The joy of mushrooms is a matter of life and death
THERE’S something magical about fungi. Not just the ones known as magic mushrooms, but all of them.
And I don’t just mean the edible ones – though they can be truly special.
I’m not sure why we Brits are so shy of them. Maybe, as I’ve seen suggested, it goes back to a rupture in our national cooking habits at the time of the First World War.
Whatever the reason, we seem to have a phobia about wild food. Especially about mushrooms.
Hop across the Channel to France and you’ll find a variety of odd-looking specimens on market stalls.
Visit eastern Europe and you’ll see families trooping off into the woods with buckets to collect their favourites.
Here, meanwhile, there’s only one species commonly to be found on sale, unless you seek out an Oriental or Polish grocery.
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And though pleasant enough, the common field mushroom – to many people the only type that gets called “mushroom” at all – is neither the tastiest nor the most nutritious out there.
Of course, you have to be careful. But knowing what you’re doing isn’t that hard if you care enough to get the right books, and err on the side of caution.
And I do mean caution. I don’t want any sick or dying readers on my conscience, thank you very much.
Many guides recommend learning how to recognise the few really deadly species so you can avoid them. Others suggest getting to know four or five of the commoner and nicer edible ones and sticking to those.
Both are sound advice.
There are pitfalls, of course.
A couple of years ago author Nicholas Evans, of Horse Whisperer fame, went gathering mushrooms in Scotland with his wife.
He thought she knew a tasty chanterelle when she saw one. She thought he did.
Result, one basket full of cortinarius speciosissimus, alias deadly webcap. Which, frankly, doesn’t look a lot like chanterelle at all. They should have known better.
Further result, both Evanses, his brother and sister-in-law are on daily dialysis while awaiting kidney transplants. They are lucky to be alive – and especially lucky that their children refused the feast.
Their experience may have added to the popular distrust of mushrooms gathered from anywhere but the supermarket shelf.
But the real lesson is about the value of knowing – really knowing – what you’re doing.
Which I reckon applies to just about anything in life that’s worth doing at all.
And it would be a shame if the amazing bounty of this autumn were to be wasted.
I wrote three weeks ago about the proliferation of fungi, especially parasol mushrooms.
Well, it certainly hasn’t diminished since then. In fact, the best season of my life for wild mushrooms just goes on getting better.
You must have noticed. Go for a walk anywhere that isn’t concreted over and the things are everywhere.
Most, frankly, I can’t identify – or not with the necessary confidence. I still find their sudden and rampant appearance magical.
But there plenty I can put a name to. And a few I’m happy to put on my plate.