Hen pal and partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, has been enjoying an autumn harvest for free – so I thought I would get her to tell the story…
During the last week it has suddenly got very autumnal here on Dartmoor, lots of mist and rain, but still pleasantly warm. This is great news for mushroom hunters like me!
I was walking the dog last Saturday morning and, as I strolled through some fields where sheep had been grazing, I spotted some bright white blobs among the green grass. Aha – field mushrooms I thought! Luckily, I had a plastic bag with me and picked some, which we duly ate for breakfast – lovely! When picking mushrooms, you want to look for nice clean, firm specimens – hence usually gathering mushrooms early in the day before they have been nibbled by insects, rained on or, most likely here, trampled on by a passing ewe!
I have been foraging for fungi for about 25 years now and it is a really interesting and rewarding thing to do when you are out in the countryside, strolling in a park, or just walking along a grassy verge. Scaremongers will tell horror stories about people poisoning themselves but this happens very rarely and, if you are sensible, learn from an expert and follow a couple of simple rules, you won’t go wrong.
If you are starting from scratch, I’d suggest you go on a fungi forage. You’ll find lots of these foraging walks arranged locally, often by National Trust properties, or other local nature organisations. This is a great way to pick up tips from someone who really knows their stuff, get to see the type of habitats that are good for mushrooms, and ultimately, discover if you enjoy foraging or not.
Despite knowing roughly what I am looking for, I am no expert, and I always refer to my trusty reference book – Roger Phillips ‘Common and important mushrooms’. I would recommend everyone starting out on this hobby buys this book.
The first maxim I was taught on day one was: ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’ So if you pick anything you are not 100% sure about, DON’T try it, leave it out of your collection. The majority of mushrooms are not edible – but they aren’t poisonous either – they just don’t taste very nice. Quite a few are mildly poisonous and a few are lethal. Some are decidedly contrary and are poisonous raw, but edible when cooked… I confess I’ve never felt inclined to try any of these!
One of the most common edible mushrooms you will see, often standing defiantly up in the middle of someone’s neat lawn, are shaggy ink caps. These are pretty unmistakeable, looking like judges’ wigs and, provided you pick them before they get to the ‘shaggy’ stage, they are lovely quickly browned in butter and served on toast.
Another mushroom that most of us are familiar with is the one with a red cap and white spots usually drawn with a fairy or pixie sitting neatly on the top. But don’t be fooled by its cheery looks – it is the deadly poisonous Fly Agaric and you shouldn’t even risk touching it. Which brings me to maxim number two: Always wash your hands thoroughly if you have been handling any fungi.
Fungi foraging is great fun and, like many things in the natural world, if you are sensible, and follow the rules, it is hugely rewarding.