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Shhh, the trees have ears…

Outdoor Living

AURAL PLEASURE Jew’s ears mushrooms give a lovely consistency to soups and stews.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

I gave James a nudge and gestured toward the skeletal remains of a storm-damaged elder tree. ‘Look, Jew’s ears.’
We examined a broken branch and the line of brown, jelly-like, fungal growths that decorated the wood. They were wet to the touch and surprisingly rubbery.
‘Jew’s ears ... Why are they called that?’
‘Well,’ I explained, ‘popular legend has it that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from the branch of an elder, and as you know well, these trees are among the most brittle of all. The tree split down the middle and he plunged to his death on the rocks below. Whether that’s so or not I couldn’t tell you, but the scientific name for this kind of mushroom is Auricularia auricula-judae, which can be translated as the ear of Judas.’
‘I saw them before,’ said James, ‘but that’s a new one to me.’
‘We call them dead man’s ear, too. Never mind that. The best thing is they are good to eat. They even sell them in the shops, dried out. They look like little black crisps, but as soon as you make them wet they swell back to their original size. They don’t taste of anything much, but they do give a lovely consistency to soups and stews. Come on, give me a hand here.’
We got busy with pocket knives, cutting the fungus along the wood and heaping them into a plastic bag, where they made an ugly, brown, gelatinous mass. There are, I think, a few varieties of ear mushrooms and not one of them, as far as I know, is poisonous.  
We were looking specifically for winter mushrooms, which are few and far between. A good double handful of Jew’s ears would make the trip worthwhile, even if the wood blewits we had expected to find were nowhere to be seen. Shortly before dusk we discovered an ancient stump in the shadow of a high bank, that held half a square yard of velvet shank, an uncommon species here but one that is highly esteemed in lands of northern and eastern Europe.
The velvet shank (so named on account of the velvety texture of the stipe, or stem) was perhaps the first mushroom in space. In 1993 a lump of wood infected with mycelium was flown on the space shuttle Columbia. The scientists responsible for this experiment must have been fascinated to observe that in the absence of gravity, the mushrooms grew at diverse angles, rather than vertically as nature would normally dictate. No doubt the knowledge gained has been put to good use, as indeed our small harvest of velvet shanks would be.
Foraging for mushrooms is a fascinating business. I cannot refute James’s opinion, though, when he later said ‘Some taste of salt and some taste of pepper. It depends what you put on them.’
My Jew’s ears have been desiccated and put into storage, along with various other harvests, most of which will probably never be used. Honestly, we hardly know we are born in this part of the world.
Last night there was another storm, with winds sweeping down from distant hills to whip Carra’s waves to froth. This morning we found a boat rapping at the rocky shore. It is white, and missing from somewhere on the other side of the lake. We tried to haul it to the safety of a sandy cove where it can wait quietly to be recovered. When the water is quiet we shall succeed.
Whooper swans continue to gather each evening, mostly in the sheltered inlets around Cloondaver. Each morning they disperse before we can get out to count them, and today I found almost a hundred feeding in a newly flooded field close to Balla, where they appeared only too settled. What we want to see is a certain edginess about them, a nervousness that has them moving uneasily as soon as we appear, which tells us they are thinking of heading home, far to the north and west.
As the swans think of moving off we prepare to welcome our summer visitors. I recently came across a fascinating book, ‘Studies in Bird Migration’, written by William Eagle Clarke and first published just over a century ago, in 1912. Clarke noted the occasional February arrival of species familiar to us, including the wheatear, chiff-chaff and blackcap, and even sand martens and swallows! He also mentions these exceptionally early migrations are driven by fine weather in the lands where these birds winter.
Guess what? The south of Europe and North Africa have enjoyed plenty of warm sunshine. And who can deny that our own winter has been an exceptionally mild one? That would account for the paucity of seasonal fungi. We will have our summer birds back before we know it – and with all this rain, conditions might be just right for a good crop of common morel, another much-sought-after mushroom.