Michele Roberts on the magic of mushrooms
Unbeatable mushrooms: I ate them in Bali, at the end of the hippie trail
My English grandmother, Nana, called mushrooms poor man's steak. During my childhood we rarely ate steak, because it was indeed so expensive. My French grandfather, the breadwinner and boss, was often given it for lunch, while we females made do with something cheaper, but when it was served to us as a treat I disliked steak, lump of flesh criss-crossed from the ridged grill with burnt stripes, raw and red and bleeding inside, a delicacy that made me gag. Whereas the shaggy black field mushrooms Nana cooked in butter and parsley, with a hint of garlic, and served on toast, released rich black juices in your mouth when you bit into them, melted tenderly on your tongue. I still think well-off people can keep their steaks. Nothing beats the pleasure of going out on a damp autumn day into the fields and woods to pick mushrooms, and then frying them over a picnic fire. How satisfying, too, that the French, not renowned for admiring English cuisine, celebrate Nana's recipe as champignons a l'anglaise.
When I lived in Italy in the mid-1980s, in the Veneto, my friend Tomaso would take me mushrooming in the mountains above Lavarone. I remember from those days a novel called Il barone rampante, about a nobleman who took to living in the trees. Tomaso was like that. Deep in the woods, he had a secret cave furnished with a table and chair, where he wrote poetry. He rummaged in badgers' setts and collected bear bones and poked into what he claimed were neolithic mounds, and would jump down on you, on mushrooming expeditions, from the tree he had climbed after running further ahead along the path. He taught me how to spot and avoid vipers and to sniff for truffles and find ceps, called fungi porcini. Back at his house he would cook these for supper. He did not trust women to cook. When he visited me in London he brought a suitcase-full of supplies. Antonio Carluccio had just opened his restaurant, with its wild-mushroom specialities, still unusual at that time. Tomaso was not impressed by the delicious mushroom ravioli, perhaps because we were given only four each.
In France, it is Yvette who is the great mushroom hunter. She turns up at my door on suitably wet November afternoons, armed with basket and stick: "Come on, off we go!" We drive into the forest and park in a clearing just off the Grande Randonnee. Yvette charges off towards the remote glades she has known for 50 years and I stumble along behind. Sometimes her brother comes too, and they compete to see who can find most chanterelles. Eyes to the ground, they inch and dart along.
You have got to beat all the others who think they know the best places. Behind every bush is a bottom sticking up. It's a serious business, hunting mushrooms. I'm a hopeless dilettante, too easily distracted by the golden light and dancing shadows, the bronze drifts of leaves, the extraordinary fairy tale-like red-and-white spotted toadstools, the joy of being out with my beloved friend. She loves triumphing over me. She mocks me: you've found none, whereas I've picked lots because I've got the eyes of a lynx. Her basket is loaded with ceps, chanterelles and trompettes de mort. Always so generous, but so just and exact too, she gives me a third of her trophies, then instructs me on the best method of cooking them. Don't overdo the flavourings. Go easy on the cream.
In Bali in 1973, at the end of the hippie trail, I ate magic mushrooms at a beachside cafe with a sister traveller. We ordered the special mushroom omelette, then headed for the seashore and settled down for an afternoon's bliss. Cosmic and mystical it was, too. I repeated the experiment with friends in the Lake District a few years later. We gathered the psilocybins on the lower slopes of the Old Man of Coniston, dried them in the airing cupboard of the cottage in which we were staying, popped them. Sunshine or pouring rain, mushrooms made us happy.
I finally met Antonio Carluccio on Woman's Hour. He cooked for the listeners and was charming, modest and funny. The portions were small but exquisite. As Nana said: a little bit of what you fancy does you good.