If you go down to the woods this weekend
An Irishman’s Diary about mushrooms
Pointing out Bonnet fungi at the 2012 International Mushroom Festival. Photograph: Morgan Studios
In France at this time of year they have something called the Folie des Champignons: an annual outbreak of madness caused not so much by the consumption of mushrooms as by their harvesting.
Such is the frenzy of foraging around now that some privately owned French forest-estates have to hire security guards against unauthorised intruders, including professional traffickers. Violent clashes are not unknown.
Away from the front lines, meanwhile, in the food markets of Paris and elsewhere, the madness expresses itself in the milder form of mushroom prices. The better class of fungi can fetch well over €40 a kilo. And another symptom of the fever is that French chemists tend to keep a mycology expert on staff, to advise customers what is and isn’t edible.
There are no such problems in this country. Although ostensibly an agricultural people – close to the land, physically and spiritually – the latter-day Irish are not much given to foraging, even when they can do it legally.
Many of us still pick blackberries, which have the enduring attraction of never being poisonous. But, outside of the supermarket at least, mushrooms are regarded with suspicion. Despite being a free food source, they only highlight the extent to which most Irish people are at two with nature.
This is among the things that the International Mushroom Festival in Leitrim aims to change. Now in its third year, the event takes place this coming Saturday and Sunday at Killegar Estate, a 400-acre spread near Killeshandra, and as usual will include an educational element amid the fun.
Those attending should come away knowing more about the 300 or so varieties identified here. At the very least, they’ll have learned to recognise the main edible ones: including chanterelle, porcini, and “chicken of the woods” (so-called for its flavour, although some people think it tastes like an Oxo cube).
But the event is not all about education, nor indeed about mushrooms. As well as the fungus-flavoured cookery demonstrations and tastings, there will be a craft fair. And the ancient woodland that makes up about a third of the Killegar estate will also host “apothecary herb-walks”. So if you don’t achieve one-ness with nature during some of that, there’s no hope.
Environmental education will not be the weekend’s only beneficiary. The host venue is itself a good cause, and is also in need of some help. Described as “the last big house in Leitrim”, Killegar has been a threatened species for several decades, a situation only exacerbated by a serious fire in 1970.
Since then, it has been a struggle to keep the place alive: a campaign that has now fallen to the house’s latest minder, Lady Kilbracken, or Sue as she’s known to friends. Australia-born, she inherited both the title and the cause from her former husband John Godley, aka Lord Kilbracken. And it was her idea to hold a mushroom festival, all proceeds from which go to the Save Killegar Campaign.
John Godley died in 2006, after a long and extraordinarily eventful life. A decorated naval pilot who regularly risked death flying old-fashioned and unreliable “torpedo planes”, he brought some of the same recklessness to a post-war career in journalism: most notably when gatecrashing the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Russian revolution by impersonating a peasant and in the process securing an exclusive interview with Krushchev.
This was all the more daring because he was a House of Lords peer at the time, albeit a Labour-affiliated one. He had also by then inherited what remained of Killegar, the ancestral pile his father tried and failed to sell. And after taking up residence there during parliamentary recesses, the new owner was to become a very good friend of Ireland.
A particular focus of his Leitrim farming activities was rebuilding the estate’s livestock herd, which at the time of his inheritance had shrunk to one elderly cow. Thus proceeds from the 1957 Krushchev interview went into buying more cows. So did the 100 guineas he earned chaperoning Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield around London, and the similar fee for writing a newspaper account of the experience.
Mansfield was famously big-busted. And it may therefore have been in questionable taste when Kilbracken later named the most productive member of his herd “Jayne”. Even so, the very fact that he had such a cow was a measure of his commitment to Killegar House. Which, incidentally, was built exactly 200 years ago, in 1813, and may yet survive a third century, partly thanks to mushrooms.