Amethyst death cap is a cheerful looking mushroom, often depicted in picture books with a cottage door in its stem and two miniature windows on either side, a grand entrance for fairies, cute mammals and all those magical creatures with an inclination for mushroom living.
For those of us who eat them, the death cap feast upon the eyes. Dressed in the likeness of edible Ceaser’s mushroom, straw mushroom or infant puff balls, these toxic mushrooms are believed to have caused more deaths than any other species. Famous victims include Roman Emperor Claudius, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Pope Clement VII who just hours before his snack commissioned Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. With foraging season upon us and conditions ripe for high yields, a public health warning was issued this month against eating potentially fatal mushrooms. So far this year 84 people in the UK have been poisoned by the death cap, destroying angel or fool’s webcap, species which share common characteristics to harmless edible varieties. For those with a cautious interest, below are a few unmistakable (and delicious) mushrooms.
Cep known as porcini in Italy and the penny button here in the UK is prized for its earthy flavour. Often seen growing in groups of ten or more, ceps are very valuable, fetching about £40 per kilo at market. Sticky to the touch they are the most delectable and also safest mushrooms to harvest wild because with their bread roll cap they resemble no other.
Amethyst deceiver is bright purple top and bottom with wide spaced gills and a delicate smell, found by oak and beech trees. When cooked it has a subtle nutty flavour, used in cooking mostly to add colour.
Beefsteak mushroom, also known as Ox tongue can be spotted growing on living or dead oak and sweet chestnut all over Britain. With an obscene resemblance to raw meat, it excretes blood-like drops and is often used as a meat substitute. Like meat it is best eaten fresh as it sours and toughens with age. There is no other mushroom quite like it.
Chicken of the woods grows on broad-leaved trees in lemony yellow fan shaped tiers. Its rubbery texture (and taste) has been likened to chicken. Note that this taste does not agree with everyone! It is known to cause stomach upset in some.
Chanterelle are yoke coloured with a flat cap which looks like a baggy trumpet. They smell faintly of apricot and can be unearthed in all kinds of woodland. Considered a delicacy for centuries, with a peppery sweet taste that intensifies when dried they are easily distinguished from false chanterelle, an hallucinogenic cousin which is more colourful in looks but not especially in flavour.
Field Mushrooms are related to the button supermarket variety and are easily identified. The cap is approximately 10cm across and white, underside gills are chocolate brown. Distinct from the inedible yellow stainer which stains bright yellow when cut or bruised.
Oyster mushroom can only really be mistaken for similar, edible oyster mushrooms so are a safe bet foraged in the wild. With a wavy convex cap they are silver in colour and sharply defined. Deciduous trees are their habitat, preferably beech with a plentiful distribution in the UK.
Wood cauliflower is sweet smelling and individual, more sea sponge than mushroom. It fruits from conifers, with a particular preference for pine. Very tasty when young, but must be eaten fresh (and well cooked too.)
Words by Kate O’Brien, Editor of The Plant
Pictured: Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushroom – a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell