RUSTLE. Crinkle. Did you hear that? That was the sound of mushrooms pushing through fallen leaves. So what’s your reaction? Reach for the frying pan or steer well clear?
Foraging for mushrooms is something we green types feel we ought to be doing. Strolling through the woods, willow basket in one hand, field guide in the other, it seems like the ultimate autumn activity. You’ll be back in time for lunch, when you’ll smugly boast about your secret cep patch while cooking up a risotto and making it clear that you gather sustainably, never taking more than you actually need.
Sadly, this idyllic mental image keeps flickering like an old TV set being interrupted with the subliminal message: “Nicholas Evans.” Poor Mr Evans, author of the Horse Whisperer, ingested webcaps thinking they were ceps a few years back and ended up very ill and eventually had a kidney transplant. If Joe Public had the same experience, he would have been lucky to make it into the local paper, but Evans’s fame meant the story went global, sounding a loud warning to would-be foragers. Despite this, most humans seem to have been born with a default ‘it’ll never happen to me’ setting, and so the urge to bag some tasty food for free continues to lure us out in search of giant puffballs, shaggy inkcaps and wood blewits.
I own three mushroom-identification books. A really old Collins Gem with illustrations, a newer Collins Gem with photos and the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook. My theory is that if you have the help of an expert, consult lots of books. Not that you’ll eat the mushrooms unless you are 110 per cent sure you’ve correctly identified them. This comes with experience and, even then, there’s a chance you’ll get it wrong.
According to the Health Protection Agency, over 100 cases of mushroom poisoning occur each year in the UK. In 2010 the National Poisoning Information Centre saw 316 cases of poisoning linked to eating mushrooms, thanks to weather conditions creating a bumper crop. Eating a poisonous mushroom might give you a mild tummy ache or it might kill you. And don’t think it’s just poisoning that’s a risk. Eighteen people died over a ten-day period in Italy in 2010 while collecting mushrooms – not because the fungi were toxic, but because they fell into ravines and other such mishaps.
My first few mushroom-gathering experiences didn’t involve any eating. Once you buy a mushroom ID guide you’ll know why. Naturally, the first mushrooms you read about are the ones with skulls and crossbones next to them. The death cap (responsible for 90 per cent of fatal poisonings), the destroying angel and the funeral bell do a superb job of putting you off the thought of mushrooms on toast. It’s the fact that some of them look so ordinary that’s terrifying – at least the red and white fly agaric looks like a fairy-tale villain.
For me, mushroom-hunting was a scientific exercise until I came across chanterelle paradise. Close to home, there is a beech wood that gets covered with yellow chanterelles, complete with apricot smell and wrinkles instead of gills. They taste great cooked up with garlic, despite the twinge in the back of my mind that maybe I’ve got them mixed up with false chanterelles. In environmental terms, taking a few handfuls now and again isn’t going to cause any damage. So do I encourage you to do the same? Of course not. I can’t afford a lawsuit after you eat a beechwood sickener buttie.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North west