From Fungi

Morels

Mission Accomplished

Morels are one type of fungi that I (and  lots of others) have struggled to find. They are a spring fungus and prize-eating; only truffles go for a higher price. There fairly picky about where they live and not that common. One fungi expert I know took 20 years to find his first. I’ve read so much about them, the habitats, the trees they are found with, the plants you might find with them and the soils they prefer.

I first saw some about 8 years ago, over 15 years after I started picking any wild mushrooms. A generous soul had found them and had an inkling what they were but wanted a second opinion. They were in the bottom of a hedge, I don’t recall what trees, probably Ash, but definitely on sandy soil. They were rather dry but no doubt, Morels. I returned to that spot the next spring and found … a few St George’s Mushrooms in the very same spot! Subsequent annual pilgrimages to check have all failed too.

Morels
Those first Morels c. 8 years ago – dry but still wonderful.

The fungi forums and dedicated morel discussion groups (yes, really) have been buzzing for a few weeks, the mild weather bringing their arrival forward by a month or so. In them, people show their finds or tell stories of failures, others plead for help. Each set of photos I saw raised my desire to find them again.

There are two species and two main types of location to look. One likes woodchips. I’ve heard stories of people filling their car boots with these Morels from Tesco car parks, motorway service stations and business parks. Every patch of wood chip I have seen for weeks has been scoured (or scanned as I drive past). But, not a single morel to be seen.

The other species preference is for sandy soils, often over chalk. Usually its scrubby Ash woodland with disturbed soil from rabbits or badgers. Plants include Celandine, Dog’s Mercury, Wild Garlic and Bluebells. They also like golf courses and orchards. I live near chalk, so evening dog walks for a couple of weeks have been scouring likely spots, again without success.

All the failures, rather than making me give up, made me even more determined; this pursuit was turning into an obsession. If the Mrs had a pound for every time I said “woodchip” in recent weeks, she would have been rich!

A weekend away to the Cotswolds got me thinking. Limestone produces alkaline soils, like Chalk does… The first evening’s stroll looked promising, lots of Ash scrub and Wild Garlic.

On the next day’s wander, there was plenty of good looking spots, Bluebells and Wild Garlic both just starting to flower, but no morels. Our walk nearly done, we emerged onto a grassy bank with a few Primroses, “semi-garden” , fringed by a hazel hedge with an Ash tree and an Elm. The grass had recently been mown carefully avoiding the clumps of Primroses. As we stopped near a stile to check the map, I spotted a bit of white on the grass. Close inspection showed it to be a tapering, hollow stem. Could it be….? I wandered around and soon found the mown bases.

A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.
A stem (right) and the bit in the ground (left) behind the dreaded mower.

More searching and a few broken pieces of several Morels, the honeycomb-like structure of the pieces of “cap” were unmistakable. Further searching found lots more but all had by the darned mower! Curses! so very close, probably only cut a few hours before – drat!

I remembered reading if you find one, mark the spot with a stick and search up and down wind based on the prevailing direction. A bit more scouting and an intact stem, getting better. Spotting a mound of leaf litter nearer the hedge, I gently cleared it to reveal a truly beautiful sight, a very fresh looking, intact Morel about the size of my fist.

Morels
That first intact Morel after so many mower demolished pieces. Dog’s Mercury and Lords and Ladies around, hedge of Hazel to left.

More searching found more bits and a few “babies”, each new find having it’s photo taken before picking (leaving a good proportion and the “young”). Thinking that was it, I peered over the stile and exclaimed “Oh my God”, there were about a dozen “lumps of honeycomb” beautifully golden in the bright sunlight.

Morels
Golden beauties basking in the sun. Plants include brambles, Wild Garlic, Cow Parsley, Dock, Ivy.

I should have been better prepared – no mushroom basket, no rucksack that always has a paper bag and mushroom knife, no hat that could be brought into emergency use, just a few of those multi-purpose little black bags us responsible dog owners carry at all times! Designed with one purpose in mind, I’ve used them for carrying home an unexpected wild food bonanza on a good many occasions. Also no decent camera, just my phone. No quick fix to that (and as I now see almost every close up is out of focus – double-drat!).

Morels
Emergency wild food carrier (Dog poo bag) stuffed with Morels

Being away and already having shopped, lunch was half of the 700 grams, simply fried on toast – delicious. The remainder are heading home, there I’ll be checking out Roger Phillips’ recipe for, my memory says, a dish with chicken, cream and the Morels.

Morels
The whole catch – c. 700 grams!

So, is the desire satisfied? Sort of, I now want to find some more!

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Scarlett Elf Cups

Scarlett Elf Cups - an edible winter fungus
Scarlett Elf Cups – an edible winter fungus

There are lots of these beautiful Scarlet Elf Cups fungi about at the moment in damp deciduous woods. The contrast of their deep red colour and the dusting of snow last week made me reach for my camera.

Fungi are listed in the books as edible, poisonous or inedible. The latter usually means they are either tough, like trying to eat your shoe, or have no flavour. Some books put these into the inedible camp, but I, and many others, think they are rather good (not too far from a raw Field Mushroom). Some mushrooms, in the same way as Kidney beans, need to be cooked before you can eat them. However, I am unaware of any problems from eating these raw. As with any wild food take a nibble first to make sure you don’t have any adverse reaction. Frying quickly retains the colour – so throw into a stir fry at the last minute. You could serve with white fish to show off their colour or sprinkle on top of nettle soup. They can be added to stews though the colour goes. Raw, the shape lends itself to being stuffed – cooked egg with any of other spring wild foods such as Three Cornered Leek, Wild Garlic flowers, Pennywort, Hairy Bittercress or other herbs. You could also poach them in a reduction made from onion or chicken stock.

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New Forest Fungi – “no-picking” code – Part 2

Part 1, written in early September can be found here. This post brings things up to date and gives our interpretation of the situation.

Some media coverage:

1. Radio 4’s PM programme (Saturday 24th September) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vjxj4 . Go forward 27 minutes.

2. Radio 4’s “You and Yours” (Friday 23rd September) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07vjxdc. The relevant part starts at 23 minutes 33 seconds in. It is about the New Forest fungi situation and includes:

  • Sandy Shaw – A New Forest Keeper
  • Jonathan Spencer = Head of Planning & Environment, Forest Enterprise (national, not just New Forest)
  • John Wright – Forager

Below is a transcript of part of the programme:

Shari Vahl: Is this a ban?

Jonathan Spencer: We are not permitting the picking of fungi at any level, so it’s technically a ban but we are only really trying to reign in the over-exploitation of what we see as a common resource.

Shari Vahl: “Technically a ban” – it’s either a ban or its not?

Jonathan Spencer: We have discovered that we have not been able to introduce mechanisms by which restraint can be enforced in any way. By not permitting the collection of fungi at any level, we are then in a position to choose who to pursue under the Theft Act and The Wildlife and Countryside Act and there is no doubt in my mind that we are obliged to do that as part of our responsibilities to look after this wonderful, ancient, biologically rich forest.

3. The Times (Saturday 24th September)
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/4bb13e82-81c9-11e6-8d70-b369ed513749

A far more truthful view of the situation than the smoke and mirrors peddled by other newspapers. Sadly you need a subscription to read it all (though you can sign up for a free limited access version).

A key phrase “A commission spokesman later admitted to The Times that it was not against the law to pick for personal consumption.”

 

My understanding

You have 3 categories of fungi picker:

1. Organised educational forays – run with permission from the Forestry Commission – like mine – http://www.hedgerow-harvest.com/. Strict guidelines apply e.g. 1.5 kg total for the foray (NOT per person).

2. Commercial pickers – has been and is illegal under The Theft Act 1968 (without landowner consent).

3. Foragers picking for personal consumption – a common law right.

The Forestry Commission  “ban” is an “appeal” (their word on posters, leaflets, web page) not to pick. They are trying to stop / scare the commercial pickers but the “easiest / most cost effective” way of doing this is an outright ban. THIS BAN HAS NO STANDING IN LAW FOR PERSONAL CONSUMPTION.

Are there commercial pickers? Yes.

Are there many? No.

How do you know? I have access to the data of 150 “incidents” of fungi related activity in The New Forest for the period 08/10/15 – 06/11/15. When you take out the duplicates, the ones not in The New Forest (yes!), parked cars (but no evidence of fungi picking) and 2 groups of youths picking “Magic Mushrooms”, that leaves:

127 “incidents”, of which per person they had the below weights of mushrooms:

  • Weight not specified (e.g. “1 XXX reported to NF Keeper by MOP. Not spoken to”, “Their bag was checked and they were spoken to about the code..”) – 53 (42%)
  • No mushrooms 19 (15%)
  • <= 1.5 kg (the advisory limit under the old New Forest Fungi Pickers Code) 43 (34%)
  • >1.5 kg 12 (9%)

So 12 incidents with over the then advisory limit of 1.5 kilos.

If you look at these 12 incidents:

  • 1.5 – 2 kg – 3 incidents
  • 2 – 2.5 kg – 2 incidents
  • 4 – 6 kg – 2 incidents
  • > 1.5 kg – exact amount not specified – 3 incidents
  • “A basket” – 1 incident

So, allowing for picker error (say 2.5 kilos) in only a handful of incidents did the amount of fungi per person exceed the 1.5 kg limit for personal consumption.

 

Extract from a letter from The Forestry Commission re The New Forest Fungi “ban”:
(my emphasis)

I’d like to reassure you that we are not seeking to prosecute individuals that are picking for themselves – it is not illegal. … Our main aim is to tackle commercial collection of fungi, which has always been prohibited – it is an offence under the Theft Act 1968 to do so without the permission of the landowner. .. also, in the case of persistent offenders, tools such as the Stop Notice may be issued.

Is that the message their signs, leaflets, press release, web site etc. say ?

New Forest "No Picking sign
New Forest “No Picking sign

Clearly not. Their “campaign” has been completely misleading. It eventually transpired there are no new laws or bylaws. It has cost me and many others, a lot of time and money (reduced bookings etc.) and the local economy has lost out too. I cancelled hall bookings, B&Bs, didn’t eat in local pubs, similarly I have had less guests doing the same. If only the Forestry Commission had met foragers after last season (rather than at the opening of this), to discuss this like adults:

This is what we perceive to be an issue and this is the evidence we have. Working together as conservationists and foragers (a big overlap as most foragers are actually conservationists caring passionately about the natural world) how can we all work together to address the perceived issue?

What we have we actually had is “smoke and mirrors”, opinions not evidence. The public have been stirred up by the media’s pretty much one-sided, repetition of the same old guff, with the hint of racism thrown in. There have been cases of verbal abuse of people legally photographing fungi and legally picking fungi. As far as Joe Public are concerned there is a ban as they read it in the paper whatever the actual situation. All completely unnecessary. I saw a quote from a Washington University study the other day, my what a different world to what we have here (most unlike me to praise anything American!):

“Mushrooms are a wonderful way to engage the public with its natural resources and the environment. It could be an opportunity for the National Park Service to encourage a different demographic of visitors to value, understand and engage with the natural world.”

#NewForestPickingBan

 

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Purple Mushrooms!

A long time ago, I fell into the “it’s a big purple mushroom, it must be a blewit” trap. Fortunately, I was with someone older and wiser who pointed out the error of my ways. At the weekend I spotted a handsome example of the same imposter and thought I would take some close-up photos to share the with you.

The first photo shows several lovely Wood Blewitts. These are a very good edible mushroom found in the later Autumn and early Winter. They must be cooked (like Kidney beans). The Wood Blewitt, is not just found in woods and woodland remnants (aka hedges). Some of my best sites for them are nice, unimproved grasslands. A spore print is a very helpful step in deducing the ID of most fungi. That of the Wood Blewitt shows pink spores. It also has a very distinctive smell, sweet, aromatic, almost perfume-like.

Wood Blewitts
Wood Blewitts

The following photos show an imposter – definitely a Cortinarius, and probably Cortinarius purpurascens. While it is not poisonous, there are other members of the same family that are, SOME ARE DEADLY, so a useful lesson. All Cortainarius species, at least when young, have a Cortina. As well as a 1970s car made by Ford, this is a veil, a web of fine threads linking the stem to the margin of the cap. On older specimens you may see some remnants of the Cortina. They also all have a brown spore print and you may see brown “dust” on some of the stem, fibres or the edge of the cap. These are illustrated in the photos.

Cortinarius - possibly purpurascens.
Cortinarius – possibly purpurascens.

 

1. Intact part of the veil visible to the left and right rear of the stem. 2. Remnant threads visible on the cap margin front left and right. 3. Brown spores ("dust") visible on the stem and some on the veil. Add these together and you have a Cortinarius species.
1. Intact part of the veil visible to the left and right rear of the stem. 2. Remnant threads visible on the cap margin front left and right. 3. Brown spores (“dust”) visible on the stem and some on the veil. Add these together and you have a Cortinarius species.

 

Good view of the Cortina (veil).
Good view of the Cortina (veil).

 

The cap.
The cap.

 

Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours.
Spore print showing brown spores. Produced by cutting the stem off, putting the cap on a piece of paper with a glass over it (to stop draughts), then waiting a few hours. A darker piece of paper will help show lighter coloured spores (e.g. pink)
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New Forest Fungi – “no-picking” code

The New Forest in Hampshire is a wonderful place for fungi with over 2700 species found, both the rare and very good numbers of the common species. It has been a popular destination for those who like to study and / or pick edible fungi for many years, but the growth of interest in foraging has been perceived by some to be detrimental to the Forest.

Learning to identify fungi on a fungus foray in The New Forest
Learning to identify fungi on a fungus foray in The New Forest

Foraging instructors have taught responsible, sustainable practice. I emphasised the Wild Mushroom Pickers’ Code of Conduct (British Mycological Society) and, the now defunct, Fungi Collectors Code for the New Forest.

There has been a bit of rumbling over the years coming to a head with statements in July 2015 by Sarah Cadbury of The Hampshire Fungus Recording Group to The New Forest Verderers – (Daily Mail, Guardian). One of the “accused”, John Wright responded to The Verderers (copy here).

Over the last year those that teach or forage professionally foragers formed The Association of Foragers and representatives have met with New Forest National Park Authority, Forestry Commission and Natural England. Members also attended “Future of Foraging” workshops around the country with Natural England under “The Foraging Partnership” banner. These workshops all seemed pretty positive with foraging seen as a way of getting people to engage with nature, but it needed to be done in a responsible manner.

old no pick sing for some inclosures
OLD sign. A limited number of inclosures have had been “no picking” for some years. One assumes that they have been used for comparative academic studies, but we don’t know.

Last week, those with permits to lead educational forays in The New Forest received a letter from The Forestry Commission. With immediate effect they have introduced a “no-picking” code for the New Forest SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). This covers most of The New Forest – open forest, heathland, timber inclosures etc. The related web page and Q&A go into more detail of their justification.

“Due to the growing concern from conservationists and very real fears from members of the community in the New Forest about the wide-scale harvesting of fungi, Forestry Commission feels it necessary to adopt a precautionary approach and can no longer support fungi picking on any scale on the New Forest Crown Lands (Site of Special Scientific Interest).”

Foragers enjoy looking at fungi too, such as these magnificent Fly Agaric.
Foragers enjoy looking at fungi too, such as these magnificent Fly Agaric.

They continue to clamp down on any illegal commercial mushroom picking and I support this action, though dispute how much actually happens.

The Forestry Commission released the story to the media (press release) earlier this week with it appearing in a number of daily and local newspapers, most seem to have just repeated the message. Telegraph, Mail, Times (subscription required to read all), Southern Daily Echo (Southampton / Bournemouth etc..

Today, The Association of Foragers have responded to The Forestry Commission and sent a press release to the media. The press release is reproduced below:

New Forest Fungi Picking Ban “unscientific” say fungi experts

New Forest, Hampshire, September 1st 2016

Leading foraging educators claim New Forest fungi picking ban is will undermine future fungi growth


A campaign by the Forestry Commission in England to ban the picking of all fungi in the New Forest has been heavily criticised by fungi experts and foraging educators.

The Association of Foragers, which represents the collective knowledge and experience of nearly one hundred writers, teachers and researchers, say the ban has no grounding in scientific evidence, and is more likely to undermine fungi populations in the long term. “There are at least 2,700 species of fungi in the New Forest. Only a dozen are routinely collected as food - none of which are rare”, said John Wright, author of the bestselling River Cottage Mushroom Guide, and member of The Association of Foragers. “More fungi are kicked over and trampled by the uneducated than are picked for the pot. Foraging provides an important point of human connection with these otherwise mysterious organisms”, said Mr Wright.

Mark Williams, a member of The Association of Foragers who has taught about fungi in Scotland for 25 years, said: “The Forestry Commission has presented no scientific evidence to show why this ban is necessary. That’s because there simply isn’t any”.

“A 25 year study of the effects of picking mushrooms revealed no correlation whatsoever between picking and future growth, in the same way as picking a bramble does not impact the parent plant - in the case of mushrooms an invisible underground network called mycelium. The picking and movement of mushrooms is actually more likely to help spread fungi spores and expand populations”, said Mr Williams.

The Forestry Commission also cites “fungi-dependent invertebrates” as reason for the ban. Research herbalist Monica Wilde of The AoF says: “People don’t pick the mushrooms that are appealing to maggots! The most widely eaten species - chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms - are almost entirely resistant to insects.”

The FC also cites anecdotal evidence of “teams of commercial fungi pickers”. “This is a mantra that has been so often repeated, mostly by the tabloid press, that it has entered the public consciousness”, says Mr Williams. “With collectively 1000’s of days spent teaching and recording in the New Forest, not one member of the AoF has ever seen any evidence of this - not even a photograph. 99% of mushrooms rot where they grow.”

The AoF is calling for the FC to rethink the ban. “It is unscientific, unenforceable, and will serve only to further disconnect people from the world of fungi. We urge the FC to use the collective knowledge of the AoF to help formulate evidence-based policy to support future populations of fungi”.

The foraging forums / social media have been buzzing, among the comments that caught my eye:

  • The New Forest has at least 2,700 species of fungi. Only a dozen are routinely collected for food.
  • Absurdly about 50% of the New Forest SSSI woodland is spruce and pine plantation. Yet mushroom picking still not allowed.
  • I now won’t be able to take my 5-year-old daughter out picking within the New Forest. She’s been out with me since she was 1-year-old and already has a basket and some favourite spots.

There is no evidence that picking damages the crop (long-term scientific studies elsewhere have shown this); its a sustainable harvest and European experience proves it. Foraging is healthy, harmless fun and should be encouraged, not banned.

Foraging is an excellent way of getting people to spend quality time in the outdoors getting exercise and engaging with nature - no apps, screens etc.
Foraging is an excellent way of getting people to spend quality time in the outdoors getting exercise and engaging with nature – no apps, screens etc.
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Beatrix Potter, Mycologist.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter. She is best known for her children’s books with characters such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck. She was also very interested in natural history, drawing and studying fossils, archaeological artefacts and fungi.

I am fortunate to have a book of her fungi paintings. They are thoroughly accurate representations with the species instantly recognisable.

Beatrix Potter's 1892 watercolour of Velvet Shank (flammulina velutipes), Credit: Armitt Museum
Beatrix Potter’s 1892 watercolour of Velvet Shank (flammulina velutipes), Credit: Armitt Museum

She was a keen “amateur” scientist and grew 50 species of fungi from spores studying them with a microscope. From her studies she produced a theory about germination through spores, what she thought was a significant scientific breakthrough.

Her uncle, a distinguished chemist, championed her studies, though the scientific community were reluctant to listen, due to her being a woman and an amateur. Kew largely dismissed her work, but one man there encouraged her and presented the research to the Linnean Society as women could not speak or attend. It was poorly received. In 1997, after her death, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to Potter, noting the sexism displayed in the handling of her research and its policy toward the contributions of women.

You can see some of her paintings and drawings in the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside and browse them here.

Beatrix Potter’s 1892 watercolour of Shaggy Parasol Mushroom (Lepiota rhacodes now Chlorophyllum rhacodes), Credit: Armitt Museum

You can read more of the story in these fascinating articles:

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20160215-beatrix-potter-pioneering-scientist-or-passionate-amateur

https://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/case-studies/beatrix-potter.html

Beatrix Potter’s watercolour of Monkey’s Ears / Jelly Ear etc. (Auricularia auricula-judae), Credit: Armitt Museum
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Spring Fungi

While Autumn is the main time of the year to think about fungi, there are a few edible species to be found in the Spring. The usual rules about not picking all in an area, being 100% certain on the ID etc. apply. This post gives an introduction to the species you can find at this time of the year.

Jelly Ear / Monkey’s Ears

Jelly Ear
Jelly Ear

This is a rubbery ear-like fungus that was formerly known as Jew’s Ear or Judas’s Ear fungus. It ranges from purple to dark brown or black in colour with a rubbery texture when the air is moist or brittle when dry! It is found most commonly on dead elder trees. The spores are white and it grows singly or in groups. There are no poisonous species that it would be confused with.

It is one of the few fungi that has the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. It can actually freeze solid, and when thawed out shows no ill effects. It can be found all year round.

While most fungi collectors ignore it, they have been sold in Waitrose as Chinese Black Mushrooms. This species is used in Asian cooking because, although it lacks a strong taste, it absorbs the flavours of other foods (garlic / ginger / soy sauce etc.) and provides delicate texture in Chinese and Japanese dishes. The Chinese call it “Wood Ear” or “Tree Ear”, the Japanese “Tree Jellyfish”. An Internet search on these terms or the related species “Cloud Ear” will find far more recipes than “Jews Ear”. Beware if you fry them,  they spit like mad! cover with a lid and stand well back!

Bizarrely, they are an ingredient in a US health drink! They are blended with organic goji and hawthorn berries and other organic superfoods. They contain high levels of polysaccharides – often cited as having heart health benefits.

Scarlett Elf Cups

Scarlett Elf Cups
Scarlett Elf Cups

Spotting some Autumn fungi species is nearly impossible as they are the same colour as the leaf litter. You have no such difficulty with these! Look in damp, deciduous woods from January to April and you might be in luck

Fungi are either edible, poisonous or inedible. The latter usually means they are either tough, like trying to eat your shoe, or have no flavour. Some books put these into the inedible camp, but I, and many others, think they are good with a pleasant, subtle flavour. Some mushrooms, in the same way as Kidney beans, need to be cooked before you can eat them. However, I am unaware of any problems from eating these raw. As with any wild food take a nibble first to make sure you don’t have any adverse reaction. Frying quickly retains the colour – so throw into a stir fry at the last minute. You could serve with white fish to show off their colour or sprinkle on top of nettle soup. They can be added to stews though the colour goes. Raw, the shape lends itself to being stuffed – cooked egg with any of  other spring wild foods such as Three Cornered Leek, Wild Garlic flowers, Pennywort, Hairy Bittercress or other herbs. You could also poach them in a reduction made from onion or chicken stock.

Morels

Morels
Morels

Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. I have tried to find these many times but have only seen them once. On the fungi forums you hear stories of people finding tonnes of them on woodchip used for landscaping in glamorous places like motorway service stations and supermarket car parks! The season usually starts in the last week of March. Look in woods with gentle slopes, sandy soil, Ash trees and disturbed ground. You could also try gardens, orchards, fire sites and areas with woodchips.

Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.

Beware of False Morels. The toxin they produce is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.

St George’s Mushroom

St George's Mushrooms
St George’s Mushrooms

On my full day fungus forays I am joined by a true fungus expert (nerd). He tells the story of his daughter’s late April wedding. When everyone else was photographing the bride and groom he was to be seen on all fours snapping away at, you guessed, a group of these mushrooms growing in the churchyard.

So called because they appear around St George’s Day, these are a great tasting mushroom. Uncooked they smell and taste of “meal”; this goes in cooking. They are found in “grasslands” – some of my best spots are on quiet roadside verges and even a roundabout! Beware of the highly poisonous Deadly Fibrecap, which grows in the same habitats. This has a pink gills (white in the case of St George’s), a more pungent fruity smell and bruises red.

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Wonderful Waxcaps

The latter part of the Autumn is a good time to look at the fungi of old grasslands. If these have been spared agricultural “improvement” they can offer a lot of fungal interest. These “improvements” such as ploughing and reseeding with a single grass species and the addition of fertiliser compromise the biodiversity in all forms – flora, fauna and fungi. So steep slopes, saved from the plough, organic meadows, churchyards and lawns are places to head for. While some are edible species, to me they are things of beauty – the colours and forms. My favourites are the Waxcaps in so many different colours, like Smarties thrown everywhere! The below were all in one field on my early morning dog walk a day or two ago. A little further from home you can find more including The Ballerina – like a pink tutu!

 

 

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A Slice of Summer – Summer Foraging

When most people think of foraging for wild food it is mainly the autumn – fruit, nuts and fungi. There are of course wild foods to be found all year and the summer is no exception with soft fruit, flowers, herbs, nuts and some fungi offering great summer foraging. A few of the autumn species are showing themselves too but are not quite ripe yet.

A selection of summer wild foods - berries, fungi and plants.
Results from a summer foraging trip – berries, fungi and plants.

Fruit

In both the garden and the wild it is soft fruit season. The wild parents of garden species are generally smaller than the garden versions but still flavoursome and worth the effort in finding and picking. Gooseberries, Strawberries, Red Currants, Cherries, Raspberries, Bilberries and Mirabelles (Cherry Plums) are awaiting you to turn them into delights such as puddings, drinks (cordial, wine and sloe-gin equivalents), vinegars, jams and chutney. Venture a bit further afield (for me to a nearby bypass!) and you will find Sea Buckthorn berries – an amazing flavour. The first blackberries are ripening. It is always the one at the end of the cluster – the “king” berry that ripens first. They are hinting at autumn along with ripening Japanese Rosehips, Rowans, Haws and Damsons.

 

Mirabelles or cherry plums - a fine summer foraging fruit
Mirabelles or cherry plums come in many colours – yellow, red and purple. They make great puddings, jam, plum brandy and chutney. I leaves the stones in for a quick crumble and spit them out as I find them – “pippy pudding”.

Flowers

Elderflower time is a distant memory, though the cupboard or freezer should be stocked with cordial, which can go into puddings, cakes, breads and more. Roses, Meadowsweet, Himalayan Balsam and Clover flowers can be picked with drinks, puddings and more in mind.

Meadowsweet in summer
Meadowsweet smells of hay or almonds as it dries. It was the original source of Aspirin so should be avoided by people that are allergic to it. It was traditionally used as a strewing herb (air freshener) and infused in Claret to make a liqueur. It can be used for many drinks – wine, vodka or brandy, tea (leaves or flowers), cordial or champagne. It can be used when stewing Summer fruits (raspberries, peaches or plums) to add a nice nutty flavour. The leaves can be put in salads. It also can be used when making ice cream or a Panna Cotta.

Greens

While not as bountiful as the wealth of greens of Spring, Summer foraging finds Chickweed in the fields for a lettuce role and Watercress abounds in the chalk stream though must be cooked (soup or a veg) to avid the risk of liver fluke. Fat Hen is plentiful though the woodier stems should be avoided. Soup, curry, quiche or a simple green veg being the main uses. Pine Needles make a refreshing, fruit cordial, delicious on a warm day.

Watercress in Summer
Watercress can be found growing on many chalk streams. It should not be eaten raw as there is the risk of the parasitic liver fluke. Cooked it makes a fantastic soup or can be flash fried (after carefully washing it in a vinegar solution) as vegetable.

 Herbs

Summer is a good time for foraging for herbs. Many such as Marjoram, Fennel and Water Mint can be dried. The dried herbs can be used in the autumn with crab apples for herb jellies. Sorrel is ongoing in the meadows with a multitude of uses – from a sauce for oily fish, to a salad or quiche ingredient or bruised with buttered new potatoes.

Marjoram in flower
Marjoram is commonly found on the chalky banks of old lanes.

Nuts

Hazelnuts are visible in the hedgerows and on the grass where the squirrels have thrown his leftovers. The flesh of green Hazelnuts have the crisp crunch of overgrown peas, and a sweet vegetable-like taste that quickly becomes rather addictive! Do use nutcrackers and not your teeth though. Green Walnuts are still about but we have missed the traditional time for pickling them – late June. They have been a delicacy in England since at least the early 19th-century enjoyed with cheese and biscuits. Charles Dickens mentions them in The Pickwick Papers,

Hazelnuts
Green Hazelnuts

Fungi

A good thunderstorm or two in August usually gets the fungi season kick-started. Online foraging and fungi forums are full of pictures of people’s latest finds. I’ve seen Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods, Fairy Ring Champignons, Field Mushrooms and Red Cracking Bolete.

Red Cracking Bolete
Red Cracking Bolete. Edible but take care with the ID for any bolete with red on it. A friend enjoys it with drying improving the flavour. He powders it to use it in soups and sauces.
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Molly Moochers, Miracles, Hickory Chickens and Dryland Fish – Morels to you and me!

I get email alerts when news articles appear on a variety of things, not surprisingly, including mushrooms. For the last while, a good number of these have been American and about Morels. We get them in this country too but they can be difficult to find. All these alerts eventually got my attention and I thought I would find out more.

Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.

Cooking Morels - © Thor / CC-BY-SA-2.0
Cooking Morels – © Thor / CC-BY-SA-2.0

One report says, “Morels are America’s mushroom, more so than any other”. This could be “because they’re widespread, they’re easy to identify, and they come up in the spring, giving people a reason to get out and enjoy warm weather after a long winter. Or, it could be they’re popular simply because they taste so good“. Interest in them is enormous, far greater than in this country’s mushrooms. The harvest is a very valuable one, possibly 10 million dollars per year for the North West Territories alone with some pickers making more than $500 cash per day! To manage the harvest, and harvesters, there is often permitting, random inspections in the woods and checks of restaurants. June marks the unofficial end of morel mushroom season in the US and it’s been a bumper season in many areas thanks to rain and warm weather at the right time.

Morel
Morel / Public Domain

Eating

Morels should not be eaten raw. They must be cooked through completely or they can make you ill. Heat is required to destroy a toxin in the same way as you have to cook kidney beans. You can also be ill if you overeat very large quantities or occasionally if you consume them with alcohol.

According to reports, even people who have eaten morels for years can develop an allergy to them and begin to experience gastric problems. Unfortunately, once that happens it’s going to continue to happen again and again.

Identification

Some wild mushrooms that look similar to edible morels are very poisonous. Even experienced pickers have been known to harvest “false morels” by mistake. The toxin produced by false morels is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.

False Morel - © Seney National Wildlife Refuge / CC-BY-SA-2.0
False Morel – © Seney National Wildlife Refuge / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Recently, again in the US, a family of four had to go to the hospital after eating poisonous mushrooms. Investigators say they used a phone app to figure out if what they gathered was edible. They say the family misidentified the mushrooms using the app. You should never rely on just one source or photo to decide if a mushroom is safe to eat.

Fire sites

Morels like the areas of forest burned in previous years. It is not difficult to find these areas. Wildfires are common in interior Alaska; an average of over 700,000 acres burns each year and in a “bad” year over 2 million acres can burn – a bit bigger than the whole of Devon!

A United States Department of Agriculture and United States Forest Service report published the results of a study on after-burn yields. They found the dispersal of spores during a “major event” is massive. Events that significantly disrupt an environment include timber harvesting, insect infestation or wildfire, according to the study. Larger yields may last for the first two years after the event.

Rules

While I would have said safety, according to one source, the first rule of morel hunting is to not talk about morel hunting! Most mushroom foragers will not divulge their secret spots. Once you give up your spot, it is gone forever.

 

Commercial Collection

The rules on commercial collection vary from state to state and which government department owns the land. Some state landowning bodies have “blanket bans” on commercial collection while others, for example, in Alaska, charge $100 for an annual land use permit for the commercial harvest of mushrooms. 2 day and 30 day licences are available too. In addition, a fee of $0.20 per pound, which is 5 percent of the current average fresh price per pound, is charged for mushrooms.

Commercial collectors are required to have their mushroom permit in their possession at all times when gathering mushrooms. If you don’t get a permit or don’t carry your permit with you, you can be fined. Requiring a permit to harvest morel mushrooms for commercial use helps “ensure public safety and environmental responsibility“. It also ensures that forest users contribute to “sustainable and responsible use of natural resources“.

In some states authorities look further up the supply with restaurant owners who buy from an uncertified local picker risking a $20,000 fine for buying from an uncertified picker. “The reason wild mushroom foragers are required to be certified as mushroom experts is a matter of food safety and public health

The large influx of commercial harvesters is carefully managed with designated camp sites to avoid garbage, camp fires and sanitation problems. In some states closed areas are defined each year and roads closed for the duration of the morel season.

Spring Morel collection - © A much better place / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Spring Morel collection – © A much better place / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Personal Use

Again rules vary but as an example, in one state a harvest of three gallons per day is free and a permit is not required. Maps are published showing “potential personal use mushroom harvest areas”. The maps show the general areas of past fires where mushrooms may or may not be growing.

In some states, people harvesting for personal use are required to make a vertical cut down the stem of each mushroom or remove the stem immediately after harvest. This makes the mushrooms worthless as a commercial product. Rangers will inspect the contents of people’s mushroom baskets to check this is being followed.

Economic benefit

Some states have woken up to the economic opportunity that is offered in the form of morel mushrooms. In the North West Territories they anticipate this harvest could generate as much as ten million dollars per year. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment there has worked to prepare residents to take advantage of this opportunity and keep some of these revenues within the territory. They have hosted significant numbers of morel mushroom information sessions in communities where the impacts of the anticipated season are expected to be greatest with nearly 1,200 residents participating. These sessions covered potential harvesting areas, methods for gathering and storing morels, and best practices for selling and marketing their harvest. They also emphasized the message of harvesting in a way that is safe, legal and respectful of the environment and Aboriginal peoples, whose lands some of these mushrooms will be on.

A Morel Mushroom Harvester’s Handbook and field guides have been produced to ensure pickers have adequate information at their disposal when they venture into the harvest areas. On-site, “walking workshops” have also been run in areas where the mushrooms have appeared to provide hands-on experience for those interested in harvesting. Communities have welcomed the pickers hosting community barbeques for them.

As on all issues, not everyone sees it the same way, with headline of “Are morel pickers more trouble than they’re worth for N.W.T.?” and articles saying “It’s like a mushroom rush out there“.

 

Final thoughts

Are there any lessons to be learned for Europe here? Concerns about the sustainability of harvesting edible fungi arise with claims that the productivity of many species of edible fungi is declining. Most of these concerns, however, involve species of fungi that fruit in the same place year after year. Because morels fruit prolifically for only a year or two after disturbance, they present a different set of questions.

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