Handing out life and death in equal measure, the fungi family is a fascinating one. So an invitation to forage for mushrooms in Sussex is accepted with alacrity, especially after noting the words “expert advice.”
The small number of mushrooms that we know about range from good to eat to deadly poisonous. In between there is edible (not always worth the trouble) and poisonous (will make you ill). The vast majority of mushrooms are mysterious to us and likely to remain untested. The case of the Brown Rollrim highlights our lack of knowledge: it has been moved over from “edible” to “deadly” after it was discovered that its toxins were cumulative and that it would get you in the end.
October is the best month for foraging: mushrooms and toadstools spring up after rain, when the ground is still warm. We set off on a clear Sunday morning after being told that after the driest September on record we’d be lucky to find anything at all. British weather is always breaking records, so nobody takes much notice.
Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.
Above: Colorfully named mushrooms shown here include: Deceivers, Wood Hedgehogs, King Alfred Cakes, Waxcaps and red Brittlegill.
Mushroom enthusiasts are not led by their desire to eat; greed is more likely to lead one astray. It’s all about finding and learning: “It’s a slow process,” says Anne Yarrow, our expert, “and a very enjoyable one.”
A Sussex trug is ideal when foraging, its rigid, flat base keeps different species separate. Always take a guide book: we took Roger Phillips’ clearly illustrated Mushrooms.
Above: This part of England is densely forested, with wooden houses reminiscent of New England. East Sussex is part of the High Weald, a landscape of hills and trees (weald being an ancient word for woodland). It’s a toadstool’s paradise.
The forest surrounds our meeting place, the Ashdown Park Hotel. The whole area was a Norman hunting ground, and villages and estates still have the atmosphere of clearings in the woods. The woods are inviting.
Above: The first edible species of mushrooms to be spotted is this colony of puffballs growing on a log. They are a little past their best: they should be solid white for eating. The window of opportunity is small; when the spores begin to ripen, slime soon follows. Yes, they are officially “edible,” but like an old lettuce in the back of the refrigerator, they are best avoided.
Above: Puffballs are so called because of the puff of “smoke” they emit after being prodded, in advanced age. They grow on dead wood, making them saprophytes.
Above: Bay Boletus, edible. Best added to other mushrooms or to soups and stews. Mushrooms are attractive to slugs (hence the stem damage here) and to flies who like to lay eggs in them… Nobody wants a maggoty mushroom, so it’s best to eat the Boletus variety when young.
Bay Boletus has a good working relationship with the tree roots it congregates around; they are micorrhizal partners. In describing their co-habiting life, our guide Anne helps me to understand why we use micorrhizal powder when planting bare root shrubs:
Mycelium, the root-like structure that spreads around mushrooms, join the rootlets of a woody plant, feeding on its carbohydrates. The plant in turn uses this network for drawing water and as a vital mineral source. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Above: Toughshanks, a fairly common sight in the Ashdown Forest, growing on dead wood. As its name implies, it is tough to eat; edible but small and unrewarding. It lives off dead wood, aiding the cycle of renewal and decay.
“The natural system comes to a halt without fungi,” says Anne.
Above: The bracket fungus has a different story to tell, one of slow death. Many trees with this sort of picturesque shelf growing at right angles up the trunk are either displaying their death warrant or they’re already dead. Oak and sweet chestnut battle these parasites with more success, but beech and birch literally fall apart.
Above: Classic toadstool territory, woods with streams.
Picking mushrooms should be done responsibly, as is the case with all foraging. However, a toadstool is simply the fruit of the fungus. The important part, the network of root-like mycelium, is left behind in the leaf litter. It is important not to leave a gaping hole after picking a mushroom; spread the leaves back in order to protect the invisible structure that has been left behind.
Above: A cluster of mini inkcaps. As these mature, their gills (under the cap) begin to liquify. This can be used as a kind of ink. Edible too.
Above: Mushrooms and toadstools are one and the same. They form just a tiny proportion of the fungal kingdom, which gives just as it takes away. Fungal benefits: fermentation, penicillin, food and folklore. Mold on cheese. Fungal drawbacks: parasitic pathogens, invisible spores, deadly poison. Mold on bread.
Above: The dedicated mushroom knife by Opinel has a brush attachment at one end. Mushrooms should always be brushed when preparing for cooking, never washed.
Above: Ashdown Park Hotel in Wych Cross, East Sussex, organizes mushroom foraging expeditions in the woods, a stone’s throw from the terrace. Followed by a fine foraged-fungi lunch.
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