I’ve been learning about mushrooms. Everyone tells you to go picking with an expert, and only eat anything they personally examine; I don’t, unfortunately, have such a tame expert, so I’ve been relying on several books and websites, as well as the online hive mind. There is, it turns out, a keen community of mycologists eager to help out a beginner; hopefully they know what they’re talking about. I was looking forward to roaming the countryside with my battered (second-hand) copy of Food For Free, looking back and forth between description and specimen, but unfortunately the book’s previous owner had the same idea, and ripped out the relevant colour plate. Instead I pick a few and attempt to identify them when I get home, which means the place is littered with possibly-toxic fungus.
People often ask me if I worry about poisoning someone with one of my various ferments and cured items; honestly, I don’t. I fussed a bit about botulism the first time I made salumi, but since I had used both salt and the legal maximum of saltpetre, I needn’t really have worried. The key with ferments is to create an environment where harmful bacteria will not thrive, and then to leave the others to it; a sort of intelligent design, if you like, with the microbiome of each jar guided by your invisible hand. Mushroom hunting, on the other hand, requires constant and informed decision making, with the possible price of a mistake being a prolonged and quite unpleasant death.
Most toxic mushrooms (or fungus, rather) will just make you slightly ill, and possibly hallucinate (these are features that some people seek deliberately, of course), with, it seems, not universal effects. If you look through a mushroom guide, you’ll see that many are ‘reported by some people’ to be toxic; there are so many possible influences on our stomachs, not least the psychosomatic contribution of paranoia, that I suppose it’s hard to be sure. A lot of fungus are tiny or not very nice, anyway, so there’s little point in risking sickness. The noble exceptions, of course, are the aptly-named Death Cap and Destroying Angel mushrooms (the latter of which [SPOILER ALERT] plays a starring role in John Lanchester’s excellent debut novel), which look and probably taste like delicious white mushrooms but are in fact viciously, horribly poisonous, turning your organs against each other and shutting down the entire mechanism which keeps you alive; stay away from white mushrooms unless you know what you are about.
It seems an unfortunate part of the British disconnect with our food culture is the lack of general interest in (and therefore confident knowledge of) wild fungus. In Italy, wooded France or Eastern Europe, for example, mushroom hunting is a popular and respectable pastime; such delicacies as the cep are there for the taking, so why not? We have them here, too, of course, called Penny Buns and just as lovely – alongside various poisonous cousins. Some, luckily, are much easier to identify, even for a beginner. The Shaggy Inkcap, for example, has an inky cap and is distinguishable from the (rarer) Common Inkcap by being shaggy; it looks rather like an old-fashioned lawyer’s wig, hence its other name Lawyer’s Wig. I found some this morning, on a little verge by the road, where they were just starting to deliquesce and stain the fingers, but still whole and edible. I took them home and sautéed them with just some salt – I had no garlic – and ate them on slightly stale sourdough toast, and they were very good, the more so because I picked them with my knowledge and my hands.