Wild mushrooms are a useful wild food and are, of course, absolutely free. They are low in fat, carbohydrates and sodium, but are rich enough in protein to substitute for meat in a variety of dishes. They also dry well, making them suitable for storage all year round. The key to this resource, and it’s extremely important, is accurate identification.
If you have no experience, learning to identify and eat wild mushrooms in the UK can be rather daunting. Where mushroom picking is a popular family pastime in the autumn throughout Europe, here in Britain we have no tradition of what Italians call ‘the silent hunt’. Turning up on a friend’s doorstep with a basket of assorted fungi is more likely to earn you a look of horror than a wild welcome. But don’t be put off: with patience, care and a good reference book, you can learn enough to make wild mushrooms an important part of your diet year after year.
Learning to hunt for mushrooms
When it comes to learning about wild mushrooms, you’re going to need a reliable guide. If you’re lucky enough to know someone with real experience, or can find an organised mushroom walk, then you’re off to a flying start. Ask them to take you out foraging, and be prepared for some really early mornings.
You’re also going to need at least one good book on the subject. For edible mushrooms, the ideal book concentrates on the ones that you can eat, but shows you what you’re likely to confuse each species with too. Also useful is a ‘key’ – this is a tool that helps you narrow down new finds by certain key characteristics. Some of these, such as size and colour, are fairly obvious – but some, such as how the gills are attached to the stem (or even if the shroom has gills at all) will only make sense once you actually start to examine mushrooms closely.
We recommend the Collins Gem Mushrooms as a good field guide, since it ticks all these boxes. You will also need a more comprehensive information source at home. We recommend the comprehensive online resource Rogers Mushrooms, which is free to access, but if you prefer a book which you can hold then Mushrooms by Roger Phillips is the one to get.
Your first foray
Once you have your field guide – that is, a book that you will take with you – it’s a good idea to get a slip-on clear plastic jacket for it, as it’s going to be out in all weathers. You will also need a small folding knife for cutting mushrooms, a flat wicker basket or mesh bag to carry your finds, and a separate bag for unidentified finds (see below). Early morning is the best time to go wild mushroom hunting, before the heat of the sun makes more delicate finds tough and inedible.
You can gather mushrooms from anywhere that isn’t polluted or sprayed with chemicals. Woods are ideal, but don’t rule out local commons, parks and wasteland. The peak time for mushrooms tends to be October, but if you know what to look for there are harvests to be had at other times, too. The brain-like morels appear in late spring, for example, and the frost-tolerant blewitts can fruit from November until January in some areas.
The golden rules
- The only way to know if a mushroom is safe to eat or not is to identify it properly. When identifying a new one, always check with more than one source.
- Whatever hard and fast rules you’ve been told about whether mushrooms are edible or not, forget them. Examples include ‘if it has a peelable skin, it’s safe’, ‘if it grows on wood, it’s safe’ and ‘if you cut it in half and it’s white all the way through, it’s safe’. These are all dangerous nonsense!
- Don’t just learn the important edible species – learn the 20 important deadly ones too so that you can stay well clear of them.
- Eat only a little of a new species the first time, so you can see if it upsets you. It’s a good idea to make sure that someone else knows what you’ve eaten too – or leave a specimen out for examination, just in case.
- Keep ‘unknown’ picks in a separate bag or basket from the ones you intend to eat. It’s very easy to make mistakes when you’re tired after a long walk!
- Until you really know your stuff, always cook wild mushrooms before eating. Cooking inactivates some important fungal toxins.