Essay/Death

Last supper

Like the deadly pufferfish, wild mushrooms are for culinary daredevils. Care to play Russian roulette with your dinner?

Cal Flyn

Detail from Champignons Suspects, coloured lithograph by A Cornillon, c.1827. Photo courtesy Wellcome Images

is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and New Statesman, among others. She lives in the Highlands of Scotland.

2,400 words

Edited by Ed Lake

Republish - Licence Only

I decided to move out of London earlier this year and spent much of the summer in the Lake District where my boyfriend works as a mountain guide. When the sun shone, we swam in the river where it ran still and deep, and on quiet days — to stave off fears about work, unanswered emails, unpaid invoices, my imminent poverty — I pulled on my boots, left the house and went out foraging in the hedgerows.

By June, the broad leaves of wild garlic had sprung up in place of the bluebells, a strong perfume announcing their arrival on the breeze. Wild strawberries, each barely a mouthful, came next, and plums. Then, when the leaves began to change, the raspberries, brambles and hazelnuts hung in heavy clusters from their branches. There is something deeply satisfying about returning home and turning out your pockets into the fridge. To take on the role of gatherer, food provider. September was spent sticky-fingered, lips stained crimson from the juice. Peeling, slicing, stewing.

When the rain set in, the berries turned to mush. But for the first time I noticed how the forest floor changed as the fungi began to emerge. Small grey caps nudged each other out of the earth, woody shelf-like brackets protruded from the trees, huddles of long-necked toadstools took shelter under the low branches. Here was a rich seam, entirely untapped. It seemed wasteful, somehow, for us to stand and watch as they grew, matured, and rotted away uneaten, then drive to the supermarket to buy kilograms of mass-grown mushrooms in plastic trays. And so, armed with a copy of the Collins Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe, we wandered through the woods at Grizedale.

Every few feet, we stumbled across a new, unidentified species. What about this? I called, waving him over. An Amanita excelsa, do you think? We squinted at the picture in the book, compared it to our specimen, side by side. It had the same soft white stalk, a felty skirt, pretty tan cap with pale scaly spots. Beside each entry in the book, there is a symbol: a smiling face or a skull and crossbones. Edible or poisonous? Next to ‘Amanita excelsa’ there was a smiley face. But, looking carefully, the colour didn’t seem an exact match for our toadstool. Different lighting? Natural variance? Or a wholly separate species?

‘Edible, mild taste; smell of turnip’ said the guide. Fine. But then, wait: ‘NB. Danger of confusing A. excelsa with A. pantherina and the very rare A. regalla.’ Hmmm. I leafed back through the book. A. pantherina did look similar, but it had the skull and crossbones. ‘Poison acts like A. phalloides but is stronger,’ it warned. I flicked back another few pages. ‘A. phalloides… causes the destruction of the liver and even small doses can be fatal. The poison is active for years and cannot be destroyed by cooking. 50g is fatal to a human being.’

We looked at each other, dropped the mushroom and walked on.

Mushrooms are bloodthirsty. The clues are in the common names: destroying angels, devil’s boletes, poison pies, beechwood sickeners. The Roman emperor Claudius, the Habsburg Charles VI and even the Buddha are all thought to have succumbed to their poison. While walking through a Highland estate in 2008, Nicholas Evans, the author of The Horse Whisperer, picked some brownish wild mushrooms that he took to be porcini. He and his wife and brother-in-law ate them fried with butter and parsley. And then, one by one, their kidneys began to fail. (Evans received a replacement kidney from his daughter, and his wife accepted one from a friend, but his brother-in-law is yet to find a donor. He must still undergo five hours of dialysis several times a week).

In May this year, British newspapers carried stories about a woman who picked handsome golden toadstools from her garden for a soup. Honey-scented, pleasant tasting. Only later, in the emergency department of the nearest hospital, did she learn their name: Amanita phalloides — death caps, as they are commonly known. Half a mushroom would have been enough to kill her, the coroner said. She’d eaten five.

Fungi seem to speak a different language entirely

When we hunt for mushrooms, we encounter a species with which we have no natural affinity. Beautiful pale toadstools might be toxic, while twisted black growths could be edible. Their appearance makes no intuitive sense. Colouring and scent in plants and animals is commonly used as a form of communication: ‘Don’t eat me! I’m poisonous!’ Or ‘I taste good!’ Fungi seem to speak a different language entirely.

Yet it is not altogether indecipherable, and with careful study one can learn to tell them apart. I began to teach myself: comparing picked mushrooms to the pictures in a book, reading the checklist of qualities beneath each name. This one here: is it long-stemmed or bulbous? Does it bleed milk? Are the gills crowded or porous? Is the cap slimy or dry? Does it taste bitter or spicy? Does it smell?

There is, I discovered, a thriving online community of mycology devotees who swap tips on the best fungi gathering sites, offering second opinions on mystery mushrooms and, location permitting, hunting together in woods nearby. They are cautious and methodical. Even so, these shoegazing nature-lovers have one of the most dangerous hobbies in the world. In the five years between 1993 and 1997, there were 6,317 cases of mushroom poisoning in California alone, according to the Western Medical Journal. Sixty-one of those patients had to be admitted to a critical care unit. Every time mycologists bring home a fresh batch, they risk an upset stomach at the very least, and at worst a slow and painful death. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver wrote in ‘Mushrooms’ (2005):

those who know

walk out to gather, choosing

the benign from flocks

of glitterers, sorcerers,

russulas,

panther caps,

shark-white death angels

in their town veils

looking innocent as sugar

but full of paralysis:

to eat

is to stagger down

Neville Kilkenny remembers keenly this sense of wonder. He was in his early forties, working as a joiner, when his wife bought him a ticket for a day’s ‘fungi foray’ into the woods around Edinburgh as a birthday present. Within two years, he had sold his business to retrain as an apprentice mycologist. ‘There is nothing,’ he told me, ‘and I mean nothing quite like seeing an area of natural forest with its fungi in full flush. I remember the first time I visited Black Wood of Rannoch, a SSSI [site of special scientific interest] in Scotland in mid-August, when there was literally an explosion of fungal diversity. It wasn’t so much a quiet pleasure as I literally shouted out loud for the joy of being there.

‘Inside all of us there is a whoop for joy to be found upon encountering an undisturbed patch of chanterelle or porcini, just waiting to get out.’

Inspired, I returned to the woods. This time I came home with a basket of fresh mushrooms. It was a good harvest: common puffballs, honey fungus, slippery jacks, amethyst deceivers. Or, at least, that’s what I thought they were.

We cleaned them and cooked them. We ate. And then we waited.

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