Tuesday 27 December 2011: The oyster is my world
Another dull, mild day saw me taking the dog for an unadventurous stroll in the shallow valley between Fishguard and its twin town, Goodwick. Negotiating the network of footpaths across a patchwork of paddocks and tangled marshy copses, I stopped to greet a friendly horse when my eye was caught by the pale shattered wood of a fallen tree in the next field. Rotten timber is always worth investigating but I never expected what I found: a dead ash tree sprouting oyster mushrooms from every crack and crevice. Bouquets of fungi the size of hands or ears to clusters of the tiniest buds, caps pewter grey above with creamy gills beneath. I picked 6lbs in minutes and left at least as many for another time.
The excitement that such fungal bounty brings to the mushroom hunter is hard to convey and with a Russian father, the passion for gathering them seems lodged in my very genes. I can't do better than commandeer the words of a fellow Slav, Vladimir Nabokov, whose verbal wizardry matched his mycophilia. Here he writes of his mother's shrooming expeditions on the family estate, typical of the obsession that has driven all Russians, from prince to peasant, politician to poet.
"On overcast afternoons, all alone in the drizzle, my mother, carrying a basket (stained blue on the inside by somebody's whortleberries), would set out on a long collecting tour. Toward dinnertime, she could be seen emerging from the nebulous depths of a park alley, her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her. As she came nearer from under the dripping trees and caught sight of me, her face would show an odd, cheerless expression, which might have spelled poor luck, but which I knew was the tense, jealously contained beatitude of the successful hunter. Just before reaching me, with an abrupt, drooping movement of the arm and shoulder and a "Pouf!" of magnified exhaustion, she would let her basket sag, in order to stress its weight, its fabulous fullness.
Near a white garden bench, on a round garden table of iron, she would lay out her [finds] in concentric circles to count and sort them. Old ones, with spongy, dingy flesh, would be eliminated, leaving the young and the crisp. For a moment, before they were bundled away by a servant to a place she knew nothing about, to a doom that did not interest her, she would stand there admiring them, in a glow of quiet contentment. As often happened at the end of a rainy day, the sun might cast a lurid gleam just before setting, and there, on the damp round table, her mushrooms would lie, very colorful, some bearing traces of extraneous vegetation-a grass blade sticking to a viscid fawn cap, or moss still clothing the bulbous base of a dark-stippled stem. And a tiny looper caterpillar would be there, too, measuring, like a child's finger and thumb, the rim of the table, and every now and then stretching upward to grope, in vain, for the shrub from which it had been dislodged."