Monday, 18 October 2010

The joy of fungi

THERE’S something magical about fungi. Not just the ones known as magic mushrooms, but all of them.
And I don’t just mean the edible ones – though they can be truly special.
I’m not sure why we Brits are so shy of them. Maybe, as I’ve seen suggested, it goes back to a rupture in our national cooking habits at the time of the First World War.
Whatever the reason, we seem to have a phobia about wild food. Especially about mushrooms.
Hop across the Channel to France and you’ll find a variety of odd-looking specimens on market stalls.
Visit eastern Europe and you’ll see families trooping off into the woods with buckets to collect their favourites.
Here, meanwhile, there’s only one species commonly to be found on sale, unless you seek out an Oriental or Polish grocery.
And though pleasant enough, the common field mushroom – to many people the only type that gets called “mushroom” at all – is neither the tastiest nor the most nutritious out there.
Of course, you have to be careful. But knowing what you’re doing isn’t that hard if you care enough to get the right books, and err on the side of caution.
And I do mean caution. I don’t want any sick or dying readers on my conscience, thank you very much.
Many guides recommend learning how to recognise the few really deadly species so you can avoid them. Others suggest getting to know four or five of the commoner and nicer edible ones and sticking to those.
Both are sound advice.
There are pitfalls, of course.
A couple of years ago author Nicholas Evans, of Horse Whisperer fame, went gathering mushrooms in Scotland with his wife.
He thought she knew a tasty chanterelle when she saw one. She thought he did.
Result, one basket full of cortinarius speciosissimus, alias deadly webcap. Which, frankly, doesn’t look a lot like chanterelle at all. They should have known better.
Further result, both Evanses, his brother and sister-in-law are on daily dialysis while awaiting kidney transplants. They are lucky to be alive – and especially lucky that their children refused the feast.
Their experience may have added to the popular distrust of mushrooms gathered from anywhere but the supermarket shelf.
But the real lesson is about the value of knowing – really knowing – what you’re doing.
Which I reckon applies to just about anything in life that’s worth doing at all.
And it would be a shame if the amazing bounty of this autumn were to be wasted.
I wrote three weeks ago about the proliferation of fungi, especially parasol mushrooms.
Well, it certainly hasn’t diminished since then. In fact, the best season of my life for wild mushrooms just goes on getting better.
You must have noticed. Go for a walk anywhere that isn’t concreted over and the things are everywhere.
Most, frankly, I can’t identify – or not with the necessary confidence. I still find their sudden and rampant appearance magical.
But there plenty I can put a name to. And a few I’m happy to put on my plate.


The three wild mushrooms pictured here were all photographed by me in Suffolk this week, all within a shortish walk of my home.
One my mother and I enjoyed on toast. One would have killed us if we’d tried. And the other… well, the other’s perhaps the most fascinating of all.
You might recognise the parasol (picture A). Large, unmistakable, delicious. And fabulously common this year.
(At least round here. A former Evening Star colleague now living in Yorkshire tells me there are none to be found up there. He has, though, enjoyed large quantities of ceps, the most unmistakable of all edible mushrooms, while I’ve found only a couple of poor specimens here.)
You might not immediately identify the killer. It’s the little off-white fellow, picture B.
The name death cap tells you everything really. Along with the destroying angel (similar to the parasol, but white and without the scales), it’s said to be responsible for more than 90 per cent of all fatal fungus poisonings.
My father taught me to avoid anything with white gills. That would certainly save you from a fatal error with death cap or destroying angel – but would also deny you the pleasure of the parasol.
The most picturesque fungus of all (picture C) is the fly agaric, or amanita muscaria. The classic toadstool, much beloved of elves, pixies and children’s illustrators.
Though once listed as deadly, it is not known for certain to have been responsible for a single death.
It is famous for hallucinogenic highs, though I wouldn’t try it. Partly because the effective dose is highly unpredictable. And partly because the risk of a “bad trip”, possibly with long-lasting flashbacks, is simply not worth it.
It was, apparently, used by tribes in Siberia, and perhaps elsewhere, as an “entheogenic” drug – one that creates a religious trance.
The latest advice is that it is edible, so long as you boil it first to get rid of the toxins (and make sure you throw away the water).
Personally, I wouldn’t try that either. Maybe just because of the look of it.

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