The Wonder of Mushrooms

Fungi are amazing, they really are.

They range from the microscopic to huge; they make our bread rise; produce alcohol; give us some of our most effective medicines; make our soils fertile and help trees to grow, plus some of them can be eaten and are delicious. On the downside, they can cause disease, make our floors collapse and poison us if we aren’t careful, but the balance is definitely on the positive side.

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Although many of the most useful fungi are microscopic – Yeast, Penicillium and the mycorrhiza that help many plants to grow, for example – the most familiar to us are the mushrooms, ranging from the ones we see in the shops to the rather more mysterious ones that appear in fields, woods and gardens.

Whilst the ordinary mushroom, (Agaricus bisporus to the specialist), is eaten with enjoyment by most of us, it must be admitted that it is not the most tasty of mushrooms. That accolade probably goes to the Penny Bun, (also known as the Cep in France, Porcini in Italy, and as Boletus edulis to mycologists). This mushroom is avidly sought after and consumed across Europe and North America. It can be found in some shops, fresh or more often dried, and is available from specialist suppliers, but it is expensive. Why? Because it cannot be grown commercially, it has to be collected from the wild.

Not everyone would say that the Penny Bun is the most tasty mushroom. Some people have other favourites, the Wood Blewit, (Lepista nuda), for example or its relative the Field Blewit, (Lepista saeva). Others might go for the Morel, (Morchella esculenta) or the Chanterelle, (Cantharellus cibarius). Personally I have a special liking for the Hedgehog Fungus, (Hydnum repandum), and the Horn of Plenty, (Craterellus cornucopioides), but I also enjoy many others.

There are a wide range of textures and tastes in the world of mushrooms. Most are best eaten fresh but some dry well and others can be frozen or preserved. Only a few are suitable for eating raw, most benefit from cooking and some are not edible unless cooked, an example being the very common Honey Fungus, (Armillaria mellea). To appreciate them best, fresh wild mushrooms should be cooked simply and quickly, in butter with a little parsley, or garlic if you prefer. A few do require more cooking than that: the beefsteak fungus, (Fistulina hepatica), which is a bracket fungus that grows on oak trees, picks up tannins from the tree which need to be counteracted by cooking it with cream. It then becomes edible with some of the texture of a steak, but more of the flavour of liver, which is where it gets the ‘hepatica’ part of its Latin name. The ‘Beefsteak’ common name refers to its appearance; it looks like a slab of steak and the fact that when you cut it the surface ‘bleeds’ a juice that looks like beads of blood.

Drying or freezing are good ways to keep mushrooms when you have too many to eat at one time. Mushrooms will keep for a couple of days after picking, but if you need to keep them longer than that, cook and freeze them, or slice and dry them in a warm dry place, preferably on wire racks that let the air circulate all around them. Once dried, most wild mushrooms do lose some of their texture, so are best used in casseroles, stews, pasta dishes or risottos.

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However, not all wild mushrooms are tasty; some are edible but have no taste at all, others are bitter. A relatively small number are poisonous and a few, deadly. So how can you tell the good from the bad?

‘A silver spoon will go black in the presence of a poisonous mushroom’. Sorry, no, there is no truth in that old tale.

‘It’s ok if mice or squirrels have eaten some of it’. No again, these animals can eat without harm mushrooms that would lay us low.

‘Brightly coloured ones are dangerous, ones that look like shop bought mushrooms are ok’. Sorry, that is not true either. There are some bright coloured mushrooms that are good to eat and the two most deadly, the Destroying Angel, (Amanita virosa) and the Death Cap, (Amanita phalloides), are respectively, white and dull olive. One mushroom which closely resembles the ordinary and perfectly safe Field Mushroom, (Agaricus campestris, the ancestor of the cultivated mushroom), and often found growing with it, is the Yellow Stainer, (Agaricus xanthodermus); this can cause severe stomach cramps, but fortunately can be easily distinguished from the Field Mushroom because it turns bright yellow if bruised, whereas the Field Mushroom bruises red-brown.

So how can you be safe when collecting and eating wild mushrooms. There is only one rule, don’t eat it if you are not completely certain it is ok. If you are not sure, ask an expert; even mushroom books can be misleading unless you have some experience in using them.

If you are in France, you can ask a pharmacist if a mushroom is ok; they are all trained to recognise the common edible species. In Italy, the police will tell you if a mushroom is good to eat or not, but in the UK there is no such local expertise to call on.

If you are keen on collecting and eating wild mushrooms, and it is definitely worth doing so, then the best thing to do is to go on an identification course and also to get a good mushroom book, (not all have dependable illustrations, sometimes the colour reproduction is not as good as it should be). For further information, look at www.forestforagers.co.uk/ where you will find details of courses and some advice on books.

By Peter Sibley

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...