There's ecological catastrophe in the woods as I write this.
This autumn, for the first time since I can remember, the mushrooms have not appeared. If, like me, you talk to wild mushrooms as you pick them, then you've lost your voice. All is mute. Your tongue is tied, shocked into silence. A vital mycomorphic tendency, as vital as the life it aknowledges, talking to mushrooms is nothing less than the exchange of gratitude towards them for appearing at all. So what have we done wrong? Said the wrong word? Not said enough? No, we've destroyed the environment. Global progress for the £2 shirt and mobile phones for the gin generation. Europe, Texas, China, Iran, the whole world has colluded in the massacre. Mushrooms are just the latest casualties. The forest floor brushed under the carpet. I've seen temporary extinctions before, so now I can imagine life without them. I'm living life without them; and I tell you, it's like peering down a long-drop. How pathetic the green gesture seems: brushing your teeth without the tap running; demonizing SUVs; buying a weird lightbulb; talking about plastic bags. It's too late for that. You want your i-pod, not a pea pod. You want to live all lights blazing because you're afraid of the dark. It's time to shut down. To demonize the city. Let the people forage. Green? No, go RED, with anger, rage and good old fashioned back-in-the-woods socialism. This article was meant to be salutary, a homage to the joys of foraging. But that cannot be, when global matters impinge their criminal values on my local forest floor. But I will try...
I moved to France 14 years back, lured here by deserted carp lakes and cheap wine lakes, but with hindsight I could add the mushrooms. Anglers often talk to the fish they catch, and even the most abusive carp angling thugs F and blind their fish to the net like punters at a pit-bull fight. Emotions finding their own level. It's sweet-talk init. I must confess to calling hosts of chanterelles one Christmas: "oh you wonderful bastards" as I scooped up this fodder of angels, these gudgeons of the forest floor.
In France at least, mushroom hunting had become as climate-based as fishing ten years back. Seasons have become increasingly meaningless. Weather patterns within very localised habitats are the key to mushroom knowledge, and the resulting forest-craft is no different to water-craft. I learned this one season in The Morvan, for the mushroom is as shy as any dace, refusing to enter the atmoshphere of a sad, imperfect world. A careless environment is like a bad angler, a clumsy litter-lout who spooks his quarry. The shy mushroom demands pre-set conditions, is inflexible and will not adapt to a kinked environment. A mushroom thrives strictly on its own terms, in its unique conditions. It is ultra consistent and truly wild. You can't re-plant mushrooms because they're the result of centuries of autonomous ecology.
As in fish and fishing, the intimacy with the subject is revelatory, a coming to nature through encounter with its mysteries. Mushrooming sharpens any sense of telepathy you think you may have with nature. There is something of the ectoplasm in a host of mushrooms, a real and fleeting message from the "within", not the "beyond". Mushrooming has no charged energy of the seance though; it is pure anti-stress, teaches you to love the present, step aside from erosive self-consciousness, and makes chestnutting and picking blackberries seem like vulgar shopping. To eat a wild mushroom is to internalise the taste and texture of that sane, settled environment. Non-dreamers will sweep that curtain aside and discover a vivid unconscious world of narrative phantasy. Beans-on-toast regulars will gaze at their plate with new pride and send photos of it to Nigel Slater. Dreams will be transfigured into Jungian slide-shows. Anyone at a loss at how to fill a wet afternoon on a late season French holiday can achieve bliss and instant cultural insight at the same time by driving to the nearest forest pour aller aux champignons. But there is no time to waste; a mushroom's "apparent" life cycle is a short, secretive one. It's hide-and-seek. Its biological existence is less certain, but armchair study is useless, and hunting and gathering feels increasingly like scratching and scavenging. In between the lucky strikes, you're down to the "edible but uninteresting" species just to speckle the omelettes.
People used to blame les gens du voyage in their white vans for looting the forest floor and shipping it away to Paris. Always good money in scrap-fungus and used horses. Some communes have banned "commercial" mushroom pickers, but the motivation is as political as ecological. Ecology in France has to be subsidised to be considered, and the hunters rule the forests, some of which have become privatized no-go zones. The Sunday afternoon fatalities are from Deer Hunters, co-lateral damage, not Death Caps. Before mushrooming , it's wise to check the hunting days pinned up on the village noticeboard. Gone are the days when a boar charged right up to the hilt of your lance or claimed its right to your mushrooms. Today, the guns produce universal void and the silence of fauna mute with fear. In fact, the hunters constitute a powerful rural militia. In some forests, mushroom hunting has become like a night raid into Theipval Wood. Tuesdays and Thursdays are official war days when civilians with baskets are excluded.
Always hunt with knife & basket. No plastic bags, and never uproot a stem, cut it.
The wrong kind of humans are easy scapegoats. Edible mushrooms are disappearing from all habitats: forests, pasture, roadsides, parks and gardens. Or like this year they appeared too early, exhausting the spore stocks. What ceps there were appeared in August. There were chanterelles in July, 3 months too early. This was due entirely to a wet summer, and to whatever was responsible for that meteoric freak. Culprits are sometimes more localised and identifiable. Conflict of interest, chemical management, easy money from developers, parcelling off of forests into auction lots, modern land registry practice, the demand for cheap self-assembly pine furniture and mass clearing of broadleaf for the planting of Christmas trees, for me the most deplorable habit, and one never mentioned by the "greenbacks" who turn the tap off as they brush their teeth with chemical solvents. But a wider picture always exists, a global one in fact, a climate which produces dramatic contradictions always difficult to explain. When I saw boxes of chanterelles du Morvan at 20 euros a kilo in the markets of Bourgogne one July when I knew the forest floors were like concrete, I sank into baffled fret, searched in vain among my favourite sites, explored their ecological opposites in case of freakery, then redefine that 17th c. term for a street umbrella vendor: Mushroom-faker. Where do they go? Where do they come from? They came from the nuclear contaminated forests of Russia and Finland. They came from south America and from Poland. Once more, the supermarkets lead the way.
Such a sorry state is expressed frequently now that environmental tampering shows up in the natural details. You can find that one year's shoal of violets is the next year's void. The cèpes you relied on being there are absent, and it's always possible that not one day in the whole year will reproduce the essential condition for their existence. The shaggy inkcaps you found five years back on your daily walks have not been seen since, and may never return unless nitrogeon pellets are given a rest. The rivers of Europe have already been through this decline, for much the same reasons. If the roach in the Hampshire Avon can become hermaphrodite, the mushroom can turn erudite. The problem is you can't just clean up a forest and re-stock, "innoculate" it with edible mushrooms. Not in a million years, unless you want the mushroom equivelent of a hungry match fishery.
In 2002 the "trophy" mushrooms did not appear in their authentic conditions till November. Cèpes, chanterelles en tubes, two months later than 2001. There were no violets (Amethyst Deceivers) at all, and virtually no girolles, (common chanterelles), both abundent the previous season. And for the first time I saw dozens of Devil's Fingers thriving among the field mushrooms in the field below my caravan, a strange species native to Australia/New Zealand, introduced in France by accident during World War 1, the spores in sheeps' wool imported by the military.
Absurdly, two days before Christmas, I was gathering those kilos of "bastards", chanterelles, from the richest, deepest, luminous green moss I've ever seen, while packs of chainsaws snarled in the valley below. Every 10 seconds the sickening, slow-motion crack of another 300 year old beach tree crushed the once hermetic silence. Then, in the afternoon, the clapped out Lada Nivas and C15s churned up the tracks and armed men patrolled the lane like vigilantes smelling the blood of an escaped slave. What chance for the mushroom, under threat from climatic change, hunting syndicates and destruction of habitat? There is a contradiction here which may upset some purists. The deciduous forest massacre is a scandal, but I have to admit that most of the mushrooms I pick live among the first generation pines. I think because it rots quicker. The Morvan, for instance, at present is mushroom rich due to the "accidental" mixed nature of the forests. But once the balance shifts, the mushroom shifts too.
Today, survival in remaining habitat may be as critical as relying on de-population of the French countryside. Even sadder, lifestyle changes of remaining populations, like not getting out the car at all except to dump the rubbish sack among the nearest trees, might save the mushroom. I rarely meet other anglers when out fishing, but I never meet another mushroomer, so perhaps there's no real tangible complaint yet, as long as the actual enemy remains unidentified.
And again, as in angling, you have to stalk if conditions aren't perfect. Opportunism. Cherry picking the mushrooms. My best haul of Boletus edulis, (cèpe ,bolet bronzé, Penny Bun) was well out of season when we'd already decided they weren't coming that year. It was a freak sunny week late November 02 on the north-east bank of a lake beside the road in sight of bungalows and walkers. I was going fishing, and as I passed I saw a big fresh Fly Agaric among the roadside pines, the red toadstall with the white spots. Find those and the ceps are not far away. Within fifteen minutes I had three sackfulls of the best and biggest Penny Buns I've ever seen, all growing between exposed oak-tree roots in sand and gravel.
All this confusion and unpredictability just as I was beginning to think I understood one or two fundamentals of mycology via a hillock of unsatisfactory guides. Absence always forces you to renegociate an attitude, especially if necessity is involved. For the last 10 years I've depended on regular supplies: 6 months of fresh mushrooms, a staple of 12-20 species; and a winter of dried or frozen. Anyone living on a shoestring should have at least one good mushroom book and a load of bad ones. Anyone looking for authentic wild food higher in protein than vegetables and rich in B and D vitamins should be out there with basket, book and pocket knife.
It was J.S., a rich London tramp, who lead me to wild mushroom hunting in the first place. He looked like Elias Fries too, that 19th c. father of mushroom classification with his skullcap and nest of white hair, author of a great 1832 Latin bestseller Systema Mycologium. Seems to me they were both more descended from fungorum than homo sapien. JS was untouchable, but half an hour with a mushroom bore is essential to breaking through suspicion of edible fungi, with all the damp-rot-of-tree associations responsible for that suspicion.
JS was a wild man of north London, a genuine Curiosity Shop miser with the genius's knowledge, amounting to savantism, of the tramp's circuit, where mushrooms had their place of course. On mushroom specifics, his lips were sealed. He was only out to make his stake, and no man was going to steal his claim on all the mushrooms of the world. He claimed to have eaten 120 species of mushroom. I believed him, and still do, especially now I've learned that there are 1.5 million species and only 5 per cent have been identified. Apart from the fact that JS was invincible, he was too cunning to lie, so cunning that even after penetrating his disguise all you found was the same disguise again, layer after layer.
His knowledge of mushrooms went far beyond that of dabblers and gourmets. You called him fungus face naturally, because his beard was no ordinary scrag, expressing economy and laziness. His knowledge was consistent with his personality; grasping, even greedy, but motivated by absolute parsimony, to fit his model of life: the total milking of state systems and natural ecologies for his own benefit. If it wouldn't kill him he'd eat it. If it was free, he'd take it. But he hoarded his knowledge like he did his money. His motto was find out for yourself. With mushrooms it can be dodgy advice. My impression back then was that mushroom eating was like snake-charming or lion rearing: they killed you in the end. The problem was, the man, the fungus, was too fascinating to put down.
JS's mushroom path is an interesting one. He was an ex-plumber, mangled in a motorbike accident when relatively young. He discovered invalidity pension and never looked back. From fitting the lead to swinging it. But he had one obsession, one weakness which needed money and fuelled his misery. He was a mad, obsessive collector of antique cameras.
Money was no object. He'd inherited a house, wangled a whole sheaf of pensions which rolled in like waves; he systematically raided skips for all his material and hardware needs, and for nourishment he lived off soup kitchens and social centre hand-outs and the sympathies of the gullible widows of North London. For such a life he tramped round London stinking of excrement in layers of ragged clothes. In libraries he scoured the photography journals for camera auction announcements. Winter or summer, he'd travel by coach to the auction in his rancid clothes, sleep the night before in bus shelters or doorways, his sandwiches and 2,000 quid in cash in a filthy carrier bag so worn the writing was rubbed away. It was sleeping rough in a forest outside Northampton, before an auction where he bid the 2000 quid for a camera, that lead to his discovery of mushrooms. He took the short-cut to knowledge, book-learned to identify the species that would actually kill him for sure, then simply ate all the others, the suspicious, inedible, or edibility unknown.
Till I met him I only knew about cultivated buttons, champignons de paris, and field mushrooms. Some farm boy from Kent I turned out to be. Buttons came in punnets from Budgens for a quid, or in my case 25p when the sell by date ran out and they were reduced and blackening. But sometimes, when night fishing, I'd find a few in a field next morning and fry them up with bacon and eggs. This was exciting, but I didn't know it went way beyond this, and we all have curious blind-spots which only clear after that blinding flash of light. A more positive encounter with an enthusiast other than JS might've put me on the mushroom path earlier, because JS was passively dissuasive. If you know a mushroom bore, and they are the selected few, my advice is corner them, put up with the sadness if any, flatter them, badger them and once they start talking, listen. It'll both enhance, and save your life.
JS didn't particularly like mushrooms. He was lazy and didn't enjoy the hunt. A mushroom was simply free food and the minute knowledge necessary for surviving his 120 edible species satisfied his hoarder's intellect. He wouldn't share his knowledge then. He was scathing and mocked the ignorent. He didn't care if you ate a Death Cap and died. He'd probably help you cook it.
Eventually I shook off his aura of dissuasion when I found a second- hand Collins Gem Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstalls and counted up the edible species. Seventy-seven, in a book small enough to fit in your trouser pocket. By then I'd moved back to the country, very late in the year. But out I went, and my first real book-led edible wild mushroom was a true blewit, growing through the snow on the Northumberland coast. JS was unimpressed. This was beginners luck. Like self delusion, winning two bob on a one-armed bandit and going straight to Las Vegas; I find a blewit and it's off to France soon as it's June. Beginners pride leads to the stomach pump.
Me and the ex parked up on a municipal campsite in Normandie beside a man with a second tent full of cardboard grocery cartons, stacked like in a warehouse. He came back late morning, unloading baskets and boxes of field mushrooms from his car. He was a policeman from Argentan on annual mushroom leave. Eventually he cracked under interogation and told us where a field was that we could pan for dinner. It was within walking distance so we took our baskets and set off on our first mushrooming escapade in France.
There was something surreal about this crop. The hallucination was preceeding the poisoned mushroom. They were everywhere, along the verge, in the entrance, round the outside. Fresh bright white mushrooms like bar stools with velvet upholstery. We filled our baskets, didn't even need to actually enter the field. Cooking them up at midday we marvelled at how well they "took the butter", what a rich yellow they became. To us they tasted delicious. Our idyllic afternoon fishing the river behind the campsite was spent bent double, throwing up the bar stools. Never ask questions later. In the book, clear as day: yellow stainers, poisonous. Easily mistaken by the over-eager for field mushrooms.
Books are as much a problem as identifying the mushrooms themselves. Accurate portrayal of habitat is more useful than the best painting of a borderline amanita whatever. Good photos beat the best Victorian watercolour tradition. Always smell them. Chuck anything bitter or inky. If in doubt, take one home and trawl through that hillock of useless books. In France you can take your mushroom to any pharmacy. But many authoritative pronouncements on edibility are opinion, not fact. Without doubt my favourite species, the one you can still rely on, the chub which bites in all weathers, the mushroom you can fill a box with, the one which keeps fresh for weeks or dry all year without loss of flavour, the mushroom which blooms in the prettiest forest worlds, the mushroom of which every speciman is unique as ice crystals and snowflakes: the golden chanterelle or Cantharellus xanthopus/infundibuliformis, or Chanterelle jaunissante/Chanterelle en tube. They are in fact two species, but they're brother and sister and occur side by side in teams or even mixed, in their thousands. Well, if I hadn't met a French enthusiast myself, I'd have gone on ignoring them, believing the trouser pocket sermon in the Gem Guide which says, beneath a deliberately sedated watercolour likeness designed to reflect the words: it is really a rather unappealing little object.
At the other extreme are details, the small print, the spore count. A few years back I found some early autumn birch boletes. I wanted to introduce mushrooming to two hesitant fellow English exiles teetering on the brink of suspicion and willingness. So I took one to their caravan. They were having fish-fingers that evening and we cut the bolete into three vertical mushroom shaped sections and ate one piece each with our fish finger and tin mug of red picrat. Two of us were nourished, but the other spent an agitated night in the field, projectile vomitting down to his socks. The burden of proof was upon me. I gathered every single mushroom book I could and recited the same edibility text over and over again until I found one unassuming detail not mentioned in the other texts: the stems should not be eaten as they can sometimes cause violent reactions in certain people sensitive to other foodstuffs. I have since eaten that same species dozens of times since then without ill effect until a few weeks ago when I woke at dawn with all the symptoms of poisoning; racing heart, stomach like concrete, desire to vomit. At times like that you have to go through the books. I did and found that apert from "sensitivity" this mushroom can react badly with alcohol. I'd drunk four glasses of cheap white wine that evening. I have since eaten the same species again without ill effect or alcohol.
Mushrooming is always a question of finding that foothold between caution and experiment. At the same time it is made easy by nature. Anyone who takes the simplest afternoon stroll probably passes within a yard of an edible mushroom at some point. This is a better statistic than: everyone in the world lives within two yards of a rat or an inch from a mobile phone. Throw that phone away, piick that mushroom, and when you get in, cross-reference it, then put it on a slice of buttered toast with your cup of tea. Next time out pick the rest and serve with chesnuts, prunes and Tom Archer's Organic Sausages. Don't wash mushrooms, just pick off the moss or pine needles, and always keep the bugs and spiders in a matchbox and re-release them back into the mushroom world.
I've set myself two targets: find an edible mushroom every month of the year, and catch a carp every month of the year. Only February to go.
Pied de mouton - Wood hedgehog
Common easily identifiable target species:
Cep, Bordeux (Penny Bun, Bolete.) Bay, Birch
Trompette de la mort, Horn of plenty
Pied bleu, Wood blewit
Violette, mousseron des bois, Amethyst Deceiver
Wood, horse, field, pavement mushroom
Parasol, shaggy parasol
Shaggy ink-cap (Lawyer's wig)
Pied de mouton, Common Hedgehog fungus, Wood Hedgehog
Collins Gem Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstalls: Buczacki/Wilkinson, 1982
Mushrooms, Thomas Laessøe, Eyewitness Handbooks, Dorling Kindersley 1998
Le Mini-Guide des Champignons, Jean-Marie Polese, Losange/Könemann, 2000
Wild Food, Roger Phillps, Pan, 1983
Mushrooms, Roger Phillips, Macmillan, reprinted 2006
How to Make a Forest Garden, Patrick Whitefield, Permenant Publications, 1996
Mushrooms in the Garden, Hellmut Steineck, Mad River Press, 1984