I have found myself “head travelling” in recent months. The long winter nights require good food to keep warm and focussed, if one is to avoid cranial hibernation. Hence for me wintertime is “kitchen time”.
My “head travelling” usually commences when I’m chopping vegetables or making pies. It starts with a random thought usually attached to food. Tonight it was the pile of mushrooms. And no, this isn’t going to be psychadelic rambling brought on by the magic variety.
As I made fish pie, I was suddenly in Lomonosov, a small town on the Gulf of Finland, around 20 miles from St. Petersburg. I had taken an amazing trip by train with a friend to the Oranienbaum Palace. It was late summer, so we knew that we had a wonderfully long day to enjoy the train ride and the amble around the Palace. It was 1996 so the town was still largely unused to foreigners wandering through its streets.
We had arrived on some kind of market day, and the streets seemed to be lined with a gaggle of grandmas brandishing baskets of every shape and size. Most of the baskets were empty, but as we got closer to the Palace, I noticed many of the old ladies were selling mushrooms.
Mushroom gathering in Russia borders on a national sport in the summer. When you eat at the weekend dacha you eat the fruit of the day’s mushroom hunt and much discussion ensues over them, assisted by quantities of vodka. Russians seem to have mushroom identification in their DNA. They are the human version of truffle dogs, and can be seen stampeding towards a tree or undergrowth in pursuit of the perfect fungi when lesser mortals can only see grass or piles of dead branches. It borders on a mystical gifting.
This evening my mushrooms came from the local farmers market and were grown by a Chinese market gardener. But the romance of that day in Russia is never far off. My souvenir of Lomonosov is a small mushroom basket that sits in the bedroom, a modest little object reclining in a corner, no doubt also dreaming of a Russian forest far, far away.