Wild Harvest - Mushroom picking

The Shaggy Ink Cap or Lawyer's Wig.
The Shaggy Ink Cap or Lawyer's Wig.

Having an insatiable appetite for field mushrooms, we began our search in early August.

Finding a dozen or so - very desicated in texture - I simmered them well in seasoned milk and butter. Oh dear, what went wrong?

Fungi thrive in warm damp conditions

A black, foaming mass rose to the surface. We sampled a small quantity, but were not impressed. Tigga, our Parson Russell Terrier, demanded his share too. Dashing to his dish, he took one sniff and turned away in disgust. He knew something was amiss, so out they went.

A disappointing start, but the identification of fungi is never so easy as that of wild flowers. Fungi vary enormously in shape, size, colour and texture even within the same species. Many folk naturally feel worried about being poisoned, despite only a very small number being dangerous. Perhaps their ability to thrive in gloomy places, or suddenly appear overnight creates suspicion. Maybe their obtaining food from decaying plants - or even animals, disgusts people. Let’s be honest, even their shape may be off-putting, their slimy texture. Some even resemble brains, fleshy ears or parts of the body.

Names may be misleading too. Would you wish to sample mushrooms named after a Parasol, a Lawyer’s Wig or Giant Puffball? Yet these are some of our favourite species, well worth cooking.

There must be over 100 quite good, edible varieties in this country, though as yet, we’ve sampled few. Although they’ve little nutritional value, apart from their vitamin D content, some tastes and textures certainly intrigue.

How can you recognised a fungus? Well, despite being plants they have no leaves, and are never green, as they do not contain chlorophyll. they are therefore unable to manufacture their own food, ie carbohydrates. Consequently, they have to absorb nourishment from their host, be they plant or animal, depending on the species. A good fungus bed, is ground rich in decaying plant litter, such as mature woodland and old pasture land.

Fungi thrive in warm, damp conditions. This year’s mainly warm, dry summer, if followed by a mild. wet autumn should prove ideal. The greatest number seem to appear from mid to late summer and well into autumn, until the first frosts arrive.

I suggest you obtain a good reference book for indentification purposes.

Do learn the most poisonous ones first. Only pick specimens that satisfy all the characteristics of an edible fungus re shape, size colour, gills and spores. Check the time of year, and habitat where found.

Don’t pick fungi that are not fully developed. Yet on the other hand, avoid any that are starting to decay or are holed by maggots or slugs. Avoid a fungus foray on a very wet day, as such conditions spoil their flavour and texture, and hasten their decay. Choose a dry day; wear old clothes, and take an open basket or trug which allows good ventilation. Heat and congested packing cause quick decay. Avoid polythene bags and carrier bags which sweat.

The fungi you pick are the fruiting bodies arising from a network of find threads growing around the ‘roots’ called the mycelium. The spores coming from the gills are like microscopic seeds, You must take the whole mushroom. Just twist it gently until it’s free.

Before cooking, look again for signs of decay. I usually cut each specimen in half to check for maggots etc.

Clean the mushrooms, but don’t wash or peel them, and remember to use them within 24 hours of being gathered. It’s advisable to try a small portion to see if it agrees with you.

Apart from the best known edible fungi - Field Mushroom, which is a rather stout species, white-capped and with pinkish brown gills, we enjoy the Lawyer’s Wig or Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus). At least there’s no mistaking this one, and it’s certainly very common on grassland, roadside verges, and possibly your own lawn throughout the summer and autumn. It has a shaggy, white, cylindrical cap when young, and really does resemble a judge’s wig. It gradually opens from the base as the spores mature. Now watch those mature gills as they seem to dissolve away into a soggy black liquid. You’ll find this species any time between June and November. At its best, the white cylindrical cap may be anything between 2” to 5” (ie 5cm-12.5cm), and covered with shaggy, almost woolly scales. Opening up like a rather limp umbrella, the white gills turn pink and finally black.

The black, inky liquid drips away along with the spores. You should pick this species when it’s white and firm, or cook as soon as possible after picking, before the cap starts to dissolve. Remove the stem (ie stipe) and bake in a very slow casserole, with cream, for up to two hours.

A quicker method is to ‘fry’ in butter or bacon fat, with milk added. [Any specimens left to dissolve away, may be used as black ink.]

NB. Its close relative is Coprinus atramentarius - a dirty grey colour and no scales. It is edible but not with alcohol as it causes nausea and sickness.

A real treasure and surprise to find, is the Giant Puffball (Lycoperdon giganteum). It forms an enormous white, smooth and leathery ball up to 30cm across, and more, like a football. The inside is spongy and white when young. As they age they turn yellowish brown, with a centre filled with dusty, reproductive spores. These puff out like smoke when squeezed.

Ensure your specimen is white, and there’s no need to peel it. Just slice it into steaks about half an inch (1.25cm) thick. Fry these on bacon fat, or even butter, for about 10 minutes until golden brown on either side. They rather resemble egg omelettes. Search in fields, woods, and beneath hedges between August and October, and good luck with your treasure hunt.