The sorry tale of Horse Whisperer Nicholas Evans’ brush with severe mushroom poisoning is a timely reminder of the potentially deadly pitfalls of ill-judged foraging.
Happily, it is reported that Evans and his companions are recovering but it could have been much worse: Cortinarius specciosissimus is a really dangerous mushroom, containing cyclopeptides that attack the kidneys and liver. Two unfortunate campers who ate the mushroom in 1979 needed kidney transplants, while a lucky third recovered.
Despite alarming stories like this, there’s really no reason not to enjoy wild mushrooms, providing you take the necessary steps to properly inform yourself and always follow the golden rule of wild mushrooms:
The golden rule of wild mushrooms
Never, ever, eat a wild mushroom unless you have positively identified it with absolute confidence.
If in doubt (even the vaguest shadow of doubt), don’t eat it!
Worth the trouble
The nine steps below may seem like a lot of bother for a few mushrooms but, believe me, it’s worth the effort. Learning to identify mushrooms opens up a world of gastronomic adventure and enriches any walk in the woods (or fields).
Suddenly you’ll see mushrooms, good and bad, everywhere and experience the intense joy of discovery when you find something really good, like a cep (Boletus edulis), chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), giant puffball (Langermannia gigantea), chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), St George’s mushroom (Calocybe gambosa) or morel (Morchella esculenta).
Please do make the effort to follow these steps: it really can be a matter of life and death.
Nine steps to safe mushroom picking
- If possible, go on a mushroom foray with an expert
There’s no better introduction to the rigours and skills of informed mushroom identification than seeing it done properly. (If you don’t know an expert, you can skip this step, but follow the others all the more thoroughly.)
- Read Mushrooms by Roger Phillips
An excellent photographic guide to the mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe.
Read it from cover to cover to familiarise yourself with all the 900+ most common species of fungus. Scrutinise the entries for each of the listed poisonous species (the ones you have to be sure to avoid), edible species (the only ones really worth picking) and very common species (the ones you’ll see most often). Read it again.
(Phillips’ photos – including many not in the book – are also available online at RogersMushrooms, a fantastic resource, but you can’t beat browsing the book to really get to know the mushrooms.)
- Read How to Identify Edible Mushrooms by Patrick Harding, Tony Lyon and Gill Tomblin
Instructive guide to the identification of edible mushrooms, explaining and illustrating the distinguishing features, usual habitats and seasons. Crucially, the guide also describes lookalikes, that might be mistaken for all the main edibles, with tips on how to distinguish them.
(The deadly Cortinarius specciosissimus is detailed as a lookalike for chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius.)
- Read Poisonous Plants and Fungi: An Illustrated Guide by Marion R. Cooper, Anthony W. Johnson, Elizabeth A. Dauncey
Authoritative guide to the fungi (and plants) that you really must avoid. Contains plenty of detail on the severity and effects of poisonous mushrooms. Once you’ve read this you’ll have a real idea of the dangers, a powerful incentive to proper identification.
- Have a dry run
Collect some mushrooms and identify them in the above books. This will develop your eye for the necessary details and general feel for mushrooms. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll learn to see the differences between mushrooms that “all look the same” to the uninitiated.
- Know your prey, know your enemy, know the little pagans
In following the above steps, you’ll develop a clear idea of the edible mushrooms worth looking out for and the really poisonous ones to avoid at all costs. The vast majority of mushrooms fall in between, neither particularly good to eat, nor particularly toxic: these are the little pagans (as I gather they’re known in Russian).
- Ignore any rules of thumb
The only way to be sure a mushroom is safe to eat is to positively identify it. Any supposed rule – “the caps of edible mushrooms peel”, “if it’s been nibbled by an animal then it’s safe to eat”, “cooking mushrooms makes them safe to eat” etc – is untrue, misleading and dangerous.
- Take account of all relevant information
Mushroom identification isn’t just a question of examining the specimen in isolation. The more information you have, particularly the habitat and season, the easier the identification. If you found it in the middle of a treeless field, it’s not a cep. If you picked it in September, it’s not a morel.
- Pick, identify, cook, eat, enjoy!
You should now be ready to go out and pick some mushrooms to cook, eat and enjoy. But always remember the golden rule: positively identify any mushroom before you eat it. It’s only safe to eat if you know what it is.
The pictured mushrooms are (from top):
- Tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)
Edible but a member of the Amanita family, which contains some of the most deadly poisonous mushrooms, including the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and destroying angel (Amanita virosa). One for the experienced picker only!
- Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Edible, delicious and readily identifiable.
- St George’s mushroom (Calocybe gambosa)
A superb edible spring mushroom, unmistakeable once you get to know it.