from the notion of a maggot in the brain, hence ‘maggotry’ as folly or absurdity; the maggot itself is a whim, a fancy, a crotchet. And that’s exactly what the cep does—it worms its way into your thinking.

Ceps are wild until you get to know them, then they become familiar. The sheen of skin on their caps is tanned like a beechwood cutting board. They are highly seasonal but somewhat irregular in their appearance. When a wood blooms with ceps there is nothing quite like it.

No doubt one among many, I have fallen to my knees with more than just the careful action of a paring knife on my mind. In and around Sheffield, the late summer and early autumn provide the better opportunities for finding ceps, although this year there was a good mid-summer harvest. They are stately, statuesque fungi with no gills but innumerable tiny tubes, vertically clustered under the upper flesh of a cap that glistens after rain.

They come eight days after the rain…

Unless you have a penchant for formal mycology, by far the best way to learn about this mushroom and consume it safely is to forage in the company of an experienced collector.

The collectors vary. The most annoying is ‘someone’. Particularly someone who has gotten to the ceps before you. Someone is most frustrating, particularly when you know them…

Those of us who love carefully slithering the earth from the foot of the cep hate the clean, horizontally-sliced stems of the professional collector. We are jealous of their 10 or 15 or 20 sites, gathered over time, each one in season, neatly successive.

Always pick a cep when you find one. They never grow again.

Wild food ceps 3

There’s money in them there hills. Selling ceps can be a profitable business if—and it’s a big ‘if’—you have a market. Where I learned to collect, in the Dordogne, France there was a wholesaler on the western edge of Les Eyzies who bought ceps by the kilo and transformed them into conserves.

It was near there that I first leapt from a car and gathered some indistinct boletus, hoping to have my first haul. These turned out to be the magical—in the Tommy Cooper sense of the word—Rubroboletus satanas. Their lurid red and promisingly putrescent flesh should have warned me. It took a visit to the chemist in my village, where they pronounced, with appropriate seriousness and through (I now realise) suppressed laughter, the mushroom’s name: le bolet de satan.

You know they are up when you see the cars parked everywhere.

It was with unrivalled joy that I first found ceps around Sheffield. I’d lived here for about four years and was walking in woodland looking at tree carvings. There were many soldiers’ initials carved nearby along a row of beech trees, past which WWI recruits or conscripts must have walked.

The footpaths are good. You get that little bit more light.

Wild food ceps 1

An older man in his late 60s was walking slowly under the trees, prodding the turf with a stick. What was he looking for? “Mushrooms.”

I watched the tip of his stick in the grass. As he pushed aside a tuft, there appeared a tiny button cep. He bent down to pick it up and put it in his bag with many others. I followed him for some time.

“I’m not English. I’ve been here a long time and I love coming to collect these mushrooms. I’ve got more time now. I only pick them when they are really small like this. That’s when they’re best.”

Wild as they can only be, and with no practical means of commercial production, it’s their value that domesticates them—and, of course, their consumption. Extraordinarily anthropomorphising in their effect, they reverse our journey to the soil, yet so soon they return.

When you get a snowy winter…

For those of you who know this already, a cep wood is some sight. When silent, it glitters with ‘next time’.

I cooked mine with charcoal burners and scotch bonnets.

The Myth of the Nettle

What is it that holds us to the earth? Sensing gravity, giving it meaning. How do we grow roots in a place when we don’t quite recognise the smell of the soil?

Angga came to the UK in 1997 as a child, a minor, with his sister, two brothers and parents, his father a doctoral student from Indonesia. Living 15 years in Pitsmoor, attending Fir Vale School, after university in Liverpool the tripling of loss and unexplored trauma led him to some dark and very lonely places.

Where could he turn, a man too stoic to share with those more stoic than him? To whom might he address himself in his vulnerability?

From this question, Men Up North was born in Sheffield in 2017. Groups have since been formed in Chesterfield, Newcastle, Hull and elsewhere, and there’s one member in North America. Men together: listening, hearing, supporting.

I met Angga recently when, as a facilitator for Men Up North in Sheffield, he had been tasked with finding an outdoor space which they could, in some way, tame or tend to. A green space, an island, a retreat into which they could gather and work themselves into the earth with stories, songs and sweat.

I met him outside an allotment site on the brow of a hill to the east of Lady’s Bridge. He took a road he knew well, the bus passing through the 12th century cattle market of the Wicker, under the arches with their bomb damage repaired and up the old Hospital Hill.

Passing his old house on the bus, he got off on Scott Road and, as I was running late, took shelter there, thinking precisely about how the land, the houses, the bits in between, how they held part of him.

This is a magical place right here

We met at the gates of Grimesthorpe allotments.

“Good to meet you!” I said in return to his smiling greeting, not yet knowing he had spent his formative years here. I introduced him to the site.

“This is a magical place right here. The slope of the allotment site on the southern edge, this is the slope of an ancient earth work stretching once from here, past Wincobank Hill and out 25 miles to Mexborough downstream on the Don.

“The earth work is known today as the Roman Ridge and was before that Grim’s Ditch because there is Grimesthorpe to the east and this is Grimesthorpe Road that runs parallel below.

“Places that carry this name ‘Grimes’, they relate to things being grim, to another word, another name, to Woden, to the Devil.”

We passed through the gate, locking it behind us.

“This little lane here, to the north… I don’t think it has a name now. I don’t think it’s called anything on the maps.”

I paused.

“An old man I knew who’d lived here as a boy, he knew its name as Devil’s Elbow, a sharp, crooked, steep little lane.”

Wild Food 2

We walked on, perhaps in some amazement. Finding the key, we entered some community gardens and took our seats looking out across the Don Valley in the shelter of an outdoor schoolroom.

“You know with Covid,” explained Angga, “We couldn’t meet together any more. Some of us didn’t even have computers or telephones to be able to Zoom. It’s just not been possible.

“We have all become aware of how much the earth actually matters, about the way things really grow from out of it and that this is important. So we wanted to have a place to come when we could get back together, where we could do something, build something together. Something outside, here in the air, where things grow and have seasons. Somewhere where we can build. With muscles.

“Our group varies in age from 18 to 72. Men of all ages. Men who need this space where frailty is the strength.”

“Imagine,” says Angga, the young man, “an older man in his 50s, who is divorced, who doesn’t know how to cook and just depends on takeaways. About that simple shame of not knowing how. To do. To ask. To listen.”

Angga had been married and his ex-wife had taught him the ways of the British. “Foraging,” he said.

8

We looked out across a partially-tamed allotment site and spoke of men there working. Angga told me about his family, his parents, two brothers and sister who had returned to Indonesia ten years ago.

“You didn’t go…” I said, as we returned to the gate. “You’re here.”

“Yes.”

“You are tied to the earth, are you not?” I laughed at this. “Your ex-wife, she took you foraging, didn’t she? It’s all that nettle soup you’ve eaten. It stung you into the ground.”

Angga laughed.

I continued, “How ridiculous is that! By gathering, cooking and eating of the idiotic nettle you actually attach yourself. For real. And now you’re here. And it matters.”

The Elusive Pignut

Seeking a small, chickpea-sized tuber above Bradfield.

As I walk through fields and woods in the valleys above Bradfield with a group of friends, I stop various people innocently walking and ask them what sort of wild foods they collect, if any. The responses are what I might expect: blackberries, wild garlic in the spring, and one man’s bitter parting remark that his days of mushrooming are far behind him.

I’m looking for something quite specific on this walk, a plant called the pignut. I don’t know if it’s there because I’ve not looked, but I tell my friends to look out for a wispy and insignificant little plant, like a small cow parsley.

On the way through the forest edge I see some hedge garlic, which I pick alongside some of the fresher stinging nettle leaves. I also collect some oyster mushrooms growing on fallen birch boughs.

As we leave the woodland and move into the open grassland I meet Bob, who is walking with his dog. It reminds me of the cross-breed terrier that I saw working with wild boar hunters in the South of France some years ago. I’ll never forget my only trip out with the hunters in a rural community not far from Carcassonne around 2007. I got a call from the Mayor of the village, finally inviting me to accompany him.

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I made a mistake. I had the permission of the Mayor but not the permission of the Boar, the sanglier itself, and I paid for it with a badly sprained ankle which took nearly a year to heal properly. I even took myself to the local ‘fire blower’, or folk healer, in the neighbouring village. The souffleuse de feu graciously allowed me into her kitchen and, after running her hands over my ankle, told me I’d left it too late.

I knew that. Too late to ask permission of the wild boar, too late to change my shoes for something more appropriate, too late to talk to the trees through which we walked whilst the small, thick-skinned terrier dug deep in undergrowth to drive the great boar into the open. Too late to look at the moon and see in its crescent form the tusks of the boar, to warn it, apologise beforehand, find out if a tree rustled nearby, if permission was granted.

Bob told me of a variety of foods he collected. He’d been brought up on his grandfather’s farm and had learned there. I doubt he’d ever asked permission and I doubt he’d ever been refused agreement. We spoke about empty spaces. He talked about where he’d seen ceps growing and spoke about an open beechwood, the location of which I will hold as a secret, rich (perhaps) in mushrooms.

So many sites of wild food are invisible and it’s in the viewing of their absence that true knowledge is gathered.

I heard a call from my friends ahead of us. “Look here,” my wife shouted, “Lucy’s spotted a potential pignut.”

I continued my conversation with Bob. As we approached a small stream, in the grass on the banks emerged a rather indistinct foliage and flower. Yes! It looked like a pignut. My hands were shaking as I pushed my fingers into the earth underneath and around the base of the stem. Nothing. I pressed deeper into the moss, still slightly dry from the remarkable spring drought, and there emerged the small, chickpea-sized tuber of the pignut.

I jumped with joy and showed it to Bob. I told him to rub off the brown skin to find a clear cream nut underneath. Taste it. He took it down to the stream, washed off the skin in the running water and ate.

I chased after my friends and called them back, shouting out with such joyous amazement that here was a pignut. I looked into the open fields to the right and there, stretched across the lower part of the field, were dozens of flowering pignuts. I dug my fingers down into them to look for the tubers. The earth was still hard and dry so I took out my Opinel knife and cut beneath to retrieve the nuts. I peeled some and handed them out to taste.

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There was no need for apology here. No need for permission from the plant. Perhaps just the excitement, the blood running fast in admiration of one of the most enjoyable wild food snacks to be had. In Food For Free, Richard Maybe describes how pignuts were the favourite of country children, and we find that they really are child-like little mouthfuls. They are crisp with a light and nutty flavour, one of the few real sources of starch that can be found in June.

I collected a decent handful of the nuts and brought them home, along with the oyster mushrooms, nettles and hedge garlic. I cooked some linguine and using rapeseed oil I lightly fried the mushrooms, followed by the nettles and hedge garlic, and finally the pignuts. I served them within the hour with such a happy feeling of having been given them as a gift.

I’ve been receiving a lot of gifts recently. My sister died a few weeks ago and her funeral was the very opposite of the boar hunt and my badly swollen ankle, an ongoing agreement from beyond the grave and within the rhythms of the lives of the mourners that things were being done in the right order.

Accepting gifts and recognising permission are the lover’s clues to getting it right. By the edge of the dam above which we were walking, with the water levels low you could see the old cobbled paths that ran alongside, the remains of the field boundaries still marked by stone disappearing into the water. The wild foods we collect, the wild foods we imagine growing or to which we hope to return, mark our gastronomic paths and boundaries. Eating of these harvests is an extraordinary reconstitution of something that must never be done other than with love.

Illicit knowledge, imagination and nature’s bounty

Collecting wild foods draws us into a landscape from which we map the foods we eat.

Food pornography generally indexes its lustful or gluttonous representation. For me, it refers more precisely to psilocybin mushrooms.

Scouring the fields surrounding my mother’s village in Wales in the late 1970s, I carried with me an already-tattered first edition of Richard Maybe’s Food For Free. First published in 1972, it sheltered within its pages illicit knowledge in the form of coloured line drawings of a small and indistinct cream-coloured fungus that did indeed have magical powers. There are probably many people – boomers notwithstanding – whose introduction to wild foods came through seeking such secrets.

And still, in 2020 – a year when the most explicit, viral level anatomies flavour our imaginations – wild foods draw us in. This is the first in a series of reflections on the theme of wild food.

Like everybody else who samples the fruits of nature, I learned very early on the unimaginable difficulties I would face if I were to depend on such an unreliable bounty. We gather these bodies as a supplement to our physical needs, not to fulfil them. Rather the ramsons, the bullace and the sorrel tag our desires. Harvesting what are often by definition the baselines of our nutrition is frequently a solitary act – social distancing an integral feature, our sources not to be shared. With such a fragile resource, we know that it can only ever titillate, and the palette and the imagination require just that.

It can be a bit like ‘munro bagging’, where the object of the collector is something simply defined by being a little higher than another thing, or a little deeper, perhaps, in this case. Collecting wild foods draws us into a landscape from which we map the foods we eat, where knowledge of the weed and the fungal are our perspective, channelling our culinary visions, straightening the paths to a more frugal past.

Over the coming months I’m going to have conversations with people for whom wild food might be something very different. Wholesome perhaps, an engagement with a more coherent relationship with food, consumption, forms of production and with society more generally. Foragers, like hunters, for whom the cep is more an ungulate to be stalked, always marked with myth and metaphor. Those who have made it a career, whose collecting ekes out some dynamic privacy, or those for whom sharing is itself the secret they seek.

Just carry on straight down there. That’s the way to Wild Wales.

My maternal grandfather was a minister who turned to Byron as much as the Bible seeking inspiration for sermons. He told me of a place called ‘Wild Wales’. The year he died, in the late 1960s, I was eight years old and he took me on a walk up the new Carmarthen Road to the north. Heading out past the rebel-graffitied cellars, the Chinese takeaway and finally the old police station, the road led into open country. My grandfather stopped as the road turned left and pointed to a stile and down a grassy path, woods in the distance.

“You carry on now,” he said. “I’ve got to go back.”

“But where do I go?” I asked.

“Just carry on straight down there. That’s the way to Wild Wales.”

He went home and didn’t see any Wales again after that summer. I crossed the stile, walked down the path alone and have yet to leave.

It is many places, speaks many languages and shares a more or less precise and impossible rendition of history with flowering particulars of grammar, description, faith, utility or suffering. Mycelium memories. So when this year I watched the Japanese knotweed shooting up on the wasteland next to my house, I thought it was time I did some translation work. A different sort of linguistics, simpler and at times more palatable.

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It is practically an urban myth that Japanese knotweed tastes rather like rhubarb. I often wonder what the garden arrangements were in the 19th century, when knotweed was first brought over as a decorative flower and sculptural plant. Now it’s illegal to dispose of it unless done appropriately: by fire. That’s a good way to deal with something that’s become wild by nothing but its own vigour.

I cut the stems from this patch of no man’s land and prepared them. If you want to try it then you really do need to peel the stems and remove any young leaf buds. You can’t gather the plant when it’s fully grown as it becomes woody. The younger stems have a thin skin which can be paired off with a knife.

The flesh below is green and rather cellulose. It takes a long time to prepare but once it’s cleaned of the tougher skin, you place it in a pot with just a dash of water and considerably less sugar than you might imagine, and allow it to cook down on a slow heat.

the resultant green sludge really is exceptionally flavoursome

While it cooks the odour is rather overpowering and not one that instils confidence, but don’t be disheartened. When the stems finally break down the resultant green sludge really is exceptionally flavoursome. It does indeed taste like rhubarb, having the same sharp acids found in rhubarb and sorrel.

But Japanese knotweed also carries with it more wholesome and somehow more fulfilling flavours. I assume it’s not become something used in commercial food preparation because of the complexities of preparing the stems. There are rumours of highly-prized knotweed being sold on markets in Japan. Perhaps in a cuisine more used to the knife skills of sushi it finds a happier home.

If you would like to suggest someone who I might enjoy meeting, please get in touch. They cannot be more virtual than the food of the collector.