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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
I have hazy distant memories of a night out in Slovenia where we went vodka tasting. These were not just ordinary vodkas but a remarkable variety of locally-made infused or flavoured vodkas. Locally foraged ingredients such as wild strawberries, pine needles and even certain grasses had been steeped in vodka with sugar in the same manner as we make Sloe Gin. The results were amazing, all sorts of unusual, wonderful flavours, and less predictably, a rather sore head the next morning!
Back here I have made a few with Vodka, Gin, Whisky, Brandy and Rum. I currently have (separately!) Blackberry, Elderflower, Japanese Knotweed and Sloe on the go, with quite a few more on the “try” list.
These wild drinks can be drunk neat, but are better mixed such as with apple juice, soda water or tonic. There are also quite a few wild cocktail recipes that can be found on-line too. Making infused or flavoured vodkas is very straightforward though the processes do differ a little and the amount of time for the flavour to infuse also varies. Look on-line for a wild drinks recipe for the foraged ingredient that you happen to have and to see which spirit goes best with it. I also highly recommend two books which wild drinks / infusions form a part of: