I have been interested in foraging for a long time. I often went blackberrying with my parents as a child but my enthusiasm really kicked off when I was about thirteen. I had been looking for information on poisonous plants, drugs and witchcraft. I was intrigued by deadly nightshade and opium poppies. Books such as Culpeper’s ‘Complete Herbal’ appealed to me, and then I found the book ‘Food For Free’ by Richard Mabey in the school library. It was early February and there was very little wild food about for the novice forager. I ended up making dandelion root coffee which I had to throw away. My foraging progressed as I took ‘GCSE Home Economics: Food’ as one of my eight school subjects. I remember going out early one morning in desperation to find some good stinging nettles to make a soup with. It turned out to be more difficult than I thought, and I eventually settled for some next to a path where people commonly walked their dogs! I learnt to make a roux with flour and butter and actually ended up with a smooth and fairly palatable bright green soup to show to my teacher. On a visit to my grandma’s I found she had a copy of ‘Food For Free’ which she gave to me and I still have it today, over 25 years later.
I have had a small (Collins Gem) mushroom and toadstool identification book since before I can remember, it says 1982 in the front so I must have been about eight. However, much as I desired to collect and eat wild mushrooms they were always an alien thing. I would never have dared risk it. The exception was the giant puffball, unmistakable from anything else and I was eager to try it, but for some reason all those puffballs I remembered seeing suddenly evaded me, or else I discovered them after someone had played football with them.
When Martina and I moved to the Cambridgeshire countryside, surrounded by old fields and woodland I made a determined effort to find and eat my first wild mushrooms. By this time I had two much more substantial mushroom field guides, one illustrated with photographs and the other with excellent drawings. I also had ‘Food For Free’ for backup, which gives ideas about the safest mushrooms to collect and some of the specific pitfalls for wrongly identifying each one. Those first forays produced mixed results. I made some rules for myself. I had to be cast iron sure on the identification in both of my field guides, using various techniques, such as spore prints. I then went online and thoroughly researched the species I had picked, looking over pictures time and again. Only then would I cook up a bit of the mushroom and try a very small quantity, about half a saucer full, or less, and wait for the results. As it turned out on all three occasions I wasn’t at all ill. One of the mushrooms (the Beefsteak Fungus) was tasteless and not really worth it, as my books had already suggested. Another was a type of ‘boletus’ but I found only enough for a tiny taste anyway. The third was a roaring success. The ‘Shaggy Parasol’, what a mushroom! What a delicious taste! Once fried in butter it is just big enough to cover a slice of toast and then to perfectly house a poached egg on top. The flavour would lead anyone who likes the taste of mushrooms to be forever disappointed with shop bought buttons. Martina ate them and loved them, my mum ate them and loved them, all too soon they were nowhere to be found and the season was over.
I have done a lot of foraging since then, particularly when travelling aboard Carina looking for shellfish and seashore plants. I even found and enjoyed ‘St Georges Day Mushrooms’ in Plymouth. Now, working in the grounds of Warwick castle in autumn, I am pursuing fungus with a renewed vigour! I identified my first ‘Field Mushrooms’ the other day. Very similar and closely related to our standard shop bought mushrooms, the taste is not markedly better but it was a mini triumph, real free food. I was so nervous, this was my first normal white mushroom. The St Georges didn’t count because they come so early in the year that they can be positively identified as a non-poisonous species, but the field mushroom cannot. When young there are deadly poisonous species that could be easily confused with them. Even on maturity there are similar species that could give you a nasty stomach upset. I checked for all of these and finally tried a few pieces fried in butter (my mum even tried one piece). The taste was good. I made a soup and had it at work one day, but I unfortunately managed to leave in a tiny bit of grit which ruined the enjoyment of the flavour, lesson learned. Next I found ‘chicken of the woods’ growing at the base of a beech tree on a river island, an unmistakable, large orange/yellow fungus. It uncannily resembles chicken in both colour and texture and when broken has a good mushroomy flavour. A real gem of a find. It can be used in most chicken recipes and tastes better than the standard shop bought mushrooms. With stuff like this in the wild my thoughts turn to all of those vegetarians eating factory processed Quorn and I wonder whether they would ever do this if only they knew.
So finally last night Martina cooked a wild mushroom risotto. She used some dried yellow pored boletus that I had collected, which is a close relative of Porcini, and garnished the dish with Chicken of the Woods, Field Mushrooms and Shaggy Parasol. It was delicious. Martina was a little nervous and therefore limited the quantity of wild mushrooms used, but the fact that I had already eaten a little of all of these mushrooms with no ill effect certainly helped.
For breakfast this morning I fried up some of the leftovers and had them on toast. To be honest I am all muyshroomed out at the moment but look forward to collecting a few more over the coming weeks.