wood blewits: the most beautiful mushroom of all

wood blewits (clitocybe nuda/lepista nuda)
Is there anything more fairy tale than a wood blewit mushroom? I don't think so. With their lilac-blue stems and pinkish violet-coloured flattish caps they are the stuff of fantasy. Also charmingly known as pied bleu in French (blue feet), they grow in leaf litter under deciduous trees in Britain's woodland. I'd love to tell you that I foraged for them myself. But the more prosaic answer is that I bought them in Borough Market, from one of several fabulous stalls that sell wild mushrooms.

Wood blewits are probably my favourite of all the mushrooms, because they also taste fantastic, with a really good strong texture; although a word of caution, since wood blewits must be cooked through as they are not edible raw and can cause an upset stomach. Some people are sensitive to them cooked, but thankfully not me!

My love of mushrooms has been as much led by the way they were portrayed and illustrated in the books of my childhood, as much as their glorious taste and flavour. From the cheerfulness of Milly Molly Mandy's early morning mushroom picking adventure with Little Friend Susan (gagh . . . I loathed the prose, but adored the illustrations - actually I just wanted her treehouse!) to the somewhat disturbing image of the caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe ensconced on a large mushroom (or was it a toadstool?) in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I was both fascinated and intrigued.

The Caterpillar - Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel (Wiki Commons)
This all may well have been because as a child growing up in Malaysia, an English countryside felt like something of a distant memory. It could have also have been that my school's library was full of English story books that dated back to the 1920s, with bold woodcut illustrations and watercolour tints. It certainly wasn't a case of the grass being greener, because frankly there was nothing as lush as the Malaysian countryside, or even our own back garden, I just don't remember eating any local mushrooms. There were Chinese straw mushrooms of course. But I wasn't terribly keen on them as they didn't taste of much and were a bit slimy. But my little brother loved them and I liked the name, so I ate them.

a single wood blewit
But mushrooms will always have a fairy tale connotation for me, of the world unseen, that we just didn't experience in Malaysia, despite several amahs' attempts to scare us witless with tales of the vengeful ghosts of betrayed women and unborn children, maligned and mischievous spirits and even the ghosts of slaughtered WW2 Japanese soldiers.

Even as a child I could draw the line between the folklore of Malaysia and the folklore of Britain. To some extent, Malaysia's folklore was much more immediate ... a present danger. (We children would close our bedroom windows at night in case the
Pontianak got in . . . wind up the car windows as we drove past a local graveyard . . . never, ever declare "I don't believe in ghosts" three times at midnight . . . recite a prayer when we heard an owl hoot at dusk . . . for protection you understand. Much, I imagine, to the amusement of any adults. But still, you couldn't be too careful . . .)

This probably sounds a bit odd, but somehow, British folklore felt more magical. Possibly because it was at a distance. But it felt different in the way that you see a film compared to the way you see a CGI animation. Malaysia was real. Britain not quite real.

Of course I loved to read fairy tales. In fact, I still do. But my favourite memories are sitting curled up with my storytelling father, Henry, listening to his beautiful voice as he read aloud. Henry also had long-playing records (come on,
was in the 1970s) and the accompanying texts of famous plays. It is how I learned to read and why I probably still enjoy listening to the spoken word so much. This was a form of magic too.

It is also hard to tell you which one was my favourite. Even now when I listen to Under Milk Wood, I can feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck. To this day, my favourite Shakespearean play has to be The Tempest, a glorious play about magic, poetry and song, if ever there was. But the play that awakened some fascination with mushrooms was actually A Midsummer Night's Dream - not because of the text but because my father managed to conjure up a copy of the play that had been illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Rackham's fantastical and twisted illustrations are mesmerising.

Arthur Rackham's Fairy Ring from A Midsummer's Night Dream
"We had a fairy ring at school."
"Did you, darling?"
"Yes, but you can't go there; it's dangerous. It's where the fairies dance at night. You're not allowed to step into it, you know."
"Did you step into it, darling?"
"No, Silly. Although we did dance around it. Until Miss Brown caught us and made us stop. And then the next week it was gone. The Lawnmower Man cut it all away."
"Well, perhaps it will grow back."
"But we came to Malaysia, so I don't know. But I'd have liked to have seen some fairies."
"Perhaps one day you will."
"Per'aps," I said sadly.
While I still love mushrooms as much as ever, I have never seen fairies dancing in a fairy ring. But maybe one day . . . Of course, I still have cooking up a batch of wood blewits to look forward to!

1 comment:

Bintu @ Recipes From A Pantry said...

Some of those folklore are true in Sierra Leone too. Especially the owl one.