Fungi to Die For

Sue Parker ponders the pleasures and perils of foraging for fungi

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, September 2014. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. For more information about Algarve Resident...

Few things in the living world incite more joy or more fear than fungi. Although revered by those who find them fascinating and even beautiful, mushrooms more often feature in literature to invoke feelings of revulsion. D H Lawrence, for instance, used fungi to belittle the bourgeoisie: ‘…he’s stale, he’s been there too long, touch him and you’ll find he’s all gone inside just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow.’

Those who love fungi are every bit as eloquent in their praise. On the subject of truffles Alexander Dumas , writing in the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, declared, ‘The most learned of men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber and, after two thousand years of argument and discussion, their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord.’

Edible Chanterelle Mushrooms
Above: a basket of fungal 'gold' - delicious edible Chanterelles

In our house the Dumas dictat dominates. Eagerly we await the emergence of the first Chanterelles, golden funnels full of flavour, promising tasty treats and memorable meals. In the UK Cantharellus cibarius, considered the finest of the chanterelle species, begins ‘fruiting’ around the Glorious 12th (of July!). Here in the Algarve we are kept waiting until November, but our Chanterelles pop up over an extended season: we can gather these exquisite delicacies until at least mid March.

Delicious or deadly - mushrooms identified
Above: delicious or deadly? Edible Wood Mushrooms Agaricus silvicola (A) and poisonous Deathcaps Amanita phalloides (B) can look very similar at the ‘button’ stage. Often only when the stem base is exposed is the telltale volval sheath (C) of the Deathcap visible.

But enthusiasm for free food must be tinged caution: every year hundreds die after mistakenly collecting and eating poisonous mushrooms. Professional fungi foragers make good livings from supplying hotels and restaurants; they are expert at finding and identifying the best of the Algarve’s edible wild mushrooms. Some people who gather fungi for personal use are equally knowledgeable, having many years’ experience of collecting and cooking delicious edible species such as Ceps and Parasol Mushrooms. Although discerning about what goes into their baskets, they may have scant knowledge of the hundreds of other species encountered but ignored during their forays, simply categorising fungi as either ‘kickers’ or ‘pickers’.

Then there are the others, driven by the posh restaurant fashion for food foraged from the wild. They boldly go (or hope to) where top chefs have gone before, but one step out of line can mean a bout of gastric misery… or worse. For greenhorn gatherers learning to recognise with certainty a few terribly toxic toadstools could be far more valuable than adding to the list of mushrooms they consider safe to eat - often based more on fantasy than fact.There is a well-known saying in fungi foraging circles: there are old foragers and bold foragers but no old bold foragers. Many mushroom myths have been passed down the generations – admittedly by the survivors, but that doesn’t make them fact. Some of the tales trotted out include:

Poisonous mushrooms are brightly coloured; edible ones are pale or dull:

Chanterelles and Caesar’s Mushrooms explode this myth.

Toxic toadstools smell bad and taste bad:

Deathcap, the world’s most poisonous mushroom, is reputed to taste nice.

If you can peel a mushroom it’s okay to eat it

Many deadly poisonous species can be peeled:

If slugs and other creatures eat them it’s fine for humans to eat them too:

Toxins can be harmless to other creatures but deadly for humans:

Poisonous mushrooms will turn black if touched by a silver spoon (or, some say, vice versa):

There is no truth in this tale… either way round!

Cooking destroys the toxins in poisonous mushrooms:

The most deadly toadstool toxins are unaffected by the cooking process.

Edible Parasol Mushrooms
Above: the cap of just one large Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota procera makes a pizza-sized meal - cook it as you would a schnitzel.

Dubious advice about mushroom conservation is equally dangerous: cut the stem at soil level and the underground fungus will recover and produce more mushrooms in future. Apart from having no conservation value this method means that you will never see the structure of the base of the mushroom - one of the most important ways of distinguishing between edible Agaricus mushrooms and the deadly the poisonous Deathcap Amanita phalloides. Deathcaps are responsible for dozens of deaths in Europe every year.

If you can't confidently identify edible wild mushrooms, consider contacting one of the experts who offer fungus foray guiding. But if you do feel inclined to go it alone and forage for some of the Algarve’s wonderful edible mushrooms these tips will help you enjoy eating wild mushrooms more than once:

  1. Start with easily identified species such as Chanterelle and Horn of Plenty - both have ‘wrinkles’ rather than gills beneath their caps.
  2. Don’t eat mushrooms that have white gills.
  3. Don’t pick immature mushrooms: their key identification features may not yet be evident.
  4. Don’t collect old mushrooms because, as D H Lawrence says, they are likely to be …all wormy inside, and hollow.
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