Clive has fun...mushroom hunting

PUBLISHED: 00:16 12 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:25 20 February 2013

Nothing for lunch but not a bad morning’s work

Nothing for lunch but not a bad morning’s work

Clive Agran takes his life in his hands and heads for the wilds of Piltdown in search of mushrooms. How did he get on, was it mushrooms for tea?

CALL IT a ceaseless quest if you like, but my life is now pretty well devoted to finding fun things for you to do in Sussex. To this end, I scour notice boards outside village halls, look out for obvious signs of merriment, keep my ears pricked in the hope of catching the happy sound of distant laughter, surf the Internet using the key words fun and Sussex and invite family, friends and others to make suggestions. The more people involved in the enterprise, the greater the likelihood of discovering imaginative and unusual activities that are both enjoyable and legal.

Rather worryingly, many of the suggestions would seem to indicate that people in general and my friends in particular are less reluctant to put my life on the line than they are theirs. Take bungee jumping, for example. Its incredibly safe, they say, and the incidence of ropes snapping are, thankfully, extremely rare. However, when asked where precisely they indulge their passion for leaping from great heights with little more than a thickish rubber band tied around one ankle, they grudgingly confess to not actually having experienced it themselves and claim they might have done if only they were able to read more about it in this magazine hence the suggestion.

To counter the implicit accusation that Im putting self-preservation before my duty to investigate even the most dangerous of pursuits, I claim that my early demise at the end of an elastic rope, jammed down a pothole or embedded in the South Downs after a sky-diving mishap would benefit no one, least of all you. Who would pick up the literal and metaphorical pieces?

The thinly veiled accusation of cowardice, whilst not as painful as hitting the ground at 120mph, is nevertheless wounding to an adrenalin junkie like me and one I feel obliged to counter. And so I agreed to go hunting for mushrooms in the knowledge that just one solitary case of mistaken identity could result in a slow lingering death that would make a fatal high-speed collision with Mother Earth seem positively appealing by comparison.

Finding someone who would help me look for mushrooms was the hardest part of the whole fungi business. Perhaps fungal fanatics are afraid of competition and are consequently reluctant to share their secrets with the rest of the world. Eventually I tracked down Nigel Greenwood who runs a business called So Sussex. Not only does he appear to be as dedicated to having fun in Sussex as I am, but hes also more than happy to help and suggests we meet by a pond in Piltdown.

I have trouble finding it, which is possibly not a happy omen. Lets hope little mushrooms are easier to spot. Eventually I see Nigel with a large trug, small brush and thick book on identifying mushrooms. The suns shining and, as we shake hands, I naively comment that its a perfect day for hunting mushrooms. Well, its been rather too dry of late, remarks Nigel ominously, but well have a go.

As we walk around the pond, I ask him how he first became interested in mushrooms and he explains that his Swedish wife introduced to him to the hobby a number of years ago. She, however, not only eats them but uses them, amongst other things, to dye wool an astonishing range of natural colours. She also helps Nigel run So Sussex, which offers a wide variety of about 15 outdoor activities such as fishing, canoeing and cycling.

Nigel reveals that, until about 14 years ago, he worked for American Express but gradually grew weary of corporate life. I sense a kindred spirit and we discuss the appeal of the Great Outdoors. Dont worry, while were chatting were scouring the earth for mushrooms.

He explains the symbiotic relationship fungi enjoy with trees. Although theres plenty of deciduous and coniferous woodland about, there arent many mushrooms. The few that we stumble upon look rather weary, damaged and not in the least bit appetising. Weve not had much rain, reveals Nigel somewhat apologetically. Mushrooms like it mild but they need moisture too.

Although the trug remains empty, Nigel is filling my head with useful information about gills and pores, distinctive features such as a ring round the stem that help establish identity and the different broad types of mushroom such as boletus, chanterelle, ceps and morels. Some like Lactarius deliciosus sound quite appetising whilst others such as Death Cap and Destroying Angel most definitely do not. In order to enjoy a mushroom, I reckon you have to be fairly confident that it isnt going to be the last one you are ever going to eat and so, when it comes to identification, pretty sure isnt really good enough. Goodness knows why they are like that but part of the problem is that so many mushrooms look remarkably similar to one another.

Nigels wise advice is to familiarise yourself with just a few species and become expert at identifying those. You can always expand your repertoire later as your confidence grows. Look where they are. If theyre growing beneath beech trees and the book says they grow beneath beech trees, then thats supporting evidence that they are what you think they are. Although supporting evidence is very welcome and quite useful, personally I would prefer handy little labels stuck on the side stating incontrovertibly what they are and confirming whether or not they are edible. A simple smiley face or skull and crossbones would do. In their absence Nigel offers a broad generalisation that, If they look warty, they are probably poisonous. However if theyre not warty, that doesnt mean theyre probably edible. In any case probably isnt the sort of emphatic, no-nonsense, categorical word one looks for in a possibly life threatening situation. Definitely is undoubtedly more reassuring.

In amongst the leaves I find a healthy looking red specimen that Nigel immediately identifies as a Fly Agaric, which is poisonous. In an attempt to expand the number of easy-to-understand rules designed to simplify the whole process, I suggest that maybe red, like warts, is bad. No, says Nigel, some reds are okay.

Our luck changes somewhat when we leave the pond area and enter a golf course where I find a pretty decent ball in the rough. Not only is it unmistakeably a golf ball, its also a Titleist, which is a respectable make. The conversation inevitably switches from mushrooms to golf, a subject I can discuss with much greater confidence. Nigel also plays the game, which further endears him to me. I spot another ball but, to my considerable disappointment, it turns out to be a puffball. There are lots of different types of puffball, reveals Nigel, some of which are edible. Sadly this one is not, which doubles the disappointment.

Ordinarily the season lasts from September through to November but this year, because of the lack of rain, it hasnt really begun. Even Nigels best go to spots in the damper areas where he would ordinarily be extremely confident about finding some decent specimens prove frustratingly barren. Although the odd golf ball raises morale, its nevertheless a little disappointing that I wont be taking home a couple of pounds of wild mushrooms for lunch.

Im afraid its a rather unpredictable activity, explains Nigel. But theres really no need for him to apologise as the fresh air, exercise and company have combined to provide a surprisingly enjoyable morning. And Ive learnt a lot about the magical world of mushrooms. One aspect of their activity, however, remains a complete mystery. Its common knowledge that they pop out of the ground at night and consequently its advisable to get up early to go mushrooming. But since they develop underground, how do they know when its night or day? To be honest, even after a couple of hours of intensive instruction, Im as much in the dark as they are.

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