Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rhapsody in Blue

As much as I hate the end of the summer and the advent of cold, damp, wet and windy, there is sometimes pots of gold to be found. The rain of the last week - and boy, hasn't it been some rain at times - might have revitalised the yellow verges and put some life back into the pastures, but it has also given us something we've struggled to see over the last 5 years of it being too dry or too wet. Mushrooms are back and with a vengeance!

Mushrooms will grow every year, but some varieties won't bother fruiting if the conditions aren't right. Mycelium can lay dormant for years, just growing under the ground and waiting for the right weather conditions - which explains why mushroom hunters often find species in abundance at the wrong time of the year. Way back in the late 1990s, when I was really at the height of my mushroom hobby/obsession, we took the dogs for a walk over some fields on the outskirts of Wellingborough. It was a cold and dreary late June day, the third day in a row of autumnal styled weather. In the middle of one of the fields was literally hundreds and hundreds of field and horse mushrooms. We picked nearly 10 pounds of mushrooms that day; still the biggest crop I've ever found, even if there wasn't much variety.

For the last five years, pickings have been sparse; so poor that I've almost forgotten the joys of foraging. It also doesn't help that when I lived in Wellingborough, I knew all the places where all the best mushrooms grew. Now I'm in Shoesville, I know places, but they are either few and far between or in places where I won't take the dogs (dog walking and mushroom hunting is a no brainer). Couple that with the overly dry or wet summers we've had recently and the conditions for fruiting have been severely limited. In fact, over the last three years, I've found very little to get excited about - a few horse mushrooms, the occasional edible bracket, field mushrooms and parasols - shaggy and plain and not much else to mention. Even holidays to places where I know good shrooms grow have yielded token examples. I went to the New Forest for the day last year, while on holiday in Dorset; I found one cep and a couple of manky russulas.

The signs were good this year. A dry summer is always good for fungus, but only if you get the required rain, at the right time, with the right conditions. When this happens, you're likely to be in for a real surprise.

It started about two weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a tree stump with a large cousin of oyster mushroom growing on it. It was a great find, albeit a wee bit unusual as this is a mushroom that normally grows between October and March. The signs were good and the following day we went to a place where I know chicken of the woods grows and sure enough, there it was in all its sulphurous glory. I was hopeful of a good season for once.

There are a lot of common mushrooms growing all around us and a lot of them are edible, but I wouldn't recommend you pick any without knowing what you are doing and I've been doing this for getting on for 20 years now - amazing as it seems - and I still don't keep anything I'm not 100% sure about and even then I double check before putting anything in the pot. Most people that forage around for this kind of free food always have particular favourites - mine are parasol mushrooms and horse mushrooms, basically because they're bloody tasty and piss all over any shop bought shroom. Plus there are the shrooms that are worth their own weight in gold - truffles are a delicacy I've yet to discover, but expensive mushrooms such as ceps, bay boletus, morels and chanterelles are highly sort after and top chefs will pay unbelievable amounts of money for top quality mushrooms. This is why the New Forest is such a haven for mushroom hunters - every year, at some point, the floor of the forests and clearings look as though a crazy baker has thrown all of his buns out of the van. Look at it this way, a cep is a porcini mushroom and you can buy 100 grams of dried porcini mushrooms for about £3; top restaurants will pay professional foragers about £25 a pound for fresh ceps and if you can find truffles that price just goes through the roof.

After the heavy rains of last week, I got this feeling on Saturday that this place, not too far from where I live, might have something worth investigating. 6 years ago, during the last good shroom season, I found a heap of bay boletus growing in some woods; unfortunately, they were also growing next to a load of bitter boletus - not poisonous, but apparently a little like lacing your food with earwax if you cook with them. I'd been mushroom hunting for nearly 15 years and I still made the mistake of thinking that if it looked edible, it must be. No harm was done, but I wasted a lot of time slicing up unusable mushrooms to dry. Bay boletus are similar to ceps, but have a darker brown cap and a vivid yellow underside, which stains slightly greenish blue if you bruise it. It is, in many ways, a much better shroom than ceps, because maggots - the bane of any forager - don't get very far up the stalk before they give up and die. They are also very tasty, especially when they are young (when they get big, they're best for drying out as the flesh can go a bit soft if overcooked) and while I like finding ceps, they're a real rarity in these parts, where I have at least found bay boletus in a number of places.

We traipsed around the woods for nearly an hour and I found nothing bar two charcoal russulas and that was within seconds of stepping out of the car. It sort of gave me a false hope that would have been realised if we hadn't made a slight detour at the end of our walk. It was the wife who spotted the first one - it takes me a while to get my mushroom eyes working - and I was slightly taken aback. It was a cep and a good one; then she found another and another! I then found a cluster of bay boletus and within 20 minutes we had about 20 specimens and another chunk of chicken of the woods. When we got home, my neighbour, who knows about my hobby had a big carrier bag of field mushrooms picked from her horse's field. It was turning into a great day!
We returned the next day and found a dozen more new ones. Basically, if we don't see another mushroom this year I will be happy. I have two racks of sliced shrooms drying in the airing cupboard- filling it with this wonderfully rich aroma, an almost meaty smell that will eventually add depth and extra flavour to stews, soups and any mushroom dish.

I've introduced a lot of people to the pleasures of mushroom hunting and many of them, armed with a reference or field book, have found lots and enjoyed the benefits. But I always tell them that they have to cut the mushroom at the base of the stem and not pull them up. If you pull them up, you damage the mycelial strands, which are actually the mushroom. If you do this, you can kill or stunt the growth of that fungus and that means when you go back for more, there won't be any.

My main problem with foraging now is that I have to do mine at weekends and in the evening, after work, when I take the dogs out. The number of times I've found great mushrooms that have either been attacked by local wildlife (everything seems to love russulas, from slugs to deer), kicked around by kids or just had gone a little bit over. It also sometimes amazes me that I walked around for years without ever really noticing them - an entirely different life form from plant or animal. This weekend, I intend to visit a couple of places I know have had good shrooms growing there in the past. One of the places has the Prince grow there quite often. This is the royalty of the agaricus family - agaricus are what you eat when you buy punnets of bog standard shrooms from the shops; it is the safest genus in that there's only really one of its species that is poisonous and contributes to more than 90% of all poisonings each year. The one to avoid is called a Yellow Stainer, or agaricus xanthodermos, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It stains yellow and when I say yellow I mean canary yellow and so quickly its almost violent. A good rule of thumb with mushrooms like the ones you buy is that if you run your nail across the cap, if it doesn't stain yellow immediately, then its safe to eat. Yellow stainers also smell of carbolic soap, which I think is a bit of a give away. But, the Prince is a truly amazing mushroom. It can be pretty massive and has similar characteristics to a parasol, in that it has a mottled cap with brown splotches on it. It stains a pinky red colour when you cut it - and this is good - and tastes like concentrated mushrooms. It cooks incredibly well and goes with just about anything. I have only found a dozen in 20 years, and 5 of them were under some one's hedge in the Peak District.

If nothing else, it has given me the opportunity to waffle on, with renewed vigour, about my only real hobby again. I'd love to be able to take people on forays; I really enjoy talking about mushrooms and helping people get into it. The problem is forays need to start at the end of August and go through until the end of October - the reason being is that you get different species at different times. Nowadays, I've seen adverts for mushroom forages and they've all been at the arse end of October, a time when the season really is winding down - and, if there's been any days of hard frost early in October, that kills of most shrooms for the year.

I was talking to someone last year who had been on a foray around Irchester Country Park near Halloween. She said the instructor wasn't helpful, gave no real information and they found nothing of (edible) interest. She felt it was a wasted two hours. I fancy I would have done a better job - there's always something to say about the places where mushrooms grow, even if it isn't a mushroom you're looking at.

Now, there's an important football match about to kick off and my future happiness rests on the result...

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