A look at the rewarding hobby of foraging for wild fungi, where to start and how to do it safely.
Last week I went on a guided mushroom hunt with my nearest and dearest. Three hours of wandering the woods, peering at the leafy floor, in search of an edible bounty. I think this may be the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And what a bounty we found! A stunning array of colours, textures and species. I found, for the first time, amethyst deceivers (laccaria amethystina), winter chanterelles (craterellus tubaeformis), bay boletes (boletus badius), charcoal burners (russula cyanoxantha) and orange peel fungus (aleuria aurantia). We also found some lovely hedgehogs (hydnum repandum) and a truly beautiful specimen of wood cauliflower (sparassis crispa). The only other time I have found the enchanting cauliflower mushroom is the first time I ever went mushroom hunting. It was absolutely thrilling to find another one and I cradled it like a baby for the rest of the hunt.
We were hunting in Sussex and we found our epic haul in the woods surrounding here. I have never really understood the politics of 'mushroom spots' that seems to exist among mushroom hunters. Especially when dealing with people new to this wonderful hobby. I want to do everything I can to encourage people to join in and to experience the excitement of finding weird and wonderful fungi. It's good to share. Of course, people need to learn how to identify their own favourable mushroom environments, but part of learning that is experiencing such environments, of stomping around in them and really getting a feel for them. Not everything can be learned from a book, nor can everyone be inspired by the often dry delivery of detailed, technical, scientific manuals. I think there are enough mushrooms to go around.
Some of our party that day were very reluctant to collect and eat mushrooms. They had heard scare story after scare story (including from our guide), and although there certainly are risks associated with careless mushroom hunting, I think the irresponsible repetition of disproportionately alarmist stories of death and disability is something to be fought against. Compare the handful of mushroom casualties with the 5.5 million cases of food poisoning that exist from supermarket foods (primarily meat, fish and poultry) in the UK, resulting in at least 500 deaths every year. Of course, in the UK there are far fewer people collecting and eating mushrooms than buying food from supermarkets, but I think the comparison still stands. When was the last time someone looked at you as though you were mad when you reached for some packaged chicken? Don't eat the chicken, the chicken's deadly!! There is nothing unsafe about the careful, considered collection of many, easily-identifiable, wild mushrooms. There is a strong financial interest in keeping people away from the wide range of freely-available edibles that literally cover our cities, towns, villages and countryside. Namely, that they're free. No profit to be made there.
If you can get yourself on a good mushroom education course, this is by far the best way to start. I got the bug while I was living in the mushroom-rich forests of Canada, where a local nature education centre put on a very reasonable one-day course designed to introduce people to safe mushroom collection. They provided us with the tools, as beginners, to continue the hobby by ourselves, rather than stressing how complex the world of mycology can be. This scientific field can indeed be extremely complicated, but it does not always need to be. With a few hours education, it is accessible.
They introduced us to the key identifiers you should become familiar with to feel confident collecting mushrooms, such as colour, shape, smell, texture and growing environment, to name but a few. They told us about their favourite books, why they found them useful and how to get the most out of them. They displayed examples of the beautiful, magical spore-prints all mushrooms produce and showed us how to make our own. And then the really exciting part, taking this basic knowledge out into the forest to find our own. That day I found lobster mushrooms (sadly unavailable in the UK), chanterelles and - most excitingly - a cauliflower mushroom. It was all profoundly inspirational and I was sold. Give it a go. I cannot imagine how anyone who tries it would not love it.
I was lucky enough to be able to take home most of what we found last week. I prepared each mushroom separately (see the individual guides and cooking instruction below) and we ate homemade pizzas, each topped with a different mushroom. We still had lots left though, so the next day I turned our multi-mushroom selection into a lovely Wild mushroom risotto.
Get my favourite beginner's mushroom book, River Cottage Handbook No. 1 by John Wright.