Alexandra Matts talks about her fungi foray with ‘River Cottage’ expert John Wright, and dispels some of the myths surrounding the dangers of mushroom picking.
“A few years ago, my father casually gave himself severe mushroom poisoning in a close encounter with a “yellow stainer”, a tale which he recounts with pride given the slightest opportunity. More recently, I met someone who has spent several years on dialysis as a result of an unfortunate experience with a near-fatal fungus. It should be enough to put anyone off for life, but somehow, on a crisp autumn morning, it’s difficult to resist a plate freshly picked mushrooms on toast.
2010 has been a bumper year for mushrooms, with the rain of recent months pushing up fairy rings almost overnight. Parks, gardens and woods are bursting with parasols and ink-caps, chanterelles and champignons. Reading the newspapers, it would be easy to put mushrooming firmly on the list of dangerous high-risk activities, on a par with moonlighting as a knife-thrower’s assistant or crossing the road blindfold. However, if you take care, mushroom picking can be incredibly rewarding, providing delicious morsels at a fraction of the price of your local deli.
If you’re unsure about which mushrooms will make a delicious risotto, and which will lead to a painful lingering death, a day out with an expert is an excellent place to start. At the end of September, I dragged my dad along to a “fungi foray” run by John Wright, forager, mycologist, and occasional star of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage programmes. John’s enthusiasm was contagious and we were soon talking knowledgably about poison pie, chicken of the woods and beefsteak fungus. Dad also took the opportunity to inform us that it took exactly four hours from eating the yellow stainer till symptoms to set in. “Exactly as it said in the book, marvellous.”
In our little group, there were well-heeled city boys bonding corporately, foodies, foragers, and families, all keen to learn, and, as importantly, to eat. We found mushrooms in the grasses, fungi in the forests, and toadstools that were clearly destined to serve as tables for fairy dinner parties. In all, we counted over sixty species. Sadly, on that particular day, we found just a handful of edible mushrooms, but we came away feeling far more confident about what we could eat and fascinated by the intricate, and surprisingly cut-throat world of mycology.
The foray I attended was run by John Wright (www.wild-food.net), but there are a variety of excellent options across the country. Try the following sites:
· Wales- www.fungiforays.co.uk
· Nationwide – http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/events-fungi_fun
I definitely wouldn’t recommend mushrooming alone until you’re 100% confident you can identify each mushroom that you intend to eat. However, for those who want more information there are some excellent books out there. High on my personal wish list a copy of John Wright’s River Cottage Mushroom Handbook (he’s not paying me, I promise, but his books are really very readable and absolutely fascinating). For i-phone geeks, there is also a handy app: “Wild Mushrooms of North America and Europe”
And if in doubt- just don’t eat it!
Do let us know about your mushroom experiences, good and (hopefully not too) bad. If you’ve tried any brilliant courses that we haven’t mentioned here, or have delicious recipes for using your mushrooms, we’d love to hear all about it.