Mushroom picking:The feast, the fear and the fungi
As the clouds send down a seemingly endless barrage of water, Clive Houlder is in seventh heaven.
The recent rain has created perfect conditions for many of the world’s most highly-prized mushrooms. Better still, Houlder knows he faces little competition for the fungi that are sprouting everywhere.
On the Continent, the woods would now be crawling with families scouring the leaf mould for chanterelles, saffron milk caps and cepes. But our woods are deserted, for Britons seem instinctively wary of “toadstools” and many refuse to touch, let alone taste, anything lacking a Cellophane wrapping on a supermarket shelf.
As if to reinforce our instinctive distrust, it was reported last week that a woman had died after eating death cap mushrooms* on the Isle of Wight. Two weeks earlier, Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, and three of his companions were taken ill after unwittingly consuming toxic mushrooms (Deadly webcap, Cortinarius rubellus**) on a Scottish holiday.
Understandably, millions of Britons are now more wary than ever of harvesting wild mushrooms. Yet, with common sense, the dangers can be minimised – particularly when there are so many to choose from in this record-breaking season.
The best way to start is to be shown what to pick by an expert. The National Trust, Forest Enterprise and many Wildlife Trusts run forays, but these rarely target edible species. Head for a course that ignores Britain’s 10,000 inedible species and focuses on those that are safe to eat.
It is also possible to teach oneself, but you must follow a few common sense guidelines. Arm yourself with a good field guide and don’t get carried away. Instead, target the best tasting and most recognisable species.
Back home, check with a definitive encyclopaedia (Roger Phillips’s Mushrooms is best, or see his website, www.rogersmushrooms.com) and make sure your identification is correct in every detail. If you are in any doubt at all, don’t eat the specimen in question, but check with an expert mycologist.
In woodland areas, Houlder recommends looking for Boletus edulis, more commonly known as the cepe or porcino (depending on whether you are following a French or Italian recipe).
Guidebooks tell you to search for them in deciduous woods, but it is also common on mossy banks along the edges of conifer plantations. Its spongy gills, brown cap and thick beige and cream stalk make it easy to identify with confidence.
Shaggy ink caps (Coprinus comatus) are another great starting point. They grow on waste ground and verges, emerging like miniature ballistic missiles. The white torpedoes open to produce a flaking white cap that soon dissolves into ink. The only possible confusion is with the common inkcap, which has a more domed and greyer cap. These are just as delicious – unless consumed with alcohol, when they produce severe nausea.
The most distinctive is the wood hedgehog (Hydnum repandum). Instead of conventional ridged gills, the underside of its cap is festooned with tiny spikes. Although common, it grows close to the ground, often hidden beneath grass, but its delicate flavour and crunchy texture make the hunt well worthwhile.
The important thing about all these mushrooms is that not only are they easy to identify with total certainty, but they taste superb. This means that the brave beginner who plucks up the courage to cook his haul is amply rewarded with unique flavours and textures that far surpass the watery shop-bought variety.
“They are coming up the length and breadth of the country and as long as it keeps raining, they’ll keep coming,” enthuses Houlder. “The London wholesalers are full of Scottish girolles and winter chanterelles and the New Forest is positively overflowing.”
Daniel Butler produces a free mushroom e-newsletter throughout the year. To subscribe, see www.fungiforays.co.uk.
Just one of these widespread and innocuous-looking mushrooms is enough to kill an adult.
As toxic as the death cap, but rarer. To be safe, autumn beginners should avoid all pure white mushrooms.
The one that poisoned Nicholas Evans. Rusty brown, orange colour – difficult to identify.
Extremely toxic and resembles the delicious fairy ring champignon (Marasmius oreades). The gills of the fairy ring curl up into the cup; but those of the poisonous version curl down the stalk.