I find that one of the combined ah… side effects of procrastination and holidays is the development of strange new hobbies. During the summer I decided to pick up knife throwing. Neither mum, the cardboard box used as a target nor the thrown $5 IKEA knives were very happy. I was, though. The holiday before that I spent far too long watching other people play games live online. Strange community, that.
These holidays just gone, though, I’ve become obsessed with mycology (the study of mushrooms). Boredom does funny things, eh? Thankfully, this coincides with autumn and winter here, prime mushroom picking season.
At the most basic level, mushroom picking falls into the ‘foraging’ category of activities, which, for many people, is immensely appealing given the world of cellophane beef and pre-sliced vegetables so many of us live in. Foraging – believe it or not – is anything from trapping rabbits to picking blackberries to fishing. It’s living off the land and rejecting the norm, something which is becoming increasingly fashionable. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing yet, but I’m glad to live in the Hills, where it’s still something done by grandmothers and grandchildren alike; solidly unpretentious.
A quick biology lesson: mushrooms grow from mycelium, a web-like network of tiny ‘branches’ which spread throughout soil and over plant matter. When mycelium is young, it’s easily killed off by an excess of water – but when it’s mature it needs a large amount of water to produce mushrooms. Thanks to this, hillsides and under trees near water and water flow are often good places to look. Forests after rain are an ideal place to forage, as there’s likely to be plenty of mycelium around thanks to the plant matter. These pictures are from a pine plantation.
Amanita muscaria, like the one above, are very easy to identify – the universal ‘fairytale mushroom’. Fun fact: these are the mushrooms Alice eats in Alice in Wonderland. The toxins in the Fly Agaric can be removed through heavy boiling, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Mind you, in some parts of Scandinavia it’s considered a delicacy.
I should stress immediately that you have to be very careful when picking mushrooms while inexperienced. As the old adage goes, “If in doubt, throw it out”. Better to miss a good meal than potentially die from liver failure. That said, given enough care and common sense it’s hard to accidentally kill yourself by eating a mushroom. I would say that fear of the deathcap (Amanita phalloides) has actually driven most people too far in the opposite direction of being overly skeptical. I would strongly recommend getting all of your finds identified online – several communities are just a Google away…
However, one of the easiest mushrooms to identify around Pinus radiata plantations is the saffron milk cap – Lactarius deliciosus. Yes, that does literally mean “lactates delicious”. It’s an unmissable mottled orange mushroom which stains an unattractive green-blue. It also ‘bleeds’ a saffron-coloured ‘milk’ when cut. Specimens are best when young and relatively un-bruised.
Spotting these guys gets super easy once you know what to look for. There’s a characteristic bulge in the pine needle floor, usually near the roots of pine trees. You can often see orange peeking through, hiding. Remember that where there is one mushroom – even if old or rotten – there are almost certainly more.
It’s funny how quickly my behaviour outdoors has changed, I’m noticing I can’t stop scanning the ground for interesting specimens. I like to go for a walk a day or two after heavy rain (the optimum time), bring a camera or phone and just take pictures of everything I find. When I get home, I’ll use wikipedia or some of the interactive online identifiers to try and ID the mushroom – or post on forums if I really want to know. You’ll want a positive ID on anything you plan to eat, though, for sure.
Speaking of positive IDs, I had (and still have) no idea what the above mushroom was, it seemed almost truffle-like in density and colour. Check it out cut open…
It’s just amazing how many mushrooms you actually notice when you start to actively hunt for them. Just walking around the hills, to the bus, the shops, they’re everywhere. Speaking of ‘everywhere’, I had an interesting experience late one night as I was coming back from work. It was about midnight and I passed by a patch of mushrooms I thought I’d IDed as regular field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris). I picked a couple, looking forward to a late night snack of fried mushrooms. I was confirming the finds before cooking and came across a post which said if they stain yellow when rubbed, they’re good to eat. Sure enough, they turned yellow when rubbed. Great! I thought, and cooked ’em up. About 2 minutes later I started to smell something very strange… almost like hospital disinfectant. I ignored it and kept cooking, but the smell persisted. At this point I was suspicious of the ‘shrooms. I gave them a sniff and sure enough, the smell was coming from them. I decided to taste one – I mean, what’s the point of going through all that effort to sauté all of those mushrooms and not eat any? I tasted a piece and it was vile, like eating that same smell of disinfectant. I spat it out and chucked the rest of the mushrooms away. A couple of days later I stumbled across the culprit online: Agaricus xanthodermus. Apparently it’s identified by its yellow stains… It also has a characteristic smell of hospital disinfectant. It also causes nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhoea after being eaten. Dodged that bullet, I guess. Lesson learned: If something smells or tastes funny, don’t eat it.
As you can see, the plantation was a little less than inviting… but it held a stunning amount of mushrooms. You really do feel like Alice, being led from patch to patch, just glimpsing the next one behind a tree, barely finished with the last one.
I would encourage you to (safely) get out there and forage for some food. It always tastes so much better when it’s fresh and you prepare it yourself. Leave a comment below, tell me what you think or what you’ve been up to!
Next time: Porcini…