Bumper mushroom crop fails to whet appetites: Scientists have been speculating on the 'fungiphobia' among Britons. Steve Connor reports

THE CREAM of Europe's mushroom experts scratched and nosed their way through an English wood yesterday in search of fungi to whet their appetite.

Scientists attending the 11th Congress of European Mycologists at Kew Gardens in Surrey believed the damp summer this year would provide a bumper crop for mushroom gatherers.

Yet few people will take to the woods with mushroom baskets in hand, for the British, the mycologists say, are 'fungiphobic' and harbour an irrational fear of small, umbrella-shaped objects that pop out of the ground.

David Pegler, head of the mycology department at Kew and chairman of the European congress, said Europeans were divided into the fungiphiles and the fungiphobes. It may be rare to see people mushrooming in Britain, but it is a common sight in Russia, France, Germany and Italy.

No one can really explain the differences. By and large, Slav nations in the east of Europe - perhaps having spent many centuries taking refuge in forests from invaders - are avid mushroomers, as are the Italians, the Spanish and the French.

But despite the abundance of edible mushrooms in Britain, we have no history of forest forays, Dr Pegler said. 'The British seem to think mushrooms to be very mysterious because they can appear literally overnight and do not grow slowly like plants.'

Children's fairy tales reinforce the stereotype of the poisonous toadstool and primary schools are told not to bring mushrooms into class for health and safety reasons, Bruce Ing, president of the British Mycological Society, said. 'Yet they are allowed to show children wild berries almost all of which are poisonous.'

Roger Phillips, a naturalist and author of Mushrooms and other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe, believes the British fear of wild mushrooms is deep- rooted: 'It's the British nature to be rather careful. We're inclined to say, 'Look out, there are some deadly ones'.'

Of the 5,000 or so species of mushrooms in Britain, about 90 per cent are harmless and between 30 and 40 are gastronomic delicacies, Dr Pegler said. But it is the poisonous mushrooms that everyone remembers.

The notorious Death Cap mushroom for instance looks much like any other to the untrained eye. Yet one bite is enough to kill, typically by the release of highly toxic compounds into the blood that cause kidney and liver failure.

Other mushrooms, notably the psilocybes such as the Liberty Cap, produce hallucinogenic compounds similar to LSD. One theory has it that the Druid priests used such 'magic' mushrooms in their rituals and, fearing their mystical secrets would be discovered, banned ancient Britons from mushroom gathering, a cultural inheritance that may survive today.

Antonio Carluccio, a Covent Garden restaurateur and author of A Passion for Mushrooms, has perhaps done more than anyone to break down the British fear. 'Something is moving in Britain. Many people are writing to me about mushrooms,' he said.

Mr Carluccio is more aware than most of the commercial importance of fungi. A kilo of fresh chanterelles can cost about pounds 25 while the Caesar's mushroom - the favourite food of the Emperor Claudius - costs between pounds 80 and pounds 90 a kilo (2.2lbs). But the most expensive food of all - the white truffle - can cost nearly pounds 2,000 a kilo.

Recent research on the truffle, a fungus that has survived for about 100 million years, has revealed that it exudes many volatile compounds, including one that is identical to the sexual scent of a wild boar.

Giovanni Pacioni, an expert from the University of L'Aquila in central Italy, said truffles could produce twice the amount of the scent as the testicles of a wild boar. One theory is that the truffle deliberately exudes the chemical to attract wild pigs that then eat the fungus, thereby helping to disperse its spores.

Truffle hunting in Britain died out more than a century ago, but it could be revived if Mr Carluccio and others can continue to whip up enough enthusiasm for more fungal forays into the British woods.

But few would like to see it become as popular as in Italy where there is a fear that too much commercial foraging has resulted in trampling the habitats where mushrooms thrive. Mr Carluccio would say only that his favourite wood was 'in a 60-mile radius of London'.

(Photographs omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all