Consuming issues: A delicious (or deadly) feast from the woods

If I had picked the mushrooms in my garden a fortnight ago, you would not be readingthis column, either because they were delicious risotto-ed or fried with butter and garlic; or because I would be dead. I exaggerate: apparently you can eat Paxillus involutus (brown roll rims) time and again for years and then, one year, you die of renal failure.

It made me wonder whether other people have been foraging mushrooms and ending up in hospital; they have been.

We have 5,000 varieties of mushroom in the UK, of which about 90 per cent are harmless. About 40 are gastronomic stars, among them ceps, chanterelles and morelles. Understandably, celebrity chefs have been urging the British to make the most of nature's free larder.

Enjoying both the outdoors and a bargain, the prospect of strolling through woods, basket in hand, accumulating free food appeals to me. The only problem is that I don't have a clue which mushrooms are edible and which are not. A cursory investigation reveals the highly toxic fly agaric to be an almost comically evil-looking red toadstool, but other horrors such as death cap (Amanita phalloides) and destroying angel (Amanita virosa) look just like ... mushrooms.

Thanks to the combination of chefly advice and fungi's abundance this year, foodies have been descending on Epping Forest near London to root out bargains. Forest rangers are picking them up (the foragers, that is) because there, like many woods, you need a permit to pick mushrooms. Between 100 and 150 mushroom-pickers were stopped in a single weekend. Ranger Nick Baker said: "They pick poisonous mushrooms, edible mushrooms and mushrooms that they don't know what they are. We had somebody who collapsed and we had to call an ambulance."

The continentals have always picked mushrooms; they know which is which. By contrast we Brits are "fungi-phobic". Perhaps this isn't surprising given that we industrialised first and live a mostly urbanised existence in a small island. The UK has 11 per cent forest cover compared with France (28 per cent), Italy (33 per cent) and Spain (35 per cent). In France, pharmacists are trained to identify certain species. Boots don't offer this service; perhaps they should.

Anyway, aside from a few enlightened individuals here who know their culinary delicacies, most of us are ignorant. Which is why people have been tumbling into accident and emergency wards clutching their tummies: during 2008 and 2009 the National Poisons Information Service received 147 and 123 inquiries respectively about mushroom poisoning. By last month the number for this year had jumped to 209.

Very occasionally, people die, such as Amphon Tuckey, who ate death caps gathered by her niece at Ventnor Botanic Gardens in the Isle of Wight two years ago. Also two years ago Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, fell badly ill after he, his wife and his brother- and sister-in-law picked webcaps (Cortinarius speciosissimus.) The author had correctly picked edible fungi many times before.

I only "identified" the mushrooms in my garden from pictures taken by a photographer who wanders through woods in Sussex; thank you Matthew Hutchings of These brown roll rims looked normal, and indeed were once commonly eaten. The Wikipedia entry for Paxillus involutus says: "Questions were first raised about its toxicity after an German mycologist, Dr Julius Schäffer, died after eating it in October 1944."

I like to think he had many happy mushroom meals.

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