What is it about mushrooming that exerts such a fascination on us?
Is it the gastronomic possibilities of the crisp white flesh or the greedy human excitement at getting something for nothing? Is it the age-old association of fungi with medicine and it's more funky, arcane outreaches or is it the dark thrill of dicing with death when you take the first bite of your wild mushroom omelette?
You have to admit that mushrooms have always lurked on the borders of acceptability. They grow in the dark.....they feed on decomposing matter.....they spring up, overnight, like a pale, sinister army after a night of rain.....you don't want them in your walls, or between your toes, yet we adore them in our risotto and stirred into warm cream with a fat steak. It's a tense relationship frankly and not one that, until now, I have ever really felt tempted to deepen.
This weekend, however, I decided to join the Boschendal team for a morning of fungi foraging with renowned boletus boffin, Justin Williams. Honestly I half expected the morning to be cancelled and a text to arrive with a mumbled explanation along the lines of...."mushroom hunting postponed until further notice due to unforeseen gastric crisis and emergency liver transplant...." Fortunately this was not the case and Justin appeared, hale and hearty, showing no signs of physical or mental instability at precisely 10 am, armed with a basket (promising, optimistic, wholesome) and a sickle bladed Opinel knife open in his palm. He talked us through his long history with fungi (the edible kind, mercifully) and how to collect and prepare them and then we set off into the oak woods to shuffle slowly through the leaves, heads turned down, arms hanging by our sides, in a long line like an army of, well I digress, let's move on.
Almost immediately we stumbled upon the Red Cracking Boletus. Edible? Well, in the words of the immortal Crocodile Dundee "You can live on it but it tastes like..... old scrambled eggs actually." Next! I spotted a few interesting specimens, that turned out to be pieces of old log and lumps of clay and then we chanced upon something quite special. A Reishi mushroom, prized, perhaps inevitably, by the Chinese, for it's numerous benefits to the immune and circulatory systems. Into the basket it fell for drying and decocting.
For a species that is literally everywhere, possibly the largest organism in the world and one that is in the air we breathe, the bread we devour and the soil we farm, fungi are frustratingly difficult to find. The World Wide Web of mycelium spreads over the four corners of the earth to a degree that leaves Google staring, slack jawed with admiration. It senses, processes, feeds on and breaks down organic matter in a cycle that is essential to the earth. As its hydra filaments probe ever outwards, they build deeper and deeper layers of rich hydrated soil, by turns digesting and feeding plant life and sometimes protecting them from other pathogens.
But back to our hunt....
Our next discovery was a shaggy ink cap, but this one was too old to be of any gastronomic value. Finally we came across our first really edible subject, a common white field mushroom of the kind that you normally find in polystyrene containers at the Pick n Pay. Boletus Dennius. Alas, there was only one. We moved on...
Next up was a bit of a shocker. As soon as Justin revealed the name, "Destroying Angel" I had the distinct feeling that this one was not going to be tossed in garlic butter and added to a salad, unless you care for severe abdominal pain and organ failure as side dishes.
Rule of thumb - avoid white fungi with white gills unless.....no scratch that, just avoid them.
And so the morning marched on; True Turkey Tail, Laughing Jim (no prizes for guessing what that one does) Lawyer's Wigs, Copper trumpets (glows in the dark) LBMs and UDLs (unidentified, dodgy-looking) until we unearthed our holy grail, Porcini. The shiny, brown, glazed top, the creamy sponge beneath. I glanced around at the 10 other avid seekers and wondered if a fight was going to break out. Then there was another and then a Poplar Bolet, and then some Pine Rings, Lactarius Deliciosus. After an hour or so we had a steadily growing mound of mushrooms that wouldn't kill us. Probably.
My daughter came running up with a fresh-looking milky umbrella in her hand.
"Gather round children," said Justin. "This is probably the most dangerous mushroom in the world." A gasp rippled round the group. "The Death Cap. Certain demise due to liquification of the internal organs." Oh good grief. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the woods.
At the end of the morning we divided up the spoils in a most English manner; "No really... after you..I couldn't possibly...well, if you insist..." and we all headed home with a sample for the pot.
Can I be absolutely honest and admit that as Bella cooked them up that evening and held one quivering on the end of her fork, a tiny inner part of me garbled "errrrr...you first..." Before my better judgement took over and Rob said, 'well if she's going to eat one, I think we'd all better!"
So we did, it was delicious, and here I am, 12 hours later, typing this.
Will I be heading off into the woods alone, straying from the path and eating wind fallen fruit?......ho hum...not sure. The risk / reward ratio feels a bit too edgy for me. 12 hours of acute and constant attention to ones digestive processes seems a bit of a high price to pay for a "free" meal! But then, that's just what the "shroomers like, innit? Less is more...for them!