I've been gathering mussels from the seashore for over 15 years now and I've never been ill once. I've been fishing for ten years and shrimping for 4. Still no stomach cramps. And since I started researching wild food for The Camper Van Cookbook I've been trying all kinds of natural finds. From seaweed to chickweed, winkles to wood sorrel. It's been a delicious (mostly) journey.
But when it comes to fungi, I am a complete novice. And I always will be - because there is so much to learn and so many mistakes that can be made along the way. Mushrooms are a delight because they are so ephemeral but a few of the edible ones have look-a-likes that can kill you. So it's important to get it right if you decide to head out into the woods. You need to know that what you're picking is absolutely what you think it is. If you are not sure, don't bother. It's like all foraging. You need to be confident otherwise you won't enjoy eating it. And you might end up dead.
So unless you are a confident countryman who knows your ceps from your puffballs, you need to do a little work. This weekend I found some enormous mushrooms on my way back from a surf. When I got home I looked them up and got a positive ID. I did this by asking myself a few questions.
- Does it match the time of year?
- Does it match the habitat?
- Does the physical description match exactly? This includes the gills, the ring, the way they grow or open, if they change when bruised, the diameter, the height. And any other physical features.
- Does it match all descriptions in at least two field guides?
- Is there anything that looks similar but is potentially harmful?
Once I was happy that I had a 100% positive answer to each question I went back to take a closer look. Once I was happy I decided to pick them and take them home. But even then I acted with caution. I tried a little first, then, a few hours later, I ate the rest cooked in butter with oregano and black pepper. They were, of course, delicious and extremely satisfying in a way that buying from the supermarket could never be. And I am still alive today. Which, of course, is a bonus.