Autumn is traditionally the season of plenty, and few have been as fruitful as 2006. The boughs of fruit trees have been laden almost to breaking point in my part of the world, on the border of Berkshire and Wiltshire. We are drowning in mellow fruitfulness.
If it has been a wonderful year for sloes and blackberries, the crops of wild mushrooms in woods and wild grasslands must border on the miraculous. You hear stories of secret caches of black truffles, of barrow-loads of boletes. I have seen some woods so crammed with fungi that you could hardly move without exploding a puffball. And it's not over yet. The mild, damp late-autumn days are still pushing up wild mushrooms. At this rate we can look forward to eating fresh wild-mushroom stuffing with the Christmas turkey.
There are perhaps a hundred edible varieties of wild mushrooms in Britain, from popular ceps and chantarelles to little-known kinds with names such as trooping funnel, curry milkcap and the flirt. But you need a bit of mushroom know-how. Half the art of mushroom-picking lies in knowing where to look. The other half is knowing what not to pick. There are a lot of poisonous mushrooms out there, some of which look like certain edible kinds. Stick to the ones you can identify with confidence.
All these wild mushrooms are easy to identify, but be sure to always use a good field guide like Mushroom Hunting by Patrick Harding (Collins, £9.99).
On private land seek the owner's permission. In parks and public spaces check with the local authority. Gathering wild mushrooms in reasonable quantities is sustainable and does no harm to the fungus (all fungi will be eaten by animals and insects). Conservation bodies recommend limiting single gatherings to 1.5 kg or roughly a basket full.
Wood blewit (Lepista nuda)
This classic late-season mushroom has a flattish brown cap with contrasting violet gills and a tall, fibrous stem. If in doubt take a sniff - wood blewit has a pleasant flowery scent that survives cooking. It is common in woods, parks and even compost heaps. The translucent colour and jelly-like texture take a bit of getting used to, but the flavour is strong and mushroomy, perfect for a morning fry-up with bacon. It is traditionally cooked like tripe, simmered in milk and onions and served with mashed potato.
Shaggy ink-cap or lawyer's wig (Coprinus comatus)
An unmistakable mushroom whose long, shaggy egg-shaped caps appear overnight on lawns and compost heaps. It soon turns black and inky as the gills dissolve and so should be gathered in the morning while still firm and compact. It needs only the gentlest cooking to preserve its delicate taste. Richard Mabey, author of Food for Free, recommends turning them into fresh mushroom ketchup.
Velvet shank or winter fungus (Flammulina velutipes)
This is one of the few wild mushrooms you can find in a hard frost. In fact, you often find them encased in ice and apparently none the worse for it. Velvet shank is so-named because of its dark-brown, velvety stems which contrast with a smooth, glistening orange-brown cap. It grows in clusters on logs and fallen branches. This mushroom has a rubbery flesh that demands slow cooking but it dries well and is particularly suitable for Chinese dishes.
Fairy-ring champignon (Marasmius oreades)
This pale-brown mushroom is the one that forms those dark rings on the lawn. You can get your own back by picking them. The mushrooms form in the autumn and continue on mild days all through the winter. This tough little mushroom dries well, and the French string them together like onions, removing them as needed. Use in risotto, casseroles or soup.
Wood hedgehog or pieds de mouton (Hydnum repandum)
So-called because it has tiny spines instead of gills, this firm-fleshed mushroom is common on bare ground in woods and conifer plantations. The pale yellow caps are thrown into characteristic folds as they expand, hence the French name "sheep's foot". The wood hedgehog normally grows in clusters or partial rings, so where you find one there are usually more nearby. It's a versatile mushroom you can gently sauté or serve with risotto or pasta. Some suggest first removing the slightly bitter spines. But in my view the spines add to its personality.
Wood mushroom (Agaricus silvicola)
This wild mushroom often appears in woods late in the season when its relative, the field mushroom, is over. Look for it in damp, shady places such as banks and dry ditches where fallen leaves congregate. Wood mushroom smells like marzipan and has a club-footed swelling at the base of the stem. Don't be put off by its tendency to stain yellow, but avoid any yellow-staining mushroom that smells unpleasantly of ink. This will be the yellow stainer, the wood mushroom's poisonous lookalike. Wood mushrooms have a rich flavour that goes well with almost anything.
Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica)
Always a shock to first-timers, this tongue-shaped bracket fungus has more than a passing resemblance to prime steak, complete with blood-red juice! It grows on the trunk or main branches of well-grown oak trees in parks and open woods. Unfortunately it doesn't taste like steak. Like all bracket fungi it is rather tough and requires slow, careful cooking, and some people don't like the sharp, almost tomatoey taste. But this is a bold, gutsy mushroom, strong enough to stand up to onions, peppers and even chillies, and it's high on "wow factor".
Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Another classic late-season mushroom which often appears during a cold spell, always on dead branches or logs on which its flat, oyster-shaped caps grow in tiers or rows. Young oyster mushrooms are an attractive blue-grey, but they soon fade to pale brown. Best eaten young, they require slow cooking to overcome the slightly tough texture and are best suited to casseroles or pies (try adding a few to a steak and kidney pie), or with game or venison. This is one of the few wild mushrooms which can be grown commercially. You can even buy oyster mushroom kits, complete with suitable logs, for growing in the garden.Reuse content