The name comes from a rather bad joke that Miranda Gavin, who is a fun gal to be with and the other co-founder, remembers. "What do you call a mushroom who buys you a drink at parties? A fungi to be with!" The two roll their eyes at each other. They are mushroom stalkers who have started a fungi fanzine. They collect mushroom art, mushroom stamps and investigate such arcane subjects as aboriginal use of fungi. They spend every autumn weekend foraging in the woods, tasting, smelling and even stroking fungi. They have even taken to living a nomadic existence based around mushroom seasons.
"We want to do a mushroom roadshow," says Miranda. "It will be like the Antiques Roadshow but people would bring in their mushrooms for identification." She looks at me over the table at The Gate restaurant in Hammersmith- the venue for this year's Fungi Festival put on by the Fungi To Be With Club - and I can see that she is serious. But before she can elaborate, she spots a couple at a corner table. "I'll be right back!" She grabs something that looks like a piece of liver, but is, in fact, a Beefsteak fungus and runs over to show the couple how it bleeds when you touch it.
"That is gross," I say as she returns with the oozing Beefsteak. "I know it is, really," she says distractedly and takes a few other oddities from a long shelf that holds the fruits of the club's latest foray. There is no way of getting round the fact that fungi are weird. One looks like a giant brain, another a penis (the Latin name is Phallus impudicus, the common name The Stinkhorn). "Some of them even lactate!" says Miranda, showing how the gills can produce a milky substance when stroked. I was later to find out that another, The Miller, smells of sperm. I'm not sure that Viz knows what it is missing here.
Andy brings a red-and-white spotted one to our table. The last time I saw one of these was in a children's story with a fairy perched on it. Fly Agaric, or Amanita muscaria, was so named because in medieval times it was used to stupefy flies. It is also, I discover, used in Shamanic rituals in places such as Lapland. This is certainly the most bizarre fact of the day and I look at the mushroom with new respect: "It is both slightly toxic and slightly hallucinogenic," says Andy.
As he speaks, Miranda's slides flash up on a wall. "That's Chicken in the Woods," she says, pointing to the yellow blob that has the Latin name of Laetiporus sulphureus and tastes of chicken. The walls are adorned with fungi art - stamps, postcards, posters from as far afield as Nepal and Thailand - and Miranda's photographs. These include the luminous Ghost fungus that they found in a park in Sydney, Australia. It took Miranda all night to photograph. "We were in a hostel and I think it drove the other people crazy," she says. Behind us there is a headless mannequin - Miranda used to collect them - that has been plastered rather fetchingly with mushroom pictures.
Andy and Miranda say the UK suffers from fungi-phobia and I must admit that it has never occurred to me to find out if I could eat the brown things dotting my front garden or the shelf-shaped monstrosity attached to my picnic table. In Eastern Europe, entire families head off for a forage and in France some chemists are trained to identify edible fungi. But in Britain we'd all rather leave well enough alone. "People think they are all parasitical and detrimental. We have that so firmly embedded in our psyches," says Miranda, shaking her head. Andy says most people are only interested in the hallucinogenic ones or the white ones you buy at Sainsbury's. "But I'm interested in all of them," he says. "There are 5,000 different ones, you know, and there is no way I've got anywhere near to knowing all of them. And that's only macro-fungi. That's not even taken into account micro-fungi."
I say that we should stick to macro, ie the ones you can see - for now. So how did Andy and Miranda come to be such mushroom maniacs who spend their time thinking of quizzes, making mushroom cards and putting together the MycoFile fanzine? It all started innocently enough in the late Eighties when they were living with her mum in West Hampstead. One day, Andy looked out of the window and saw big white horse mushrooms in the back garden. "They just intrigued me and I took the risk one day of eating one," he says. "I didn't really know anything then and I've since discovered that there is a very similar one that I could have come a cropper on. But it was very tasty and triggered something off."
Miranda was not so taken. "You did talk about it a lot," she says pointedly. Fungi books started appearing in the house and Andy started making forays. Miranda was still not convinced: "I wouldn't eat them. He would cook them and eat them and I would keep a sample and catalogue it. And then we would wait to see if he was all right. I would say, if something happens to you what do you want to do?" But nothing did happen (he has only been sick once from eating a mushroom) and the hobby became a bit more time-consuming. "I just got really into it. I was buying more books, going out all the time. Any time I got a chance to talk about it I would."
In 1994, Andy and Miranda went travelling but it wasn't exactly your normal itinerary. "Everyone else in India was looking for ashrams and temples but we were planning our journey based on where mushrooms might be!" she says. "In Hanoi, Andy spotted this fungus down this polluted old street and screamed out `Chicken in the Woods!' Our friends were wondering what he was going on about and Andy was saying: `It's Chicken in the Woods, we must get it and cook it up'." Later they took the yellow blob to a cafe and cooked it under the owner's wary eyes.
Their next adventure was in the Czech republic where Miranda had taken a teaching job and was amazed by how much her students knew about mushrooms. It was here that the idea for the fanzine and club were born. "And we met Mr and Mrs Smotlacha!" says Miranda. This couple run the Czech Mycological Society from a little office in Prague that is a bit of a fungi shrine. Andy and the Smotlachas had a lot in common, though not, it must be said, a language. "We communicated mostly in Latin I guess," he says. The Smotlachas appeared in the first fanzine.
Andy and Miranda then decided that one mushroom season per year was not enough and headed to Australia for another. The second MycoFile has an interview with the Sydney Fungal Studies Group. "It really is an international thing," said Miranda. So far, the club has 50 members but I get the feeling that Andy and Miranda would not be bothered if it were fewer. Their obsession has now become a lifestyle: they are mushroom nomads and this winter may go to Morocco. Fungi in Morocco? Evidently so.
Andy Overall is 38 but looks younger. "You know, he seems a bit like Puck," whispers a fellow forager as we headed to the New Forest one recent Saturday morning. There has been lots of publicity against commercial mushroom picking here but we were picking for pleasure. Andy and Miranda do not even charge for the foray - though you need to join the club - and the only thing we were serious about was being fun guys and gals for the day. We met at the Bartley Cafe - itself rather fun with its walls full of vintage Elvis and Marilyn posters and mugs of steaming tea for 50p. By 10am, the group included seven grown-ups, a baby named Flora and a deerhound named Meg.
Andy and Miranda arrived clutching a rather impressive mushroom. "Here is one I prepared earlier," said Miranda with a flourish. "Field Parasol," said a man named Tony, who admitted that sometimes he cannot stop himself from pulling up by the side of the road for a quick foray. Miranda and Andy gave a little talk about stalks, gills, pores, taste, roots, etc. The delicate matter of death was also touched on.
And then we headed off, baskets under our arm (mine designated the poisonous one). Andy, replete with stick and eyeglass, was the guru. "Don't taste any of them," said Miranda. "That's what Andy is for." And, indeed, this was the case. "Hot! Very hot!" he would say, spitting out a tiny piece. There is a lot of tasting and smelling and touching in this game. Fungi foraging is not a spectator sport.
Within an hour, we had found a dozen species (we ended up with 56). There was the one with spines called a Hedgehog, and bloated looking puffballs and something called Brown Roll Rims. The latter is a murderer's dream: a slow poison that destroys the internal organs. Other highlights were the False Death Cap, bright yellow Sulpher Tuft, a rather bloody Beefsteak and a spooky jellyish one called Neobulgaria pura. There were lactating Milk Caps and several spermy Millers. My favourite was the Amethyst Deceiver which is purple and beautiful and edible and so had to go in a different basket. My basket looked like an interior decorating centrepiece with shades of brown, yellow and violet and enough textures to satisfy anyone. The fact they were deadly only made them more interesting.
By the time we got back to the car park at 2.30pm, Andy was almost vibrating with excitement. We laid out our finds and the identification books were consulted for the few he didn't know. One of these was a rare sponge-like thing called Hydnellum spongiosipes. "For me that was the highlight," he said. While Andy categorized, Miranda cut open a delectable Cep and shared it around.
The rest of the edibles were divided and the day was over. Andy and Miranda like to talk about the positive aspects of mushrooms - their increasing use in cooking, medicines, dyes. "How can you ignore something that is widely accepted as having their own kingdom?" asks Andy. "They aren't animal or a plant. They are different." It's not the kind of thing that one usually thinks about but later, while eating the best mushrooms in the world, I decided that Andy is definitely an obsessive but probably right. But before making any final decision, I would see if I lived through the night. Then morning dawned and I decided that I just may be a fun gal, too.
You can reach the Fungi To Be With Mushroom Club on 0958 786374. Membership is pounds 12 a yearReuse content