Picking and eating wild mushrooms for the first time can be a bit daunting, and it really helps to have someone with you the first time to help you get over the jitters. But there’s more to gathering wild mushrooms than just foraging for food – with elements of rambling, collecting, field science and treasure-hunting, mushrooming can also become an obsession.
My own experience with mushrooming started (mumblety) years ago when I was a carefree student type with hair (or at least, more hair than I have now). I was doing a sponsored walk with some friends for something involving seals and a woman named Brenda*. The craic was good and it was a fine October day, so at the finish line we decided that instead of going home we’d do another few miles and see if we could squeeze a bit of extra cash out of some of our sponsors – which is how we came to be in a wood near Welwyn Garden City just as darkness was falling and our hostess for the evening remembered that she’d forgotten to buy any food for us all. Which is not what hungry walkers want to hear at 6pm on a Sunday with no shops still open.
“Not a problem,” said Ratgirl. “We’ll just pick some mushrooms.”
Now, in those days I had no idea at all about mushrooms. So far as I was concerned there were two main groups of fungi; watery supermarket things which were tasteless and pointless, and toadstools – which were obviously so poisonous that they could kill you if you just looked at them too closely. This strikes me as absurd now, but it’s amazing just how little people know about edible fungi (my neighbours won’t eat them unless they come shrink-wrapped “with a proper label on”). Ratgirl made some reassuring noises about having eaten wild mushrooms for ages, so I relaxed a bit and waited for some technical instructions about how to identify the good ones. When they came, though, they were neither as technical nor as instructive as I might have hoped.
“Have a good look round,” she said, “And if you find something interesting, give me a shout.”
So off we all went, in different directions. I had no idea what I was looking for other than a vague notion of what sort of shape mushrooms should be, and simply stumped along through the undergrowth wishing I had brought my cigarettes, and waiting for someone to shout that we were all saved because they’d found a splendid specimen of chicken tikka masala of the woods.** It therefore came as a bit of a shock to me when I nearly fell over one of these.
What happened next was something of a revelation to me. When I looked up to shout for Ratgirl I found that I was standing in the middle of a large ring of them, ranging from two to eight inches across. I couldn’t have been more surprised if one of them had spoken to me, and all of a sudden I could smell them; a musky, nutty smell that made me feel as if I was standing on the back of a gigantic creature. As it turns out, I was right; the bulk of a fungi is a network of underground filaments which are mostly microscopic but which can collectively weigh many tons.
“Oh, well done – parasols,” said Ratgirl, as she came to see what I was squeaking about. “There’s enough for everyone.” And there was – she just cut the caps into quarters, dipped them in beer batter, and we ate them as fritters with onions and chutney. They were superb, and nothing like the watery commercial ones.
And that was it, I was hooked. Over the next few years I got hold of a good field guide and taught myself a few of the most easily identified species, and blagged walks with people who knew more than I did. Before long I knew dozens of them, with wonderful names like shaggy ink caps, chanterelles, penny buns and hedgehog fungus. Mushrooming makes for an interesting seasonal hobby because it gets you out into the woods and fields early in the morning,*** because you’ll find yourself in hidden corners you didn’t know even existed, and because you get to call yourself a “field mycologist” if you’re in the mood.
*Isn’t it funny how memory works? Normally the only thing my brain will give me at a moment’s notice is the first letter of someone’s name, so when I bump into a casual acquaintance unexpectedly all I can say is “Oh, hello Baahrnfd” and hope that they’re as bad with names as I am. Yet hear I sit twenty years later, and I can confidently tell you that the walk was for the West Norfolk Seal Rescue Service which is run by Alan and Brenda Giles. Now if only my brain would consent to tell me the names of my own children in the correct order when I need them, I’d be laughing.
**Not quite as funny as it sounds, because this is a “chicken of the woods” mushroom, so named because of the texture. And yes, it’s quite nice in a curry.
***To be there first, you understand. Although if you live in an area rich in people from eastern Europe, you may have to get up an hour before you went to bed; the British may have forgotten how to pick and eat wild mushrooms, but the rest of Europe certainly hasn’t! My first mushroom mentor once told me “If you want to know where the mushrooms are, follow a Pole – but if you want to eat any of them, get there first.”