PETER FROST discovered a little known aspect of the British Countryside in London 30 years ago.
Come back with me thirty years. The cold war is still going strong not least because the Iron Lady – Mrs Thatcher – is flexing her muscles in her new job at number 10.
I’m working with the Soviet News Agency Novosti Press in Kensington and making friends with some of the Soviet journalists posted to work in London.
One such journalist was Andrei and he and I shared a common interest in nature and the countryside, Oh yes, and beer. Although it has to be said that we didn’t exactly see eye to eye on all aspects of nature study.
I got my pleasure from looking at flora and fauna, my weapons were binoculars and camera.
Andrei on the other hand was definitely the hunting, shooting and fishing type. Indeed his London posting was to write about field sports in Britain for the Russian county magazines and newspapers and, most importantly to facilitate visits to the Soviet Union for writers from journals like Shooting Times, The Field, Country Life and the many angling papers.
Hunting and fishing by well heeled visitors from the west was an important hard currency earner for the Soviet Union. It is still important to the Russian balance of payments today.
Our difference of opinion didn’t stop us becoming great mates and didn’t stop us exploring some interesting aspects of the countryside round London together.
We would enjoy walks along the canals and rivers, through woods and commons. After those walks I taught Andrei the delights of real ale. Another disagreement; he drank Theakstone’s Old Peculiar, I hated it.
We were limited by where we could go by Mrs Thatcher’s limit on how far Soviet citizens could journey from London without a special permit.
That didn’t stop us arranging one day to venture to Epping Forest in search of deer and some other interesting natural sights.
I said I would pick Andrei up early and arrived at his rather posh embassy flat in Kensington at a bit before seven in the morning.
His wife Anya let me in rather flustered, her English lagged far behind Andrei’s almost perfect mastery of the language.
Rather haltingly she explained that Andrei was already out. He would be back about seven. Curious I asked; Where he was? What was he doing? Her answer nearly put me in cardiac arrest.
In halting but actually perfect English she explained “Andrei is hunting small foxes in Kensington Gardens”.
I could see the headlines. ‘Soviet agent caught with gun in Lady Diana’s back garden.’ It wasn’t something I dared think about.
I didn’t have long to wait and worry. Spot on seven I heard Andrei’s key in the lock. In he strode with a huge smile on his face and a massive flat basket full to overflowing with all sorts of edible fungi.
“What’s wrong with you English?” he demanded. “Your Royal Parks are full of delicious edible mushrooms including the best tasting of all, what we Russians call ‘Little Foxes’ yet no one gets out to pick them. I had the harvest to myself.
“In the Lenin Hills round Moscow at this time of year there are thousands out every morning just picking the fungi.”
I don’t remember much about our day in Epping Forest but when we got back to the flat Anya had been busy. With needle and cotton she had threaded the harvest onto strings that hung all over the flat like early Christmas decorations. The dried treasure would be a key ingredient in their cooking for months to come.
We still mostly ignore out free natural harvest of wild mushrooms here in Britain. A few of us go on courses or organised fungi forays. I eat puffballs, shaggy caps and horse mushrooms – the few species I can recognise with certainty.
Harrod’s food hall and places like Borough Market sell all kind of exotic wild fungi and most of them are harvested by Russians, Poles and other central Europeans living around London and understanding the money to be made hunting the delicious Little Foxes we locals ignore.
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012