Marvellous mushrooms in Ashdown Forest
PUBLISHED: 14:58 18 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:58 18 November 2013
Planning your first foray into the world of fungi? This autumnal activity has its own rules of etiquette – and it’s wise to proceed with caution
I have known the Ashdown Forest and the High Weald area for many years and thought I was fairly familiar with their flora and fauna. Two experiences, however, proved how wrong I was and opened a completely new world to me – the world of fungi. The first took place at Forest Garden, Shovelstrode, Ashurst Wood when I attended their one-day Fantastic World of Fungi course which takes place partly on their ancient woodland site and partly in the Ashdown Forest itself. A group of nine, we met in the morning and, over cups of herbal tea, were introduced to expert mycologist Iona Fraser. She immediately charmed us with her infectious enthusiasm, “Yes, I am a fungi geek,” she admitted with a beaming smile as she began her explanations.
Fungi are more like animals than plants. In the past, living things were separated into two ‘kingdoms’ – animals and plants. There are now five kingdoms, and fungi are so different from everything else that they have their own. Iona pointed out three types of mushroom: saprophytic which break down wood and dead organic matter such as animal droppings; parasitic which kill trees, usually the weaker specimens, bringing about a necessary cull in order to keep nature in balance; and mycorrhizal, which have a mutually beneficial relationship with trees.
Iona then talked to us about the etiquette of foraging. It is perfectly acceptable to pick fungi because they are simply the fruiting body of the underground mycelium or ‘root.’ This is a stringy mesh-like growth made up of strands called hyphae which grow from the spores which the fungus sheds. Incredibly, one footprint can have 300 miles of mycelium beneath it. Thus, taking the fruit does no more harm than picking apples from a tree. “Even so, if you find a big stand of edibles,” said Iona. “Only take half. Leave some to shed their spores and some for other people.”
It is also important not to forage on private land without permission, although by common law the four ‘fs’ (fruit, fungi foliage and flowers) can be picked for private use, if growing wild.
We then came to identification. Although one needs books, pictures alone are not much help. One should concentrate on the written description and make several tests oneself. If picking to eat you should cut the base with a knife so as to leave the mycelium intact, if not, lever the specimen up with a knife because the base can tell us a lot. “Bases can vary enormously, some have a bag-like vulva, others a wide base and some even a root,” Iona said. Stems, and gills and rings (if present) too are important as the shape and colours vary widely and some gills exude a milky liquid. Further keys to identification can be smell – which can be very subjective – and taste, which is tricky because some specimens are very poisonous. For most families, however, it is all right to take a tiny fragment and spit it out – some make your tongue tingle which gives a clue. Cutting a cross section can also reveal specific colours and textures.
Another, more advanced, method is to make a spore print. You take a mature cap and lay it on a sheet of glass and cover it with an upturned glass. If left overnight, the spores will fall and a lot can be deduced from their colour, which will range from white through creams and yellows to deep ochre. Really serious mycologists, however, rely on their microscopes which show many further details.
At this point Iona put us into groups and passed round specimens for us to have a go at identifying. Our group was given one of the Lactarius or Milk Caps, the gills of which, if squeezed, exude a milky substance which made it easier. Even so, it is a family with dozens of members but by smelling, tasting and doing a cross-section we came very near to the right one.
Of course in the case of edibles, ‘very near’ is not enough as unfortunately some of the best-tasting species are mimicked by inedible or even poisonous look-alikes. We began to realise the complexities and how very careful you must be when out foraging.
We then set off to begin our hunt and were richly rewarded. We saw examples of Honey Fungus, dreaded by tree-lovers but which can be useful in weeding out ailing trees. Rotting wood was also a host for Candle Snuff Fungus with white-tipped antler-like branches which give it the alternative name of Stag’s Horn Fungus. Neither of these looked appealing but for something truly disgusting it is hard to beat the Stinkhorn. Its Latin name Phallus impudicus gives an indication of its shape but it begins underground as a gelatinous egg from which the maturing stem emerges and as it ages the tip become covered with a dark, spore-bearing slime which emits a vile stench. Flies are attracted to this and disperse the spores which become attached to their legs.
After this it was a relief to come across a fungus which was not only attractive but edible, the Wood Blewit. With its thick lilac flesh, this is very tasty. We then found several examples of Bracket Fungi growing sideways up trees. One, the Birch Polyphore, or Razor Strop Fungus, was originally used for sharpening razors and like the similar Tinder Fungus, it also ignites easily and is useful for making fires. Ötzi, the 5,000 old ice man found in the Italian Alps in 1991, had four pieces of this in his pocket.
We also found a troop (fungi are collectively ‘troops’ or ‘stands’) of Clouded Funnels. These can grow up to 25 cms and are often found growing in a fairy ring. They are edible but may cause gastric upsets. Pestle Puff Balls on the other hand are edible when young, a proviso which applies to many species.
After about an hour’s foraging we returned to a lunch of home-made soups, bread, local cheeses and apples before setting off in convoy for the second location – the Ashdown Forest itself.
“Here on heathland we have different soil,” Iona told us. “Consequently a different type of fungi.”
Once again it wasn’t long before we began to find some amazing specimens, one of which a Boletus luridiformis, when cut in half, developed livid purple bruising. Soon we came across another Boletus which is one of the very best edibles, the Cep. This, as Iona pointed out, would go very well in the risotto planned for the evening. Shortly after this we found a troop of vivid Purple Deceivers – also edible, so they went into the basket too. Next to go in were a few Hedgehog Fungi, another good edible. The resulting risotto was delicious.
My second fungus adventure took place took place the following week within the spectacular setting of the 186 acre estate of Ashdown Park Hotel. Hosted by the estate manager Kenneth Sweet, assisted by two fungi experts, Maria Greenwood and Anne Yarrow, we were some 60 people, ranging in age from five to 75.
It was a perfect autumn day as we penetrated deep into the ancient woodland where, with Maria’s help, we identified many specimens including Common Ink Caps, Blushers, Beefsteak Fungus, Charcoal Burners, and Dead Men’s Fingers. Like Iona, she emphasised how careful one must be, as the line between death and dinner can be fine…
After this magnificent walk it was a hungry band who gathered on the ground floor of the chapel building to enjoy drinks of warm punch before ascending to the dining area with its vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.
Here we were served a delicious meal beginning with mushrooms on toast with duck egg and walnut oil, followed by pot-roasted ox cheek with mushrooms en croute. Pudding was a steamed orange and ginger sponge with clotted cream ice cream and almond tuile, accompanied by red and white de Rothschild wines and crowned with coffee and petit fours.A fittingly memorable end to a day’s mushrooming, and a tasty reward for our endeavours.