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Digging the dirt: discovering wild mushrooms in the New Forest

Digging the dirt: discovering wild mushrooms in the New Forest

by Katie Smith 26 November 2015

Katie Smith talks to fungi forager John Rensten to find out just how prolific – and dangerous – hunting wild mushrooms can be.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

If you go down to the woods today, you're more likely to come across a forest floor rich with hedgehog mushrooms, winter chanterelles and wood blewits than a group of bears having a picnic. This year has been a particularly fruitful year for these fungi according to John Rensten, self-confessed ‘fungi fancier’ and founder of Forage London. ‘Chanterelle mushrooms have had an amazing year, especially in Scotland,’ he explains. ‘They have just fruited, fruited and fruited. I got to the point where I was sick of seeing pictures of friends in Scotland with huge baskets of yellow mushrooms.’ This has also been the case for the humble field mushroom, which has had two successful rounds of fruiting over the course of the year.

In fact, according to John, ‘you are always on the cusp of one thing and another. As one thing is going out of season, one thing is coming in. Everything is overlapping enormously'. The autumn in particular is the best and most prolific season for mushrooms, making hunting them the perfect pastime if you fancy getting outdoors and closer to nature. ‘People get off their phone and they get away from their computer screens,’ says John. ‘They go for a walk in the woods, pick a few mushrooms and everyone has a lovely day.’

Funghi
Funghi
The woodland is a lot more than just the trees. It is not just a place to take, take, take. It is a wonderful place to visit, to be cherished and looked after.

Mushrooms have intricate, symbiotic relationships with the trees in our woodlands; both the fungi and the trees rely on each other to develop and flourish. ‘If you want to find porcini mushrooms you look for old oak and beech trees, because they grow in the same places,’ John explains. ‘Some late season varieties are prompted to fruit by the frost; that drop in temperature shocks the mycelium and it starts producing fruit,’ he reveals. ‘The mushroom mycelium is the white organism under the forest floor, and is what actually creates the mushrooms, which are just the fruit.’ In effect, the mycelium is foraging for the nutrients it needs to produce the mushrooms we see popping up above the ground in fields and woodlands across the country, ‘spreading, growing and looking for food and water,’ John elaborates.

This sort of in-depth knowledge is exactly what John aims to get across in his mushroom hunts around the New Forest. ‘The woodland is a lot more than just the trees. It is not just a place to take, take, take. It is a wonderful place to be, to be cherished and looked after.’ For John, the most important thing is ‘getting people to interact with the woodlands and getting them involved with nature’.

On the hunt

But be warned, as ‘pretty much everything has got a poisonous lookalike,’ John explains. If you want to be absolutely certain that what you’re picking is edible, make sure you go out mushroom hunting with someone who knows exactly what they are doing. Occasionally, even the professionals don’t know what they’ve found – including John. ‘When we’re looking at numerous specimens, I’ll tell the group all the things I know about them, but occasionally we come to something that I really can’t identify.’ He is always very very careful and, as he explains, has ‘never ever taken my ego on a mushroom hunting trip’. For some species it’s only when you start looking at them under a microscope that it becomes possible to achieve a truly accurate identification, but as John says that stage ‘is too nerdy, even for me’.

Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
 
There are varieties of mushrooms that aren’t considered as poisonous, but they do cause stomach upsets for some people.

If you do go out on a professionally-guided walk for edible mushrooms, there are a few pointers that you should keep in mind. ‘My top tip would be to clean them very carefully on site so you don’t get any grit in the basket, because you don’t want to wash your mushrooms as they’ll soak up the water. Although the caveat with that is if you know what something is, and you are one hundred percent sure of it and you know it is a safe food, then you can chop the bottom off, tidy it up and put it in your basket, otherwise you need the entire mushroom and multiple specimens to help with the ID.’ To make the perfect wild mushroom-based dish, you should ‘leave them in a big open bowl in the fridge for a couple of days before you cook them. This will help draw out quite a lot of the moisture,’ says John, preventing them from becoming soggy. ‘Then I just lob them in a pan without any oil or butter for a minute and just sweat some liquid out. Then I would pour that liquid away, or reserve it, take the mushrooms out, put some oil in and fry them. Otherwise you’re going to end up poaching them. I want to get the mushrooms to dry out quite a bit because I want their flavour to intensify.’

Another way to achieve this intense mushroom flavour is to dry them ‘either on the radiator or in a dehydrator then grind the hell out of them in a coffee grinder to make a powder.’ This technique works particularly well for the tougher, woodier stemmed varieties, creating a ‘super-charged umami mushroom hit’ that can be introduced into soups and stews.

Safety first

Even if a mushroom is classed as edible and you are one hundred percent sure that it is good to eat, you should still be wary when first trying it as ‘there are varieties of mushrooms that although they aren’t considered as poisonous, they do cause stomach upsets for some people,’ he states. Therefore, you should always do a ‘bit of a tolerance test’.

 
Historically, Arctic reindeer herders have fed their animals with fly agaric [...]. The reindeer eat and detoxify them, then out comes hallucinogenic reindeer wee that the Inuit then drink.
Honey fungus (Armillaria)

On top of this, you shouldn’t think a mushroom is fit for human consumption because it has signs of being eaten by a wild animal. ‘If a slug or a deer’s eaten a mushroom it means nothing,’ says John. ‘A slug doesn’t have a liver and doesn’t process things in the way that we do, and a deer is a totally different creature and its liver can cope with things that we can’t.’ However, these differences between the human and animal digestive system has resulted in some intriguing traditions. 'Historically, Arctic reindeer herders have fed their animals with fly agaric, the big red and white toadstools, because they are toxic and hallucinogenic,’ says John. ‘The reindeer eat and detoxify them, then out comes hallucinogenic reindeer wee that the Inuit then drink.’

Hallucinogenic reindeer wee aside, if you do get your mushroom identification wrong it can have deadly consequences. Just heed John’s advice: ‘Go out mushroom hunting. Go out and enjoy it. Go out and look at different species. Be a bit of a nerd and try and work out what they are. Just don’t cook anything!’

Photography:

Images courtesy of John Rensten

 
 

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