28 November 1997

Joining the mushroom hunters on a fungi foray

There is a veritable feast of

fungi growing in the

countryside but wise

mushroom hunters follow an

expert as Tessa Gates did

when she joined a fungi

foray in Norfolk

We were looking for Cep, for Bay Boletus, Chicken of the Woods, Beefsteak mushroom and other edible fungi – looking but not altogether sure if we would know them if we found them.

Mostly strangers, we had gathered earlier on this autumn Saturday morning in the servants quarters of Bayfield House, Holt, Norfolk, to meet Peter Jordan, wild mushroom hunter extraordinaire. With him we were to walk the woods of this private estate and a local country park for the day and lunch on wild mushroom soup and fungi filled pasta.

Peter Jordan has been hunting mushrooms for half a century and has guided the famous and ordinary folk alike in the pleasure and pitfalls of finding edible fungi. He took chef Gary Rhodes on his first foray for the television cameras "Only the BBC would ask you to find wild mushrooms in February," recalled Peter, who lived up to the Beebs expectations and found some for Gary to cook. Taking out the rather off-beat Hugh Fernley Whittingstall, again for television, was an altogether different experience and Peter seems shocked to this day at having seen hard-found Morels cooked (intentionally) with wood lice as most unmorish fritters!

&#42 Norfolk collector

Peter became interested in mushroom hunting through his grandfather. "He was a Norfolk farmer and used to eat things collected from the countryside that I thought pretty weird," said Peter who spent much of his childhood with his grandparents at their farm at Lodden. "I told him he would kill himself one day and he said not if you know what you are doing."

Peter learned his lessons well and practised them over the years for his own culinary delight. He pursued a career in banking for 28 years but gave up his job as a bank manager in Cambridge when new style banking – which put selling financial packages before the interests of the customer – came in. "I thought, do I want to do this for the next 16 years?" remembered Peter. The answer was no and with his wife Valerie he took on the Lord Nelson pub in Burnham Market. "We were there for 10 years and the wild mushroom side of my life really came out. We had wild mushroom soup on the menu every day and finding and catering with them got me an international reputation for mushroom cookery," said Peter, who taught the locals to hunt for him.

Things literally mushroomed from there. He was asked to make a video and write a book on fungi identification and cooking. He started importing dehydrators for preserving mushrooms and selling the dried produce. The fungi forays came to the fore after the couple gave up running the pub – a decision that particularly pleased Valerie. "I am a wood nymph at heart," she says, and she delights in helping host the forays, which are held throughout Britain and abroad.

It doesnt take long for the novice forager to realise that no matter how good reference books are, there is no substitute for going out with an expert. Fungi can be confusingly alike and often change form and colour as they age, so when it comes to choosing the edible from the poisonous you need to be sure beyond all doubt what you are picking.

&#42 Cut not pulled

Before we had chance to set off with our baskets, let alone wield our fungi knives (cutting not pulling was the order of the day), Peter showed us his rogues gallery of fungi to beware. Top of the list was the innocent looking Death Cap, Amanita phalloides, which can be difficult to identify as it varies in colour and may be found white, sickly green or dark brown.

This can be, and many times a year is, deadly. "It can poison you just through handling," warned Peter. If ingested, symptoms show after 12 hours and then you have just three hours to get the right treatment if it is to be effective. "Otherwise, if you are lucky you die in five days, if you are unlucky you die in seven," he said.

Peter found a Death Cap minutes after we started our foray and pulled it from the ground so we could see the distinctive volval sac at the base of the stem. This volval sac is also characteristic of another deadly poisonous fungi, the white Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa. There are many more with varying degrees of toxicity that pickers need to beware, but one of the easiest to recognise must be the hallucinogenic Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, the red-and-white toadstool that appears in so many books of fairy tales. There were plenty of these to be found on our hunt.

&#42 Kids and pensioners

The fungi forays seem to attract people of all ages and backgrounds. On ours there were children and pensioners, couples and lone enthusiasts.

Once you start looking for fungi in woodland it is hard to know whether to look up or down first. Nestling in the undergrowth we found new eruptions of Amethyst Deceivers, Laccaria amethystea, dainty fungi with a bright lilac hue which can be stored in spiced alcohol and make an unusual sauce for icecream. Honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, – the killer of trees that spreads an alarming distance – was everywhere. It is good to eat but discard the stems and use only the caps, blanching them in salted boiling water, which should then be thrown away, before cooking them further.

We found a good few Bay Boletus, Boletus badius, a brownish thick stalked mushroom with light yellow pores that stain blue if pressed and one girl found an enormous Cep, Boletus edulis, which is most prized by mushroom hunters but best eaten when small and tight. "A fresh Cep or Bay Boletus salad takes some beating," says Peter.

On an ancient oak we found some rather meaty bracket fungus, taking only parts of it as a little goes a long way. Beefsteak mushroom, Fistulina hepatica, bleeds red juice when cut and is best sliced and soaked in milk, like liver, to smooth the flavour before grilling with onion, basil and garlic. "The wood from oaks with this fungus is darker and fetches a better price for furniture making so foresters used to deliberately infect the trees," said Peter, who looks so at home in the woods that it is hard to imagine him in former role as a bank manager.

Other bracket fungi found included Chicken of the Woods, Lactiporus sulphureus, which is yellow when young and grows mainly on deciduous trees. It has the flavour and texture of chicken. Non-edible birch polypore was much in evidence on the silver birch it had killed but not many fungi are parasitic. "Most are symbiotic," states Peter.

By the end of the day we had a wonderful range of mushrooms and learned some fascinating facts. Who would think that the aptly named Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, – is edible when immature and egglike and having seen the mature form who would want to try it? The Common Ink Cap, Coprinus atramentarius, is not poisonous on its own but take alcohol with it and you will suffer alarming palpitations, cramps and sickness. However, its close cousin, the Shaggy Ink Cap, Coprinus comatus, is worth finding to cook young and has a delicate mushroom flavour.

&#42 Earth balls

Stone-like non-edible earth balls, filled with black soil-like spores, sometimes have parasitic edible boletus growing on them. But non-edible and edible alike, fungi grow in the hours of darkness and grow best under the last third of a waxing moon.

For Peter Jordan, there is nothing quite like finding the tastier species, even after hunting them for so long. "I still feel that excitement when I find my first chanterelle of the year," he said, and his enthusiasm is certainly infectious. I would love to join another foray – perhaps one he arranges in Normandy – but until then I will leave any fungi I find just where they grow. I wouldnt like to risk cooking anything that hadnt had the benefit of passing Peters thorough basket check, which he carries out at the end of each foray.

His words "when in doubt leave it out" ring like a warning bell in my head every time I am tempted to pick even a field mushroom – it just might be a stomach griping Yellow Stainer, Agaricus xanthodermus, or worse.

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Peter Jordan leads fungi forays and turns a walk in the woods into a stroll of discovery. In these woods the Fly Agaric (foreground) grows in abundance and the theory is that the edible Cep will be found nearby.

Peter and his wife Valerie with a fine collection of edible fungi.

The Bay Boletus (above) has an excellent flavour.

Left: Just a few of the edible fungi to be found in England including a fine Cep (held), and Lawyers Wig (white). A little wild mushroom goes along way and they are best used sparingly.

The forays attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. Right: Is this the False Death Cap or the real thing? This is a false one and although not as deadly as the Death Cap, which should not be handled, it is best avoided.

The Beefsteak fungus grows on chestnut and oak trees and bleeds red juice when sliced.

Cauliflower fungus (above left) has a crisp texture when cooked. The Stinkhorn (centre) is well named and should not be eaten in this form. The Fly Agaric (above right) is the fungi of fairy tales and hallucinations.