I love mushrooms. Ceps, morels, chanterelles, chestnut, even the humble field mushroom. All of them. The only problem is, to get your hands on unusual mushrooms, you either have to buy very expensive dried mushrooms, or seek out those rare specialist shops that sell them fresh. It’s no surprise that the foraging craze has really taken off. The only problem is that while foraging for mushrooms is no new thing (my grandparents used to do it every autumn in Anglesey), nowadays, coach loads of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall-ites are heading to forests and stripping them bare of every type of mushroom only to have an ‘expert’ say at the end which ones they can and can’t eat. This leaves forests stripped of mushrooms and creates piles of unwanted fungi left at the sides of roads.
The other problem is, of course, the risk eating poisonous is very high if you don’t know what you’re doing. Over 100 people this year alone have been hospitalised from eating poisonous mushrooms. In 2013, the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) recorded 237 cases of poisoning across the UK and many involving children under the age of 10.
To find out more, I recently went on a mushroom walk ran by the mycologist Michael Jordon in Somerset. I must admit, before taking part in the walk, my knowledge of fungus was limited to my eating them and the brilliant documentary, the Magic of Mushrooms by Professor Richard Fortey.
I met Michael via a grid reference on a remote country lane in the depths of Somerset. I wasn’t sure what to expect and whether he would, or would not let us know what we could and couldn’t eat. He made his case very clear early on: “All mushrooms are edible. Some of them you can only eat once.”
This educational walk was not to fill our baskets with mounds of mushrooms to make risotto with for lunch, it was to find out about how mushrooms grow and help Michael compile information for his database. Michael founded the Association of British Fungal Groups (ABFG) in 1996 having observed an upsurge in interest in mushroom hunting since presenting Mushroom Magic, a documentary on Channel 4 in 1989. He quickly realised that there is no national log of fungus growth in the UK, and as a result, we have no idea which types of fungus are rare or not. A database called CATE, maintained by the ABFG, was set up which collates affiliated fungus groups and servers as a national organisation for individual members.
We set off on our walk into the forest and Michael explained about the different types of mushrooms as we found them. I found out about bracket fungus, spore prints, the patterns by which they grow around trees, common names and Latin names. The more we looked in the undergrowth, the keener my eyes got and soon I was spotting fungus everywhere. He picked some for scientific and identification purposes alone. His walks are about mycological conservation, not foraging. Since there are thousands of different fungus specimens in the UK, Michael explained that he couldn’t name them all and therefore had to pick them to identify them properly when back at his house under a microscope. Having said that, I was very impressed by the amount he did know. He rarely didn’t know the Latin name for every type we came upon from Rhytisma acerinum to Mycena vitilis and from Lepiota cristata to the beautifully named Inocybe geophylla var. lilacina.
Michael’s and the ABFG’s maintenance of the CATE database is an important and fundamental resource to understanding and maintaining our natural wildlife. We need to properly understand what grows in our forests before we strip them bare of our vital fungus life. So, before you head out foraging, think about the effect it will have on the local landscape and the potential dangerous aspect of eating poisonous mushrooms. Michael made the point that the mushrooms cultivated and farmed for shops are grown for taste rather than the ones found in our forests. And if you are out and about do stumble upon some mushrooms you think are edible, remember, if you are in any doubt, don’t eat them as the risks simply are not worth it.
Until we work out how to grow cultivate interesting and fresh mushrooms on a large industrial scale in the UK, I am going to have to continue to folk out for them in their dried state or at expensive farmers markets. But, for the love of mushrooms and their natural habitat, it is worth it.
For more information, the ABFG’s website and the CATE database can be found here: http://www.abfg.org/