My foraging career began over 30 years ago when I moved to Dorset (in my village I am described as a ‘relative newcomer’). An early passion for wild fungi found full expression in the fields and woods around the farmhouse I rented. ‘Top field’ would keep me for hours picking field mushrooms – 120 pounds one year – and ‘eight-acre field’ would supply a magnificently large form of the delicious shaggy parasol. St George’s mushrooms in spring, puffballs in summer, field blewits and the riotously colourful wax caps in autumn, and jelly ears and velvet shanks in winter would fill my mushrooming year. Of course everyone thought I was mad and sure to poison myself.
But mad or not, I am also extremely careful and never, ever eat anything unless I am sure of its name.
But mad or not, I am also extremely careful and never, ever eat anything unless I am sure of its name. My best advice to anyone embarking on a mushroom hunt is to do the same. Get a couple of (you really need at least two) field guides and study them carefully. Collect just a few different species at first – no more than one or two specimens of each in case you have picked something rare – and carefully identify them by examining all their characteristics and using the advice in your books. Never jump to conclusions but always match all of the characteristics of your find to the description given. If the book says a species should have a ring on the stem or turns yellow when bruised it really means it – if any characteristic is missing then it must be something else and maybe a deadly something at that.
Identifying fungi is quite a tricky business but once you have a few species committed to memory you are set for life – you do not need to become an expert mycological taxonomist. My magnificent seven edible fungi are easy to identify, common and delicious: the parasol, giant puffball, horse mushroom, jelly ear, cep, charcoal burner and the hedgehog mushroom. If you only choose one then I suggest the last of these. It is the mushroom with everything – delicious, nutty texture, very common, never gets maggots and completely unmistakable. It grows in woodland, often in substantial rings, and has a ‘chamois leather’ cap with little spines hanging down underneath. Nothing else looks remotely like it making it the safest of all the wild mushrooms.
It would be remiss of me not to warn you of the species which causes 99% of all poisonings. The yellow stainer looks almost exactly like the field mushroom except the edge of the cap and the base of the stem turn a remarkable chromium yellow when bruised. This fades to brown after about 15 minutes. If you eat a yellow stainer you will have to cancel all engagements for a day or two before recovering completely, sadder but wiser.
Of course there are times when mushrooms are not to be found and, caught by the foraging bug, I determined to explore other wild sources of food. My Dorset farm yielded the familiar blackberries and sloes but I wondered what else might be found and bought several guides to expand my repertoire. Most edible wild plants are easy to recognise. Everyone knows, usually to his or her cost, what a stinging nettle looks like and no-one hesitates when deciding whether the nut they are looking at is a hazelnut or some deadly impostor.
Wild plants are, generally, much safer than wild mushrooms.
Wild plants are, generally, much safer than wild mushrooms. However, some very common and excellent species can be a little more challenging: fat hen, red goosefoot, sea beet and even cherry plums may have the novice forager sensibly consulting a field guide. Incidentally, and I trust I am not putting you off the whole idea entirely, the most deadly of all plant and fungal toxins is found in a very common native plant. Its leaves look like that of flat-leaved parsley and it has substantial and tasty-looking roots. It is called hemlock waterdropwort, and a plateful will have you dead in three hours.