Hilary Bradt: Woman About World

Free food with a hint of danger! I was hooked

The man peeped into the basket we were carrying proudly back to the hotel on the edge of the Black Forest, and spoke to my German friend. "What did he say?" I asked. "He said 'You have a basketful of death'," she replied. "Is it certain that these mushrooms can be eaten?" It was and they could, but I must admit it did dent my confidence a little. If you think that mushrooms are the ones sold in shops and that all the rest are toadstools and therefore poisonous you will share that man's suspicion of brightly coloured fungi. How can a dark purple toadstool be edible? And that brown rubbery thing that grows on trees and is called - with no regard for political correctness - Jew's Ear? That surely can't be good to eat? Oh yes it is.

I wear my mushroom knowledge with pride. It's been developed during decades of travel, because the handy thing about fungi is they established themselves on earth so early in our planet's history that the same species occur pretty much worldwide if the conditions are right. So I have found my favourite mushrooms in the United States, Chile, South Africa and Europe.

I got the mushroom-hunting bug in New England when an old friend of my husband took us into the Maine woods and started collecting the most scary-looking toadstools. She cooked them for us and they were - well, not delicious, but pretty damn good - and with the lure of free food we were hooked.

It would be only a small exaggeration to say that our travels in Africa were funded from mushroom-hunting. When we lived in Cape Town and were into the last few months of saving for our Big Trip we collected fungi each Sunday and made them last for three meals, ending up with curry on Wednesday. These were saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) which I have never found in Britain, although our "basketful of death" in Germany contained some of these lurid orange and green toadstools.

So how do you get started? Two essentials: a good book and a knowledgeable person to give you confidence. Many local groups run fungus forays where an expert shows you which are the edible and which are the poisonous ones. There is only one way of knowing whether a mushroom is poisonous or not, and that is to recognise the species. There are very few deadly poisonous toadstools in Britain, the death cap and the destroying angel being the best known. They are easy enough to identify but beginners should start with the most easily recognised - and tasty - ones like field mushrooms, horse mushrooms, parasols, shaggy inkcaps, wood blewits, and ceps, which are not easily confused with anything dangerous. And buy a couple of good books with clear colour illustrations.

Incidentally, there is no difference between mushrooms and toadstools. Most people just prefer to call edible fungi mushrooms and the poisonous ones toadstools.

The season begins in August with the arrival of the field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) in closely grazed horse pasture, lawns or golf courses. What mushrooms love is a spell of hot, dry weather followed by days of rain, so this year was exceptional. I picked four pounds of field mushrooms a few weeks ago, and have a freezer full of mushroom soup as well as some happy colleagues who overcame their initial suspicions.

Giant puffballs are also edible, although eating your way through these football-sized monsters can be a bit daunting. They need quite a lot of help, too, in terms of culinary skill and flavouring.

A wet autumn will bring out the woodland species such as ceps, and other boletus species (which I find slimy, maggoty and generally overrated), wood blewits (so pretty with their mauve colouring, and very good to eat) and - if you're very lucky - chanterelles. On grass verges you can find one of the tastiest of all wild mushrooms, the parasol, and also shaggy inkcaps. Both these species are unmistakable so are ideal for cautious beginners. The first frosts kill most mushrooms, although some fungi such as the Jew's Ear, which grow on trees, are found year-round.

Purists say you should never collect mushrooms in a plastic bag, only in a basket, strong paper bag or cardboard box. The problem is that successful mushrooming relies largely on serendipity - you never know when you are going to find some - so it's easiest to bung a plastic bag into your pocket. Anyway, you don't want to advertise the whereabouts of your supply; mushroomers are nothing if not selfish. It's worthwhile bringing a knife to cut off the dirty base of the stem to avoid getting earth embedded in the gills. Cutting rather than picking mushrooms arguably does less damage to the mycelium under the ground. Whether you discard the maggoty ones is up to you. I reckon that extra bit of protein does no harm.

Once you've borne your bounty home in triumph you should cook the mushrooms as soon as possible. The best ones need no more preparation than to be fried in butter. Others, such as boletus, are best dried, or they can be added to stews or chopped up for soup, or dipped in egg and breadcrumbs... wherever your imagination leads you.

I once spent Christmas in Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the most southerly town in the world. It's near a national park that was full of plump field mushrooms which proved irresistible. That evening I gave the chef in our hotel a Christmas pudding which I had brought out from England, complete with a sprig of holly, and some packet custard. I told him that this was part of our traditional Christmas dinner in Britain and explained how to prepare the pudding and custard. I also gave him the mushrooms. That evening the Christmas pudding was brought ceremoniously to our table, adorned with its sprig of holly and sitting in a steaming pool of custard. Dotted around in the custard were the mushrooms.

Hilary Bradt is the founder and managing director of Bradt Travel Guides

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