It’s entirely possible that this is the third newsletter in a row I’ve gone on about Autumn. I’m not going to apologise for this – what more perfect season is there? Crisp mornings, warm afternoons, leaf piles to kick, spectacular cloud formations and free food!
The last two weekends have finally borne fruit – in the form of the fruiting bodies of fungi – and our store cupboard is beginning to fill up with dried mushrooms.
People are understandably cautious about picking wild mushrooms – every year over 200 people suffer from mushroom poisoning after eating the wrong ones. However this is completely avoidable and by following a few simple rules, anyone can pick and eat wild mushrooms in complete safety.
1 – It all starts with a good book. The River Cottage Mushroom book is great for people new to foraging, because it only focuses on a small number of easy to identify edible species. It’s worth having a second and third guide book with more detail in it at home so you can double and triple check your finds.
2 – Start with one or two species. My go-to mushrooms are Winter Chanterelles, Horn of Plenty (pictured above), Cep, Hedgehog Mushroom, Morel, Giant Puffball and Cauliflower fungus. I look for these because they are almost impossible to confuse with something else – especially when you layer in other important identifiers like habitat (what kind of tree are they growing near) and time of year (morels are a springtime mushroom for example).
3 – If in doubt, don’t pick. It’s a simple as that. Would you pick a random red berry from a hedgerow unless you knew it was edible? Same for mushrooms. I don’t pick mushrooms I’m not certain are edible. When I get home I double check against other reference books to get a 100% certain ID.
4 – Seriously, if you wouldn’t bet your life on knowing if the mushroom is edible don’t bet your life on it!
5 – Learn to ID some of the poisonous ones too. It’s a nice bit of knowledge to have, and could save someone else’s life. I’ve met people in the woods with bags full of every mushroom they’ve come across with a couple of Death-caps nestled in the middle.
6 – There are no ‘rules’. Old wives tales about colour, or time of year or ‘if a slug has eaten it it must be safe’ are all pretty much rubbish. The only way to be sure is to get a 100% ID from a book or an expert. There’s really no difference between mushrooms and toadstools. They’re all fungi. Some of the most poisonous mushrooms are reputedly the tastiest and some of the scariest sounding ones (Trumpet of Death for example) are the safest to eat.
7 – Join a local foraging group, meet some experts, learn from others.
Some mushrooms should be eaten straight away, some can be dried and used in risottos and stews – but if you like mushrooms, then picking wild ones will give you at least two moments of joy. Finding a troupe of chanterelles is an amazing feeling and eating them in a lovely mushroom risotto is almost as good!
I’ve been picking mushrooms every year for 10 years. My knowledge is still tiny compared to the shear number of species in the UK, and yet every year I forage & dry mushrooms for our kitchen cupboard that would cost £30/kg in Wholefoods.
Like everything else we talk about at Living Unplugged – some of the most satisfying things in life take time. Don’t be in a rush, they’ll be back next year.