I uncover the feast of fungi to be found in the UK’s woodlands this month and gets expert advice on capturing, cultivating and cooking your own
If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. No, not picnicking bears, but the awe-inspiring appearance of another fairytale phenomenon.
From ‘Amethyst Deceivers’ and ‘Chicken of the Woods’ to ‘Slippery Jacks’ and ‘Scarlet Elf Cups’, wild mushrooms can turn craggy tree stumps and hummus-rich nooks and crannies into a Disney Fantasia.
In fact, our woodlands and meadows are home to almost 15,000 marvellous mushrooms, with around 300 edible varieties – and, in October, they are ripe for the picking.
A flavour of fungi
For seasoned ‘shroom’ stalker Fred Gillam, aka ‘Fred the Forager’, who runs Wild Side of Life foraging courses in his home county of Wiltshire, mushroom foraging has become a way of life.
“There are very few days when I don’t go out to provide mushrooms for the table – I eat at least 100 species,” says Fred. “There’s mushrooms that taste of marzipan; purple ones you can pickle in vodka; giant puffballs that weigh 8lb, which can be stuffed with vegetables before a slow bake; little aquamarine coloured funnels that impart a powerful aniseed flavour, and others that can be ground into a powder akin to chilli. The diversity of flavour, texture and gastronomic potential in wild mushrooms is unbelievable.”
Fred’s passion for these noble rots stemmed from his rural upbringing: growing up in the Wiltshire countryside on an estate where his father was head gardener.
“I developed an early fascination with all things ‘nature’, and at 14 was out on an early morning autumn cycle ride with a friend when we spotted some truly enormous mushrooms towering above the dewy meadow grass,” he recalls. “I felt as if I’d opened a door onto an enchanting world, and as it turned out that’s exactly what I had done. On discovering my first ‘parasol’ mushrooms, I’d started off on a very long and rewarding journey.”
While Fred doesn’t have a favourite place to forage (the location of the best mushrooms can vary year to year), he does have favourite varieties and of the 300 edible species, he suggests only 100 are worth seeking out. “There are plenty of mushrooms you can eat but many of them lack flavour, or simply don’t taste like food at all!” he says.
On one of his immersive, four-day ‘Secret Sunday Mushroom Clubs’ (the location of which is kept quiet until the last minute, so Fred can seek out the best blooms) pickings can include everything from umbrella-shaped bay boletes and meaty chanterelles to oysters, pungent porcinis (or ceps) – some weighing up to 3lbs – and his granddad’s favourite: the blue-lilac wood blewit. “If you know what you are doing in October, your basket should never be empty!” he says.
But even experienced mushroom hunters like Fred remember the golden rule when seeking out these spore-bearing fruits.
“An old mushroom hunter once said to me ‘there are old mushroom hunters, their are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold, mushroom hunters!’” he says. “If you’re serious about wanting to learn to hunt for and cook wild mushrooms, then don’t try to do it from books alone. There are many poisonous species, and a couple of dozen that can make you seriously ill, and one tiny mistake could cost you your life, so it’s essential to find a good tutor.”
A world apart
Earthy but almost unearthly, tasty but also toxic; these beguiling blooms might be a gourmet gem but they also have far-reaching potential beyond the harvesting basket.
“I’ve been studying them for more than 35 years, but each year I continue to learn,” says Fred. “We seldom see fungi unless we notice their fruit – the mushroom part – and yet 85% of all land plants are dependent on fungi. Mushrooms are now being used in medicine to cure some of the world’s toughest diseases, to clear up pollution spills, and even to grow new alternatives to plastics.
“They play an enormously important, yet unseen role in breaking down nature’s big organic molecules and feeding the by-products to the plant kingdom. Without fungi, we would all starve.”
HOW TO FORAGE…
Where…Growing best in areas that are not intensively farmed i.e. old woodlands and mature meadows, mushrooms also like sand dunes and pockets of green in the city.
How to…Use a knife to slice the mushroom at the base (so it can re-grow) and clean. “There’s nothing more off-putting than crunchy sandy bits in the gills!” says Fred the Forager.
How not to…Don’t forage without the landowner’s permission or neglect to check local conservation bylaws, and above all don’t rely on books or the internet when foraging. “If in doubt, leave it out,” says Andy Overall, who runs Fungi To be With courses and events in London. “Do not eat anything unless you are 100% sure of what you have: 99% is not good enough. Always go out with an experienced expert.” And don’t use carrier bags, adds Fred. “It’s a cardinal sin as the mushrooms sweat and turn smelly and slimy.”
Three to look for… Wood blewit: occurs in rings. Blue-lilac in colour and very aromatic. [Beware: similar to poisonous Cortinarius.] Monk’s head: also in rings, this large, funnel-shaped mushroom has a sweet smell reminiscent of white chocolate. [Beware: there are many other poisonous funnel shaped mushrooms.] Honey fungus: a nasty parasitic fungus that’s nice when cooked. It grows in large clusters on live or dead trees and has a honey-brown cap with white gills and rings on the stem.
First published in Vegetarian Living