Magazine article The Spectator

Fungal Forays

Magazine article The Spectator

Fungal Forays

Article excerpt

Food for thought

One Sunday morning, a year ago, I joined a party of two dozen enthusiasts for what was described as a fungal foray in Savernake Forest. We were accompanied by Roger Phillips, the distinguished mycologist and botanist, who was able to identify - occasionally he had to refer to his own book on the subject - the 20 or so different fungi that we found. I had no idea there were so many. None was poisonous, but when we got back to East Grafton village hall to enjoy the fruits of our labours, Mr Phillips said that only two species, the puffball and a rather sinister-looking little purple thing called the amethyst deceiver, were really worth eating.

Fortunately we had gathered plenty of these, which Mr Phillips then proceeded to stir-fry with garlic and parsley. They were delicious, of course, though it was a pity we had failed to find any chanterelles or ceps, which are generally held to be the best of the woodland mushrooms.

My notes record that I found members of the russula, lactarius and clitocybe families, and an ugly phallic species which produces a puff of fungal smoke when touched. I don't think I have ever seen a seriously poisonous mushroom, but I am told that anything with white gills should be avoided. In France, where they are much more adventurous about eating fungi, you have only to take a doubtful specimen to a pharmacy, and there will be someone qualified to tell you whether it is edible or not.

Cultivated mushrooms are grown from mycelium spawn, which I know nothing about, except that the white fluff which appears on mouldy bread is called mycelium. Compost made from horse manure and wheat straw is ideal for growing mushrooms, preferably in a wooden box, away from sunlight and in a temperature of about 50 deg F. It sounds easy enough, but mushrooms are unpredictable things and sometimes they just don't come up.

In supermarkets these days you may find the oyster and shiitake varieties of mushroom, as well as the cultivated pink- or brown-gilled field mushrooms, whether button or flat-capped. The field mushroom (agaricus campestris) is the one wild species which everyone is happy to pick. After a rather dry summer, this may not be a very good season for them; I went to a favourite field last week and found none. …

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