It's Mushroom Time
The woods of the West are full of edible fungi and the best time to go picking is the Autumn. It hardly needs saying, however, that you should NEVER go foraging for edible mushrooms without prior consultation of a Very Knowledgeable Person or armed with a reputable text book. Among the tasty field mushrooms, Puffballs, Clouded Agarics and ravenous Honey Fungus that line our woodland – which some foragers charge a small fortune for at market – there are several poisonous varieties waiting to trip you up: several species of fungi are toxic and one common mushroom, the death cap, contains a poison with no known antidote.
The best way to go on a mushroom forage is to first go on a guided foray with an expert, and thereafter focus on a few, easy-to-identify species which you stick to until you feel confident enough to progress further. Andrew Sartain of Wild Food Larder leads forages around the region on his electric bike, complete with portable field kitchen. I went on one of his walks last autumn (2007) and he instilled in me a sense of caution and respect for mushrooms, which has served me well. I’ve learnt that Honey Fungus (Armillaria Mellea), for example, is almost impossible to mistake for any other species. “It kills thousands of trees a year,” says Andrew. “It will eat anything, killing off the host tree, and infecting the surrounding area. I’ve no problem with picking these!” Once home, remove the stalks (they can be very tough) and blanche the caps in boiling, salted water for two minutes, discarding the water after use as they can contain a mild toxin.
The many varieties of Puffball are probably the easiest to identify – Common, Giant and Gem-studded (or Devil’s snuff-box) are common throughout the West – and taste great sliced and fried in a little salted butter or olive oil. Only pick them when they’re young, white and sound hollow when you tap them; once they start to turn yellow or brown they’re past their best.
The Amethyst Deceiver is another mushroom that is easy to identify and grows all over the woods at this time of year. The small, slender fungi grow in clusters and have a very obvious lilac colour which fades once cut. Delicate and delicious when young, as they age the stalks can get a bit fibrous. If you see what you think may be a Chanterelle, be careful. The False Chanterelle is almost identical, although darker, with a thinner stem and without the fruity aroma of a true Chanterelle, but can give you a severe stomach ache. The same goes for the Fairy Ring fungus, common in gardens from late Spring until early Autumn, which looks surprisingly like the young, severely toxic Clitocybe Rivulosa.
The rules are simple: make sure you’re not gathering on private land (or that you have the owner’s permission first), and don’t take too many. As Andrew says: “Only collect from plentiful populations and take no more than you want for your personal consumption.” According to Peter Jordan, co-author of the Complete Book of Mushrooms, 80% of fungi grow in association with trees, so get out into the forests and start gathering. You don’t need a lot of equipment either: take a good penknife (you should always cut mushrooms clean through the stalk, do not pluck them from the ground as this will destroy the root system), a soft brush to clean them with and either brown paper bags or a basket to transport them home.
There are several excellent books available that will help you sort the edible from the inedible, including The Complete Book of Mushrooms (Lorenz Books) or Food For Free (Richard Mabey, Collins). “There are no shortcuts,” Andrew says, “No easy way to tell what is or what isn’t edible, and you must never put poisonous mushrooms in the same basket as edible ones. If you start picking up all sorts of mushrooms straight away, you’ll get confused. It’s important to get to know them confidently and then slowly build up your knowledge.” Wise words, indeed…
Grey squirrels are an alien species, introduced to the UK from the USA in the late 19th century. Much stronger and adaptable than our native red squirrel, they may look like soft, cuddly little critters, but they are regarded as voracious pests, destroying trees and other vegetation and invading nests to eat eggs and young birds. Many also carry squirrel pox, which is fatal to our native red squirrels. According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, time is running out for the red squirrel: unless immediate action is taken, extinction is not a matter of if, but when.
We’re over-run with grey squirrel in the UK: estimates suggest that we have as many as between two and five million living here, compared to fewer than 200,000 of their red cousins. Yet what are we to do with them? Culls have been taking place in some parts of the UK, using poison to try and keep numbers down, but there is another option. What if wild grey squirrels were killed humanely for food?
It seems a few other people have had the same idea. Conservative peer Lord Inglewood has suggested that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver might want to serve them up for school dinners; squirrel appeared on the menu at Sir Terrence Conran’s Butler’s Wharf Chop House earlier this year (2008), and some game dealers in the West – such as Ted Clancy from Wiltshire – have been selling them for years. Ted runs a stall at Bath’s weekly Farmer’s Market, selling local venison, rabbit, duck and (occasionally) squirrel amongst other game. Ted tells me that he traps his squirrels and then kills them humanely, although others shoot them. He does not often carry stock of squirrel, but will happily source some for you if you want.
There’s not a huge amount of meat on a grey squirrel, but what is there is tasty, sweet and nutty (naturally); they’re low fat, are completely free range and have zero food miles and they are very cheap – just a couple of quid apiece. Ted sells his skinned and ready for the pot. Steve Downey of Chef Direct in Barrow Gurney has been known to offer them occasionally, and they’re starting to turn up in butchers’ shops around the country as well as in expensive restaurants. Forager Andy Hamilton, co-author (with twin brother Dave) of the Self-Sufficientish Bible, tells me: “Squirrels are rather tricky to skin as unlike rabbits you have break the back legs to get the skin off. It is worth it, however, as they are – as Ray Mears says – ‘great eating’.” Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall adds: “Squirrels are delicious, a bit like rabbit and really tasty”.
If you’re considering eating squirrel leave the offal and especially the brain – which has been linked to several cases of CJD in the USA – and stick to the meat, which can be cooked in the same way as you would any other game. If you want to hunt your own squirrel, be aware of the regulations from the Environment Department regarding humane killing. Squirrels can be killed humanely by shooting them in a cage or luring them into a sack and administering no more than two firm blows to the head, (a technique known as cranial dispatch). Drowning, gassing or killing by any other means is banned under the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.
The Dangers of Wild Food
Wild food is a great resource, but must be treated with respect, both in terms of our health and the health of the eco-systems that the plants and fungi are part of. Before you tuck in, there are a few things to bear in mind. Under the Wildlife and Countryside act (1981) it is illegal to uproot any species without permission from the landowner. Remember to only pick a small amount of wild food from each place, to preserve the plant for future growth. If you take all the flowers or seeds from a crop in one year you could inadvertently wipe it out. This would also have a knock-on effect on the pollinating habits of the bees, butterflies and birds in the area. Make sure you forage in different areas and leave some for others. Don’t pick from protected areas such as wildlife reserves, sites of special scientific interest and so on (the Botanical Society of the British Isles has a list of endangered species of plants). Remember also not to pull mushrooms out by the roots but cut them off above ground level, and flick the cap to release its spores for future germination.
As for your health, mushrooms are an obvious contender for vigilance. Only last year Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, and three members of his family were rushed to hospital and put on dialysis after picking and eating the highly toxic Cortinarius Speciosissimus mushroom. Also known as the Deadly Webcap but occasionally confused with the Chanterelle, this particular mushroom cancause damage to the liver, kidneys and spinal cord. What’s less well known is that many edible wild plants have poisonous look-alikes lurking in our forests and meadows. Cow Parsley, for example, is edible (with a bitter, chervil-like flavour)but can easily be mistaken for the similar-looking Poison Hemlock and Fool’s Parsley. Hemlock can also easily be mistaken for wild carrot (they are part of the same family) and at least one wild food forager in Leeds had to be hospitalized last year when he mistook Foxglove (poisonous) for Comfrey (a versatile plant that’s great for cooking with!). Another example is the Lesser Celandine which is both edible and has medicinal uses (its other name is Pile Wort!) but looks similar to Greater Celandine, which is toxic, causing contact dermatitis and eye irritation.
Hogweed is another one to watch out for: if you get the sap from the plant on your hands or face it can cause severe inflammation and stain the skin for months! Fergus Drennan, better known perhaps as BBC TV’s Fergus the Forager, nearly fell foul of a lookalike plant last year when he was out in the fields: “It’s easy to make a mistake if you’re not paying attention,” he says. “Last year I started picking Lords and Ladies leaves by mistake because they were growing right next to Common Sorrel in a hedgerow.” Most parts of Lords and Ladies, also known as Cuckoo-pint, are poisonous although the root– which looks like a small potato – is edible and nutritious when baked. The bright red berries are attractive but toxic, and the leaf is high in calcium oxalate, small doses of which are enough to cause intense sensations of burning in the mouth and throat, swelling, and choking. Larger doses, however, cause severe digestive upset, breathing difficulties and can lead to convulsions, coma and death. “You can find it growing right next to sorrel,” Fergus explains. “I’d been picking some from a hedgerow and as soon as I started munching I noticed that my lips started burning. The leaves are quite different, so if I had been paying more attention it wouldn’t have happened.”
It sounds obvious but think about possible contamination before you eat anything wild. Wash any leaves you gather at ground level as animal urine can make you quite ill if you’re unlucky. It’s also not ideal to harvest anything that grows next to busy roads. Making a decision about possible contamination can be difficult, though. For example, lots of seaweed is edible, delicious and nutritious, but you do have to be careful where you gather it. Heavy metal pollution is a worldwide environmental problem, and seaweed can soak up these toxins. “Sometimes you only find out these things through personal experience,” Fergus adds. “There was a field with vast swathes of Chickweed in which I was tempted by. I’d been picking little bunches of it and had tried to get in touch with the owner to see if I could go into the field and gather more. One day I turned up and she was there. I asked her if I could help myself and she said no, explaining that she’d just sprayed the field with a heavy-duty weed killer. I went back there the next day and the whole lot had collapsed! You can’t be too careful!”
Parts of this article first appeared in The Spark issue 55, 58 and 59.
Written by Darryl Bullock
Disclaimer – details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.
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