Do's and don'ts of mushroom hunting

08 November 2007 by
Do's and don'ts of mushroom hunting

They're one of autumn's finest treats,but many people are put off foraging for mushrooms by the potential dangers.To learn about the do's and don'ts of mushroom hunting, Tom Vaughan joined foraging family the Tees for a day out in the New Forest

In many ways picking mushrooms is like buying a dress: you base your quest on the seasons, you find little sites with consistent offerings, and you avoid the lairy colours. However, choose the wrong dress and you could clash with someone pick the wrong mushroom and you waft into a toxin-induced psychosis, your liver fails or, at worst, you die within 45 minutes.

It's this possibility that steers many foragers away from the potential minefield of fungi towards safer wild foods. No one ever died from a bad blackberry.

But it needn't be so daunting. The truth about mushrooms is that fewer than 5% of fungi large enough to be of culinary interest are poisonous to humans, and few of these will do more than induce a spot of nausea.

In the New Forest in Hampshire, Brigitte Tee has been collecting mushrooms for almost 30 years and has been poisoned just once, and only mildly at that, when some normally safe honey fungus reacted badly with alcohol.

In her field, Brigitte is unique. Mushroom picking is restricted in the New Forest, but after being arrested in 2002 for picking fungi for her business, Mrs Tee's Wild Mushrooms - she was caught by the police with £27-worth of brown chanterelles after a formal warning from the Forestry Commission - she fought a four-year legal battle to continue her business. Victory in 2006 left her the only person with special dispensation to pick more than the allotted 1.5kg of mushrooms a day.

Among her many customers is Billy Drabble, head chef at the Michelin-starred London restaurant Aubergine. He's been coming to her for almost 15 years to purchase fresh cèpes, girolles and other wild fungi.

With representatives of Aubergine's holding company, London Fine Dining, including Drabble, and Brigitte's son Robert, I went to the New Forest to learn the wheres, whys, do's and don'ts of mushroom hunting.

On a day of grey, thick drizzle the New Forest setting was somehow apt for such folklore-embedded items as mushrooms and toadstools, with its patchwork of bracken, woodlands, scattered ponds and wild ponies.

Cèpes, declares Robert, were to be our first target. The term refers to various species of fungus, all within the boletaceae family. However, it is most often used in reference to one particular species, the highly prized boletus edulis in France called cèpes, in England penny buns, in Italy porcini.

Our hunting ground was a patch of light woodland - perfect for cèpes - plenty of oak, birch and holly, sporadic ditches and a dank layer of leaves underfoot. This is one of Robert's favoured patches, he says, although he gives the impression that it's not his best.

Mushrooms, it is explained, are just the fruiting bodies of fungus plants, whose complex network of threads, called the mycelium, grow over a food source - dead leaves, rotten wood and so forth. The growth of the bodies is triggered by various factors, including moisture and temperature.

Don't expect a sea of mushrooms out there, warns Robert - before the film of drizzle presently ensnarling us there hadn't been any rainfall in the New Forest for 10 days.

In general, 2007 has not been a great year for mushrooms. Ideal weather is a long, hot summer with enough moisture to let the mycelium grow. Then, with rainfall in a mild September, the mushrooms will shoot up overnight. But other factors, including how early the leaves fall from the trees and the quality of the previous year's mushrooming, also affect the crop.

This time of year cèpes, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, beefsteak and chanterelles are our prime targets - the first four being the most likely to find.

As we trudge across the carpet of brown leaves, our untrained eyes looking for anything and nothing in particular, Paulo Saba, executive chef at London Fine Dining, starts to beaver away on the woodland floor, asking for help to harvest the huge crop of honey fungus (armillaria mellea) he's stumbled upon. He jogs up to Tee with a carrier bag full of his bounty, but the professional mushroom forager takes one look inside and assures Saba he's just cropped a dinner plate's worth of poisonous sulphur tuft (hypholoma fasciculare).

It's an easy mistake to make, he explains, as Saba discreetly empties his find on to the ground.

Scattered everywhere around are more inedible specimens: the purple amethyst deceiver (laccarina amethystea) more and more sulphur tufts and the fairytale-esque toadstool, fly agaric (amanita muscaria), resembling something Alice might have nibbled in Wonderland - although it wouldn't have been too conducive to the plot, as Alice would have slipped into delirium, hallucinations, seizures and maybe a coma.

Moving on, we near the umpteenth ditch and Robert drops to a crouch, like some Native American tracker on sighting a lone hoof print. In front of him are a few white mushrooms - named miller's thumb (clitopilus prunulus) because of their distinctive floury aroma. They're edible, he explains, as he cuts them from the ground to deposit in carrier bags, but more importantly, they're excellent cèpe indicators. He waves us on in a half-crouch, half-vertical stance.

Although most foraging guides advise the use of an open basket to prevent condensation on the delicate fungi, Robert prefers his bags. First, they allow you to separate the various mushrooms, vital because if there is a poisonous specimen among the edible, the whole lot will have to be discarded. Second, from a commercial perspective, it means other foragers can't peer into your basket and gauge what's around.

And 10 yards on, there it is: the first cèpe - or at least part of it, as nothing remains but the base of the stem. Munched, explains Robert, most likely by a pony. Maybe even by the one peering guiltily at us from behind a clump of shrubbery to our left.

There's one more mushroom Robert reckons we can find before we head to the next wood: the beefsteak (fistulina hepatica). Having already beaten a likely suspect out of the trees with an oversized log, only to find it was a run-of-the-mill inedible bracket fungus, Robert finds a slightly aged example attached to a fallen tree bridging a stream. Red, meaty and marbled, it does everything it should to justify its name as Robert cuts thin slices from the back to eat raw.

We are tiring of the sea of poisonous specimens and desperate for a fully fledged cèpe, but our next copse just brings more inedible fungi: weird grey and black spotted caps, tall cream parasols and long, thin hallucinogens.

"Gather round this one," shouts Robert. "It's the destroying angel. Eat it and you'll be dead within the hour."

With a small bag of miller's thumbs and armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of weird-shaped fungi we shouldn't touch, I pop off for a call of nature. And there, on a fallen tree by my feet, is a shelf of oyster mushrooms (pleurotus ostreatus). Cream and frilly, with large gills, they grow on dead wood, tree trunks, cut logs and fallen branches. Robert saunters over to harvest them into the bags.

On my return to the group there are mushrooms being found everywhere. Red foot bolete (boletus erythropus) is one of the easiest edible mushrooms to identify due to its reddish stem, minimal smell and spongy, cèpe-like underside instead of gills, and it is turning up in droves at the base of trees and in the shade of bushes.

Then the cèpes start to appear in similar places. Beautifully formed specimens with brown caps and creamy stalks, cèpes don't grow on wood but on the forest floor next to tree roots, and can grow to the size of rugby balls - but ours are, at best, the size of small crumpets.

Despite all the different poisonous species, spotting the edible mushrooms really isn't that hard. There are, of course, a few pitfalls, and every mushroom has its inedible lookalikes.

Brigitte's advice, when asked how she became such an authority, is to go out and pick all the fungi you can find. Wear gloves - the spores of some poisonous mushrooms are best kept off the skin put them all in separate bags note where you picked them for future reference take them home and identify them thoroughly with a guidebook. Only then can you build up a solid understanding.

We now have an impressive collection of red foots, cèpes, oysters and miller's thumbs, and Drabble sets up a gas stove on the forest floor and fries our bounty off in butter, serving them all on pre-made cèpe bread. Some nutty, some gamey, all deep with earthy woodland flavours, they are at their best fresh from the ground.

There are, unfortunately, no chicken of the woods (laetiporus) or hen of the woods (grifola frondosa) to be found, but as we saunter back to the van there is a rare sighting. In a small clearing are three girolles (chanterelle cibarius), normally gone by this time of year. Yellowy ears poking from the undergrowth, they are as prized a find as the cèpe. It could only have been an area of trapped heat and steady moisture that has allowed them to spring up so late, speculates Robert.

Twenty yards from the car park there is still time for one more inedible spot. "What are these?" I asked innocently. "Leave them," replies Robert hastily, and I stroll off, leaving behind a hippy's party-worth of magic mushrooms rooted to the forest floor.

Edible fungi

Cepe (boletus edulis)
Common in woodlands with oak, birch, holly and pine. Summer cèpes are available in June and July, but the main season is from late August to November. Can grow up to 30cm high with a pale brown short, bulging stem streaked with white (right). Caps are brown and smaller than the stem in young mushrooms but can grow up to 30cm in diameter. The underside of the cap is spongy and pale with no gills. Nutty, mild taste. Delicious sliced, raw or fried.
• Price in season: £22-£35 per kg

Girolle (chanterelle cibarius) Common in many types of mossy woodland, especially beech. In season July-October. Appears in late spring and grows in abundance in summer, especially after rain. Yellow, with the smell of freshly picked apricots. Funnel-shaped cap and vein-like gills. Slightly tough, it should be cooked for longer than other mushrooms.
• Price in season: £18-£35 per kg

Beefsteak (fistulina hepatica) Found on old oak or chestnut. Grows from August-October. A large red bracket 20-40cm in diameter, it is tongue-shaped and sticky, with red, marbled flesh inside, becoming drier with age. Best chopped small and fried, younger specimens can also be sliced thinly and put in salads, going especially well with pickled beetroot.
• Price in season: £20 per kg

Miller's thumb (clitopilus prunulus) Grows with both broad-leaved and coniferous trees in rich soil and grassy clearings, sometimes in rings. Can be found from mid-August to early November. Small, white, with a strong floury aroma, crowded gills and a salmon-pink spore print. Beware: can be easily confused with inedible species such as livid pinkgill. Can be lightly sautéd or dried to make a mushroom powder.
• Price in season: £20 per kg

Chicken of the wood (laetiporus sulphureus) A shelf fungus, the chicken of the wood has a soft texture, yellow flesh and, unlike a lot of shelf fungi, it produces new fruit bodies every year. Most commonly found on oak and sweet chestnut, although also grows on fruit trees, such as cherry and pear. Brackets can reach up to 30cm in diameter and 5cm thick, usually in a tiered cluster. In season from April to early August, it has the taste and texture of chicken breast. If the flesh is white and chalky, it is too old for use in the kitchen. Thin strips can be grilled or fried and are a good substitute for chicken.
• Price in season: £20 per kg

Hen of the wood (grifola frondosa) A bracket fungus that grows in September and October on old oaks as well as holly and hazel roots. Fruit body is about the size of a cauliflower, with lots of thin, tongue-shaped caps, which are grey or pale brown in colour and can be removed easily when young. Younger ones also have a sweet or floury smell. To cook, remove the caps from the tough stem and stew, or blanch and bake whole if young. Has mild, sweet flesh.
• Price in season: £20 per kg

Pied de mouton (hydnum repandum) Common on all types of woodland floor, especially pines, with a short, whiteish stem, a light brown cap and, instead of gills, unmistakeable tiny teeth that are brittle to the touch. So-named because of its resemblance to a sheep's foot. Around from September through to the early new year. Blanch to remove the slightly bitter taste, then fry.
• Price in season: £20-£25 per kg

Trompette de mort (craterellus cornucopioides) Also known as horn of plenty, it grows in the autumn among moss and undergrowth, particularly in acid soil under beech trees. Has a funnel-shaped cap 6-8cm across and is hollow to the base of the stem. Has a grey outer surface and dark brown or black inner surface. Best served sautéd in butter.
• Price in season: £20-£30 per kg

Billy Drabble's mushroom recipes

Cèpe bread

Ingredients 700g strong flour
50g dried cèpes, powdered
15g salt
15g yeast
430ml water

Method Mix the flour, salt and powdered cèpes. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and add the flour mix. Knead for five minutes until the dough becomes smooth. Leave to prove until doubled in size in a warm place in a bowl covered with a damp cloth. Knead again.

Divide into four and make four baguette-shaped loaves. Re-prove until doubled in size again, then bake at 180°C for 20 minutes.

Girolles in lemon and olive oil

Ingredients 300g small, clean girolles
Pinch salt
Pinch pepper
6 sprigs of thyme, tied
1dsp sugar
60ml fresh lemon juice
200ml olive oil

Method Place three tablespoons of the oil in a hot pan, add the girolles and season with salt and pepper. Add the thyme and cook until the liquid has gone. Add the lemon and sugar, and cook until syrupy. Add the remaining oil and heat vigorously for one minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Serve warm with roasted artichokes and John Dory or turbot.

Cèpe and potato gratin

Ingredients 1 clove garlic, crushed
30g butter
5 sprigs thyme leaves
400g cèpes, sliced
700g potatoes, peeled and sliced 2mm thick
225ml milk
225ml double cream
15g Parmesan, grated

Method Sweat the crushed garlic in butter. When soft, add thyme leaves and cèpes. Season and cook until all the liquid is gone and the mushrooms start to dry. Divide the mushrooms in half.

Place a layer of sliced potatoes in the bottom of an ovenproof dish and season. Place the cèpes evenly on top of the potatoes, then put a layer of potatoes on top of the cèpes. Bring the milk and cream to the boil and pour over the potatoes and season with Parmesan. Bake at 160°C then serve.

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