Tag Archives: wild mushrooms

Dark Penny Bun, Take Two

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

25/09/2014

I have a confession to make. I had to remove my previous blog entry because it contained an error – and those can be serious in this line of business. However, there’s some lessons here. The first is that not all fungi foraging mistakes are equal – if you’re going to get something wrong then the difference between mistaking a delicacy for another delicacy and mistaking a poisonous species for a delicacy is also the difference between a tasty dinner and your last dinner. It was not good fortune that my mistake was the former rather than the latter, but the result of knowing that even if I got something in this region of fungal taxonomy wrong, I wasn’t going to end up being poisoned. It was a mistake nonetheless, and so this blog post will retrace the steps that led me astray.

I’ve long been aware of the existence of three mushrooms very similar to a penny bun (Boletus edulis, cep, porcino). All three are much rarer, at least in southern England, and all of them highly prized – at least as much as their more famous relative, and one case even more so. The three in question are the Summer Bolete (B. reticulatus), the Dark Penny Bun (or Dark Cep, B. aereus) and the Pine Bolete (B. pinophilus). As the years marched on and I continued to never find any of them, I started to wonder whether maybe I’d seen them many times and had been mistaking them for a Penny Bun. I mean…exactly how similar where they?

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

Then two things led to my first mistake. The Summer Bolete does not always fruit in the summer, and its name comes from the reticulations on its stem – a network of raised lines. I came across a couple of pictures on the internet claiming to be B. reticulatus, showing a clear, white network of lines on a mushroom that otherwise looked exactly like a bog-standard penny bun. “Ah”, I thought, “so I’ve been picking these up and just not realising what they were. Now I know what a Summer Bolete is.” Except I didn’t. My picture (left) is not of B. reticulatus. It’s just a penny bun with a particularly noticeable network of reticulations on its stem.

And when you’re working by a process of elimination – which is sometimes a legitimate strategy when identifying fungi – then one mistake can lead to another. When, two weeks ago, I found a mushroom with a light brown, suede-like cap, and white pores, I ended up concluding that it had to be B. aereus – it didn’t look dark enough, but then again some of the pictures I could find of that species had caps as light, especially when they were quite small. So I blogged about Dark Penny Buns.

Summer Bolete (Boletus reticulatus)

Summer Bolete (Boletus reticulatus)

Then a few days later I found lots more of them – outside a pub where the landlord had taken a dislike and dumped a load of earth on them, in a futile attempt to stop them popping up on his land. At this point, with more specimens as examples, it dawned on me what had happened. These couldn’t be B. aereus because they were the wrong colour. Dark Penny Buns have to be Dark. So they had to be B. reticulatus, and what I’d thought was that species were Penny Buns. The network on their stems is much finer, and brown rather white.

Dark Penny Bun, or Dark Cep (Boletus aereus)

Dark Penny Bun, or Dark Cep (Boletus aereus)

Then, in a twist so typical of mushroom foraging, something else turned up. Yesterday I visited a site where hedgehog fungi grow in great profusion every year, collecting for two foraging workshops in Northamptonshire. They were there as usual, but this time they had a friend – a solitary, dark-capped mushroom that otherwise looked remarkably like a penny bun. And by now you will have guessed where this story is going: this really was a dark penny bun. And it really was delicious.

As for the fourth member of this quartet – the Pine Bolete? That remains on the “to find” list, but the way this autumn is going, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up next week.

27/11/2015: UPDATE

The fourth member of the quartet has turned up. Where? On the banner at the top of my main page, of course! I’ve been mistaking Pine Boletes for Penny Buns, it seems.

 

Winter Chanterelles: what would I do in November without them?

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

11/11/2013

When the days have got shorter and the wind and rain have chased the fair-weather foragers back to their cosy living rooms, when the chanterelles have all been picked and any penny buns still standing are just hollow, grub-filled shells, when the deciduous trees have dropped most of their leaves and the mainstream modern world has turned the central heating on and is looking forward to Christmas…is mushroom season over? Hell, no it isn’t!

White Saddle (Helvella crispa) having a storming 2013.  These usually turn up as singletons, but have been trooping in large numbers this year.

White Saddle (Helvella crispa) having a storming 2013. These usually turn up as singletons, but have been trooping in large numbers this year.

I nearly didn’t post this. I sat in the bath for a while and mulled it over. Do I really want to tell people this? Wouldn’t it be better just to keep quiet about it and post something about what an extraordinary year it has been for the strange, recently-declared-toxic White Saddle (Helvella crispa) instead? But then I concluded that not enough people read my blog to make any significant impact on the greatest fungal bounty the British countryside has to offer, especially since it involves people trudging around in the mud in search of something that most of them probably wouldn’t notice if it was right in front of them. And yet it ranks right up there among the best of the edible wild fungi and in a good year it fruits in such wild abundance that it would take an army of foragers to pick even half of them.

Now that mushroom foraging has really taken off in the UK it is not so easy to find Chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius). They are, after all, bright yellow-orange and can be spotted from 40 metres if your vision is any good. I mean…there’s not that many brightly coloured objects scattered around on the woodland floor and everybody who has ever taken an interest in wild fungi knows what a chanterelle looks like. Plus they grow when you can still go mushrooming in a T-shirt. Far fewer people ever go looking for their late-season cousins, regardless of the fact that they outnumber the apricot-scented chanterelle by a factor of at least a thousand.

Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis). Early November 2013.

Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis). Early November 2013.

I am talking, of course, about Craterellus tubaeformis, otherwise known as the Winter Chanterelle, Trumpet Chanterelle or Yellowleg (or unhelpfully and confusingly called a Chanterelle, as it is in France, by people who also call Chanterelles by the French name “Girolle”). They are the sort of thing you probably wouldn’t notice at all unless you were looking for them. They are grey-brown, rather ragged and very well camouflaged. They also like to grow under bracken in inaccessible places. However, if you do happen to spot one then you stand a very good chance of finding as many more of them as you have the time and inclination to pick, and that is especially true right now. 2013 has been a vintage year for the whole of the Cantherellaceae family, so it comes as no surprise that it is proving to be a vintage year for C. tubaeformis.

What do you do with them? Well, first you have to take them home and carefully clean them. This requires the removal of the stem bases (if you weren’t sensible/patient enough to do that before you put them in your basket), then the use of a brush or nimble fingers to get rid of pine needles and bits of bracken. You’ll also need to tear open the bigger ones because they tend to accumulate debris and small animals inside their tubular stems. They have a taste which is both strong and delicate. Not overpowering, but enough to impart a lovely flavour to anything you might cook them with which isn’t already overpoweringly strong-tasting.  They make a great addition to spaghetti bolognese, but if you want to try something a bit more adventurous then I can heartily recommend the wild mushroom and leek tart posted on our sister site Charmed Pot, which would work perfectly well with 100% Winter Chanterelles, although there are still Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum repandum) about.

Winter chanterelles in abundance. These were picked on the first day I had a customer fail to turn up for a foraging session.  And it was at a location chosen by himself! Bad move.

Winter chanterelles in abundance. These were picked on the first day I had a customer fail to turn up for a foraging session. And it was at a location chosen by himself! Bad move.

As for identification problems, there isn’t much you could get these mixed up with. Maybe some of the small milkcaps, which don’t taste nice but won’t do you any harm. They are rather variable, both in size and shape, but they occur in such prodigious numbers that it shouldn’t take you long to familiarise yourself with all the variation they have to offer. All you’ve got to is find that first one.

Provided it doesn’t get really cold (serious frosts) before then, I expect to keep finding this species right through until the end of November and beyond. They will run out of steam before Christmas even if it hasn’t got seriously cold by then.

The Penny Bun Storm Hits

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

01/10/2013

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis, Porcino, Cep)

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis, Porcino, Cep)

Re: my last blog post: OK, I was wrong, the pundits were right this time and the much-anticipated “penny bun storm” appears to have arrived.  It’s perhaps a little later than expected (although the mushrooms rarely do what people expect them to do), but there is now no doubt that 2013 is going to go down as a very good year for Boletus edulis, otherwise known as a Porcino or Cep, and the most important commercially collected species in the world. I have in the last week seen numerous pictures posted from all over the UK of large collections of this species, mostly in excellent condition.  And in those places where other people haven’t already been out picking, I’m finding plenty myself.

Lurid Bolete (Boletus luridus)

Lurid Bolete (Boletus luridus)

It is also looking like a pretty good year for most of the good edible species.  I’m finding more chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius) than usual, very abundant fruitings of Parasol Mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera), Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum repandum) and also a wide selection of other boletes, especially the Penny Bun’s “poor relation” the Bay Bolete (Boletus badius).  This morning I also found a lovely collection of what are arguably the most beautiful of the pored mushrooms, the Lurid Bolete (Boletus luridus).  They almost look too pretty to eat.  Be careful if collecting, because there are some poisonous red-pored boletes – this is not the easiest branch of the family as far as safe collecting is concerned.  An important identifying feature of this particular species is the persistent red line just above the tubes when cut. Also note that they are poisonous raw, and need to be well cooked.

All things considered, 2013 is shaping up to be a bumper year for fungi (a claim that is made every year in some quarters…this year is actually true). The season is likely to peak over the next three weeks so get ready for what is likely to be a glorious October for fungiphiles!

Geoff

No Girolles Please, We’re British

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

16/09/2013

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show. Seriously, I know the marketing people: ‘There’s gonna be a joke comin’ up.’ There’s no f*****’ joke. Suck a tail pipe, hang yourself…borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, do something…rid the world of your evil f*****’ presence.”

(American comic/philosopher Bill Hicks)

At the risk of being accused of inverted snobbery…

What would you think if you read a recipe supposedly written in English, and it asked for 200 grams of oignon? What if you were in a British restaurant and saw “boeuf” of the menu? Answer: if you’ve got any sense, you’d know that the person who had written it was a pretentious twit. This is Britain, and the appropriate words to use are “onion” and “beef”. Writing “oignon” or “boeuf” is every bit as ludicrous as starting the ingredients/contents list of a food or toiletry product with “aqua”, as if anybody was actually dumb enough to know that this isn’t plain old water, or was convinced to buy something they wouldn’t otherwise have bought because “aqua” sounds cooler, or higher class.

This sort of pretentious twittery infests the food industry, and occasionally it also misleads people so they aren’t capable of understanding the recipe or menu item, and at this point it becomes an abuse of language. It also makes the already-difficult job of learning to identify wild mushrooms even harder. But hey, why demystify people when you’re trying to impress them?

I’ve spent many years berating people for calling penny buns by their French (“cep”) or Italian (“porcino”) names. What is wrong with “penny bun”? Do “cepes” taste nicer? Are “porcini” higher class? Fortunately this particular example doesn’t usually lead to people getting the species wrong, because there is only one species involved. The same does not apply to the names “chanterelle” and “girolle”.

The name “girolle” is only used by pretentious chefs, the menus and recipes they are responsible for, and by members of the public who have been misled by the aforementioned pretentious chefs into believing that the fungus with the latin name Cantherellus cibarius is legitimately referred to in English as a “girolle”. The same chefs then use the common name “chanterelle” to refer to another species – Craterellus tubaeformis (previously known as Cantherelllus tubaeformis). Confused? Blame the pretentious chefs.

In France, C. tubaeformis is known as a chanterelle, and C. cibarius is known as a girolle. Fine, if you are writing in French. If you’re English, and writing in English, then it is not fine, because the result is confusion like this by Galton Blackiston, on the BBC website:

—————————————————————–
75g/2½oz porcini mushrooms, sliced

75g/2½oz girolle mushrooms, sliced

75g/2½oz chanterelle mushrooms
—————————————————————–

Because this recipe uses both species concerned, it is possible to see what has gone wrong. “Chanterelle” is hotlinked on this page to http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/chanterelle_mushrooms , which states that “chanterelles are wild mushrooms with a bright orangey colour that grow particularly well in Scotland and in Scandinavia, where they are highly prized.” Nope, that’s not what Galton meant. He meant “dingy brown mushrooms that grow particularly well in pine woodland all over north-west Europe in the late autumn and early winter”. The bright orangey ones he’s called “girolles”, and just for good measure he’s thrown in some Italian as well, because “Penny Bun” wasn’t pretentious enough. This mistake is not the fault of the HTML coder at the BBC, who has simply as assumed that Mr Blackiston is writing in English rather than French, and doesn’t happen to be a chef or an expert on mousserons. Oops! I meant mushrooms.

This is not just pointless Académie-française-style language fascism – it does not matter if French words are adopted into the English language when no English equivalent already exists. It is a real problem, assuming you actually want people to be able to understand what you’re writing. In the above case the error is only visible because both species are being used at the same time. If the recipe just says “chanterelle”, then this mis-use of language means that nobody can know which of the two species anybody is talking about, unless they clarify by using the latin name too.

So, for the record:

These…

Chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius)

 

…are chanterelles. They are not “girolles”, unless you are French, or pretentious.

And these…

Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis)

 

…are winter chanterelles (or trumpet chanterelles, or yellowlegs). They are not “chanterelles”, unless you are French, or pretentious.

Both species are fruiting in the UK right now. The chanterelles are heading towards their last flush of the season, and the winter chanterelles have just started to appear (I found some three days ago, considerably earlier than I usually do, and just in time for the masterclasses at the Brighton Food Festival).  Both are also delicious.  This is not about safety – it is about using language for what is for (communicating, preferably clearly and accurately) instead of using it in the way marketing people use it.

Geoff

Autumn arrives in Britain – It’s Mushroomtime…

07/09/2013

As anyone in rural areas of the north will not need to be told, yesterday autumn arrived in Britain, with a splash. The temperature dropped by about ten degrees in most places, and nearly everywhere had a very welcome downpour. We’ve just had the best summer since 2006, but it does now look as if it’s over. Hopefully (from my point of view anyway) there will be no repeats of the misplaced October heatwave we were subjected to in 2011.

7th September 2013, Sussex.

7th September 2013, Sussex.

It’s also perfect timing in terms of fungi. The first big flush of autumn species had just started poking their heads above ground in the last few days, and the change in the weather means they won’t get dried out and with a bit of luck they will start fruiting in abundance. Today was my first (advertised as) peak session with a group of foraging students, and it produced my first decent basketful of English wild mushrooms of 2013 (we are about 3 or 4 weeks behind northern Scotland down here on the south coast).

We found in excess of forty species altogether, and if I include a couple I found before the session officially started, the list of edible species found today is as follows:

Parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), ruby bolete (Xerocomus rubellus), larch bolete (Suillus grevellei), bay bolete (Boletus badius), the blusher (Amanita rubescens), tawny grisette (Amanita fulva), brown birch bolete (Leccinum scabrum), blackening russula (Russula nigricans), rooting shank (Oudemansiella radicata), orange oak bolete (Leccinum aurantiacum), velvet russula (Russula violiepes), the miller (Clitopilus prunulus), blushing wood mushroom (Agaricus silvaticus), honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

Now is the time to book if you want to go mushrooming with an expert this autumn! 🙂

Geoff

 

Powdery Piggybacks!

30/08/2013

Blackening russula (R. Nigricans).

Blackening russula (R. Nigricans).

There is no shortage of oddities in the world of fungi. I’m yet to find the powdercap strangler (Squamanita paradoxa), which takes over the fruiting body of another fungus (Cystoderma amianthinum) and replaces its cap with its own – resulting in the fungal equivalent of something like a dog with a cat’s head, or the horn stalkball, which only grows on old sheep/goat horns. I came across something yesterday that comes close though, and similarly demonstrates just how specialised some species of fungus are in terms of their chosen habitat. The fungus in the picture to the right is a very common mushroom called a blackening russula (R. nigricans). This species is edible, if not choice, provided you find it when it is still grey (more often you will just find its blackened remains, which persist throughout the winter). It is a bit indigestible, but pleasantly nutty and perfectly acceptable to eat after frying well in butter.

Blackening russula (R. Nigricans) with powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) emerging.

However, not only humans eat these.  Most of them will be left to peacefully decay, but every now and then a set of small white blobs will emerge from the blackening cap.  These are mushrooms growing on a mushroom. This is the sole habitat of the powdery piggyback – it grows nowhere else other than the decaying fruitbodies of Russula nigricans. It is a bit unusual (for me at least) to see them this early in the season.

Powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) on Russula nigricans fruit bodies in advanced state of decay.  Late August 2013.

Powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) on Russula nigricans fruit bodies in advanced state of decay. Late August 2013.

As they reach maturity, it becomes obvious they are mini-mushrooms.  They are members of the family Lyophyllaceae – cousins of edible species such as the clustered domecap or fried chicken mushroom (Lyophyllum decastes) and St George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa).  I have been asked if they are edible.  I guess they might well be, but they are so small and uncommon that it is hard to justify eating them, and they don’t exactly look very appealing.

They have a close relative – very similar looking, but not powdery, and adapted to precisely the same way of life.  These are called silky piggybacks (Asterophora parasitica).

Mushroom season 2013 is still ramping up nicely.  I found a perfect penny bun yesterday, some suillus boletes, a tawny grisette and loads more russulas.  Perhaps more importantly for me, as somebody who is currently hunting for photos, nearly all of what I am finding is in very good condition.  This could not be more different to last year, when everything was being massacred by slugs.

 

 

 

Three from Up North

19/08/2013

Mushroom season 2013 is certainly just around the corner, and may well have already started. The last week has seen a marked increase in the number and variety of pictures being posted on the internet, especially of all sorts of boletes (mushrooms with pores rather than gills). 2012 was a bad year for boletes, so we’re due a good one. I have not been out mushrooming in the south east for the last three weeks, so I can’t provide any first-hand evidence of what is fruiting down here, but I can categorically state that the mushroom season has already started in Scotland.

I’ve just returned from a week in the far north of the UK, most of which was spent walking, in search of fungi. There were plenty of boletes around – a wide selection from three of the four major genera (boletus, suillus and xerocomus). I saw only a single leccinum – a (very common) brown birch bolete (L. scabrum). I found several mass-fruitings of chanterelles, blushers (Amanita rubescens) in multiple locations and lots of fly agarics (A. muscaria) in one location. Other edible species included deceivers, oyster mushrooms, fairy ring mushrooms, russulas and loads of field mushrooms. This is all stuff that can be found all over the UK, but my primary reason for spending some time north of the border was to locate and photograph some things that I would rarely or never find down here in the south. Three of these are worthy of mention:

Angel’s Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Angel's Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Angel’s Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Both the common and latin names seem to suggest this one must be good to eat. It’s also a rather pretty fungus, looking a lot like a pure white version of oyster mushrooms. Indeed I have seen somebody in the UK post a picture of them and confidently identify them as “Oyster Mushrooms: edible!” It is in fact unrelated to the pleurotus species, belonging instead to the Marasmiaceae family, the only well-known member of which is the fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades). You will also find no shortage of recipes on the internet, for this is a traditionally eaten species. I did not eat it. I had actually intended to try a little bit, but they turned up when I was en-route to somewhere I found loads of other things, and I somehow managed to lose track of them.

You may well have guessed by now that there is a question-mark over their edibility. If so then you’re right, and it’s a big one: in 2004, fifty-nine people in Japan were poisoned by this species, seventeen of whom died. The cause of death, frighteningly, was acute encephalopathy: they died of massive brain lesions in the cerebral cortex. Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it! These deaths were more than a little mysterious. Why did it suddenly happen in 2004, and not before or since? What is the connection with kidney function, since all of the fatalities involved people who had pre-existing kidney problems? We now have at least some of these answers, and they are explained in full here. The short version is that these mushrooms contain a very high level of an amino acid precursor called pleurocybellaziridine, which, when ingested, reacts with various other chemicals in the body to produce six amino acids that do not usually occur in humans. For reasons that are still unclear, when persons who have inefficient kidneys eat a large quantity of this species, a significant amount of pleurocybellaziridine reaches their brain, where it reacts with other chemicals producing these novel amino acids which in turn cause the fatal brain injuries. The reason this all happened in 2004 was that that was a particularly good year for this species in Japan – a large amount of it was available, and the fruiting bodies were also very large, so a lot of it was consumed.

Eating small quantities of this fungus is highly unlikely to be dangerous, but given that not everybody who has a kidney problem knows they have a kidney problem and that we do not have sufficient information to predict when the next outbreak of of pleurocybella poisoning will occur, or where, then I think the advice has got to be to steer clear of them.

P. porrigens is common in the Scottish Highlands, becoming increasingly rare the further south you go, currently not occuring in the south of England at all (although it appears to be spreading southwards).

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

This one is not edible, because it is rock hard. I’ve only ever seen it once before, and that was the previous time I visited Scotland in search of fungi. On that occasion I found only one fruiting body, which I kept as a memento of that holiday. I still have it, twenty years later.

This time I found them plastered all over a large, dead tree. The species is both parasitic and saprobic – it will kill a weak tree and then continue to feed on its corpse. It has two common names. The first derives from its shape – it’s quite obviously hoof-like. The second derives from its use, and indicates why it is of interest from more than a purely mycological or aesthetic angle: tinder fungus. The fungus has to be processed (soaked in water, then beaten and stretched to separate the fibres) in order to produce a substance called “amadou”, which in addition to being used as tinder has also been used to produce clothing, to stop bleeding and is still used in fly fishing to dry the flies.

F. fomentarius does occur throughout the UK, but is much more common in the north.

Russula paludosa

Russula paludosa

Russula paludosa

This has to be my favourite find of the last few days. Russula is such a tricky genus that I’m always pleased when I manage to identify a new one, especially if it turns out to be edible. I do not use microscopy or chemicals, which means that I’m often unable to work out which species of russula I have found. Some of them have some sort of distinctive feature that renders them more easily identifiable, but it is usually only if I find quite a lot of them and spend quite a bit of time narrowing down the possibilities that I stand any chance of figuring it out. A comprehensive guide book is essential (preferably more than one), and you must note the colour, the habitat, the nearby trees, the smell, the taste of the gills (both immediately and after a while) and also how far the cap cuticle peels from the edge to the middle. In this case it was possible, by a process of elimination, to work out that the purple russula I’d found was an edible species that is just about restricted to the highlands. There were plenty in the area of woodland I found them in though, so I took a few for the pot, and was not disappointed. It is also common (and a prized edible) in Scandinavia. NB: there are two very similar species – bright red rather than purple-red like these – that will give you a very nasty stomach ache!

I am planning on making another trip to Scotland next August. For me, mushroom season just got longer.

Brighton Food Festival Masterclasses

09/07/2013

Tickets are now available for two mushroom foraging masterclasses on the closing weekend of the Brighton Autumn Harvest Food Festival (Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th of September).

A typical mid-September collection of (mainly) edible fungi, primarily boletes in this case, but there's also some russulas, amethyst deceivers and millers in there, as well as an inedible (too bitter) species that the collector was hoping (in vain) might be hallucinogenic.

A typical mid-September collection of (mainly) edible fungi, primarily boletes in this case, but there’s also a parasol, some russulas, amethyst deceivers and millers in there, as well as an inedible (too bitter) species that the collector was hoping (in vain) might be hallucinogenic.

These will be held in the Live Food Show Marquee on Hove Lawns at 11am. The aim is to give a general introduction to foraging for wild mushrooms in the UK, but with a hands-on emphasis on whatever is actually growing in the Sussex countryside at that time. Each year is different, and the middle of September can turn out to be anything between the start of the season, when things are only just getting going, to the point where the biggest variety of species are available of any time in the year. It all depends on the weather. However, some things are pretty much guaranteed, so I’ll be surprised if I’m not able to bring along, for example, some fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades) and their deadly lookalike fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa). I would also normally expect to find some chanterelles around this time, and a nice selection of boletes, but who knows what the Mushroom Gods will bring us? One thing for sure is whatever I manage to find in Sussex that weekend, there will be more of it growing for other people to find. This is a typical feature of the way the fungi grow – the same species appears at the same time in multiple locations where the conditions have been similar (and this can include most of England, not just the Home Counties).

Books and the internet are invaluable learning tools, but there is no substitute for actually seeing, touching and smelling a wild mushroom. I will be bringing edible species, poisonous species and very common species. As well as introducing the foraging and identification of wild fungi, I’ll be cooking up some samples for people to try, and the students will also be able to take some of the edible ones home with them.

See festival website for tickets.

Chyewks! (chickens of the wood, on yew)

17/06/2013

“Where poisoning does occur, in animals or humans, there may be no symptoms and death may follow within a few hours of ingestion. If symptoms do occur, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse” (from www.thepoisongarden.co.uk, in reference to yew.)

First, the easy bit. Chicken of the woods (sulphur polypore/shelf, Laetiporus sulphureus) is a bracket fungus, fairly common in the UK and just coming into season now. Unlike most wild fungi, the danger associated with this species has nothing to do with identification; it’s easy to identify, because of its bright colours and distinct smell, and the only things you could conceivably mix it up with aren’t poisonous. It’s also, when still young, fresh and tender, absolutely delicious – it’s right up there with chanterelles and penny buns in the premier league of edible wild fungi.

Chicken of the woods, growing on yew.

Chicken of the woods, growing on yew.

So what’s the problem? It often grows on yew is the problem. It grows on plenty of other trees too, with a preference for oak, chestnut, cherry and willow, but I probably see it on yew more often than any of these others – and yew is associated with more than its fair share of mystery and mythology of its own, and rightly feared for its toxicity, which some people claim is transferred to the fungus when it grows on this tree. Chicken of the woods is also claimed by some sources to cause problems in a significant minority (5-15%) of the population even if it isn’t growing on yew, although some people to believe the two situations are linked, and that the minority in question have unwittingly eaten chickens from yew.

Last week, people all over the UK started posting pictures of chicken of the woods; 2013 is a good year for this fungus. One individual posted a picture of a very large specimen growing on yew, and in addition to having eaten some without coming to harm she also stated that she knew somebody who had been collecting and eating the fungus from the same tree for the last twenty years, with no ill-effects! So yesterday morning I decided to go for a long walk in a chunk of ancient yew woodland in Sussex to see what I could find, and I found chicken of the woods in abundance. Time, I thought, to kill two birds with one stone. It’s a long time since I found a large amount of this species in an edible state and not growing on yew, and I’ve not had much of a chance to experiment with different recipes. I’ve also never consumed a large quantity growing on yew.

Nearly finished cleaning it.  Just a few scraps of bark to be removed.

Nearly finished cleaning it. Just a few scraps of bark to be removed.

I say “walk”, but “scramble” would be more appropriate, as the woodland in question sits on the steep, scarp slope of the downs, and the ground is covered in loose chalk and flint. I lost my footing at one point, slipped over and cut the heel of my hand. The wound was a bit bloody and messy, I had no means of cleaning it, and by then I was keen just to get back to my car without having any more accidents, with my booty and camera intact. It was only as I was driving home that I realised the wound was hurting more than expected. I stopped, and on close inspection I found a small yew needle buried in my hand. As soon as I plucked it out, the pain stopped. A brief internet search will produce many anecdotal reports of a similar nature: yew foliage is potently unpleasant stuff.

Therefore, if you’re contemplating eating chicken of the woods from yew then you’d better make damned sure you remove every last scrap of foliage and bark from the surface first. Like all bracket fungi, this species will incorporate debris as it grows, and if the debris in question is yew foliage or bark then you’re eating yew foliage and bark, and there’s no question about the danger inherent in that; the toxins in yew do not break down when the plant material dies/dries!

Chicken of the woods, with chives and double cream.

Chicken of the woods, with chives and double cream.

So I cleaned it, very carefully. I then spent the next hour or so experimenting with recipes. I tried it with various different herbs and things (rosemary, thyme, chives, onion), fried with butter or olive oil, served with white toast or brown toast, on its own or covered in cream, etc… By the time I’d finished I’d eaten at least three times as much as would be consumed in an ordinary meal. I can report my findings: my favourite combination was to cook it in butter for 3 or 4 minutes, then add a generous helping of chives and finish it off with some double cream, then serve with brown toast. Truly scrumptious! I then lay down for a nap and to let my dinner get down…and wait to see if I developed any nasty symptoms or dropped dead with no warning.

I’m still here. I experienced no unpleasant effects whatsoever, and decided to cook up another load for my other half when she came home later that evening. I also had to have some more myself, of course. Would have been rude not to…

I am not going to recommend that other people go out and consume chicken of the woods growing on yew. My experiment is not absolutely conclusive. It is possible (likely, even) that some individuals are more sensitive to the toxins than others (if you have a history of heart problems then you should definitely steer clear). It is also possible that some specimens end up containing more tree-originating toxins than others. However, I suspect that yew material incorporated into the fungus is much more likely to lead to problems than the fungus itself.

I, for one, will be eating chicken of the woods from yew again. I will also offer it to my friends, although I’ll ask them to read this first.

Keep safe,

Geoff

Early Summer Mushrooming

03/06/2013

The start of June is not usually notable for being a good time to go foraging for mushrooms, but when the conditions are favourable then it’s not bad.  And they are currently favourable!

There are still spring mushrooms to be found – the St George’s mushrooms which took such a long time to get properly going this year are making up for it by still going strong into June; I found a new flush of these a couple of days ago, up on the Downs near Brighton. 

Dryad's saddle or pheasant's back (Polyporous squamosus).

Dryad’s saddle or pheasant’s back (Polyporous squamosus). Picture taken last week.

Another mushroom which is often found at this time of year and which is doing particularly well in 2013 is dryads saddle.  These are a great one for a beginner to go looking for, because of their combination of being quite common and almost impossible to mis-identify.  They are a bit hit-and-miss in terms of edibility at the moment though – I’m finding quite a lot which is too tough to eat even though it is still rather small.  I had previously assumed that the larger they get (and they can eventually get truly enormous), the tougher they would be, but this year it has become apparent to me that things aren’t quite that simple.  I’m finding some small ones which are too tough to eat, and slightly larger ones which are still edible.  The rule with these is that if you can pass your knife easily through the flesh, then they are edible.  If you struggle to slice them, then don’t bother, because it will be like trying to eat leather.

Fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades).  Picture taken late May.

Fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades). Picture taken last week.

The other species I’ve found in the last few days can both appear any time from about now, right through until the end of the main mushroom season in November.  They just turn up when they feel like the conditions are right.  Both come with warnings attached.  The first is the fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades).  This is an undeniable delicacy, but is also one of the species which regularly gets mixes up with something poisonous, sometimes with fatal results.  It is so named because it grows in rings (in grass, always).  Unfortunately it is not the only species that grows in rings in grass, and there is another similarly-common mushroom, about the same size and not much different in colour, which can kill you.  It’s called an ivory funnel or fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), and I can’t recommend anybody go picking fairy ring mushrooms until they are absolutely certain they can tell the difference between these two species.  Even more unfortunately, this is itself rather difficult until you’ve found both species more than once.  It took me several years before I was confident enough to collect them.

Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis).  Picture taken today.

Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis). Picture taken today (June 3rd).

The other May-November species I found this morning, and I don’t recall ever seeing it quite this early before.  It’s the first Agaricus (relatives of the shop and field mushrooms) I have seen this year, and it regularly turns up about mid-summer but not usually right at the start of June.  Field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) can appear as early as April, but these are far too big to be mistaken for those.  This is A. arvensis – the horse mushroom.  It can be distinguished from other agaricuses by the “cogwheel” ring, slight smell of almonds and large size.  Care must be taken not to confuse it with the poisonous yellow stainer (A. xanthodermus), which smells of phenol (like TCP) and bruises bright yellow (horse mushrooms also bruise a *little* yellow, but not bright yellow).  I found these growing in a sheep field on the Downs near Eastbourne.

2013 has turned out to be a pretty good year for mushrooms so far.  I can’t compete with the bountiful supply of morels and giant puffballs being reported by one internet poster from Yorkshire, but given we are still only at the start of the summer, it’s not looking bad at all.

Good luck and stay safe!