Written by Heather Elvidge
Picking wild mushrooms is incredibly popular, thanks to celebrity chefs and their back-to-basics cooking. Every year, more foragers head to the woods. But do they know what’s lurking in their baskets?
It seems not. So far, there have been 84 reported cases of poisoning this year, four of them severe. The problem is, once you’re out in woodland it’s more difficult than you’d think to identify the deadly ones.
Take the death cap – or rather, don’t. Initially, consuming this harmless-looking toadstool brings on an episode of food poisoning. It takes a few days for the real damage to become apparent: the death cap destroys its victim’s liver and kidneys.
If that hasn’t put you off, then it’s best to stick to a few unmistakable ones. The delicate-flavoured chanterelle is a bright, golden yellow. The hedgehog mushroom has a cap like chamois leather with hedgehog-style spikes underneath. The giant puffball looks like a giant puffball. But if in doubt, don’t.
Foraging has really taken off since 1972, when Richard Mabey wrote Food for Free. At that time collecting from the wild was thought eccentric, not to say weird. Britons had foraged during the war, when food was scarce and rationed. But who wanted to get scratched, muddy and probably poisoned, when you could nip into one of the new supermarkets?
Picking wild mushrooms was a craze among Victorian naturalists, walkers, and romantics, who took to exploring Britain’s wild places by train. Country people, who’d always eaten field mushrooms and penny buns, earned a bit of cash by acting as guides to these urban explorers.
Until then, the general attitude to those sinister things in the woods had been one of suspicion. As the Grete Herbal of 1526 pointed out, there are only two kinds of wild mushroom: “One maner is deedly and sleeth them that eateth of them and be called tode stoles, and the other doeth not.”
What strange beasts these are. Fungi are a mass of tiny filaments, called a mycelium, that live in soil or rotting wood. Although the mycelium can cover a large area, we only know it’s there when it sends up some cups, horns, brackets, or sticky blobs.
This ability to pop up overnight contributed to fungi’s dark reputation. Toadstools were the work of elves and goblins.
On moonlit nights, faeries come out to dance in old pasture. They dance the old-fashioned way, holding hands in a circle. This leaves a ring of discoloured grass, out of which spring white toadstools.
At full moon, run nine times around a faery ring and you’ll hear their laughter. Sit inside the ring on All Hallows Eve, and the faeries will take you back to their kingdom. Forever.
Everyone’s classic toadstool has a bright scarlet cap with white spots. This is the fly agaric, seen in woods and forests from Britain to Siberia. It has a happy arrangement with birch trees, exchanging nutrients from the soil for sugars made by the birches.
This mild autumn with damp soil is perfect for fungi. It’s fun to go out mushroom spotting, but it’s best to leave them in the woods.