Magical Mushrooms

John Wright is one of those very lucky few that have managed to turn a hobby into a full-time job. Jon Bennett chats to the River Cottage expert about the wonders of mushrooms, and why he spends his days foraging and encouraging others to do as well.
After one of the wettest June and July ever, it seems we all feel we’re owed a long Indian summer. But if you’re a forager – or you’re interested in taking up an ancient hobby that more and more of us are embracing – it’s time to stop praying for sun and embrace the wet British weather.

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‘I hate wet summers,’ chuckles fungi expert John Wright when I asked him whether this year’s relentless damp was good news for the wild mushroom crop. ‘If it rains a lot it can mean it’s dry in the autumn and then it doesn’t rain until the end of October. Dry Octobers are what I really don’t like but with foraging there’s no point in worrying about conditions, there’s always something to enjoy and you can’t change the weather.’

If you’ve watched the River Cottage TV series over the years you’ll know John. He was the expert forager that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sought out to teach him how to hunt for mushrooms when he made the move to Dorset. His trade was making cabinets but he ran the odd mushroom foray on the side, teaching others a hobby that he’d first got into when he discovered a whopping mushroom in the New Forest in 1965 and thought ‘What is this?’.

It’s fair to say that a career in television hadn’t occurred to him until he met Hugh – but he’s now become a foraging expert full-time – running courses, publishing books and making repeated appearances on the River Cottage series.

He laughs again when I ask him whether part of him can’t believe what’s happened to him. ‘All of me can’t believe this has happened! It’s a great unlooked-for career change quite late in life; I’m 60 now, so it’s quite extraordinary.’

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Wild and free

And the same can be said for the influence the River Cottage series has had on the interest in foraging in the UK. There’s no official body to measure the number of people who are going out and hunting for mushrooms – or indeed foraging in hedgerows and at the seashore – but anecdotally it’s certainly clear that it has massively increased.

Foragers Peter Sibley and Clifford Davy set up their foraging course Wild Harvest in January 2010, because they realised how many people were enthusiastic about learning how to recognise and pick the crop that surrounds us.

‘It’s most definitely more popular now,’ says Clifford. ‘The impact of Hugh’s River Cottage series has been really significant and there are other factors too. The amount of restaurants that are using foraged ingredients has increased enormously which has filtered down from the top end and it’s now mainstream.’

Rene Redzepi’s menu at the hugely influential Noma in Copenhagen is an obvious example and our appetite for ingredients like ceps (or porcini, to give them their Italian name), girolles and truffles has increased enormously.

What’s also enormous, though, is the price. The cost per kilo of wild mushrooms can be eye-watering, so there’s a clear incentive for getting out there and collecting them for nothing.

That’s the only way you’re going to get them for a bargain, as certain types of mushrooms cannot be grown under controlled conditions – others, like oysters and button varieties, can, which is why they are so much cheaper – but Peter’s description of the taste of the freshest wild mushrooms is positively lyrical.

‘Some of these wild mushrooms have rich, intense aromas. You’ll get smells of apricots, almonds, strong aniseed and they translate to flavours that I believe no cultivated mushroom can deliver. There’s an intensity and variety of flavour that you just can’t get in the supermarket; there’s a real unfamiliarity to the mushrooms that can’t be cultivated. The fact that you’ve had to hunt for the mushrooms yourself and not paid £35 a kilo makes them just the sweeter.’

Fulfilling a natural instinct

It seems the joy of foraging is about much more than the joy of harvesting food in peak condition at a bargain price, though.

John Wright now runs many courses each year, teaching hundreds of people from all walks of life, and he stresses that foraging satisfies something much more fundamental and instinctual in humans than you may assume.

‘It’s not really the flavour or the food or the fact it’s free. It’s fulfilling a natural instinct; we are born to be foragers because all our ancestors were foragers. You can take people out and they look a little bit anxious at first and all of a sudden a little light starts shining in their eyes. I’ve had people say it’s the best day they can remember for years and it’s because they’re doing something that is part of us. It’s like discovering sex if you didn’t know it existed – it’s not quite as good!’ laughs John. ‘But it’s something that’s primal within us.’

‘The supermarkets know about this, so they try to make shopping like a foraging experience. They change the shelves all around so that it makes people hunt and they soon find their old favourites, but they discover new things too.’

‘I’ve had hard-hearted hedge fund managers on their hands and knees digging for pig nuts, begging for another 10 minutes just so they can get one more! The monetary value of a pig nut is nil, but it’s just the instinct has got under their skin and they have to do it.’

It’s a wonderful vision, but many people feel they can’t do it because they can’t overcome their fear of picking something that is poisonous. It’s easy to understand why. While mushroom poisonings are thankfully rare, they do happen and the consequences can be fatal.

A dangerous pursuit

The most high-profile case in recent years involved Nicholas Evans, the acclaimed author of The Horse Whisperer, who nearly died in the summer of 2008 when he picked what he thought were ceps on his brother-in-law’s estate in the Scottish Highlands. In fact, they were deadly web caps and he, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law all suffered kidney failure after the tragic mistake. They all required daily dialysis and Evans was eventually given a kidney transplant when he finally agreed to his daughter’s pleas to let her be his donor.

It’s a sobering storey, but even more grim is the story of the Thai woman who died in September 2008 after eating death caps in Newport on the Isle of Wight.

‘It shows how serious an error can be,’ says Clifford Davy. ‘These fungi are very rare; we’ve only come across death cap once in all our forays. In a way it can be very instructive and useful to see them, so that people recognise for themselves what they look like. Ultimately, the point with these deadly mushrooms is this – if you do eat them it doesn’t matter which hospital you are treated by, multiple organ failure is the inevitable result.’

‘You need to respect these things. The law of probability is that if you want to be a forager you will come across some deadly things. If you don’t know your stuff, you could pay the ultimate price if you are careless.’

This sounds daunting, but John Wright stresses that if you apply basic but stringent rules there is no reason to be afraid of foraging.      

‘The case with Nicholas Evans was a terrible, terrible tragedy but it shouldn’t have happened. The problem, though, was that they didn’t check the mushrooms; if they had, they would’ve easily recognised what they were and the incident would’ve been avoided. I think that anyone who goes out to look for mushrooms does so understanding that it can be a dangerous pursuit. I never worry about people who come on my forays because I warn them and explain the pitfalls. The main thing is to never jump to conclusions when identifying mushrooms; if it’s missing a characteristic then it can’t be the type of mushroom you hope it might be. If you are looking at something and the book says it should have a ring on the stem, then it has to have that ring on the stem; there are no exceptions. It’s about being meticulous and matching every characteristic.’

John says that going out foraging with an expert is the ideal stepping-stone for the total amateur, but that any aspiring forager needs to accept and enjoy the fact that learning the craft will take time.

‘There is no easy way into it. It’s like saying you want to play the piano, you have to put the hours in. It’s not necessarily easy to pick mushrooms, although it’s nowhere near as difficult as the piano! You must have a book – in fact you need two or three – and ideally you need to go out with someone who knows what they’re talking about.’

‘Going on an organised foray is a good idea. Having said that, you don’t need to be an expert mycologist to pick mushrooms any more than you need to be an expert botanist to pick blackberries. You need to know what blackberries look like and it’s the same with mushrooms. There are some nice straightforward mushrooms which are safe to pick. The hedgehog mushroom is the top one. It grows in beech and spruce woods; it’s cream coloured and has little spines. It’s very common, never gets bugs and is impossible to mix up with anything else. Sauté it and you’ll get a good quality meal out of it.’

Preserving a tradition

If you do make the step into mushroom foraging, however, there is probably no way to cure the bug. Not only will you see the world in a different way – scanning the landscape for potential bounty – you will also be privy to the quite astonishing knowledge of how fungi grow and the fact they are an entirely unique species.

John Wright writes at length in the River Cottage handbook on mushrooms – which is so drily witty that even if you have no intention of ever going foraging I encourage you to read it – at the mystery that surrounds fungi’s inexplicable ability to appear in the same spot year after year without apparent roots’. That led to our ancestors regarding fungi – and the pejorative term ‘toadstool’ – as mysterious agents of evil, which is why they were often associated with witchcraft.

Scientists have only relatively recently discovered why fungi could grow in this way. It turns out they are not plants at all; they are an entirely different species. And mushrooms are just the reproductive organs used to spread the spores so that fungi can reproduce. Most of the organism is in fact a microscopically thin fibre that lives hidden in the ground and forms an invisible but enormous ‘cotton-wool like mass’ called a mycelium.
I tell John that when I read this I was absolutely astonished – why has nobody told me before? – and that’s before I then read why certain mushrooms can be cultivated and others can only be found growing wild.

‘I know,’ he laughs. ‘It’s otherworldly. They are unrelated to us and they are unrelated to plants. They are no more related to plants than we are. It’s literally a different world.’

‘Conservation is not a serious problem with the fungi as long as you don’t go barking mad and pick everything. The fruiting bodies are just that; the main organism is underground. You see this in the press all the time and it drives me mad. You get articles when it’s a bad year for fungi and they say “it’s bad because it was all picked last year”. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s like saying that people have picked all the apples off a tree so there’ll be none for next year – it just doesn’t work like that.’

‘Ultimately, if you pick mushrooms it will do no immediate harm to the plant itself, but having said that, there are good reasons for being sensible. Mushrooms are there to spread the spores that allow the mycelium to live elsewhere and it drives me mad when people pick everything they see and then chuck it all away when they get home and find out its inedible. Also, they are part of an ecosystem. There are maggots which rely on fungi, so if you pick all the mushrooms then those maggots can’t survive and that will have knock-on effects elsewhere in the ecosystem.’

‘So there are issues with over-foraging but that doesn’t mean you’re going to kill the fungi; to me it’s really about common sense. People get very agitated about the entire thing but there are only three recorded cases of foraging causing issues, none of them in this country. If you go to the continent they’ve been picking mushrooms for millennia; every last thing that comes out of the ground is picked and mushrooms are still there.’

That tradition in Europe is alive and well. If you’ve ever visited a market in France or Italy you’ll know how many more mushrooms you see on sale. One of my favourite food moments was visiting the Rialto Market in Venice and buying porcini. The most beautifully fresh specimens were sold to me in a special bag and accompanied by a bouquet of herbs, which the stallholder threw in with every mushroom sale because they were the perfect accompaniment.

‘We’ve never had a tradition of mushroom picking in this country,’ says John as we end our conversation. ‘I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s because we never starved. On the continent they had a lot of very severe winters and a lot of wars and that makes people experiment a little bit more than us. It’s an eye-opener to see the markets in Europe, you see so many different species. It just doesn’t happen here and I suspect it never will. But we are getting better and it’s all there if people want it.’

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...