Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wild mushrooms

Jumbie parasols, my mother called them. They would spring up overnight, pale and delicate and otherworldly, in a clump of dewy grass; on the pile of horse manure, on a piece of rotted tree stump. I imagined them providing shade for ethereal fairy folk. By the time we had gone to school and come back later in the day, the little umbrellas would be gone. On the occasion when we dared to pick them - don't touch them, they are poisonous! - they would wither in our warm hands.

When we learned their similarity with the big black mushrooms used in Chinese cooking, or the firm white buttons, or the canned ones we called eyeballs, curiosity teased us to try to eat these morning blooms. Could we fry them in butter? Would they have the effect of magic mushrooms?

The temptation to taste is great in human beings. Babies put everything in their mouths. Tender taste buds are so sensitive - seeking not just the obvious, sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but the subtle and infinite interplay of flavours and aromas like sensory notes on a scale. My infant son sucked on a canister of unexposed film before his lips swelled up like he'd kissed a jepp nest, before he would stop. Nope, son, it's not a good idea to put everything in your mouth. Experience some things with sight and smell and touch.

But wild mushrooms are especially intriguing. How do harvesters know which ones are good to eat - and the range of delicate, meaty, musty, chewy, saucer-sized fungi is wonderfully vast and varied? How did they first discover which ones would nourish, and which ones would kill?

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