TOAST Magazine

MUSHROOM FORAGING

FOOD & DRINK

And off we go into the forest with Jackie Mushroom, who looks a bit like a wicked witch and a bit like a mushroom, but not in a bad way, and she’s the expert, which is why she’s called Jackie Mushroom, so she better not be a wicked witch. As we set out she tells us that you have to have a licence these days to pick mushrooms here because there are so many stupendously splendid and creative restaurants sending out foragers - no doubt inspired by Noma - that the whole area has more or less been picked clean. It’s not as cut-throat as those places in Northern Italy where people die foraging because the competition’s so fierce they go out at night and fall down ravines, which shows a level of determination that we don’t seem to be able to emulate over here.

Anyway, there are still some left, somewhere, and Jackie Mushroom is such a local expert that she knows where to take us to find some stonking ceps, which is a kind of mushroom that I’m actually not too keen on. They’re rather meaty and lacking in finesse, unlike say chanterelles which I love, and puffballs, which don’t taste of very much but are quite simply a miracle, they’re so perfect in shape and and so impossibly light and delicate.

So we go off on this rather circuitous route through the forest, which is mysterious, unsettling, like being taken to a secret rendezvous, or being kidnapped actually, maybe Jackie Mushroom is a wicked witch; but more likely it’s so we don’t come racing back next day and pick her mushrooms, damn, should have dropped some crumbs of bread or something, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? And we come to the hunting grounds. Exciting. Eyes down. You’re wandering through the trees looking for these ceps, and it’s fantastically difficult, because they are so perfectly camouflaged by the ground vegetation – variegated brown mushrooms hiding in variegated brown vegetation - brown leaves, brown bark, brown branches, brown dog poo. It’s like Where’s Wally.

And Jo and I are not that brilliant at it, but of course, because we’re not that brilliant at it, when we do find one, or, blissfully, a whole clump, it’s correspondingly more amazing and magical, like finding your car in a Tescos car park. And so we’re very excited and we feel as if we’re nearly experts, and we want to know if there’s a secret to where you look, which would be a huge help, but Jackie Mushroom says no, not really, you’ll find them round the roots of trees – ah, well, where we are at the moment, that’s everywhere.

So we’re going to have to work hard at this, and then there’s the gnarly question of identifying the little brutes. We’re not entirely sure whether the ones we find are the ones we want, or whether they’re going to put us on dialysis. (Sidebar: My friend Adey who’s lived in Bethnal Green for a long time told me once that in the bad old days of Brick Lane Market, when people sold stuff off the pavement, there was a bloke who offered second-hand dialysis machines. I thought this was a wonderful example of entrepreneurship, though they must presumably have been stolen from the near-by London Hospital; perhaps I should have been more disapproving).

We have an identification seminar with Jackie Mushroom. She says: No, don’t eat that, that’s a so-and-so, you can tell by the such-and-such spores, do eat that, don’t eat that whatever you do, that’ll kill you, it’s a death cap, even though it looks like a such-and-such which you can eat, which is really delicious; don’t eat that, it won’t kill you but you’ll be puking for days, you can eat that but it tastes disgusting, so don’t; don’t eat that, it’s got white gills, or spores, or whatever, look, they don’t change colour when they bruise, tell-tale sign, oh really? don’t even think of eating that, you can tell by scraping the cap with a knife and looking out for something-or-other, etc. etc.; and we’re trying to be good citizens and remember all this but the information seems to trickle through our brains and find no purchase.

So we come back home, make a cep risotto, which is ok but not Nomadic, live (obviously), breathe a sigh of relief, and agree to go to the shops when we next want a mushroom.

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