Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Annual Mushroom Report

This is a Charcoal Burner, a purple
(but sometimes green or even brown) russula
which is also quite edible. Avoid red and pink ones.
It was forecast. This autumn would be exceptionally good for mushrooms. Experts, mycologists and foragers have been saying this since July and despite nearly 20 years a forager and amateur mycologist, I really don’t understand why. Apparently it’s all down to the weather and that’s what has confused me. My most bountiful forays have been following rain, in damp and mild slightly autumnal conditions. These have been as early as June and as late as the clocks going back. We’ve had a succession of dry autumns, stretching back to the late 1990s – September; mid-season really; has been more like August for more than 10 of the last 18 years.

Wood mushrooms with dog in background.
Years where we’ve had plenty of rain have yielded little; years when we’ve had a lot of dry weather have also been the same; in fact, my enthusiasm for mushroom hunting has waned over the last few years despite going to all the usual haunts. It had a going through the motions feel and four six of the last 10 years I have had nothing to dry out for the winter. This also coincided with my interest in collecting mushrooms via photography; all those fantastic shrooms that you can’t eat but look fabulous.

Horse mushrooms will also grown
near woods just to confuse the issue
A perfect example of a Horse mushroom and how it can
vary from places it grows; Notice how it has a yellow tinge?
However, this doesn't stain yellow and smells of aniseed.
This year, the first mushroom – a wood mushroom – appeared in August. Odd buggers, look just like their counterparts – the horse mushroom – but have a ring around the stalk and for some reason never taste anything like the horse, which is one of the prizes of the season, but has been conspicuous by its absence for a few years. Wood mushrooms are the poor relation of the agaricus family (the one most closely related to the shop staple) and grow in or near the Yellow Stainer – called so because if you run your thumb across it it stains a vivid – and I mean vivid – yellow; almost fake. These give you the shits and probably the vomits too. A caveat to this is the fact the wood mushroom is pretty much as white as snow and smells of aniseed; the horse mushroom can go a yellowish tint, but as part of its aging process rather than through marking it and the tint is more like a creamy yellow than a citrus one. Also the Stainer smells strongly of carbolic and kind of dissolves into a yellowish grey mush when you fry them.

One of the largest fruiting bodies - the Dryad's Saddle
That was really about it and despite reports in the paper confirming the forecast, my usual haunts were as dry as a bone and unlikely to yield much more than a grass fire. Brackets started appearing and in a big way. A monstrous Dryad’s Saddle was found up in a copse of woods near Moulton Park and I found Chicken of the Woods – fresh and new – for the first time in ages. This is pretty much the easiest mushroom in the world to identify. It grows on trunks of trees – chestnut, cherry, apple, oak, ash and a few others. It is bright yellow and looks either like someone has attempted to fill a hole in the tree up with bright yellow Styrofoam or like fans of bright yellow, possibly ornage, structures that can be as big as five feet. It’s a vegetarian’s dream mushroom. Young and fresh it is like a standard shroom, but with a bit more bite and a couple of days old and it looks and acts like a really healthy alternative to quorn chunks – it absorbs flavour, imparts its own and is as versatile as, well, chicken. It’s difficult to mistake.

Chicken of the Woods - can be bright yellow
As is the Beefsteak fungus, also grows on trees, looks like someone has pinned someone’s liver to a tree – seriously. It acts like a lump of offal, has a slightly metallic taste (if not cooked properly) and I haven’t seen one this year; but I’ve seen all manner of birch polypors, horse hoof fungus and a whole bunch of things I’ve never seen before.

Shaggy parasols give some people wind
Then Scotland came along; at the end of August and three days before we went there it had been raining. The night before we went into the Galloway Forest Park it also tipped it down. I was armed with my knife, but I expected little – my expectations have been lowered, as I hinted at above.

A Parasol mushroom - pretty distinct
and quite sublime to eat
Once upon a time, for a few seconds, every so often, I would harbour the ambition of becoming a full-time professional wild mushroom picker; but research has led me to discover that this is a small and very closed shop and is unbelievably self-regulated. If you took a perfect specimen of a cep, or a morel, or a Piedmont Truffle (which apparently do grow here), a selection of the best eating and drying mushrooms you can find and showed this all to a top chef, he would salivate, he would agonise, he would look lovingly at the specimens, he might even want to buy them; but he doesn’t know you; he doesn’t know how regular you will be; how much you will scrutinise your pick, because even clever sods like me get fooled (and the lesson there is always ‘if in doubt, don’t.’) and unlike say blackberries or heritage apples, these babies can kill or poison you. Law suits would be bandied about like confetti.

One of the real prizes - a cep or penny bun
(photographed by me, this year, in Scotland)
However, walking into this tiny fraction of forest near Newton Stewart, was like my first trip into a comicbook shop or a trip of dreams. You couldn’t look for seeing them; they were everywhere – edible ones, poisonous ones, ones I’d only ever seen in books in a landscape that was almost surreal. It was a place you could understand would make people uneasy – it was like Christmas for me. I couldn’t be all the places at once and I was aware I had a wife and four dogs with me, so I just walked along, snapping some, picking others; doing something I rarely do in Northants – becoming choosy about what I picked.

The Beechwood Sickener - it's not edible!
A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me if I had any idea of what the percentage of edible mushrooms to poisonous ones was. That would be impossible to answer even at the end of a season, because you simply have no idea. I heard a mycologist suggest that less than 1% of all mushrooms are seen by humans; but equally, I’ve always been told that mushrooms tend to grow along paths – human or animal – and not in the deepest and darkest depths as you might imagine. On the evidence given by this patch of Galloway forest, mushrooms grow everywhere.

Poisonous or hallucinogenic? Fly agaric - the reindeer's fave 
As for specifics: boletes, aminitas, lecinum, suillus, lactarius, russulas, there literally was everything; well, almost everything that would grow in these conditions. You’re just as likely to find boletes growing out in meadows and under oak trees, but you’re unlikely to find something like a chanterelle or hedgehog fungus anywhere other than northerly forests and I saw evidence of the former, but nothing worth keeping. It should be noted that humans are not the only animal to eat mushrooms, but we are the most susceptible to the poisons. A slug will happily munch its way through most of the poisonous aminitas (death cap, fly agaric), as will squirrels, deer, badgers, foxes – anything omnivorous or vegetarian will have a nibble on a shroom.

In one part of Glentrool, we found an area the size of several parking spaces, just covered in fly agaric – that red mushroom with the white flecks on the cap; the ones that Laplanders feed to their reindeer…

Cortinarius purpurescans - edible,
but, you know, so is dog shit...
This is an aminita - it's probably 'The Blusher' one of the
few edible varieties, but like the cortinarius above,
there's a lot of 'edible' things...
I estimated that there was maybe £3000 worth of prize edible mushrooms in the tiny bit of forest we visited; the problem is mushrooms and their growing isn’t anything like a fine art. The top mycologists and hunters will not and cannot tell you when something will grow until there’s evidence of it growing. In many ways it isn’t an exact science and it also varies from different parts of the country. Scotland was awash with them, but 300 miles south, with bone dry soul and warm temperatures and the pickings have been slim. A couple of my usual haunts had evidence of Saffron Milk Cap, the only edible and easily identifiable of the mainly unpleasant lactarius family and cortinarius – not at all common – especially the purpurescens, which is reported to be edible as well as bright purple. I’ve never fancied it. 

One of many 'jelly fungus'
grows in dark woods and glades
In Northants there is very much evidence of mushrooms, but there is also evidence of how you can never tell when they might appear. The decaying Saffron Milk Caps probably appeared within a day or two of my last visit to their location; they are a long lasting mushroom and can be a fruiting body for up to a week before they start to break down. Plus, if something is ready to ‘bloom’ I don’t think it matters what the weather conditions are like – it might help improve the overall quality or size, but if it needs out, it will out.
This is a Silver Birch Bolete -
it is edible, but so is snot

In the two weeks or so since returning from Scotland, I’ve seen nothing to suggest a bumper season; in fact, there’s nothing but the remains of what was possibly a short-lived burst around the end of August. 

Not a great example, but if you ever see a shroom
that is yellow and plum coloured, it's called,
colloquially 'plums & custard' - it gives you the shits.
Two things this autumn has seen – the appearance of rarities and the disappearance of the usual suspects. On the bright side, there have hardly been any lepiotas (parasols) so far (so I remain optimistic about that) and any hopes for a burst of agaricus activity before long is down to how long before the first serious frost and we probably need some rain. The problem now is the rain is on the way, but the season is almost over and the first serious frosts will kill most of the late summer, early autumn mushrooms off. The forecast is for some wet and then cooler weather; there might be a twist in the end of this summer's mushroom season, or there might be another damp squib. We shall see.