It’s such a pity that so many of us have lost touch with nature, and with it all the rich pickings that come and go, season by season. Autumn is the best time to go out foraging.
This year the blackberries are as fat and juicy as supermarket raspberries, while the damson and bullace trees are weighed down with a bumper crop. There’s nothing like picking your own produce for free, bringing it home and turning it into a fragrant pickle or conserve, or a mouth-watering pie. Foraging for wild food brings out the inner hunter-gatherer in us.
For me the highlight of the wild food year is the appearance of the mushrooms in early autumn. There really is no comparison between the mass-produced product, all clean and neatly plastic-packaged and which taste vaguely fungusy but just about no more. The real taste of mushroom comes from the living, damp, rotting earth. Pungent, perfumed, woody, spicy, each species of edible wild mushroom has its special flavour and smell, each delectable in its own way. There is something intensely exotic, a forbidden pleasure, about wild mushrooms.
Yet even while they entrance foodies and chefs in posh city restaurants, mushroom picking is definitely a minority pursuit. So terrified are we British of ‘toadstools’, that most of us won’t even touch them, let alone tuck into a plateful. The fear of fungus is deeply ingrained in the national psyche in just about the same way as the Italians and Eastern Europeans are passionate about it.
Mushrooms (and toadstools) can basically be divided into three groups: the edible beauties like ceps and blewits, a large uninteresting group in the middle which are just pretty tasteless or mildly unpleasant, and the small number of horrors at the other end of the spectrum, including the deadly amanitas which, it is true, you must not even touch.
It is an absolute rule among all mushroom pickers that you learn which of the unmistakable varieties you can eat, and which you must not, on pain of death. Those unfortunates who have succumbed to mushroom poisoning (and there are very few) have all foolishly mistaken an edible variety for a poisonous one. So before you taste, you must not only learn which are delicious, but also their evil lookalikes. Ideally you will join a fungal foray (see below) and learn from an experienced mycologist out in the field, but you will also have reference books (see below), not just one but several, to check, recheck and make doubly sure of all the identifying characteristics. If you are not 100% confident, then you must not eat.
Ok that’s the dire warning out of the way. My simple rule is this: there are just few varieties that I know I am safe with. They are not easily confused and have specific features which are unique to them.
Obviously, not only must you visually examine each item of your harvest one by one, but you should cut it lengthways in half and observe if it stains a particular colour. Finally there are occasions when you should make a spore print: simply lay the cap on a piece of plain white paper under a glass or bowl and leave for an hour or two. The spore colour is an important identifier in some instances.
Field Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) really need no introduction – they grow in fields around piles of dung. With their white flesh and brown gills, they are like the commercially grown ones we see in the green-grocers. There are a few species of Agaricus which are delicious, some smelling of mushroom, some with a vague aniseed perfume. But there is one of this species which you should avoid, the Yellow Staining Mushroom which turns bright yellow when bruised or cut, particularly in the base of the stem. It also has a terrible inky, phenol smell, like school disinfectant. Why anyone would be tempted to eat it is beyond me. If in doubt take a spore print: agaricus mushrooms have an unmistakable very dark brown spore print. Finally, never eat what looks like a field mushroom but which has white gills (Amanita) or stains red (Inocybe): these are potentially deadly.
My second favourite grassland species, which happens this year to be abundant up on the Malvern Hills, is the Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota Procera). This is a splendid upstanding fellow with a large cap (10 - 25 cm) across, white gills and a pronounced nipple where the long stem (15 – 30 cm) covered in a snake-skin pattern, joins it. The trouble is there is a closely related species called the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom which causes stomach upsets in some people. The Shaggy Parasol can be distinguished from its edible cousin by its staining red in the base when cut and having a smooth, velvety stem with no snake-skin patterning. The other rule of thumb is never to eat a Parasol if it has a cap diamater less than 15cm across – so avoid young specimens, they could be a different species.
Off to the woods now, the Horn of Plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides) is quite unmistakeable and has no dodgy lookalikes. Dark grey or black, this small species is found in mossy undergrowth around ancient oaks and beeches. It has a tubular shape and a curious leathery texture. On account of its slightly sinister appearance, the french call these darlings, the Trompettes de Mort, and this is a truly delicious fungus, its earthy rich flavour indispensable in risotto al funghi.
Later in the season, you may encounter the succulent Hedgehog Fungus (Hydnum repandum) which also has no poisonous lookalikes. White or brown, this species is unique in having stalactite-like spines or teeth on the underside of its irregular shaped cap. When cooking I tend to scrape these off to leave just the mild, sweet flesh, delicious treated to a tempura batter and served with aioli.
Finally in pride of place are the Boletes - if you’re lucky enough to find them. I must admit that I’ve never found Herefordshire a good place for these classic wild mushrooms, although down in the Forest of Dean they can be abundant, and I have come home on occasions, laden. The Boletes are identifiable in having a tubular spongy structure on the underside of their caps rather than the familiar gills. Most are edible, a few are excellent, and a couple, easily spotted by their having red or orange tubes, are poisonous, but quite unmistakable.
It is Boletus edulis that is the world’s favourite mushroom, the Cep, or Penny Bun. If you find any of these, your luck is in. With a pale brown cap and white or straw coloured pores, a fat stem, these chubby chaps are the classic mushrooms of fairy tales, reclining places for elves and other woodland sprites. Fantastically delicious with a meaty texture and rich dark flavour, this is the species that is dried commercially and the mainstay of Italian autumn cuisine. One word of warning though: don’t tell anyone where you’ve found your Ceps… next year they will be gone before you get there.
Enjoy your time foraging. Learn from the experts. Be careful. And be patient: sometimes you will come home empty handed, sometimes replete. That’s the way the way of the hunter gatherer.
How To Identify Edible Mushrooms. Harding P, Lyon T & Tomblin G (1996). Collins. An excellent, beautifully illustrated field guide, describes all the edible species and those with which they may be confused.
Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe. Phillips, R. (1981). Pan. The definitive encyclopedia of fungus, with full colour photographs and exhaustive technical descriptions of each species.
There is a very active local mycological group called www.herefordfungi.org who organise regular fungal forays around the county. You can download the 2014 programme here.