Sunday, November 13, 2011

Of saints, summers and soldiers

The day after Remembrance Day, Saturday 12th November, we had lunch on the terrace. It was over 20ºC, brightly sunny, no wind. Perhaps it will be seen as the high point of St Martin's Little Summer, the days before had been bright, the days to come are promised to be sunny and dry. A vast skein of geese, perhaps the last, had noisily flown overhead, general direction North Africa, probably Morocco. French commercial radio was vaunting the attractions of the new foie gras, without specifying whether goose or duck. Oddly, there seemed to be no forwarning of Beaujolais Noveau, usually launched on the third Thursday of November.
And the locals were right: these last few sunny days produced a vast harvest of different kinds of fungi. There were the usual '40 kg of cepes in a hour' stories and even the lady who helps with my house came with photos of a mushroom (penny bun, of course) that she had found, it weighed 1.5 kg and was 20 cm across. But she did admit that most of it was inedible.
Our fields were polka dotted with field mushrooms and puff balls – the latter known more imaginatively as 'wolves' farts' in French, presumably because of the malodourous cloudlet that is released as children stamp on them. So even I succumbed and went mushroom picking. But, self restrained, I only managed 3 kg of the simple rosée des près, the standard 'mushroom' sometimes also known as the champignon de paris. In the latter case it probably grew in a cellar and never knew grass. One thing I have come to rely on over the years, and it is a useful safety guideline: fungi always come back in more or less the same place, if not always in the same quantity. If they are not in the same place, but look the same – be very, very careful. I collected a basket load of 'mushrooms' from a hitherto virgin patch of grassland, assuming that the spores had spread. Handling them at home, I noticed they went slightly yellow; on checking with my mushroom bible I discovered they were indeed the vomit inducing version of agarics.
As often in prolific fungi years, the witches' circle becomes more obvious. This year I observed that the mushrooms that were under the walnut trees circled around the tree, probably at just that point where its horizontal roots ended, certainly it was at the limit of the tree's branches. There is one edible toadstool which always comes up in the same place in good fungi years which – I think – is the shaggy ink cap. As it rises from the ground, in a semi-circle round a scrawny, possibly dying, walnut tree, it looks like a child's drawing of a phallic symbol. Then it opens flat and looks just like one of those hairy parasols set around a decaying seaside cafe. I am told it is edible but will leave it to others to try.
Remembrance Day, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, is the official feast day of St Martin who brings us this brief autumn summer now Americanised as 'Indian' summer. St Martin was a soldier in the Roman army in the early 300's who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar outside the town of Amiens. He eventually became Bishop of Tours – against his will, apparently, he was kidnapped from his hermitage and forcibly enthroned. Tours is a town reknowned for its fine wines, fine wood and excellent spoken French. Legend has it that St Martin encouraged the creation of vineyards. It may not be very religious but the symbols most often associated with him are the goose – a roast goose is eaten in his honour – a horse and sword as reminder of his military days. St Martin's day (or days) also marked the formal end of the medieval agricultural year. Livestock that could not be over wintered was slaughtered and conserved for the lean days ahead. I wonder whether St Martin was in the minds of those who settled the 'war to end all wars' on his feast day

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