The joy of foraging (and selective genetic memory)

“Now westlin winds and slaught'ring guns/Bring Autumn's pleasant weather.” Nearly 250 years have elapsed since Robert Burns wrote that lovely song. (A fine rendering here). Where we are, it still sings true.


This year, an August drought that lingered well into September finally gave way to several days of torrential rain, known here as a gallego: not entirely pleasant Galician weather from the Atlantic coast. But there followed mild days of mountain mist and drizzle, with warm sun intermittently breaking through. Upland meadows that had paled to scrubby yellow became green again and put out flocks of autumn crocuses. And then, late, but profuse, mushrooms.


The joy of foraging, parasol mushrooms

Parasols (Macrolepiota procera) posing as cheeky cartoon characters

We don’t disturb the intricate world of woodland fungi. We don’t know enough. (Indeed, as a species, we seem to know more about Mars than mycelium). But there are basketsful of field mushrooms to gather, including dozens of astonishing parasols, which in the space of a week develop fleshy crowns eight inches in diameter.

Every walk we take we cram our pockets with the sweet chestnuts that litter the woods and byways. Down in the valley I find a young walnut tree with modest offerings that promise more for years to come. Our own wild pear tree carpets the grass with golden windfalls: too small and too many to do much with, but we use some of the best as a base for a few kilos of spicy chutney. We’ll have to look out for a cider press next year.

Summer also provided rich pickings: bilberries in the beechwoods, tiny but more flavourful than their cultivated cousins; a sprinkling of miniature wild strawberries by the track up the mountainside, each one a small explosion of strawberry taste without sugar; the masses of blackberries everywhere that foretell the summer’s end and awaken the seasonal urge to gather and store.

It’s hard to account for the immense pleasure this foraging affords. We are not so poor that a few euros worth of food for free makes much difference to us; nor, I think, so ‘foodie’ as to labour for hours, enduring the scratch of brambles, the tedium of peeling boiled chestnuts and paring wild pears, for the sake of flavour alone. It is, to be sure, gratifying to prepare a few meals without all the vile packaging of the commercial food chain. But I think the joy of foraging goes deeper: more like elemental glee at natural abundance; perhaps even the stirring of genetic memory passed down from hunter-gatherer ancestors. Either way, it feels good to be alive.

Slaughtering guns

We are not alone in fungal foraging. At night, wild boar emerge from the woods to rip up patches of rain softened pasture in search of grubs and mushroomy treats to supplement the autumn feast of acorns and beech nuts.

I have never yet seen a boar in the wild. Some nights I’ve crept out and heard them snuffling about in our field, but they are fleet of foot and shy; understandably so, since soon enough they will attract the slaughtering guns. I’ve seen corpses piled on a trailer in the village square on November afternoons as groups of local men warm themselves with shots of orujo, having gathered with their dogs at dawn and descended upon the encircled prey over huge areas.

I don’t know what to make of this, beyond the fact that I’ve never felt the remotest desire to hunt or kill anything. There’s evidently something missing in my genetic memory, or else the whole notion is just so much tosh. But at least our hunters are not city bankers, getting back in touch with nature by shooting it. And they no longer seem to bother so much with shooting birds.

Boar are prolific breeders and, like the deer that come to drink from our spring and strip bark from the saplings in our failing orchard, they no longer have non-human predators in our area. Wolves still range in the higher sierras to the west, and occasionally venture this far, but seem mostly to settle for snacking on sheep or goats. Without hunters, boar populations would explode.

Their snouting and rooting opens up many niches for other fauna and flora, which would be fine in a wild wonderland, but this is managed land, dotted with stone barns in pastures cleared from broadleaf forest centuries ago, and the farmers do not welcome the bracken, gorse and brambles that seize the opportunities opened up by the boar. So the slaughter serves some purpose other than pleasing those whose genes remember the killing part.

The hill farming population is in steep decline, squeezed by large scale operations in the broad valleys, which attract the biggest subsidies. Youngsters drift away to whatever livelihood they can find as an alternative to scything hay on the steep slopes and gullies, mucking out barns with a shovel, wheelbarrowing the manure across the pasture and then spreading it with a rake.

The remaining ganaderos, without the labour pool of large, hungry families, now routinely spray their boundaries with herbicides to fend off recolonising vegetation. But this is hard land to keep domesticated, for a marginal return. Stone walls have collapsed in the tangle of bramble, the higher barns are tumbling down, bracken, gorse and willow are rampant. Perhaps one day the wolves will be allowed back. If not deemed a threat to the tourism on which the village businesses thrive.

Ah well. Perhaps the loveliest thing about Burns’ song is how it finally turns—or should I say "pivots” in deference to the fatuous fashion of the age?—from lament to love. We have to make do, and find what joy we can, in an imperfect world.