Friday, 13 December 2013


Common puff-ball (Lycoperdon perlatum). Edible when young. Spores puff out when mature
     A work colleague had died and a large number of people from the then Recreational Services section of the council were gathering to give our respects at Blakeley Crematorium. It was the usual conveyor belt, (death being a popular pastime) where everyone gathered outside, waiting their turn in one of the three chapels. It was cold and there were a lot of gloves and even a bobble hat on display. I feel there is a great potential for street entertainers and hot dog sellers to cash in on these occasions but, so far, I've never come across this. No one would have been surprised to hear a hollow clerical voice shout 'next', causing the queue to shuffle forward in anxious anticipation of the awaiting ritual. As was to be expected, the mood was somber - sympathy tinged with the inevitable 'but thank God it's not me' relief.

      Waiting there brought to mind that classic Dave Allen sketch where a funeral was taking place in some Irish village: apparently (according to Dave) it was believed that, if two people should be buried in a churchyard on the same day, only the first one would get to heaven. On this occasion, two funeral parties met, marching along the road to the graveyard. At first they simply try to walk faster, but this evolved to them trying to barge each other off the road as the race hotted up. A lot of things happened. One of the groups found an old pram and stuck the coffin on that, giving them greater speed potential. However, they relinquished their lead when they found it necessary to stop at a pub, leaving the coffin parked outside. They hadn't put the brake on and the pram started rolling downhill, eventually ending up in the duck pond. The other party in the meantime hitched a ride in a car, with the coffin on top. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the two parties eventually arrived at the graveyard at the same time, only to find that a funeral was already taking place. Maybe neither of them got to heaven then, or maybe (and this is more likely), they went back to the pub and animosity was forgotten - a bit like when there is a state occasion and the prime minister and opposition leader can be seen walking together in the dignitary procession, chatting amicably, and sharing their dismay at  their 11% pay rise.

      Hanging around in the cold led to me needing the toilet, so I wandered away from our group in search of relief. When I found it, my old mate Ron was already there and we wandered back a couple of minutes later, just as everyone was filing in.

      It was a big, modern chapel and, as I remember it, the pews were in a semi-circle facing the front. Ron and I found ourselves slap bang in the middle and the service was about to commence when I noticed something strange:

      "Hey, Ron", I whispered. "I don't know many of these people, do you?"

      Ron glanced around then gave a start as a group of heads filed past the window.

      "Bloody hell!", he said loudly. This seemed a bit inappropriate at a funeral I thought, but I didn't say anything because, like Ron, I'd recognised a bobble hat which was, er, bobbling past the window.

      "We're in the wrong sodding funeral", he informed me, rather unnecessarily.

      And so it was that my mate Ron and I donned sickly grins to accompany our apologies and probably became the first people in history to walk out of a funeral.
Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) edible when while still white
      While we're on about death, it's worth having a look at fungi. These are complex organisms which seem to be a form of plant but differ in that they are not green. This is important because the green in plants is due to the presence of chlorophyll, the substance which enables them to produce sugars to convert into energy for growth. The fungi haven't got this ability, so they've adapted to get the sugars from elsewhere.

      They do this in different ways and so we class them as saprophytic - those which feed on dead organisms and parasitic - the ones which feed off living hosts. The saprophytic ones can be seen as the gardener's friend, because they help break down dead material so that it goes back into the soil and enriches it with nutrients and fibrous structure. The parasitic types are often the enemy, feeding on living plants and weakening, spoiling their appearance, or even killing them - examples can be commonly seen in mildews, leaf spots and honey fungus.

      Mushrooms are a type of fungus we exploit as a foodstuff and the magic ones can send you on a trip. Unfortunately it is often difficult to tell the magic ones from similar poisonous species and a mistake could, at worst, lead to your trip being one-way. The field mushrooms we commonly use for eating are best picked in the early morning. I used to think this was simply a freshness issue but, on holiday in Northumbria, ignored this advice and picked a bumper crop in late afternoon. When it came to preparing them I found they were alive with maggots. Now, if I pick them wild, I make sure it is early in the day and that they are newly emerged. Reading up on this, I find that some people dry the mushrooms by hanging them with the flat head upwards and the maggots (and sometimes worms) fall out. Others simply cook them, maggots and all. Well, whatever turns you on.
Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). Edible
      Identifying fungi is difficult, partly because they are variable in appearance at different stages of growth and so pictures in books can be misleading. Honey fungus is edible but a species very similar in appearance is poisonous, so my advice is that if you're in doubt, give it a miss (or try it on someone you don't like). Some, like shaggy ink cap, are very distinctive and so can be eaten with confidence.

      The most deadly toadstool is the death-cap (Amanita phalloides) and this is closely related to the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the red one with white spots often seen with a fairy seated on it. Fly agaric grows prolifically in Siberia and the arctic and is a favourite food of reindeer. It is also consumed by arctic shamans and there is a theory that Santa and his flying reindeer originated with shaman and reindeer on a joint trip through the night sky. If so, this is a dream fortified by the imagination of millions of children who further fuel the shaman with mince pies.

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