Out of Russia: A tomato with two heads clouds the day

MOSCOW - A huge pall of smog hung over the city last Monday morning. Moscow is always badly polluted, but this was a cloud of oily, smoky air that I had not encountered before.

Even in the relative cleanliness of Lenin Hills, where I live in the south of the city and where the air is kept clear by southwesterly winds, the atmosphere was still thick and heavy.

After consulting the Environmental Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, I learned that the smog had been caused by forest fires, started by weekend picnickers. It was aggravated by the atmospheric conditions: little or no wind to blow the smog away.

Monday is also the day when caretakers from large blocks of flats burn rubbish in the back yard. That added to the thickness of the smog and, all in all, it was a great start to the week.

Then Tass news wire opened up. Cases of mushroom poisoning in south Russia and Ukraine were on the rise, the agency said. There had been 500 cases of people eating poisoned mushrooms in Russia and Ukraine and 60 of them had died.

Two experts at a meeting of the Russian State Committee on Emergency Situations had advanced separate theories about the epidemic. One of them suggested that poisonous toadstools had somehow mutated under influence of natural or unnatural factors and finished up looking like edible mushrooms.

The second version was that edible mushrooms, under the influence of unfavourable weather - this summer, it is drought - grow at the expense of toadstools and somehow absorb poisonous substances from the soil due to the lack of moisture.

There is no known local antidote for the virulent poison produced by a Russian toadstool. Russian health officials have never considered such research necessary because Russians are so adept at distinguishing between toadstools and mushrooms that there has been no cause to invest in developing such a medicine.

This is all distressing for the poor Russians, who are passionately fond of mushrooms, and eat a great variety found in the birch forests. In my experience, they have much greater flavour than the button mushrooms produced commercially, and Russians dry, pickle and salt them to ensure a year-round supply.

Now, all citizens have been urged to stop picking mushrooms for a while, especially in the Voronezh region, 300 miles south of Moscow, where most of the reports of poisoning have occurred. This is the centre of the 'Black Earth' area that covers about 9 per cent of the old Soviet Union. It is fertile grassland soil, with a dark humus layer more than 10 inches thick and chemically neutral.

A classified document dated 9 February, 1990, from the Soviet Health Ministry, came to light in the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta this week, revealing that contamination of essential food products with pesticides and other chemicals had grown threefold. In tests carried out in state laboratories, banned chemicals including DDT, were found in increasing quantities. The newspaper said it was officially accepted that the average 40-year-old citizen has consumed about 28 kilos (32lbs) of toxic chemicals with food grown in the former Soviet Union.

There is no reason why the end of Communism and the Soviet Union has changed any of this. Russia still has no legislation for punishing producers and distributors of poisoned food products.

Which brings me to Tuesday. That is the day when, for the first time since I arrived here last year, I suddenly developed all the symptoms of acute food poisoning, which lasted for a day. I had not been eating mushrooms but had consumed vegetables from the local farmers' market, which - in these months - is supplied from the southern regions of Russia and Ukraine as well as the traditional Transcaucasus suppliers.

I perhaps should admit that my fare included a fine, juicy, oversized tomato with two heads, weighing almost 1lb, that I had been persuaded to purchase by a proud storekeeper in the market who said it had come from 'somewhere in the south'. Tass has not yet reported any victims of 'mutant tomatoes'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick