Late summer is one of the most exciting times to be in the woods. You walk, and small delights start appearing in the corners of your eyes. Mushrooms peep up through the leaf mold and appear along logs. As if from nowhere. Magically. It feels like they are an extension of the soil. An embodiment of decay, and therefore an embodiment of life. Paul Stamets, a small god of fungi, says that they are the interface organism between life and death.
It is mindblowing to imagine the dense network of hyphae slowly penetrating through dead wood, digesting, rotting, converting a tree to soil and mushrooms. Wood becomes mushroom. There it is, it is made of wood. These guys are making soil. Now. As you read this, they are making soil.
We were in Slovakian forests during August (more about that in another post…) and the fungi were busy. It was such an undisturbed place for them. They were just getting on doing their thing. Lots of fungi indicates a healthy woodland because they are such supreme nutrient cyclers. It means there is lots of rotting and decay and soil creation and growth and new life. It also bangs home that woodlands are not just a collection of trees – a woodland is a chaotic, meaningful conversation between thousands of species and billions of individuals. These two are mushrooms I’ve never seen in the UK:
Fungi don’t only rot things: there’s loads which get really snug with plant roots and form mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships. These are mycorrhizal fungi and they hurt my brain to think about too much. Though many of them produce utterly delicious fruit bodies. Here I am getting impatient with freshly picked orange and brown birch boletes and tawny grisettes (Amanita fulva). Don’t worry, I didn’t actually eat them raw! Which is a good thing, cos grisettes can give you instant anaemia if they’re not cooked well. A bit risky, I know, but SO DELICIOUS! The orange birch bolete (Leccinium versipelle) is a lovely big robust beast and fries nicely, but is even better dried then added to stews in the depth of snowy winter. The brown birch bolete (Leccinium scabrum) isn’t my favourite – always seems to be mushy and full of maggots. Nyom.
I’m a really recent convert to wild mushrooms. This is only my second season in the light, and I still have that rapturous zeal of revelation. I find it hard to believe just how many different flavours and textures and smells these bad boys have. It is so exciting watching out for fungi, hunting them, smelling the air, reading the weather and then coming across species after species. Every meal is a prayer. Seriously, I’m obsessed.
This is probably a good point to make a big warning: ONLY EAT MUSHROOMS YOU HAVE IDENTIFIED AND ARE 100% CERTAIN OF WHAT THEY ARE! There are some nasty mistakes to make out there. Take an ID book out with you, preferably two for cross referencing. My favourite is Mushrooms by Roger Phillips, but I also like Collins How To Identify Edible Mushrooms by Harding, Lyon and Tomblin because it has a ‘similar species’ section.
Back in Slovakia we had the ultimate mushroom meal: four courses made up of ten species fried in bacon fat over a hot camp fire. First up was a mix of boletes, followed by two courses of different russulas. The dessert was a mix of young puffballs, grisette, hedgehog fungus and amethyst deceiver. It was like being shot by a flavour rifle. I haven’t yet recovered. Not sure I ever will.
But it never ends. They keep on coming. This afternoon a wander through North Dean led me straight to a patch of wood blewits. These guys are secondary decomposers – breaking down the left overs from other pioneering fungi. I ate them fried in butter. They taste like chicken. I got inspired to sit down and write this post. Thanks mushrooms. And thanks to the fellow fungi-geeks who get just as excited as I do, it wouldn’t be the same without you. And thanks to my housemate for putting up with an airing cupboard full of drying boletes.