The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Picking Mushrooms

Category: Leisure

In Britain while occasional parties of foreigners may sometimes be found picking woodland fungi, the usual British reaction is that only the common field mushroom is edible and all the rest are “poisonous’’. Thus one of our few remaining wild foods is neglected.

At one time, doubtless, the English peasant must have shared the fungus-eating habits of his counterparts all over Europe. But with the shift of population from country to the towns, native peasant wisdom was gradually overlaid with urban suspicion of the countryside. The word “mushroom’’ comes from the French “moisseron’’. Is it possible that the Norman feudal lords brought from France an aristocratic taste for the “moisseron’’ in contrast to the peasant custom of eating a much greater variety? However it came about, the town-dweller became suspicious of all but the field mushroom.

First, to the unfamiliar, there is the very real danger that the most deadly of our native toadstools (amanita phalloides) is the one most easily mistaken for the edible mushroom. Hence the urban amateur must have fallen victim to this error often enough to create the generalisation that if you do not pick the right ones you will be poisoned. Secondly, the next most poisonous varieties tend to include the brightest coloured ones, such as the spotted red variety.

So, to our urban and suburban populations, there grew up the myth that all toadstools are likely to be poisonous. Millions of us have been brought up under the influence of this myth, while few of us have ever come across the new books that have been published about edible fungi.

The woods are literally “blossoming’’ with edible varieties. There is the richly coloured chanterelle, like discarded circles of orange peel (even, some would say, including the smell). There are the boletus, looking like buns on top and rubber sponges underneath. There are fairy-ring mushrooms and pulf-balls. All these are edible, but no amateur should start out without “the book’’ or the guidance of someone “in the now.’

As to the actual number of poisonous fungi in Britain as against the total of varieties growing it is estimated that out of 6,000 varieties of fungi, only about a dozen are “really poisonous’.

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