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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor