With edible mushrooms carrying bizarrely spooky names, it’s no wonder that some of us are a little scared of picking them in season, says Valerie O’Connor.
When it comes to foraging our funky fungi friends, it seems we’re a little bit scared.
With edible mushrooms carrying bizarrely spooky names like Trumpets of Death, it’s easy to see why we might prefer to run off to the local supermarket aisle and procure some safe-looking buttons in a plastic packet and gobble them up instead.
Happily in recent years we’ve seen a wider array of mushrooms in our shops, even the ubiquitous oyster — now as common as the portobello — was once a space oddity, but no more.
From shitake to chanterelle, we are getting into the groove when it comes to the area of tasty mycology, that is, the study of fungi, like mushrooms and truffles.
And when it comes to expertise, Professor Alex Weir really knows his mushrooms. Originally from Omagh and now living in Syracuse in upstate New York, Weir says:
“You can spilt the world into two types of people, kickers and pickers” — in other words, people who don’t care about our puffy friends and those who do.
Trampling uncaringly on patches of mushrooms is naturally bad for them so it’s important to take care when walking in the woods, especially in late autumn when the leaves are covering so many of them.
“I was always interested in mushrooms,” says Weir.
“I used to go out picking them as a teenager and I would bring them home to cook and eat but nobody else would touch them.”
Weir is the person who gets called by the poisons control centre when someone has unwittingly consumed a dodgy shroom: “The only fatality so far, was two years ago when a couple of people picked things and ate them when they didn’t know what they were doing.”
Fungi are important recyclers in nature, they are the rubbish collectors of the environment and are busy recycling leaves and breaking up waste, they are key players in the forest, living in streams, rivers and lakes as well as along trees and roots.
Ecologically they are very important.
Weir is one of a tiny number of Professors of Mycology and in Ireland — mushroom experts are thin on the ground.
However a fellow fungi fanatic, Dr Tom Harrington is alive and well and sharing his passion for all things mycological after a long tenure at the University of Limerick.
Harrington is mad for mushrooms and is also on the panel of The National Poisons’ Unit in Beaumount Hospital — they contact him in cases of suspected mushroom poisoning; mainly to help identify the culprit — as it makes all the difference with subsequent treatment.
We meet on a blissful winter’s morning in the Cratloe Woods, just outside Limerick.
When foraging for fungi it’s important to bring a basket or cloth bag, as plastic will make them sweaty and they will go off faster.
A special mushroom knife is part of the kit, as it has a little brush for persuading small animals to leave their former home.
“The greatest concentration of mushrooms is in forests,” he tells me.
“Because mushrooms have a natural symbiosis with trees and they help produce nitrogen and oxygen for the trees while the trees, in turn, give proteins to the mushrooms.”
The first fellows we find are the fun puffballs, they are old at over a week and so we poke them gently to help them to release their spores into the air which helps them reproduce.
“You can eat fresh puffballs when they are lovely and milky white — to be sure they are edible just slice one open and if it’s white all the way through then it’s safe,” says Harrington.
Some puffballs can be the size of pillows and appear in your back garden, which can really freak people out.
He shows me some beautiful chanterelles — much sought after in the culinary world — there are two versions of these, regular ones and winter ones which are browner but still have that distinct mustard yellow coloured stem.
The hedgehog mushroom is a beautiful, soft cream colour and is distinguished by its hedgehog-like spikes on its underside.
It doesn’t matter if it’s half eaten by other woodland creatures, pick what’s there, brush off the bits and take them home, slice them and cook them up in any way you like.
We found quite a healthy patch of them and this, according to Harrington, is quite normal “Most mushrooms will grow in the same spots every year but the hedgehogs are especially likely to do this.”
So if you find a spot, keep it a secret and keep coming back for your fix when you want, year on year.
We also found the amazing looking milkcap, fairly normal on one side and then you turn it over and the gills are full of a milk that tastes like the most intense peppery, mushroom flavour.
Mushrooms are amazing, no doubt about it. They are low in fat and easy to cook and if you go out for a walk in the woods you get fresh air, exercise and free, delicious food.
Before you head out, buy a little guide book and start with those mentioned here, hedgehogs, puffballs, chanterelles, oh, and those tall shaggy ones in your garden, the shaggy inkcap, that’s edible too, best when fresh, fried on the pan with some garlic.
Mushrooms are delicious and the best way to cook them is on a hot griddle pan with a little oil or butter, let the mushrooms get some nice black lines on them and then serve them, Greek style, by squeezing some fresh lemon juice all over them.
They are, of course, great in soups and stroganoffs too, or just fried and blasted with some brandy and cream and served on toast.
Mushroom myths and legends
* If you can peel them you can’t eat them, self explanatory.
* If you boil them and the spoon turns black, run away!
* You don’t have to pick mushrooms first thing in the morning, any time of day is good.
* If you see a slug eating a mushroom that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you, slugs are different from us, after all.
* Mushrooms are good to eat for about a week but you must cook them to kill the bacteria and kill off any beasties that lie within.
* In France you can walk into a chemist shop with your mushroom haul and ask the pharmacist if they are safe or not, they are trained in this. Just imagine doing that here!
* Don’t wash them, water ruins mushrooms and makes them soggy, just brush the dirt away.
* One mushroom sure to cause a problem is the Death Cap (see above). This has a green tinge to the cap on a white stalk with a ring around it and a white bag at the base which you will see when you pick it.
The death cap tastes mild and is very sneaky, you will have nausea for 24 hours and then suddenly, will feel better. Then, 24 hours later you will experience kidney or liver failure as the chemical in the deathcap stops the cells in your body replacing themselves.
After that it’s coma and death. Worst case scenario, really.
* If you want to go foraging, get a good mushroom book, most are perfectly safe, even Trumpets of Death.
* A great way to store mushrooms for longer is to dry them. Thinly slice up larger fungi, like ceps and place them on baking trays in the oven at the lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Let the air drift around them for a couple of hours and then keep them in paper bags in a cool, dry place.
* Mushrooms are used extensively in Chinese medicine and some are thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities, some mushrooms are credited with helping to cure neurological conditions. Happy foraging.
Mushrooms (Roger Phillips) Collins Complete British Mushrooms and Toadstools: The essential photograph guide to Britain’s fungi (Collins Complete Guides). Sterry, Paul and Hughes, Barry 2009.
Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and North-West Europe (Marcel Bon)
Tom’s top tips
Looking at wild fungi and collecting edible fungi has become very popular in recent years in Ireland. There is virtually no tradition of collecting for the table here, as there is in mainland Europe, so getting to know the good edible fungi and avoiding the poisonous ones, is not that straightforward.
It is essential to get a good field guide and preferably get some field experience from somebody who knows their fungi. There are at least 2,500 kinds (species), of larger fungi in Ireland.
If you are interested in collecting wild fungi for the table you must get to know the edible varieties in your area, and also the poisonous ones, particularly those that are very similar (lookalikes), to edible types.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved