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Toadstools and Mushrooms, Oh My…

 

There’s something terribly Enid Blyton about the idea of donning your wellies, grabbing a dinky little basket and striking out across a dewy meadow at first light in search of mushrooms for breakfast. But while there’s not much I like more than a good rummage in a hedgerow, picking wild mushrooms isn’t something I’ve ever been confident about.

 

Giant puffballs have been known to sprout overnight in our paddock, going from pea-sized to pumpkin-esque in a matter of hours. But would I eat one? Hmmm, let’s just say so far I haven’t been tempted – even though it’s a rite-of-passage smallholder activity. I can’t quite decide if wild-mushroom foragers do it for the deliciousness of their discoveries, or if under those cagoules they’re actually living-on-the-edge thrill seekers, electrified by the frisson of jeopardy that comes from a potentially fatal fungal encounter.

 

Though I’m sure you couldn’t go far wrong with bog-standard field mushrooms, any enjoyment would surely be spoiled by the nagging hum of anxiety that comes from the threat of poisoning. Every post-supper twinge would be interpreted as the first signal of impending death. Especially as identification is far from straightforward and fungi are renowned for being sneakily deceptive. Take, for example, tasty Chanterelles (mmm, yummy with a creamy sauce) and their malign imposters False Chanterelles (hello, very sore tummy indeed).

 

It’s this too-close-for-comfort relationship with their evil cousins that puts me right off wild mushrooms. Surely it’s safer to categorize them all into the bracket of toadstool and safely sidestep any need for activated charcoal and a stomach pump. Risk averse? Moi?

 

Toadstools do have appeal, of course, much of it coming from their fairy-tale charm. Slender-stemmed and golden-capped pixie dwellings that pop up from the dung heap reek of magic. But fungussy things can also be fascinatingly sinister. Some even go so far as being downright disgusting.

 

Take Dog Vomit Fungus. Named with brutal honesty (though actually it’s a slime mould), it could not be more descriptively titled. I’ve only seen it once, slithering across the grass, a frothy squelchy carpet seeking out rotting organic matter to consume. And it did indeed look like a very poorly canine had been in the vicinity. I had a hot-flash panic, wondering first if a sheep had somehow produced it before turning my suspicions to the dog – who, in all fairness, has been known to disgorge worse things.

 

Then there are Dead Man’s Fingers – poking terrifyingly out of the ground like blackened and grasping zombie digits. Nature was clearly in dark mood when she came up with those. Upon consideration, what’s most fascinating about fungi isn’t how they look or the gamble that they might kill you on a whim, it’s the brilliance of their names. The Death Cap and Destroying Angel leave nothing to the imagination. And as for the Amethyst Deceiver or Beechwood Sickener? Straight out of a Victorian murder mystery.

 

So I’m going to leave the mushrooming to braver souls who, field guides in hand, run the gauntlet between deathly and delicious. I’m happy to observe from a safe distance, eating a reliably safe slice of toast for breakfast, and maybe having a tiny chortle at the funny names.