IF YOU go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a mushroom surprise. Fungi experts are predicting a bumper year for wild mushrooms in Scotland this year thanks to a hot and dry summer.
Mushrooms such as chanterelles (girolles), ceps and chickens of the woods are starting to emerge in favoured foraging patches across the country and mycologists are cautiously predicting the best mushroom crop the country has experienced for years.
July in Scotland was the second warmest on record, with hours of sunshine 45 per cent above average – ideal conditions for wild mushrooms.
Mark Williams, of Galloway Wild Foods, said such weather was rare and highly valued by fungi experts.
“A hot, dry summer that stretches to September generally precipitates a vast explosion of fungi when it breaks,” he said.
“This happened in spectacular fashion in 1976, a legendary year among mycologists, when field mushrooms could be gathered by the bin bag load and all manner of fungi were bursting through the cracks in the pavement. Such was the upsurge in interest that the government aired warnings on national radio about the dangers of misidentification.”
While the bin bags are still on standby, experts are hopeful that the unusual weather this year will prompt a similar growth spurt.
Mycologist Patrick Harding, author of the Collins Gem guide Mushrooms, said: “The main thing needed for a good mushroom season is rain in the autumn, but when this follows a good sunny summer there is usually a better fungus season.
“I found a fungus last week that I have never seen before in 35 years of looking, so I hope this is a good omen.”
However, the experts are divided on which mushrooms will fare best in the unique conditions. Williams said it could be a bad year for chanterelles, which often prefer damp summers, but that ceps in particular would thrive after a hot summer.
He said: “In 1996 I picked 60kg of prime bouchon cep from a 1km square area of south-facing conifer plantation on Arran. Ceps rot fast, so this represented less than one tenth of what I actually came across. The great start to this summer got me quite excited that we’re going to have another epic year.”
Foraging has grown in popularity in recent years, with wild food courses and even foraging holidays finding favour amongst those looking for something unusual to do in their spare time.
Williams said: “The trickle-down effect of top chefs being enchanted by wild ingredients has led to a huge upsurge in popularity. Perhaps more importantly, though, there has been a huge groundswell in foraging from a grass roots level. Wild food is by its very nature organic, in season, free, has minimal food miles and, provided you pick within your knowledge range, extremely healthy.”
Chef Tom Kitchin, who often uses wild mushrooms in his cooking at his Michelin-starred Edinburgh restaurant The Kitchin, said: “What I love about foraging is getting that chance to connect with the natural world. You get to learn about the produce you’re sourcing, understanding exactly where it comes from, seeing how it grows and what it grows next to.
“It’s also a great way to witness nature’s true marriages and, in turn, allows you to understand which flavours and ingredients will work well together in a dish.”
Kitchin said he is a keen forager, particularly when it comes to mushrooms.
“Although our summers are always busy at the restaurant, my wife Michaela and I try to get out foraging whenever we can, packing our treasured mushroom basket and a picnic to make a day of it. It’s such a fun way to spend time together and can be incredibly rewarding to come home and cook with the fruits of your labour.”
Harding, who is running a foraging weekend in Crieff in Perthshire next month, said the recession was another reason why we were more likely to go foraging now than in the past.
“It is much more popular now than it was when I started and more popular than even five years ago – not just mushrooms but other food for free as well – partly as a result of TV and top chefs embracing the topic and possibly the economic situation. It is part of the urge to get back to the hunter gatherer society.”
As well as mushrooms, foragers will also search for wild herbs including wild garlic, borage and bog myrtle, as well as berries such as sloes, rowans, blaeberries and juniper berries.
A VisitScotland spokesman said: “It’s great news that foraging has become such a hit in Scotland and certainly adds another dimension to the tourism in this country, particularly during this Year of Natural Scotland.
“Due to the number of events and courses across Scotland, people are able to forage safely and gather a whole host of interesting ingredients.
“Foraging is an ideal, cost-friendly family day out and we’re in the fortunate position to have a wealth of world-class produce that people can look forward to savouring.”