When is the best time to go fungi foraging?

28/10/2020

I am continually asked this question, so here is a very detailed answer. The answer here applies to southern England, and should be adjusted for latitude — in northern Scotland autumn and winter come at least a month earlier, and further south in continental Europe they come later (unless you are in the mountains….).

Fungi, including edible species, can be found at any time of year. They are scarcest in the depths of winter and during drought conditions that most frequently occur during the summer. There is a brief flurry of activity in the spring, usually peaking in April or May, when spring-fruiting specialists such as St George’s Mushrooms and Morels can be found. Other species, such as Chicken of the Woods, Dryad’s Saddle and Field Mushrooms can fruit at any time from spring until early autumn.

The vast majority of fungi fruit between late summer and early winter, but each year is different and their behaviour is extremely hard to predict. In an ideal autumn, we would get a decent amount of rain once or twice a week, as the average temperature steadily drops. If this were to happen, then the main mushroom season would start some time in August, build to a peak around the end of September and start of October, and fizzle out with the first ground frosts in December. In reality, of course, this never happens. Instead we get the British weather, which can include summers when the sun never shines, followed by high temperatures and drought conditions in October. Other factors affecting the availability of edible fungi include what happened last year (if a particular species had a great year last year, maybe it will take a year off), how good a year the trees have had (this affects the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi), and the size of the slug population.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the season typically starts slowly, ramps up to a peak, then ramps down again. This is rarely what happens. Very often the season will start with a big burst of activity from symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. These include many of the very best species, such as Penny Buns and Chanterelles, and it frequently occurs right at the start of the season, sometimes as early as the second week in August. In other years, especially during dry summers, there is very little to be found until the middle of September. Whenever there has been a dry period, there will be a burst of activity after the first proper deluge, but it takes between ten and twenty days for the fungi to respond. In exceptionally dry autumns, this peak of activity can be delayed until early November.

Later in the autumn the saprophytes/parasites start to take over from the mycorrhizal fungi, and this seems to be particularly true in coniferous woodland and unimproved grassland. Edible waxcaps, as well as (mycorrhizal) Winter Chanterelles can be found in late November, or even well into December.  The main fungi fruiting season is brought to a close by the first serious ground frost, after which the only things that continue to appear are cold weather specialists like Velvet Shanks and some hardy all-year-rounders like Judas’ Ear (Jews Ear / Jelly Ear).

Fungi foraging is, therefore, a lottery. Not only are the fungi unpredictable, but I frequently find myself struggling to explain why they’ve done what they’ve done even after they’ve done it. This unpredictability and mystery is part of their charm.

Why you shouldn’t eat Earthballs…

20/10/2020

I was contacted last night by a person (let’s call him “Dave”) who has had a bad experience with a fungus, and he has given me permission to blog about his story and use his photos. The story is worth telling firstly because of the unusual reasoning that led to the poisoning, and secondly because the fungus in question is very rarely consumed and the information about its toxicity is conflicting.

Dave has a copy of my book. Last week he found a fungus growing in an unusual location – it was emerging through an asphalt pavement by the side of a wall. He then…

…tried to identify it from Geoff’s book but couldn’t find anything that looked like a close match though it seemed to look more like a truffle rather than anything else – though we realised that would have been pretty unlikely. However, since we couldn’t find anything like it in the “poisonous” pages we thought we would take a chance. Bad decision!

The overwhelming majority of fungi poisonings are the result of a positive misidentification — for whatever reason, people think they are eating edible fungus X and in fact it is poisonous fungus Y. Most people abide by the rule “If in doubt, leave it out.”  It is very unusual for a person to eat a fungus simply because they’ve failed to positively identify it as poisonous, knowing perfectly well that they don’t know what they are about to eat.

The fungus in question looks a bit like an old puffball (these are edible while still white, becoming poisonous as the spores start to mature to brown). In fact it is an Earthball. Not a Common Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum), which is in my book. It is not big or tough enough. I believe it to be a Scaly Earthball (S. verrucosum), though I am open to being corrected on that if anybody reading this thinks otherwise (I did wonder for a while whether it might be the very rare Dyeball (Pisolithus arrhizus), which I’ve never seen and is known to grow through tarmac, but its internal structure (the “gleba”) looks wrong. It is certainly a member of the Sclerodermataceae, all of which should be considered toxic. It seems this one might be quite seriously so, since not very much was consumed and the symptoms were rather unpleasant. There is no reason for me to edit Dave’s account:

There were about three growths there, in various stages of maturity. We picked one of the smaller ones and took it home with the aim of trying to identify it. Despite consulting a couple of reference books (including yours) we were unable to come to a conclusion what it was. It actually resembled a truffle more than anything else, though we were aware that it was most unlikely to be one of those. We were also aware that earthballs were inedible, but this thing didn’t look like the standard picture of an earthball, which apparently are generally pale on the outside and black on the inside. This thing was quite the opposite: brown on the outside and pale on the inside. In addition, it had an irregular, somewhat knobbly shape, unlike the smooth dome-shaped earthballs we saw in the pictures. So we didn’t suspect that this was what it might be. SO we thought we would try it. We shared just one small fungus between us with our evening meal – and as things turned out it was indeed fortunate that we did not eat more of it.

When fried and eaten it tasted quite pleasant, and for some time we had no reason to suspect anything untoward. When we went to bed about three hours later the first sign of anything unusual was that we both suddenly developed blocked noses. We thought initially only that we must have picked up a cold from somewhere, although it was odd that it came on so suddenly and for both of us at the same time, It was a couple of hours after that that I felt there unstable in my stomach and thought I had better make my way to the bathroom. Having done so, I suddenly felt a terrific blow on my forehead that seemed to come from nowhere, and then realised that I was on the floor. The odd – and rather frightening – part about it, is that I had no sensation of feeling dizzy or unsteady on my feet, or even of falling. One moment i was on my feet, and the next thing I knew was this mighty whack on the head and me wondering how and why I came to be on the floor. My wife then came into the bathroom, attracted by the noise of what she describes as a terrific crash. It turned out I had fallen against the radiator and gashed my forehead on it, which would account for the noise. In fact it was lucky in a way that the radiator broke my fall, since if I had simply fallen flat on the floor I might well have broken my nose and/or several teeth.

My wife at that point began to feel unsteady on her feet and decided she had better sit down on the floor next to me – she evidently had the benefit of a prior warning, which I had not! We both then found ourselves wanting to vomit. My wife did bring up a small amount of brown liquid, though nothing like the amount of food we had eaten at supper. For myself, I retched a few times but did not bring up anything at all. After that we crawled back into bed, and noticed immediately that both our blocked noses were now clear again – suggesting that this effect had also evidently been a symptom of the fungus poisoning as well.

We managed to get to sleep. In the morning we lay in bed for a long time feeling unenthusiastic about getting up. When we did so we were still rather light in the head and queazy in the stomach, but these symptoms wore off during the morning and by lunchtime we felt well enough to eat a proper meal. Later we went back to the spot where we found the fungus and collected the other samples that were growing there. These were the ones we photographed and sent the photos to you. As you saw, although the outside surfaces were dark brown, and the shapes irregular, the larger one when cut open showed on the inside the classic earthball appearance. If the small one we collected the first time had looked like that, we would have known better!

 

Acorn flour

08/10/2020

This is a guest post by Cathy, Geoff’s wife. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been experimenting with acorns – and while those experiments are far from finished, here’s a bit about the journey so far.

It started with a book, called It Will Live Forever, by Beverly Ortiz and Julia Parker. And how we came to have that book is one of those strange things, in itself. One of Geoff’s big influences was the late archaeobotanist Gordon Hillman, and upon moving to Hastings, quite by chance, we met his daughter, Thilaka, who recently lent us this book that had belonged to him.

Anyway. It Will Live Forever is a fascinating and infuriating book about Yosemite Indian acorn processing. Infuriating because it is told in the oral tradition and for someone looking for clear and concise instructions on how to process acorns, it is rather time consuming. But once it hooks you in, you can get a bit obsessed.

The reverence the books shows for acorns is in stark contrast to Claire Loewenfeld’s Wild Food Larder:Nuts (1957), which describes them mainly as pig fodder, but “can be used as a supplement to human food in times of need”. Interestingly, Loewenfeld’s preparation instructions don’t include leaching the tannins out, which could explain the unimpressed tone.

It’s not my first time trying to work with acorns, but my attempts last year at cold leaching yielded acorn chunks that were still bitter after two weeks of water changing, and hot leaching left me with little black pebbles that surely had lost all their nutrients.

The Miwoke/Paiute method is gentler than others I’ve tried or read about – there’s a lot of storing and waiting. They regularly store the acorns, still in their shells, for around a year – but sometimes up to ten years. That seems to be one of the strengths of acorns, they can be stored as a just-in-case food, and then processed if and when they’re needed.

I’ll do exactly what the book does not, and condense the process into a short list (I can sense Julia Parker’s frown).

  1. Gather your acorns from the ground, not the tree, and avoid any that look less than absolutely perfect.

  2. Store them somewhere airy and warm for at least two weeks. This makes them easier to shell.

  3. Shell them, and if the inner skins don’t come off in the process, dry them for another week.

  4. Remove the inner skins by winnowing/rubbing them. Failing that, scrape with a knife.

  5. Pound them to a flour-like consistency – or use a food processor.

  6. Filter water through them for several hours, or until all the bitter taste has gone. (Note: I did this using a colander lined with teatowels, and a dripping tap. Julia uses a sandpit.)

  7. Dry the flour somewhere warm and airy.

  8. Freeze it, refrigerate it, or use it straight away – its fat content means it won’t keep for long at room temperature.

So far I’ve managed to make one small batch of good flour using this method already, and I have two hoards of acorns in the airing cupboard at different stages of drying. I used my first batch of flour to make some simple biscuits, substituting a third of the normal wheat flour with acorn flour instead. I’d like to tell you it was delicious and subtly nutty, or something like that, but they just tasted as if they’d been made with wholemeal flour. Fine, with a healthy undertone.

I’m still mid-research, but here are two other sources I’ve found useful.

This article from Practical Self Reliance.

And this podcast from Robin Harford, interviewing acorn processor Marcie Mayer.

Rooting Bolete

11/09/2020

It has been a muted start to the mushroom season in deepest south-east England. The last couple of years have seen a big fruiting in August, but this year there has been very little around. The situation isn’t hopeless — there are mushrooms here and there — but most species are either fruiting unenthusiastically (few fruit bodies, not very large) or are entirely absent. There are very few Brittlegills, for example, and no Milkcaps. There are some Penny Buns (Ceps) in places, and Chicken of the Woods is doing well, but nothing worthy of me writing a blog post about. The situation is better in other parts of the country, presumably because they have had more rain.

Rooting boletes (Caloboletus radicans)

So perhaps it is time to talk about a species I usually ignore, because it isn’t edible. Rooting Boletes (Caloboletus radicans) are too bitter to be edible, and possibly mildly poisonous as well. They are easily recognised — large, pale-capped, bright yellow pores that readily bruise blue, flesh that turns blue, nearly always with oak, and typically in open areas rather than dense woodland. This species is currently by far the most abundant bolete in Kent and Sussex.

This abundance isn’t reflected in the information in most fungi guides. Phillips just says “occasional”, and Buczacki says “occasional to uncommon”. I listed it as “frequent in southern England” in my own book, but I’d now say that is an understatement. In Kent and Sussex it is common, bordering on very common. You certainly won’t have any trouble finding it right now.

Looking forwards, we need some serious rain. My guess as to why the situation is disappointing is that even though the ground looks damp on the surface, it is still dry underneath. Unfortunately the forecast is heading in the other direction.

 

Russian chilled blackberry soup

17/07/2020

It is looking like a great year for blackberries. The bushes near me have plenty of fruits forming, though most aren’t ripe yet. This year I have been testing potential recipes for inclusion in my forthcoming book, and this one is so good that I couldn’t wait to share it with people. Makvlis supi is a traditional Russian/Georgian/Polish dish, and quite unlike anything else I’ve ever had, but it is well worth the mess and effort of making it. It is served as a starter.

You will need a good source of lush blackberries. Note that all blackberries are not the same – there are hundreds of microspecies, all with slightly different characteristics, including the size and taste of the berries. Fortunately for us, the best patch I know of locally is less than a minute’s walk from my front door, but also at a very quiet and little-known location at the end of a cul-de-sac. The berries here ripen earlier than any others locally, and are also bigger and juicier. The best blackberries from any bush are at the end of the stem, and ripen first. This one has already been taken from those pictured here — the others don’t ripen until it has gone, which makes for a less attractive photo.

Ingredients:

500g fresh blackberries, finely chopped herbs (50g coriander, 5g mint, large sprig of fresh thyme), 1 small onion (finely chopped), 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 1 small cucumber (peeled, seeds removed and diced), 1 tsp wine vinegar, salt to taste and sour cream to serve.

Method: Put the blackberries in bowl and crush and strain to obtain the thick juice. Add water to make this up to 900ml of liquid, and then add all the other ingredients apart from the sour cream. Add salt to taste and chill for several hours.  Serve with sour cream, which can either be left in lumps or mixed well into the soup.

Reedmace rhizome flour

30/03/2020

Reedmace in late summer

This is the first of what will probably be quite a few blog posts on survival/emergency/famine foods, while the UK is under indefinite partial lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic. The United Nations is currently warning of a likely global food shortage. These are extra-ordinary times, and frightening things are not just happening in faraway places. My family is in self-isolation, and trying to rely on supermarket deliveries (surely the last place you want to go if you are trying to dodge this virus).

Reedmace rhizomes (March)

Unfortunately, the delivery that arrived this morning was missing a number of essential items, including eggs, milk and bread. I therefore decided to risk a trip to the supermarket (with gloves, mask and sanitiser spray). Also unfortunately, the socially-distanced queue for the largest supermarket in Hastings stretched several hundred metres from the door, so I decided to try my luck in some smaller shops. All of these were similarly devoid of eggs and bread, apart from the corner shop at the end of my road, which is currently selling individual eggs for 40p each.

Rhizome in cross-section, showing the outer spongy layer and the starchy core

If you can’t get bread, why not buy flour instead? Answer: we haven’t been able to get any flour for the past two weeks, and that is far too close to authentic conditions for approaching famine, for comfort. Historically, many of the most important of famine foods were things that could be used to bulk out dwindling supplies of flour, especially anything as rich in carbohydrate/starch.

One notably high-quality source of starch at this time of year is Reedmace (Typha spp.) rhizomes. Reedmace is that large semi-aquatic grass-like thing with cigar-shaped black blobs on top, often incorrectly referred to as “bullrush”.

Reedmace rhizomes cores

Collecting the rhizomes is not for the faint-hearted. It involves plunging your hands into icy-cold mud where you see the first spring shoots emerging, and extracting as much of the rhizomes as possible. They don’t look particularly edible, but looks can decieve.

Beneath the papery skin is a layer of inedible spongy material; it is the core of the rhizomes that contains the starch. They can just be boiled, but if you want to extract the starch for use as a flour substitute then they must be processed as follows.

Ready to be pounded or blended

First clean the rhizomes, and cut out any damaged parts, especially where mud has penetrated into the core. Then cut off the green shoots, but make sure not to lose any of the rhizome, because it is the part of the rhizome immediately adjacent to the shoot which contains the thickest starch deposits. You then need to peel off the spongy outer layer, to reveal the harder core.

Next, place the rhizome cores in a bowl of water and pull the fibres apart. At this point it will become clear just how rich in starch they are – you can feel it, and you can see it. If you’re going

the authentic route, you now need to pound the

Filtered Reedmace starch suspended in water

rhizomes to release as much starch as possible from the fibre. I cheated and used a hand blender to do the work in 30 seconds. Then pass through a colander or sieve (how wide the mesh will determine how much fibre makes it into the finished product), leaving you with a thick, white liquid, covered in bubbles. This should be left to stand for several hours, during which time the starch will settle on the bottom. Skim off the water, to leave a gloopy paste.

This paste now needs to be dried. It can be done in a low oven, but we dry ours in a shallow metal dish placed on top of a woodburner. When fully dry you will be left with a light grey-brown “cake”. The final

Reedmace flour (partially ground)

stage is to grind this cake up in a pestle and mortar, and hey presto you’ve got reedmace flour. As well as being used to bulk out wheat flour, it can be used in exactly the same ways you can use cornflour, and it tastes very similar.

 

 

 

 

 

COVID-19: The end of the world as we know it?

27/03/2020

Our foraging events are postponed until further notice, for obvious reasons. I will be contacting everybody booked on our workshops, to make alternative arrangements.

It is deeply ironic timing for me. I’ve spent the winter months working on my second book, which is a guide to the edible plants and seaweeds of north-west Europe. I’d already planned to spend this spring focusing my research on some of the things I’ve neglected in the past because they were primarily “only” famine foods, as well as experimenting with various techniques for preserving wild food. This morning, as I was pounding reedmace rhizomes to extract the starch, I find myself in a world where the local supermarket shelves have been stripped bare by people who for the first time in their lives are worried about the security of their food supply. Fear of this sort, on this scale, hasn’t been known in peacetime Europe since the potato famine of 1845-49. I feel it myself. This crisis could continue for many months — and even longer if a vaccine proves elusive — and being a global problem there is absolutely no guarantee that food currently imported into the UK will keep coming. Should it falter, it is very hard to see how this country will be able to feed itself. So this spring I will not just be storing wild food as experimental research for a book; it will actually be for real.

My family has been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for the last six weeks, and we continue to prepare. We are in total isolation, because I am in one of the people at risk dying. I’m only 51, but my lungs aren’t in great shape because I’m an ex-smoker who suffered a nasty attack of pneumonia two years ago.

Stay safe and good luck. We are all going to need it.

2019: memorable year for fungi

10/11/2019

There was a hard frost across the whole of the UK on Saturday (yesterday) morning. This will signal the beginning of the end of this year’s autumn fungi season, a full month earlier than it ended last year. It has been a memorable year, of the sort that occurs only once or twice in an average decade.

Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera)

It started late. There was a fairly typical selection of late summer fungi around in mid-August, but September was dry and for some reason I won’t even speculate on, the fungi suffered even worse than normal for a dry period. By the middle of that month there were absolutely no fungi to be found apart from the woody perennials which are always present. This caused something of a backlog of species waiting to fruit. Then in the last week of September the rains came. And it rained, and rained, and rained some more.

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

About a week into October, a wide variety of species started fruiting in spectacular style. This included a number of the larger, well-known edible woodland species, as well as some of the most visible grassland species, especially Parasol Mushrooms. This meant they got noticed, even by people who don’t usually pay any attention to our fungal friends. It was a particularly good autumn for the most famous edible species of them all: the Penny Bun (Cep/Porcino). I was still finding these today, though well past their best for eating.

Some other species had a bad year. Notably there has hardly been any Chicken of the Woods. When this species failed to turn up in the spring, I did wonder if it would fruit more enthusiastically than normal in the autumn, but I’ve not seen it at all. It had a good year in 2018, so it seems it was taking a year off. Horn of Plenty has also been very patchy, and absent in many areas.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Until very recently, it was also looking like a dreadful year for the most famous poisonous species.  I found a few Deathcaps on my first private session of the year, on August 24th, but they then disappeared. Deathcaps are typically an early autumn fruiter, and so when I still wasn’t finding any at the start of November, I figured they too had decided to give 2019 a miss. Then on Thursday (Nov 7th) I was just on my way home from a session and glimpsed some fungi growing on a bank. I didn’t immediately recognise them as Deathcaps because they were enormous. Probably the biggest examples of that species I have ever seen. Today was my last session of the year, and we found another huge patch of them (normal-sized this time).

Winter Chanterelle (Craterullus tubaeformis)

All good things come to an end, but there’s still one species out there to be found in great abundance and it will probably survive the frost. Winter Chanterelles are the last of the famous edibles to have a great year in 2019.

 

 

Parasol Mushrooms going absolutely mental

11/10/2019

Every autumn some species of fungi have a good year and others have a bad year. Sometimes we get a mass-fruiting of a particular species, or a particular group. In 2017 it was Horn of Plenty and its relatives. Last year it was Fly Agarics. This year, in truly spectacular style it is Parasol Mushrooms and all the other species in its genus (Macrolepiota). I cannot recall ever seeing a mass-fruiting of Parasol Mushrooms (M. procera) as the one that has appeared in the last few days. I’ve also seen the biggest mass-fruiting I can remember of its much smaller relative M. excoriata (no common name). This is true all over Kent and Sussex, and reports from elsewhere in the country suggest it is the same as far away as Devon and Northamptonshire.

A large ring of Parasol Mushrooms

Why they do it — why this year it is the year of the Parasols and not something else — is anybody’s guess. It isn’t just down to conditions right now. It might be something to do with the weather over the previous 12 months, or if they had a particularly bad year last year (for example). It isn’t just the parasols either. A lot of other grassland species are currently fruiting in numbers, including Agaricus species and various sorts of puffballs, both of which are members of the same family as the Parasols (Agaricaceae),

Second huge ring of Parasol Mushrooms, in the same field

as well as unrelated species like Fairy Ring Champignons (Marasmius oreades) and Entoloma species.

There are also some woodland species doing well, especially the saprophytes, but a lot of the symbiotic woodland species are having a very bad year. I’ve seen very few Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they are usually very abundant. The same is true of most other Amanita species (with the exception of Fly Agaric), and a lot of the Russulas.

I’m not even going to try to predict what is going to happen next, but I will let my readers know as soon as there’s anything worth blogging about.

Massive glut of fungi in southern England

06/10/19

Larch boletes, The Miller and a Penny Bun

Well, that was a while coming. Two weeks ago, for only the second time in ten years, I had to start cancelling events because of a lack of fungi. There were no ground-fruiting species at all, and not much wood-fruiting species either. Then it started raining, but not much happened. By last weekend there were Fly Agarics in some places, but very little else. On Wednesday I took a group out and in three hours we found a grand total of two Hedgehog Mushrooms and one Bay Bolete. I postponed Thursday’s session.

Then, some time between Wednesday night and Saturday morning, the fungi exploded into life. Masses of boletes, parasols and many other species, and the biggest glut of Field Mushrooms I’ve ever seen. So it seems now I have a very good measure of how long it takes for the ground-fruiting fungi to respond to a major soaking after a drought-induced mushroom famine. The answer is between 11 and 13 days.