Fungal Foraging

Clifford Davy gives us an introduction into the world of the wild mushroom...

It’s October and autumn has arrived – the woodlands are enhanced with yellow, red and gold. The leaves are destined to fall to the ground and with the onset of seasonal rain, the forest floor comes to life again. The fungi are back! Mother Nature has provided the food (leaf litter) and drink, so it is no coincidence that most mushrooms and toadstools emerge during this period.

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Fungi have aroused great interest in many people for centuries. Neither plant nor animal, fungi fill the natural landscape with strange and delightful forms; many have rich and exciting colours while others are reminiscent of intricately sculptured objects. However, it is not surprising that most people are interested in only one thing – the most frequent question put to me is: can I eat it?!

Foraging for edible mushrooms has become a popular autumn activity, combining a nature walk with wild food harvesting. Such pursuits are evocative of times past, of bountiful collections and prized specimens, and of fantastic mushroom feasts. But before you rush out to your local woods, beware: you should never eat any fungus that has not been identified by an expert because it can be difficult to separate the delicious from the deadly.

Fungi grow in all manner of habitats – many gilled fungi appear on manure heaps and dung. Grassland species tend to occur on chalk and limestone pastures, although some do prefer acid soils. Certain fungi are found only on heaths, while others are confined to coastal sand dunes. The terrestrial toadstools are commonly seen in various types of woodland; many are associated with broad-leaved trees while others are specific to pine and fir woods.

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The techniques for finding woodland fungi depend on whether they are growing on the ground or high up a tree. Small ground-dwelling species are best located by careful observation rather than casual sweeping glances; attention should be focused on colours and shapes. Bracket fungi (example Chicken of the Woods) growing on tree trunks would be easily seen but may be overlooked if the observer does not look up! In a mature wood, most of the fungi will be found round the edge, along the rides and in the clearings, rather than beneath trees. Old oak and beech woods are particularly rewarding places; fallen trees and rotting wood should always be checked. It is worthwhile walking right round the base of mature trees searching for specimens which grow out, near to or at ground level, and also peering into hollow trunks.

Some of the edible autumn species one is likely to encounter in woodlands around Godalming and Farnham include the Cep or Penny Bun, Bay Boletus, Chanterelle, Parasol Mushroom, Lawyer’s Wig and Cauliflower Fungus. Mushroom foraging is fun, relaxing and if you are lucky, productive. All you require is the appropriate attire for enjoying the outdoors, a collecting basket or rigid container (not plastic bags), a knife and brush for cleaning (or purposeful mushroom knife) and a good identification guide; or you go foraging with a mycologist! If you do not have access to the latter and have not acquired the knowledge of fungus recognition, why not visit www.forestforagers.co.uk to book for a course and become confident at identifying and cooking some of the best edible mushrooms.

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If you are lucky enough to harvest a super abundance of wild mushrooms and unable to consume all of your bounty in a few days (will keep fresh in a refrigerator), then consider preserving – mushrooms can be preserved very successfully. Some kinds can be dried and kept in air-tight containers (kilner jars are ideal), others do not keep their flavour when dried. Wild mushrooms which dry very well are Ceps and other edible members of the Boletus family; Agaricus species, including the Field Mushroom and Horse Mushroom; Hedgehog Fungus, Horn of Plenty, Morels and Fairy Ring Champignon. The smaller mushrooms can be dried whole, but it is better to cut the larger ones into slices. You can sun-dry mushrooms in a sheltered spot if conditions allow, but drying indoors is more likely in our climate. Arrange the mushrooms in a single layer on cake racks or similar that allow air to reach all parts of the mushrooms and dry in an airing cupboard, over a radiator, or if you have one, over an Aga or Rayburn. You can dry mushrooms threaded onto a string and suspended over a heat source if you prefer. Drying in an oven is not very satisfactory unless you can manage to achieve a very low temperature – less than 60˚C is required. Once the mushrooms are completely dry, seal them into airtight bags or better, air tight sterilised jars. They will keep for months if kept dry. Use them in soups, stews or casseroles.
Another way of preserving mushrooms is simply to freeze them. This can be done successfully with some of the more solid species like Field Mushrooms and Ceps, but it is better to sauté most species in butter with a little chopped onion or garlic before freezing. If your freezer space is limited, you can fry the mushrooms in clarified butter, or light vegetable oil (sunflower or safflower is best), pack into sterilised jars, cover with butter or oil to exclude the air and seal. Make sure that all bubbles have been excluded and it will keep for weeks.  Preserved this way, they are ideal for using in omelettes, quiches and flans.
Fungi are unpredictable: some appear regularly in the same places year after year, others may be seen just once. The date of appearance may vary from one year to the next by several weeks. Since many fungi are ephemeral, remaining in good condition for only several days, it is all too easy to miss them. For enthusiasts like me, this uncertainty only adds to the excitement of looking for fungi. Furthermore, the almost limitless forms and colours of this unique flora hold their own special fascination.

Seasonal Foods

Summer 2016

June was one of the wettest on record. July was cooler than average but quite dry. August is hotter so far but dry. Plants have responded by growing fast but fruit has not matured as quickly as might have been expected. There was an early flush of edible mushrooms in June, Parasols in particular, but not much thereafter. Should the weather turn wet, look out for Boletus edulis, (Ceps or porcini). There is every chance of them appearing soon.

Our Foraging Courses begin soon. The first are two Taster Days on Saturday the 27th of August and Sunday the 28th, these will be in Surrey and are intended to be an introduction to foraging for beginners. We will hold two more Taster sessions later on in Essex on the weekend of the 8th and 9th of October. The cost is £25 per person for each session.

Foraging 2016

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Dates & Venues

Wild Harvest Day Course New Forest

Come join us on one of our courses in the wonderful English countryside for a day of foraging, identifying, cooking and fun...