Foraging for gold: sourcing mushrooms in the British wilderness
As mushroom season gets well underway, we speak to chefs and foragers to find out the key to successful – and safe – hunting
If there's a less appetising nickname for a food I've never heard it: the 'lungs of the forest'. Seriously, who wants to eat lung?
But that's the thing about mushrooms: they're full of surprises. In the case of Amanita phalloides the rude awakening is a liver transplant; known widely as death caps, they finished off Roman Emperor Claudius, the poor chap.
As well as doing in iconic world leaders (oh to dream) 'shrooms teem with folklore – and we're not talking about legs-turned-into-tree-trunks-on-the-lav mushie trips either, as glorious as they are to hear around the campfire. We're talking about how King Alfred's Cakes make brilliant firelighters and take their name from when Wise Elf (now that's a nickname) hid from the pillaging Danes burning the coal-like funghi for heat. How in medieval times the beef steak was believed to be a symbol of Jesus because when it's fresh it eerily resembles bloody flesh. And how the stinkhorn has no folklore attached to it whatsoever but looks exactly like a penis (and that's good enough for a mention from me).
Fancy yourself as a hunter? Getting a grip on fungi, phallic or otherwise, is no mean feat. Commendatore Antonio Carluccio OBE, who sadly passed away at the age of 80 in early November 2017, was a longtime advocate of Britain's foraged gold and held mushroom markets all over the UK throughout autumn.
Before his passing, I caught up with him to find out why he thought the UK mushroom season is a mercurial beast: "In good weather conditions, the season could start in mid-August with the first flush of porcini and the majority of fungi waking up in September and November," he says. This all depends on the atmospheric conditions and types of woods though, he adds, as mushrooms are a picky bunch and grow in symbiosis with certain types of trees and soil, each preferring its own environment.
Our long, wet autumns, ideal for mushrooms, are a bit of a tease
The best advice, Carluccio said, is to get in touch with the local mycological society to learn more about location and timings.
"It is quite dangerous for an amateur forager to try to correctly identify the edible ones from the poisonous ones. It is always better to follow teachings and experience of mycologists. I personally have safely collected around 100 types, because I know them well and I am not interested in collecting any mushrooms that I don't know. I never experiment, I always trust my long-time knowledge that I have gathered since I was five years old (and always with grown-ups)."
Our long, wet autumns, ideal for mushrooms, are a bit of a tease, then. Public Health England advises that people should not eat mushrooms collected in the wild unless they are very familiar with the various types that grow in the UK and are sure the mushrooms they have collected are safe to eat.
But it's not just the fear of kidney damage that should be at the forefront of pickers' minds – there's also the matter of ethics. The UK has lost much of its ancient woods compared to other countries, and foraging bans are being introduced to protect the fungi we do have.
Take Epping Forest for instance, one of the few surviving ancient woodlands, which has over 1,600 varieties (with about 50 that are edible) including national rarities such as the pink wax cap, sandy stilted puffball, oak polyphore and a number of tooth fungi.
They're an important factor in Epping Forest and help conserve the unique habitat that's a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. They're also a meal ticket for commercial foragers, chancers that literally fill bin bags with as many as they can find and sell them on the black market. As a result, wardens called Forest Keepers patrol the forest, protecting the ancient woods 365 days a year.
Dodging the warden would be the least of your worries if you're bent over with cramps and the like, and to prevent, you know, like, death and stuff, many foragers promote a passive sort of mushroom hunting. George Fredenham and Richard Osmond – jointly known as The Foragers, who hold walks from their St Albans pub The Verulam Arms – agree that knowledge and experience is the key to foraging mushrooms, and attending courses and joining associations is the way to go.
They also say in the early excursions that resisting the temptation to eat and even pick is key to developing a true taste for hunting.
Foraging, they explain, can be similar to gambling with the compulsive need to always find the edible. But it doesn't have to be this way: the key to becoming a safe, competent hunter is to reward yourself with knowledge, documenting the mushrooms you find (even poisonous ones) with photographs and notes in order to build your knowledge.
Mushrooms are one of those superb British ingredients where every part can be used
For those keen to master the art of safe 'shroom hunting, nature's larder will reward homework, respect, and keen eyes with many safe-to-eat varieties fist-pumping through the wet canvas of fallen leaves and boot prints, from the horn of plenty – which looks like a kind of miniature sooty trumpet and can be found from late summer to early winter and is best dried and used rehydrated for stocks and soups – to the wax-coloured frilly-tipped chanterelle, the ideal 'shroom to give a good sauté with butter and a little salt and parsley.
Stay at home 'shrooms
Foraging is a tricky and potentially deadly business and one which Raymond Blanc, OBE, side swiped with the creation of a 'mushroom valley' at his boutique hotel and restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire. The purpose-built patch of land cultivates home-grown fungi and the Raymond Blanc Gardening School also has a Grow your own Mushrooms course, showing patrons how to create a substrate for 'breeding', inoculation, and incubation. Sure, it might sound like the life cycle of a marine in an Alien movie but as head gardener, Anne Marie Owens, says – safety is paramount (if you haven't got the message yet, mushrooms can kill you, people) and the argument for cultivating at home, from oyster mushrooms to morels, is a pretty easy one to make.
Richard Bainbridge, proprietor and chef of Benedicts restaurant in Norwich, uses wild British mushrooms, both dried and fresh, in many of his dishes and reels off his favourites as though he's a kid boasting about his Pokémon collection: ceps, chicken of the woods, girolles, St George's, and ink caps. All have individual flavours and textures that make a chef's life super exciting from mid-August onwards, he adds.
"Mushrooms are one of those superb British ingredients where every part can be used from the trim to the meaty flesh," he says. "All mushrooms work as a beautiful umami seasoning for root vegetables and robust meats but the most prized mushroom of all is the elusive cep, from its meat-like texture in the stem to the sweet delicate flavour of the cap, you can dry both and enjoy the beautiful earthy flavour all year round by using it to finish and season dishes."
Umami flavour or not, I think I'll still pass on the stinkhorn.