Ever since my daughter Anna mentioned that a couple of her colleagues had attended a Fen Fungi Guided Foray, I had wanted to experience it for myself. To be accompanied on a forage for wild fungi by a real expert was something that I had been craving ever since I started my tentative journey into the world of wild mushroom hunting. Why? Because I am VERY nervous about eating wild mushrooms and pretty terrified that I may just accidently poison myself, which would make my foraging journey much shorter than I planned.
So Anna, her partner Dan and I excitedly booked ourselves on one of Jonathan Revett’s Fen Fungi Guided Forays. On Saturday 24th October, we made our way to Knettishall Heath, near Thetford in Norfolk, all kitted out for the frankly awful weather, and waited in anticipation for our foray to begin.
Johnathan had included some advice and instructions in an email he sent about a week before the foray so everyone knew how to dress (sensible shoes etc.) and what to bring (basket, wet wipes, knife etc.)
We were informed that Death Caps can be reasonably common at some of the sites we would visit, which was scary but at least I may gain some confidence if I learn how to avoid this particular exceptionally poisonous species.
The foray itself was to take around 2 hours following trails and paths around the Forest and also going into the interior to look for different species. Then everyone would gather back at the starting point to lay out all the species collected on tables so that Jonathan could go over what had been found.
One of the best things about this foray, though, was that dogs were allowed… so Jinks (my faithful foraging companion) could come along too!
When we arrived we gathered around Jonathan who presented us with a hedgehog token, to be cashed in at the end of the foray to receive fresh hedgehog mushrooms that he had collected earlier. Then he proceeded to scare us all silly by showing us a death cap mushroom and describing in detail how, and how quickly it KILLS you! I think that Dan decided there and then that whatever we found, he was not going to eat any of it.
There are some relatively easy ways to identify a death cap, but you will need a good field guide to help you with this. To be safe avoid mushrooms with white gills and go for those with spongy pores instead (top tip from Johnathan, who is an expert).
So off we went, twenty-seven of us in total all braving the atrocious weather, in the hope of finding enough edible mushrooms for a gourmet feast. We walked for miles through heathland and woodland, in search of our treasure and clocked up over 10,000 steps in two hours, according to Dan.
My most interesting find was the fairy tale mushroom or fly agaric. It is quite toxic though as it contains a powerful hallucinogenic drug with effects similar to LSD. Jonathan told us some colourful tales of Vikings getting completely out of their heads on it before attacking Anglo-Saxon homesteads, but the best story was about the Scandinavians. They would feed the mushrooms to the reindeers, then collect their urine and drink it, apparently this modified the toxin rendering it less harmful while still maintaining the hallucinogenic high! Who thought of that? Now we know where we get flying reindeer and red and white clothed Santa from! The name Fly Agaric comes from the old practice of chopping up the fungus and adding it to a saucer of milk to kill flies in the kitchen.
By the end of the walk, we had a collection of goodies to take back to the display tables. Tipping our full basket out onto the table me and Anna were already planning the menu… wild mushroom soup, wild mushroom risotto…
Johnathan took one look at our fungi and picked out one tiny purple mushroom. “That’s the only edible, I’m afraid,” he said.
Anna and I were gutted, but we were with the majority, very few people had found large numbers of edible species. The fact is that now mushroom foraging is becoming more popular, the edible varieties get collected pretty quickly and early in the day. Note to self… do a morning forage next time.
Luckily though we were able to redeem our hedgehog mushrooms at the end of the foray. We were all given a paper plate full of the unusual and very tasty mushrooms to take home with us and this morning I fried them up for breakfast.
Cooking hedgehog mushrooms is easy. Just make sure that you scrape off the spiny gills first as they can be bitter. Then slice and saute in butter. They take a while to cook as they are quite dense, but they taste absolutely wonderful, a little like the very expensive and popular Chanterelles.
Finally, here are just two of the really interesting species Johnathan identified for us
So, would I recommend mushroom foraging with Fen Fungi… hell yes! It was a really fun, informative and healthy afternoon out. We learned a lot of really interesting and important stuff, like how to identify and steer clear of poisonous species like the Deathcap, which has increased my confidence. So the next time I see a glorious Parasol mushroom on the meadow I will now have the confidence to bring it home and cook it up for supper.
A big thanks to Jonathan for imparting such words of wisdom and for being a really Fun Guy!