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Food for free: finding safe wild fungi

Friday 05 September 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been collecting some – but by no means all - wild fungi for many years praises the free harvest of autumn. But he urges great caution for anyone new to the growing hobby of wild fungi collecting

IT WAS about this time of the year, a decade or so ago, and I was returning from the river at dusk after a fruitless day’s salmon fishing. I was following the footpath along the edge of a large meadow when, to my surprise, the grass had taken on a strange white sheen as the moon rose above the fell.

Intrigued, I walked over to investigate and found the largest harvest of field mushrooms I have ever come across. This was a field of perhaps five acres – and at least an acre of that was covered in fresh fungi like fallen snow.

Portabello Mushroom
It’s wild mushroom time – but beware

As someone who was taught to differentiate between the good and bad common fungi as a child, I began to fill my boots or – more accurately – my salmon landing net. With the scales I carry (hopefully) for weighing fish, I collected 17 lbs of mushrooms that evening, so many that after days of the things cooked in every way my wife could devise we were so sick of the taste that we gave the rest away.

This week, I found out that my behaviour that long- gone evening was wrong as judged by today’s standards (although it was probably acceptable then). Wild fungi collecting has become such the rage now that bodies like English Nature and the Forestry Commission have drawn up codes of conduct and they recommend that no single picker should take more than 1.5 kilos of wild fungi – and that only for personal use only.

There are reasons for this: because fungi form part of an important natural cycle, particularly in woodland where they help break down rotting vegetation, large scale picking can disrupt this natural chain reaction to the detriment of other plants and wildlife.

But I have an even more serious concern about large scale fungi gathering, particularly amongst people with little experience, possibly towns folk egged on by cookery programmes on TV extolling the virtues of various wild mushrooms. And that, in extreme cases, can literally be a matter of life and death. There are fungi out there that can make people very ill indeed. In a worst case scenario, they can be fatal.

This week, the Forestry Commission welcomed people onto its land to collect fungi in small amounts for personal use (See News): it is illegal to gather them for commercial sale. But this welcome came with a warning that only people with a proper knowledge should do so.

And, with apologies, I reiterate that warning because I am not prepared to risk giving advice of this matter in a short article. There are some fungi which are easy to recognise, like the giant white puffball, white, round and tasting of steak, or the delicate, umbrella shaped chanterelle, which French chefs praise to the heavens.

But even the well-named death cap Amanita phalloides can easily be mistaken for a field mushroom and this is estimated to be responsible for 90% of all deaths caused by fungi poisoning (see picture). Look out for its white gills, a “skirt” of loose flesh around a stem which swells at the base.

there are many societies which organise guided fungi forays led by skilled
experts

Thus warned, anyone wishing to go out in the woods today in search of delicious free food should do one of several things. For a start, it is essential to carry with you a detailed catalogue of good coloured pictures of the various types of fungi at different stages of their development.

For to make things even more complicated, fungi can change shape and colour as they go through their short lives. Without wishing to labour the point, the death cap starts life egg shaped. But as it ages, it flattens out – and that’s when it begins to take on the look of an ordinary field mushroom.

One could download some of these pictures from the web – I would recommend www.first-nature.com/books/fungicd1.htm - but that would mean carrying a pretty large bundle. Whilst that might be useful for a gentle exploration of the more common forms of fungi, I would recommend the purchase of a pocket-sized field guide: there are plenty to be had.

Better still for rank amateurs, there are many societies which organise guided fungi forays led by skilled experts. They will not only keep you safe but will also impart valuable lessons on types of habitat where you are likely to find various types of fungi. A call to your local library or tourist information centre might have details of such expeditions. Good – safe – hunting and bon appétit!

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