“Mushrooms can be roughly divided into four groups,” explains Jackie Histed, from behind a pile of otherworldly looking specimens. “Deadly poisonous, inedible, edible and ‘those little brown things’, which are nothing special.” It’s a beautiful autumn morning, and a group of us have gathered at the Lymington home of Mrs Brigitte Tee – lifelong fungi forager to the stars – to learn about wild mushrooms.
In front of us, in dishes on the living room table, are a selection of mushrooms picked that week by Mrs Tee and Jackie (her valued assistant) in the beautiful English New Forest. Mushroom foraging is a great thing to do at the weekends to get you out and about in nature, and also, if you’re very brave, bag you a free healthy supper. Fungi come in all shapes and sizes, not to mention a myriad colours, textures and flavours. But of the 3,000 varieties out there, only around 30 are edible. So it’s crucial to know what’s what. “Most mushrooms have a poisonous lookalike,” warns Jackie. “Which can catch people out if they’re unprepared. Leave anything you’re not sure of.” Thanks Jackie, I will.
After our morning’s induction, we set off for the New Forest to gather some of our own. Jackie, who has been collecting wild mushrooms all her life, and learned much of what she knows from her father, tells us to keep close to one other. “It’s easy to get lost when you’re always looking down,” she says. We fan out with our eyes peeled, careful not to stray too far. Top of our list is the morel, the most prized of mushrooms, which is tasty, rare and expensive. Next is the beefsteak, which grows up old oak trees, and leaks blood-like juice when cut apart. Personally, I’m hoping for some hen of the woods, only because it looks and sounds so pretty.
Although there’s no hard and fast rule as to which variety will appear when, the picking season usually starts around St George’s day on April 23rd, with the arrival of the coveted St George’s mushroom, and continues until late autumn/early winter with wood and field blewits. “The landscape and weather determine much of what grows, rather than calendar month,” says Jackie. “Some varieties appear earlier, some later, some not at all. You just never know. That’s half the fun.”
Within seconds of our arrival, Jackie darts off on a sixth sense, much like a tracker spotting a lone lioness in the wild, and quickly calls us to a fallen beech tree. I wouldn’t have looked twice, to be honest, but sure enough, poking up through the damp leaf litter, is a tiny birch bolete. She prods it with a stick. “These are like ceps, but don’t have the same quality,” she laments. “Ceps are the king of mushrooms. They’re my favourite because they taste and look so good.” Oh well.
We forage on, eyes sweeping the forest floor. Before long, one of the group has spotted a crop of puffballs. These are the mushrooms that explode underfoot when they grow old and dusty; but young and fresh, they’re delicious. “I like to dip them in a bit of egg and fry them to seal in the flavour,” advises Jackie. “They’re no good otherwise.” We pick a few and add them to our bags, then move on to a different part of the forest, in the hope of finding something more rewarding.
Over the course of the afternoon, we spot more birch boletes, bay boletes, millers (which smell of fresh yeast), beautiful white parasols, ceps (which are hard to spot, but usually grow close to the millers), oysters, and the inedible plums and custard – so called because of their colour.
Many of the samples we find have been nibbled by squirrels or slugs, but Jackie is undeterred: “You’ll never find a perfect mushroom. Most have been touched by the animals, but they’re completely edible. You just clean them off and cook them well. You can’t overcook a mushroom, but you can undercook them, as many chefs do.”
The mushroom is the fruit of the mycelium, which grows like threads underground, and will grow year after year if picked carefully. Jackie is adamant that we’re not harming the environment by picking, and teaches us to cut rather than pull the fungi. We’re also advised to shake the mushrooms gently to spread the spores. The lawn outside Mrs Tee’s house is covered with displaced specimens – byproducts from her many forays into the woods. Jackie tells us to clean them as we go so as not to spoil the others. More delicate varieties, such as the hedgehog (pied de mouton), which has hundreds of tiny white spines on its underbelly, are placed in separate bags. A responsible forager also leaves behind enough for the wildlife to enjoy. As per the Forestry Commission’s guidelines, individuals can pick 1.5kg to take home for personal consumption. Anything more and you risk prosecution.
It’s a serious skill, not just to identify what’s what, but to harvest correctly, and remember where things grow. “Every picker has their secret spot,” Jackie confides. “There are places I wouldn’t even tell Mrs Tee about. Some years there’s more of one variety than another. And it’s important to know your trees.” She points to a fallen beech: “See that? Next year it’ll be covered in oysters.” I can see her making a mental note to return.
We see plenty of the infamous poisonous and inedible varieties. Even the names are enough to strike fear into the lowly forager’s heart – deadly nightcap, destroying angel, fly agaric… As there are more of these types around than the edible ones, it’s essential to be vigilant. One blanket rule is to avoid anything with white gills – many of the deadly genus amanita are all-white. But over the course of the day, we form our own “red, white and blue” rule – anything with these colours is out. Although that’s us being over-cautious, as Jackie would say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If in doubt, leave it out. To be honest, if I’ve learned anything after today, it’s that I’ll never pick another mushroom again. Mainly because I don’t want to die. But if you’re braver than me, then this is a very cheap and healthy pastime.
Back at the hotel, head chef Darren Rockitt prepares a sumptuous mushroom-themed feast – Champagne and mushroom canapés in the hotel’s Snuggle room, followed by a four-course dinner of cep soufflé and red onion compote, roast fillet of salmon with creme du mousseron, partridge and wild mushroom jus, and iced peach parfait with mushroom-shaped meringues. Each course is accompanied by wines specially chosen by Chad, our South African sommelier. A perfect end to a very fine forager’s day.
Details: Hotel du Vin, Thames Street The Quay, Poole, BH15 1JN
Mrs Tee’s Wild Mushrooms: wildmushrooms.co.uk. Rooms from £130, including breakfast. Mushroom-foraging weekends cost from £299 per person, including two nights’ accommodation (with breakfast), a day’s foraging, lunch and mushroom dinner, plus relaxed bistro supper on the first night.
To book, call Hotel du Vin Poole on 01202 785570 and quote ‘Mushroom Foraging Package’ or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The hotel also runs regular wine courses.
I travelled to Poole with South West Trains. For the best fares, buy your tickets in advance onwww.southwesttrains.co.uk/advance or call 0845 6000 650 for more details.