EAT WILD - EATEN BY NATURE - THE ATTACK OF THE GIANT SCANDINAVIAN WOOD WASPS
The giant Scandinavian wood wasp (Uroceras gigas) is a formidable insect nearly 3 inches long. It has a large yellow and black striped body and a horny ‘tail’ or ovipositor which it uses to lay its eggs - usually under tree bark where its grubs hatch out and make tunnels in the wood to grow and pupate. Usually, is the key word of warning here...
High pressure over Scandinavia was blocking the usual wet British summer weather from penetrating anywhere near the east or west coasts of Norway and Sweden and all that lay in between. It was hot. Norwegian skiers in bobble hats were still up on the high mountain glaciers but also enjoying baskets of warm ripe cherries when they returned to sea level at the Hardangerfjorden ferry queues. The entire visible population of Scandinavia looked honey-brown and ash blonde. It was like driving around in a weird advert for the elixir of life in the land of everlasting youth or a Nordic version of ‘The Truman Show’. In Sweden these smiling clusters were to be spotted very sparsely spread across a massive landscape of pine and spruce. A remorselessly dark drape of drab roadside trees was punctuated by delightfully landscaped pull-ins with wood fired cooking pits for roadside picnics. This was much appreciated, totally laid back, Scandinavian hygge. These little nooks of human enjoyment in these woodsmoke and pine scented ‘motorway service areas’ were nothing like the equivalent then on offer in the UK. In fact nothing like it is still not on offer in the UK.
There were other extremes too. There were the meetings with stocky pale old farmers and plumpish old farmers’ wives overjoyed to meet another human being deep in deep, dark woodlands, home to more brown bears than people. The act of pulling into a remote farm yard, to seek friendly permission to drill, generated frantic culinary activity in the dark interiors of dark log houses and the joyful spreading of a smörgåsbord of rye breads, cheeses, smoked fish and all the accoutrements of a forest-picked feast; lingonberry jam, pickled wild mushrooms, moose sausage, plus coffee, fruit spirits and talk, talk, talk. The excited jabbering of couples in permanent lockdown with the desperation of needing to hear the sounds and words of others. Outside, the grumbling echoes of big bears with new cubs, both near and far varieties, made stories of trolls more credible to the credulous.
My driving was as erratic as the orphaned glacial boulders and scoured valleys through the exhilarating mountains and fjords south east of Bergen and Voss (see ‘Eat Wild -Cherries - the noisiest fruit’ blog) to Moss, on the smelly south side of Oslo. Thence to the Wallander flatlands of Skåne and Lund University. This was followed by a 50 mph white knuckle buzz in a madly vibrating Land Rover through the Swedish forest on the near empty motorway to Jönköping (via a whole wall of other köpings to Stockholm) and came to a stopover at Uppsala. Here we met up with some of Charlotte’s fellow academics at the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU - Sveriges Geologiska Undersökning) and stayed at a beautiful lakeside house. While Charlotte went off to talk geophysics with SGU chums I was given all the freedom that an old wooden rowing boat and the Kungshamn lake Nature Reserve could provide.
It was hot and serene on the reed fringed lily padded waters and time passed like the hours of midsummer sunlight, pleasantly slowly and seemingly without end, just variants of differential glow. The light bounced off the rippling waters that, if I had wanted, could have taken me on a lazy drift all the way to Stockholm on a squiggle of interconnected waterways. The reeds seemed to move with the unseen animation of an underwater thatcher at work combing and sorting the individual strands into a shape that satisfied all its inhabitants both above and below the meniscus. The happy blue of the sky smeared its portrait on the water and the ruffling zephyrs made it laugh in the manner of a palette knife on oil paint. There was a glow and a hum of life from all aspects of this mere, seemingly unpopulated by other humans but alive with peak summer activity of natural fecundity and feasting. The sifting breeze and strong sunlight kept the UV-shy mosquitoes ahome in the shadows where they watched like curtain twitchers for any change in the weather to rush out to the vampiric pubs and bars to suck blood cocktails through straws.
In the unshaded sweaty midday heat I decided to swim, so stripped and lowered into the cooler waters off the side of the skiff. There was that warm smell of lake. I sniffed like a returnee salmon at the basal ooze kicked upwards by my feet, the crinkled smell of decaying reeds, the ichthyic odour of a belly up perch awaiting scavenger consumption and I thought of psychopathic pike eyeing me upwards from below and measuring my edibility. It was soon time to lever out of the liquid cool, drift somewhere else in the random breeze and naked, with clothes for a pillow, lie drying over the wooden thwarts.
It was all too dreamlike and my eyes closed against the sun. I think I know the reason why I opened them suddenly. There was a giant wasp on my outstretched hand, once casually placed against the wooden oar and rowlock for optimal boat balanced sleep symmetry. It’s body was arched and from its abdomen tip an attached needle, like a giant stinger, was slowly being withdrawn from the flesh of my index finger. Dreams turned to nightmare. I flicked, it flew.
In truth, apart from the surge of shock, there was no pain, no acid sting, no burning arc-welders torch of flaming toxic distress. A small disturbance in the finger, nothing more, the size of a pin head. A short rowed return to the lakeside manse to explain to others the forensic order of events and to seek the name of the beast from natives of these parts. Lars from SGU, a man of great outdoors experiences, offered a view over a beer that it was the giant wasp but not really a wasp and not to worry because they only stuck their ovipositor into trees. He was a bearded expert, a veteran of a week surveying in Lapland becalmed in a log cabin whilst outside a billion trillion mosquitoes raged in a black cloud. There was no midsummer arctic night but only that of the darkness of zizzing malevolence that obscured the windows and required every crevice to be stuffed with rags to keep the suffocating horde at bay. Saved by a cold wind from the north. He was salving and assuring that no harm was due from my insignificant watery insect encounter. It sounded trite against the tales of desperately hanging scant remaining expeditor food supplies in sacks from pine trees and battling with packs of starving marauding wolverines for the last tin of spam...oh, and another thing.
A day later we hit the road heading back to the Norway-Sweden border in search of a special tillite, the brick hard geological memory of an Ordovician ice age, when all land was one giant super continent. We just needed to find out where it was; both then and now. Thoughts of Gondwanaland merged with thoughts of Gonzo when the Land Rover started to behave like a muppet and failed to engage with any gear above second. As we slowed to a virtual stop in first gear in the outskirts of Røros we rounded a corner amongst the beautifully red, wooden mining houses and saw a magic sign, in English, not seen since nor ever again - ‘Land Rover service’. The improbability of this being here, and at the moment of our maximum need, and being open, and with a helpful mechanic was within the realms of possibility but only just. Jacked up, jacked down, he waved a finger at us. ‘Dry box - you have no fluids in your clutch box - I have filled it’. He handed us the rest of the carton wryly and, as we imagined, chalked down ‘dry box’ against the Newcastle University, Department of Geophysics on his mechanics' walk of shame amidst the wet T-shirt’s and thrusting pudenda of fading Pirelli calendars and greasy smears.
Humbled but happy we headed deeper into the hills. Charlotte consulted her geological maps and the road atlas and we finally turned onto a gravel track that looked like any other of a thousand gravel tracks leading into dark Nordic woodland. My finger had by now begun to swell and redden into a small volcano centred on that pinheaded waspy prickspot. It still didn’t hurt as I unloaded the drill gear, set up and tested the motor for fuel, checked the geological map for drilling location, and packed the sample bags, clinometer, compass and indelible marker pens. The drill exposure was a ten minute walk away downslope from the track but we could have been in the lost world of Arthur Conan Doyle. Charlotte indicated where she wanted the drill points taken and set off back to the vehicle with the maps to plot our next day’s drilling. I drilled.
After the cherries incident (see ‘Eat Wild- cherries - the noisiest fruit’ blog) and in repacking the still hot drill tip I touched the tip of my index finger flesh volcano against its cauterising heat. There was a small eruption and some hot puss came out which was blokishly wiped away.
Despite the threat of more thunderstorms it had been decided to drive to meet up with Lars and the SGU crew again to sleep under the stars (or under the vehicles) that night and eat moose cooked on an open fire in a handy roadside fire pit. Not a whole moose. We still had some smuggled vodka too so we communed Noggin the Nog style with fire, wild food and alcohol. Lars noticed me sucking sauce from my puss volcano and asked to see. Although the light was dim there was enough to confirm with a sagely nod that some action was required. It was when the elongated shadow of the long and serrated Bowie knife in Lars’s hand showed up, grotesquely fire pit illuminated on the pine needled ground, that the thought that this might not be a good idea first occurred. There had been the steady but purposeful consumption of a whole bottle of Warrington’s finest export so, I the patient, was at least partially anaesthetised. It was like a scene from a Davy Crockett film during the grunted gouging of a particularly septic arrowhead from the painful part of a cowboy’s anatomy. I wasn’t sure whether I should look but Lars carefully sterilised the blade in the flames and doused the pointed bit in the last capful of vodka. He said it might hurt a bit.
The attempt to extract the wiggly grubs growing in my finger joint was unsuccessful. What remaining night there was, was short. Being woken up by wood ants investigating your nasal passages was merely adding to the catalogue of crimes of nature. The nearest hospital was Östersund; which was also convenient for those needing early strong coffee and breakfast of långfil, fermented ‘stringy’ milk with sour-sweet lingonberry porridge, down by the monstrous lake Störsjon. Before we left I found a moss covered moose antler in the undergrowth and took it as a souvenir. I also discovered that having a wee with a hand shaped like a small football was not easy. It seemed that several of Sweden’s finest mygga had also been collecting souvenirs during the night and my right arm was a bag of water from shoulder to thumb.
Lars drove the Land Rover to the hospital and told tales of old Jämtland dialects being related to those of the remotest Yorkshire Dales such as Arkengarthdale. He may have been trying to calm me for the ordeal yet to come at A&E. However, Swedish hospitals had certainly not started out as RAF Nissen huts painted bilious green and smelling of old socks and polish like the Friarage at Northallerton. This was a wonderland of white, bright, light and health exuding cleanliness. It was clearly uninhabited by the living dead smoking tabs behind the bins near the X-ray department. My allocated junior doctor arrived in white coat, teeth, hair and smiled with pale blue eyes. I was deeply in love even before my watery arm was tenderly examined and dewatering tablets commissioned. I heard the word mygga several times. When my grubby bandaged grub volcano was exposed there was an intake of breath and two willowy, ash blonde, Swedish nurses were summoned with a sterile kidney bowl. One held the bowl and one held me. Is it a sin to be 21 and polyamorous in Sverige? I pondered on my new future life there but was interrupted by my young doctor telling me in sexy Swedish-English that I had some grubs growing in my finger joint and she was going to take me home later. When she got a firm grip on the grubs with a stainless steel set of snipe-nosed pliers and started pulling I realised I might have misheard. With a bit of a tussle and a satisfying tug of my watery arm the grubs gave up the unequal struggle between nurse, doctor and pliers and slipped off for a short lifetime of therapy in an alcohol filled tube. "Blame your myopic mother, stupid wood wasps!" I was patched up in sterile Swedish smiles and pulled away by Lars to pay the bill.
“Ow much?”, as they say in Leeds. Young love, even unrequited, comes at a price in Sweden. I still bear a tiny scar.
The following day was Hell. The road to Hell. It is a nice road, to Hell via Åre, filled with good intentioned cars, (taking you to the station at Hell where English-speaking peoples pose for ‘haha’ photographs). Then to Trondheim and back to Bergen via the incomparably stunning Sognefjorden.
Fäviken, a two Michelin star restaurant at Järpen, near Åre served a lot of Nordic wild food including ‘thrush with drying mushrooms and fermented fennel’. Another of its dishes was ‘capercaillie and coniferous forest’ but I never visited and now never will because it shut last December. However, I am considering creating a new dish in homage to departed chef Magnus Nilsson involving wood wasp grubs in aquavit. You heard it here first...
You can read more about my wild food book 'Eat Wild' or sample some of my wild recipes in the Mossyard Cookbook at DISH or LEAF