This week I bring you the first in a two part piece concerning those fine fungal frequenters of our forests - the mushrooms. This first part concerns the edible of their kin that you should look out for on your next woodland walk. Of course our meagre list of five doesn’t account for even 1% of the varieties that pepper our precious isles. Which is why, for fear of a lawsuit as much as anything, next week’s editorial will centre on their more nefarious cousins! With the breaking news that a couple in Australia have recently been killed by eating poisonous mushrooms they mistook for edible, it is vitally important to make sure that you correctly identify specimens before you eat them. If possible take a good illustrated guidebook when you are foraging, to be sure.
Five Edible British Fungi:
1. St. George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa)
In yesteryear you would expect to find this species in early to mid-April however, with the warm wet springs that have graced us in the last decade, they tend to arrive a week or so later. The St. George is recognizable for its creamy white to yellow stem, gills, very plump and stout bulb and slight cucumber smell. They are best fried simply in butter and are possessed of a distinct meaty flavour which will intensify with an age. Care must be taken not to confuse it with the highly poisonous ‘Inocybe erubescens’, which has a more pungent fruity smell and bruises red.
2. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus)
This prolific species can be found from the beginning of May and often grows in huge thatches of up to 10 kilograms. If it does grow locally, you should have no trouble in spotting it due to its vibrant colouring. Look out for large tree bound contusions, bright orange in colour and yellow undersides littered with small pores, but if the colours seem faded then this will indicate the plant’s aging and the likelihood of an unsavoury meal. You should also avoid any specimens bound to Yew or Eucalyptus trees as this combination can often taint the fungus and make it poisonous. Finally, avoid eating great portions or serving the plant to young children as despite its rich flavour, there are scattered reports that it possesses hallucinogenic side effects.
3. Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)
While this may be the rarest addition to our list, it’s not as flavoursome as some of the other varieties mentioned, although it is very high in vitamins C and D and also potassium. Recognizable for its unusual flute-like shape, yellow to orange colouring and gill-like ridges under the cap, it is most readily found in a pine forests. It will provide an aromatic and subtle foodstuff, though it is supposedly better utilized as a vodka flavouring! We recommend it as an ingredient in a simple pasta dish, so as not to overpower it.
4. Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
With the end of winter we must relegate the Puffball to next year’s picking, as they are known to be at their best during the months of October and September. However, an intact, edible specimen is also one of the most prized finds of the ‘shroomaphile’. Habitually growing anywhere between a few centimetres and over a metre in diameter, these spherical white orbs will break from their stems upon ripening and roll the forest floor for up to two years releasing spores! To ensure you’ve hit gold, halve the fruit and look for any yellow or green patches, if they’re absent then - run Charlie! Run all the way home for only pure white flesh and timely use provides a flavoursome feast. The means of preparation are practically endless as they can be diced like conventional mushrooms, sautéed, pureed for soups and broths or sliced thickly, covered with breadcrumbs and fried to accompany steaks.
5. Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
This might be called ‘the evergreen’ of edible mushrooms as, although their heyday tends to fall around middle winter, particularly after a hard frost, they can be found at any time of year, mainly attached to hardwood trees. It gets its name from the shape of its white, grey or brown cap and often smells of anise. It is best suited to stir-frying.