DISCLAIMER: I’ve labelled mushrooms on this blog. I’m new to foraging and my labels may be wrong. Refer to a professional. We had the knowledgeable Lisa of Edulis and Matt of Eden Wild Food by our sides to show us the ropes.
Showering at the end of today reveals little pin-pricks on my skin from brambles, itchy raised bumps of stinging nettles unnoticed until now, and “foraging fingers” of yellow, brown, and slime. This all gives way to an overwhelming sense of a thrill which, until recently, I’d have reserved for discovering a new piece of music from my favourite artist or experiencing some new culture or cuisine.
New Forest mist at dawn
Rewind the clock back 2 weekends, and I was camping in the New Forest. Camping is not a pastime I had ever relished. I had taken every opportunity over the last 15 years since my teens to scald the stupid types who trade warmth, civilisation, slated pitched roofs and other first world comforts for a night in an undersized, cold, damp figleaf of canvas that barely covers enough floor space to lie in the foetal position. I’m not an outdoorsy type.
But after 16 years of refusing to camp (I last camped in my teens), I gave in, on the proviso that there would be a minimum of 18 inches of air between me and the ground at night – oh – and on the proviso we would find a room with a view.
The reason for all of this camping nonsense? Mushrooms. I’ve long held a great deal of respect for fungi, although I’ve not until now known the first thing about the subject.
We booked onto a mushroom course, and within a day of meeting the wide-eyed Lisa Cutcliffe of Edulis Wild Food, I was bitten by more than one type of bug.
A basket full of edibles – with one exception
Lisa Cutcliffe – look what we have for lunch
The mesmerising gills of the porcelain mushroom
The common reaction to “I’m going to pick some mushrooms to eat” is “goodness, isn’t that dangerous?”. Well it only took a day with Lisa to realise how much I have to learn in the coming years about the enchanting world of fungi, but this one day certainly set me on the right path. Now I’m able to confidently identify 20+ mushrooms from 10 paces. Since the course I have become somewhat obsessed with how to determine the right environment for different types of mushrooms, and this seems to me harder than making sure you don’t poison yourself.
It’s hard to work out where mushrooms grow.
But if all else fails, you could do worse than starting with a wood that looks like something out of a fairy-tale:
How to find the perfect woods for foraging – choose the ones that look most fairy-tale
Lisa taught us about the trees that fungi seem to latch on to most, I won’t spill the beans here but these are two of the main four:
Learn your leaves
An early success: some beautiful Chanterelles.
A single Chanterelle
Beautiful yellow gold colour of the Chanterelles
One of the memorable pieces of advice given to us by Lisa was this:
Start off by learning the 50 tastiest edible mushrooms, and the 50 most poisonous ones, and don’t bother with everything in between.
To my mind, the safest place to start is to look for the Boletes. These are mushrooms with tubes underneath the cap, as opposed to the more common gills. Apart from one or two of the more rare Boletes, they are all pretty harmless, and the best Boletes can be some of the most valuable and delicious mushrooms. The Cep (aka Porcini or Penny Bun) is one of the superstars of the mushroom world, as such they can be a great find.
Here are some Boletes. Had I seen the bruised underside before, I would have thought “ugh, that’s a rubbish mushroom”. Now I have a great fondness for seeing the tubes under a Bolete bruising blue. Combine this with brown flecking on the stem and this means you’ve found a Bay Bolete:
The distinctive brown stem and gentle blue bruising of the Bay Bolete
Leccinum Versicolor (Mottled Bolete) , hidden in the moss and bracken
Another Mottled Bolete
Despite turning a scary electric blue when cut, the Scarletina Bolete is edible and delicious
These slimy looking mushrooms are called Porcelains, and they are edible. They are very fond of Beech and they grow in this tufted manner. I’ve found quite a few since our day with Lisa but I’m yet to take the plunge and cook them up! They are exquisite to look at and touch.
A tuft of porcelain mushrooms on a tree
A pair of Porcelain Mushrooms
We met quite a few weird fungi on our travels, including this little coral:
The Tawny Grisette with its strongly grooved cap edges and tall elegant stem:
The Tawny Grisette mushroom
Winter Chanterelles on a mound of moss
Some other-worldly tufted mushrooms growing from a log
A Blusher looking golden brown in the sun
Lisa opened our eyes to so many wonders of the natural world, including this Beefsteak mushroom found by one of the course attendees. You can pull these straight from the tree and eat them raw. Surely this is the closest thing in the natural world to eating cured meats?
Cutting the Beefsteak Mushroom
Looks like pancetta – tastes like mushroom
Cross section of the majestic Beefsteak Mushroom
A vegan’s delight – the blood of a Beefsteak Mushroom
Although this was a fungi foraging course, we also took some time to get to know a number of other special things in the New Forest, including edible flowers, mosses, hawthorns, sloes. Here is a plant known as Butcher’s Broom, said to have been used by butchers to clean their block as the leaves are very tough and scratchy.
Butcher’s Broom (poisonous) – used to clean butchers blocks
We did concentrate on edible mushrooms, but a lot of time was given to the inedibles which can be equally (if not more) alluring. Here’s Lisa and her Fly Agaric, with its own mini-me:
The Fly Agaric Mini-Me – mushroom jewellery worn by Lisa Cutcliffe
The pretty and the poisonous
The quintessential fairy-tale poisonous toadstool – the Fly Agaric
A young Fly Agaric (amanita muscaria)
The perfect Panther Cap (don’t eat one)
Our group of 20 stopped for lunch. Lisa had dreamt-up an amazing 4 course meal, starting with the mushrooms we had picked that morning fried up in butter and garlic and served with bread, followed by a feast of venison, ale, and wild mushroom stew, then a selection of cakes made with foraged goods, and finishing up with lots of impressive home made tipples (birch sap syrup, raspberry vodka, and many more!)
Cooking up the freshest mushrooms I’ve ever eaten
Home-baked apple and blackberry cake with elderberry icing and mallow flowers
Vegan chocolate tray bake
In the afternoon we were set free to practice what we had just learnt. This is what we found:
Young Panther Cap specimen
The white scales of the Panther Cap
I don’t think these are magic mushrooms as they don’t have the distinctive nipple but they certainly look magical
Matt Normansell shows us what to look for when identifying mushrooms – (Honey Fungus shown here)
A Brittlegill mushroom
The beautiful edible amethyst deceiver
The wicked Webcap
Cleaning a Hedgehog Mushroom
The beautiful (but inedible) Mycena
A mushroom collector’s delight: a basket full of edibles
Oyster mushrooms on a tree fallen over a stream
Grooved upper ring of the Blusher Mushroom
Cramp Ball growing on wood
The Cramp Ball – used as fungus firelighter
It’s no over-statement to say that Lisa’s course has re-invigourated my love of the outdoors. As a city dweller I’m seeing more and more the benefits of taking a 1-2 hour drive and spending hours just wandering and looking at things.
Ancient forest roots
Oak leaf on a five bar gate
Caterpillar-nibbled leaves of an oak tree
Excuse the Instagram-styled photo here (edited on the iphone in situ – never a good idea!), but isn’t this spread just gorgeous?
New Forest Final Spread
We weren’t exactly “glamping”, after all how can sleeping a mere 18 inches off the ground in a tent as long as my own body ever be considered glamourous? But I must say waking up to the stunning view of the New Forest sunrise the next day, pulling out the travel coffee kit, and cooking up a mushroom breakfast in front of a couple of wild ponies was experience never to be forgotten.
Breakfast the next day – smoked streaky bacon and mushrooms
And the dinners have started to look a lot more like this ever since:
Wild New Forest foraged mushroom and butternut squash risotto
Mat taking photos of the sunrise
New Forest Ponies at sunrise in Hollands Wood