Sunday, 13 November 2011
People have exclaimed in wonder at the number and variation of mushrooms in my garden. It's not entirely surprising - they like nutrient rich soil, a food base of plenty of decaying plant matter, and each prefers its own situation - hedgerow, sunny field, etc. In the twenty-nine years that my dad owned and worked this garden, he deliberately created a rich and organic haven for wildlife of all kinds, not with birdseed and bee-boxes, but by letting nature do its thing: encouraging the plants that birds like, allowing slugs to feed the frogs, leaving undisturbed areas for the shy creatures to hide.
Many fungi thrive in great numbers if the autumn is wet and mild, so this is a particularly good year to find them. If I speak like an expert, I'm deceiving you well, because everything I know I have learnt in the last twenty-four hours from Richard Mabey's 'Food for Free', and a brief Google Search.
Now, I'm not great advocate for self-sufficiency. I think that as an ideal it is flawed and impractical. I would prefer to aim for community-sufficiency. You know, I'll provide the apples and the mushrooms, you give me a few of your eggs and walnuts, Fred over there knows how to build a house, so we're well on the way to a happy life. But what I do believe in is being able to live without outside help. To not be one of the people who, when the system collapses and the shopping malls have all been looted, are panicking and considering cannibalism.
So, considering I'm a little too squeamish and sentimental to pop outside and shoot myself a woodpigeon (especially as they kindly eat my slugs for me now the toddlers have scared most of my frogs away), I'll have to get my protein from somewhere, and the mushrooms in my garden seem a pretty obvious place to start. But - big, stinking, screaming, almost insurmountable but - I really don't want to accidentally kill myself and my family!
Richard Mabey considers why so many people feel like this, considering that "there are 3000 species of large-bodied fungi growing in the British Isles, yet only twenty-odd of these are seriously poisonous." Yes, but what if I accidentally pick one that is? He does, after all, also state that, of the poisonous ones, "each one resembles maybe half a dozen edible types". He goes on to list many reasons why fungi are taboo, including mystical reasons and psychological associations, but for me it simply comes down to the scary possibility of death. Then again, I'm happy to pick berries and leaves from my garden, and there are deadly ones of those in Britain, too!
So I have decided to learn as much as I can about mushroom identification and usage this year, so that next year I'll have the confidence to consider them as a food source. Richard Mabey assures me that as long as I am absolutely exact about matching descriptions, locations and times of year, there will be no mistake. He also advises, mind you, to discard any mushrooms I'm unsure of, as "indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!" Less deadly though, I'd imagine.
The picture shown at the top of this post is, I believe, a group of parasol mushrooms. I took this photo last week, down by the woodpile. If you wonder why they're called "parasol", the next picture is what they looked like a few days later. Mabey suggests stuffing them or making fritters out of them.
Next is (I think) field blewit. And if you know me to be wrong about any of my identifications, please, please tell me! These ones were amongst the dead leaves and fallen Bramley apples, and were spaced out in a straight line in the shade of a hedgerow. Mabey suggests using them as a tripe substitute (why would I want to do that?) or making an omelette out of them (much better).
Finally, on the slope of my front garden, I found a fairyland of these tiny specimens. They're not food, but Google searching suggests they're probably a kind of mycena (I hope so), though they look scarily like liberty caps. Hm. Well, I'm not breaking any laws as long as I leave them right there in the grass, and I won't be shouting about it to the local kids, anyway, just in case!