Bumper mushroom crop fails to whet appetites: Scientists have been speculating on the 'fungiphobia' among Britons. Steve Connor reports
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 10 September 1992
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'.
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