By Mark Binnersley, from Transition Stourbridge’s Wildlife and Edible Gardening Group
People are terrified of mushrooms.
From an early age, most of us are taught not to touch wild fungus for fear of being poisoned. It’s almost a taboo subject in the same way that death is.
For example, when I tell anyone I work with funeral directors jokes such as ‘bet your company car’s a black estate car’ or ‘that’s a dying trade’ ensue.
Similarly, when it comes to mushrooms, jokes about being a real fun guy (fungi) or mushrooms’ hallucinogenic qualities abound.
There’s a name for this – mycophobia. The fear of fungus.
The truth is, mushrooms get an unfair deal. Very few are deadly poisonous and even fewer will alter your state of mind, sadly.
As for the risk to children – most kids I know remove the mushrooms from their pizza in disgust. The idea that they’re suddenly going to start munching on a red and white fly agaric is ridiculous. Besides, all children know that fairies live under fly agarics, so why would they pick them?
I’ve been interested in fungi for some years now and am able to identify around 20 edible species, making me an absolute novice in the world of mushroom geeks.
But from fairy ring champignons and blushers to beefsteak fungus and amethyst deceivers, it’s rare that a walk in the countryside between May and December doesn’t yield something for the pot. The flavour of many of these mushrooms is diverse and often amazing.
What’s more, collecting wild food is incredibly satisfying if not slightly subversive – it’s a small slice of independence from an industrial food system largely built upon land that once belonged to the commons. Look up enclosure acts.
In the countryside around Stourbridge and often its built-up areas, you’ll find a wide array of mushrooms. Common species are sulphur tufts, shaggy parasols, fly agarics, mottlegills, yellow stainers, ink caps, earthballs, puffballs, polypore fungus and russulas to name but a few. Note, not all of these are edible.
This autumn has been a bumper season, thanks to the mild but extremely damp conditions. And thanks to people’s mycophobia, there are more for me to enjoy.
If you’re thinking about learning a bit more about what nature has to offer from a fungus perspective, you need to do a few things. Firstly, buy some books (more than one, so you can cross-reference). Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms is essential. Secondly, go on a foraging course with an experienced instructor. Google will lead you to someone near you.
The next thing you need to do is exercise patience – get to know mushrooms slowly. Individual species can vary significantly in colour and size due to their age and weather conditions. Identification is based on a set of vital characteristics, covering the cap, gills, pores, stem, ring, base and crucially habitat.
For example, the blusher (amanita rubescens) is very similar to the panther cap (amanita pantherina). The blusher is edible when cooked whilst the panther cap is seriously poisonous.
Understanding some small but important differences ensure confusion of these two related mushrooms is avoided. The blusher has lines on the outside of its ring, whereas the panther cap’s is smooth. The blusher’s base is a more or less smooth bulb but the panther cap has a clear rim at the top of a volva. And the blusher gets its name from the red blushing that occurs when the mushroom is damaged. A diligent collector won’t mix these two up.
Additionally, in this digital age, never make an ID based on an internet picture or somebody’s comment on Facebook.
Once you do gain confidence and are able to accurately identify a number of mushrooms, please pick considerately.
They provide food for all sorts of animals, providing essential calories as we head into winter.
On top of this, mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, the internet of the forest that helps trees to distribute carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen. It commands our utmost respect.
By leaving some mushrooms behind, you’ll help them to multiply, as their spores (seed equivalents) are blown across woodland or pasture by the wind.
Hopefully, you’re now feeling a little less mycophobic than you did before. And if you don’t think you’ll ever be able to bring yourself to eat a wild mushroom, you might be able to look at them with a new-found admiration and wonder.
Some mushrooms might be magic but all of them are magical.