Addiction: a disease in which a person finds themselves unable to stop using a substance or engaging in a behaviour. I suppose that neatly sums up my relationship with the world of mushrooms. For a few years now I have regularly scanned fields and forests for signs of fungal activity. Not only do I take my life into the frying pan when dining on the various toadstools of local woods, I also cement my reputation as the Crazy Mushroom Man of RHS. Both of these things can leave a person feeling isolated and vulnerable. So why do I keeping on foraging?
Last week, feeling somewhat queasy after a wild mushroom biryani I’d whipped up, this was the precisely the question I asked myself as I researched the number of hours it takes for your vital organs to shut down after ingesting slime from a ‘funeral bell’ mushroom (which I thought I’d maybe done). The very next day, feeling well again – and relieved – I gathered up a trio of horse mushrooms from just outside Drake House with cheery thoughts of a stir-fry in mind. While I think addiction would be an overstatement of my dependence on mushrooms, my recreational interest in them is probably a little too intense. To be honest, I don’t actually enjoy eating mushrooms as much as you might imagine, so I am taking this opportunity to write an exclusive for The Bubble and, in so doing, to explore my own psychology a little: ‘Mushrooms: why I love them.’
Firstly, there is the thrill of risk-taking. Some people like shooting guns; some, climbing cliff-faces; some, hand-gliding; some, bundling their mates on the rugby pitch (social distancing allowing): me, I like seeking out food that could, if I got it wrong, kill me. I hope no one ever comes to read this article for its irony owing to my premature death from mushroom poisoning – though every page view is a good page view, as we say in Google analytics sections of Bubble meetings – but I am relatively confident that I have a healthy caution when it comes to mushrooms I know are questionable or have any resemblance to the handful of deadly toadstools that inhabit our isles.
On which note, all knowledge is sacred. Education is indeed a lifelong game, and while I no longer have to worry about my own GCSE grades, I get huge pleasure from advancing my knowledge of this amazing world we occupy. In the last five years alone, I have become relatively well-versed on topics of which the Thom Hodson of last decade was entirely ignorant: wine, gardening, nappy-changing (reluctantly) and – of course – foraging. A little reading and a little research goes a long way, and I like to think it makes one a more engaging dinner party companion than do other pastimes, such as gaming or Instagram.
Wild mushrooms are good. As I said before, I’m not obsessed with fungus, but as with homegrown veg and properly sourced meat, you really can taste the difference when you pick a mushroom and have it in the pan within a few hours. My favourites are – in no particular order: parasols, horse mushrooms, St George’s, puffballs and beefsteak fungus. I’m yet to nab boletus edulis (steinpilz, penny bun, cep or porcini, in other tongues), but that is one of the many minor ambitions that make life interesting.
Finally, the natural world is miraculous. How I wish I’d been a better scientist at school, because I truly know so little about it. Yet just to luxuriate in the majesty of one’s surroundings when out in the dappled sunlight of autumnal, English woodland, observing the splendour of seasonal cycles; of nature’s wax and wane; is a wondrous gift, and you don’t need to be able to explain it to love it. As John Keats said, ‘O for a life of sensations than of thoughts!’
As a merry band of half term residents and I embark on the Mushroom Tour of RHS tomorrow, I say this: mushrooms are great. We shan’t be eating our finds this week – it would be a breach of health and safety, sadly. However, we shall learn a little, and sense a little, and we’ll be the richer for it.
Finally, to answer a question recently put to me by a student: no, I don’t eat mushrooms every day. But sometimes I do eat some rather good ones.