the anxious forager

Mushrooms are great, but you have GOT to be sure.

It’s a salutary story, the one about the two families who went out mushroom picking, both thinking the other knew what they’re doing, both ending up on dialysis a few days later. Because the trouble is, the differences are often subtle and really hard to spot.

I’ve got a field guide to mushrooms & toadstools (first lesson = there’s no real, scientific difference between a mushroom and a toadstool), but I don’t find it easy at all. There are handy logos at the top of each page – a knife and fork on a plate, a knife and fork on a plate in brackets, a knife and fork on a plate with a line through it, and a grinning skull.

It’s the grinning skull that puts me off the other three.

The distinctions between each specimen are often extremely subtle, and go against your natural inclination. Take the smell. Strong odour of cucumber, or cedar wood? Or prussic acid? Which amongst those would you want to eat? That’s right – the prussic acid odour. Belongs to the Fairy Ring Champignon  – delicious, apparently, if you could ever relax enough to force it down.

The whole thing seems rigged. For example, the Deathcap – the mushroom vying for friendliest name, along with the Destroying Angel – well, apparently when it’s young it’s encapsulated in a ‘universal veil’ which gradually disintegrates. Before it does, though, it looks exactly like an edible puffball.

Great. Thanks.

If all that wasn’t enough, the deadly varieties like nothing better than to sneak in amongst the edibles. The Deadly Webcap has been known to grown next to hallucinogenic Liberty Caps, so you’d get way more of a trip than you bargained for.

Although there is the Contrary Webcap, which you can eat.

It’s supposed to be reassuring that most of the poisonous varieties will only give you severe cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting and a mild longing for death. There are only two or three with no antidote and a guaranteed one-way trip to complete renal and liver failure and a plot of your own for the mushrooms to spring up in. *shiver*.

All of which is to say that I’m a complete coward when it comes to picking mushrooms to eat. I did actually go on a one day course once, to get more confidence. The woman running it was amazing. In her late seventies, keen naturalist all her life. She looked more at home in the woods than anyone I’d ever seen. Well – at one point she cut a mushroom, held it up for a while, and said Hmm. I’m not sure about this one. So I’m content with taking a few pictures, and buying the cultivated kind from the supermarket.

I prefer this, anyway. To be really sure about a mushroom you have to cut it and have a good look. (You’re not killing it. What you see above ground is the fruiting body, with the mycelia extending underground to a surprising extent). You have to examine the thing carefully, the gills, the stipe and so on, slicing it in half to see what colour the flesh is and what happens to it. But the mushrooms look so beautiful in situ, it seems a shame. I’m not ruthless enough to be a collector, or a (safe) forager. I’ll content myself with taking pictures, and leave the rest to nature.

Here are a few I took today. (Once you become aware, you start seeing them everywhere…)



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