*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*
Growing up my mother made her own vinegar. We had a large ceramic jar in the kitchen with a big blue handpainted flower on it, and a wide cork stopper that, at the time, was as large as my two hands.
My mother would pour wine into the jar and it would turn into vinegar, as if by magic. One day, when I asked her, she explained that inside the jar was a kind of mushroom, a “mère” which turned the wine into vinegar.
I thought about this a lot over the next few days. As most of you will know, mère is French for mother, and so I was exceedingly curious about what a mushroom’s mother looked like, whether it was making babies inside the jar, and if so, how did they get out, and how did they find the countryside and forests to plant themselves in? I had seen Fantasia with its dancing mushrooms, and the Maman Champignon and her little ones, trapped inside the vinegar jar, seemed to me like they would be similarly sentient. I wanted to see them for myself, and maybe liberate them. It had to be horrid in the jar, dark and smelling of vinegar.
I’d had recently received a head torch, and I had been patiently waiting for the opportunity to explore a cave, or go on a night time adventure. Investigating a Maman Champignon seemed a very good reason to to take the head torch on its first outing. I stayed up reading my Famous Five book under the duvet (with my head torch), and waited for my parents to go to bed. Such was my curiosity about the Maman Champignon that I was willing to walk past the Dark to go see it.
I put on my slippers, and crept downstairs. As expected, the Dark let me pass easy, but I already knew that going back up would be much worse than normal because I couldn’t put the hallway light on: this was an illicit night time rescue mission, and discretion was key.
When I reached the kitchen, I pulled a chair up to the counter and climbed up. I pried open the jar’s lid and looked inside.
Far from the colony of baby mushrooms I expected, watched over by a benevolent Maman Champignon, I only saw dark red liquid that reflected the beam of my torch. I pushed the jar to tilt it a little — it was heavy. Still, I didn’t see anything. I tilted it further. Nothing.
I tilted it further, and the jar slipped from my hands, falling to the floor with an almighty crash.
Lights came on, my parents ran downstairs.
I burst into tears. “I wanted to free the Maman Champignon and her babies! I’m so sorry!”
“Well look, there it is, there’s the mère” said my mother, pointing at what looked like a red, slimy sheet of jelly on the floor among the broken ceramic and spilt vinegar.
“Oh. That’s it?”
It was as far from the dancing Disney version as you can imagine.
The Maman Champignon (or mère de vinaigre, to use its proper name) is in fact a bacteria that interacts with wine, turning it into vinegar. It isn’t even a mushroom. It was believed to be a mushroom until Pasteur discovered bacteria, although it is still widely referred to as a mushroom. It most certainly doesn’t make mushroom babies, nor does it release them into the wild.