The Irish autumn provides a perfect climate for all types of fungi. So take
to the woods, sniff the air and forage for wild mushrooms. The rewards are
great as few tastes compare with that of freshly picked Ceps, Chanterelles,
Parasols and Hedgehogs. But beware, 95% of Irish people avoid eating wild mushrooms due to the justifiable fear of serious/fatal poisoning. The other 5% needs to have enough knowledge to be able to differentiate the good eaters from the dangerously poisonous toadstools.
As an edible treat wild mushrooms are free, organic, tasty and plentiful if you know where and when to look for them. However, aside from food you may not be aware that fungi have several other uses to humans including fermentation agents on cheese and multiple medicinal uses both in ancient Chinese and African medicine, and in modern Western medicine. The symbiotic relationship between some trees and fungi is essential to the health of the tree and to forestlands in general. Without Fungi the forest litter would not be broken down to nutrients for the soil.
Historically, the Birch Polypore was used to carry an ember from the morning fire to start a new fire at the end of the day. The skin of the same fungus was used as a strop to sharpen razor blades.
So how can you identify the tasty edible mushrooms and avoid the poisonous ones? There is no easy way to doing this. There are many old wives tales for example:
• If it looks good it is edible
• If animals can eat it then it is safe for Humans to do so
• If it turns a silver spoon black then it is poisonous
• If it grows away from trees then it is safe
None of them are even close to true. Unfortunately, like most worthwhile endeavors in life the only way to learn how to identify fungi is to put in the time, buy a good identification book and attend some mushroom hunts with experts. Of course, strolling through the woods in good company observing nature for a few hours with hopefully a free feast at the end is not a bad way to spend some time.
Some of the common names for poisonous mushrooms can give you an idea of their likely effect if ingested. Names like, The Death Cap, The Panther, Poison Pie, The Sickener, The Charcoal Burner, The Destroying Angel. Then there are the eaters; The Penny Bun, The Beefsteak fungus, Chicken of the Woods, The Amethyst, the Parasol and the Wood Blewitt.
One of the great mycophagal (a mycophagist is one who is interested in mushrooms as a food) mysteries is why all other European cultures have such a strong interest and knowledge of wild mushrooms, yet the Irish and to a certain extent the British, have a strictly field mushroom only interest. What could explain this? In most Western and Eastern European Countries, and indeed Russia, children are given the knowledge and desire to collect wild mushrooms at an early age. Most people from these cultures are aware of how best to prepare different mushrooms whether they should be boiled first, pickled, dried, sliced thin and served raw. Meanwhile back in Ireland we are taught that if it is not a field mushroom then it should be avoided at all costs.
Bill O'Dea has been holding annual mushroom hunts since 1998. He also organizes the occasional trip outside Ireland.
Coastal & Marine Resources Centre, UCC, For more information go to www.mushroom.ie