Our very own James Reynolds, Head of Media & Communications at RSPB Scotland, tells us about a favourite pastime.
Foraging and then fungi…
My enthusiasm for all things mycological began about 15 years ago, when someone first bought me a copy of Richard Mabey’s seminal foraging bible Food for Free as a birthday gift. Already a veritable foodie with a deep love of cooking, as well as an enthusiastic outdoor type, this fantastic little book provided the link that had been missing in my life for quite a few years. It seemed to me that foraging had an enormous amount to offer to enhance and enrich the outdoor experiences I was already having, allowing me to get much closer to the natural environment and learn about the wild origins of almost all of what we now buy from the supermarket.
I started on the basics, picking the easily identifiable comestibles, like nettles, blackberries, crab apples, elderflowers and berries, with the occasional less well-known like sorrel or wild garlic. I still do this today, and enjoy it every bit as much as the first time I gathered for the pot.
Blackberries in Lochaber
This foraging activity was as much about mental and physical health; satisfying the soul as well as the stomach. Foraging is essentially another way of saying “hunter-gathering”, and whilst I have no yearning to return to the asperities of living a Mesolithic lifestyle, struggling through a hand to mouth existence on foods of little nutritional value like silverweed roots, it is still immensely satisfying to engage in something which our ancestors did - literally. There is an undeniable atavistic pleasure to be had in heading out with the intention of searching for something to eat, gathering that targeted foodstuff and then taking it home and cooking it. It is incredibly liberating.
Whilst I was occasionally embarking on little foraging forays to supplement my largely supermarket-supplied larder, there was one foodstuff that I was never brave enough to target: mushrooms.
Unlike our European cousins, Britons were, until recently, a nation of dedicated mycophobes. Whilst most folk probably knew what a field mushroom was and would be able to identify it, everything else was a toadstool – pregnant with all the risks that this ancient pejorative implies. This was exacerbated by the not insignificant fact that there are quite a few mushrooms out there that can cause a person quite serious harm if wrongly identified and ingested, and a few that will cause rapid and painful death.
But TV series like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s A Cook on the Wild Side and Ray Mear’s Bushcraft told me that, with the application of a little effort to learn the secrets of identification, this did not have to be the case, and there was a whole other kingdom of foodstuffs just waiting to be gathered.
Still working at The Scotsman, I pitched the idea of a feature on mushroom foraging to the magazine editor who agreed. The next week, accompanied by Dick Peebles from Caledonian Wildfoods, I was out in the woods and forests surrounding Loch Lomond picking egg-yolk coloured chanterelles smelling of sweet apricots, plucking chicken of the woods looking like fronds of sulphurous coral from the trunk of an oak tree, and liberating a beefsteak fungus, resembling an ox’s tongue, from the base of a sweet chestnut tree – all on my first foray. I was immediately hooked, and bought a couple of books to assist me in expanding my identification skills.
Since then, I have looked forward to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness like a child willing Christmas to come sooner. Initially it was just so that I could gather something for the pot and satisfy that hunter-gathering instinct. Indeed, I can now confidently identify most of the common edible species in the UK, from the delectable penny bun or cep - Boletus edulis - to those requiring a lot more homework like the charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha or the utterly delicious St George’s Mushrooms Calocybe gambosa.
Cep or Penny bun
The common inkcap Coprinus atramentariusis one of those strange mushrooms that seems to occupy a category all of its own, straddling both the edible and poisonous species. This is because it is edible, but becomes poisonous if eaten within 72 hours before or after alcohol. It contains a rare amino acid called coprine that has the mischievous quality of rendering the liver unable to break down alcohol, and can cause alarming nausea, intoxication, hotness, sweating, shortness of breath and other symptoms. Whilst I have found it many times, my fondness for a tipple with a meal has always deterred me from trying it out. But these days, I’m just as pleased to chance upon a particularly fine specimen of fungi that might have some other, historic, practical purpose other than gastronomy.
Take the fantastic horse’s hoof fungus – Fomes fomentarius, the largest specimens of which I have ever seen I found on a recent trip to Fort Augustus. When the mummified body Otzi the iceman was found in 1991 between Austria and Italy, his bag of survival items contained this mushroom as part of what archaeologists believe was a complex fire-starting kit. It is still, to this day, known as ‘tinder fungus’ and is used to make amadou which will take a spark from a flint and steel, and is also used in fly fishing to flies and help them float.
Foraging is even more fun with friends. Here's a Horse's hoof fungus
Another beautiful bracket fungus which is common throughout the birch woods of Scotland is the Razorstrop fungus, Piptoporus betulinus. This shell-shaped fungus which looks like a puffball that’s been squashed against a trunk, has a pure white, almost rubbery textured flesh in young specimens if they are cut open. But as it dries it becomes corky, and it was in this condition that strips of the fungus were used as strops to sharpen cutting tools and take off the burr after honing.
Getting familiar with mushrooms and fungi, either to boost one’s larder, or simply from a point of interest in this fascinating kingdom, is a fantastic way to enhance one’s appreciation of nature. And right now is the season to get out and about!