29 October 2009

The magic of mushrooms

Today, I whiled away a pleasant length of time in the orchard between Chorlton Water Park and Northern Moor. Apart from a few unripe raspberries and some crab apples the yellow-orange-red shades of Scotch bonnets, there wasn't anything left for humans or birds. The long eye-shaped leaves had mostly fallen from the cherry trees, and the branches were softly clack-clacking in the gentle breeze higher up. It was very relaxing, just sitting there on the wooden bench in the autumnal Ees, listening to the gentle hum of the nearby motorway and sucking up the smell of the damp earth.

I wandered into the orchard because I - liking gardening, cooking, eating and getting stuff for nowt, as I do - am partial to a bit of foraging and I wondered if there might be some edible bounty still available for the taking. I've always been a keen brambler come late summer and I used to go hazelnut picking with my nan back in the day. At around the same time, I remember finding fabulous fresh field mushrooms hidden in the lush dewy grass of the cow pasture at the end of the bumpy unadopted road near her bungalow. Despite always champing at the bit for the champignon season, I never manage to spot any these days, and I'm too chicken to try and identify other edible varieties without a bit of expert guidance.

Back in April, I was all geared up for making Sunday lunch for my brother-in-law's family, but they cancelled at the last minute, so I decided to take advantage of the early summer warmth and go on an organised forage on Fletcher Moss in Didsbury instead. I'm so glad the plans changed - the herb hunt was brilliant, the sun shone brightly throughout and I met some really lovely folk, including Jesper Launder, the local herbalist who was running the event. We spent a good three hours rummaging around under bushes and alongside boardwalks, and came out clutching all manner of food, including aniseed-tinged Sweet Cicely, tangy three-cornered leeks, pungent ramsons and even some meaty St George's mushrooms. We were taught how to identify the correct species and shown some failsafe doublechecking procedures, and, after our wander, I was pleased to source my own plentiful supply of fungi friends a bit closer to home, giving me a free and flavoursome addition to risotto and pasta well into May.

Anyway, back to the orchard in October, and, as I pottered around looking at the plants and shrubs, I noticed more and more different varieties of mushroom and toadstool down at ground level. There were little teated Liberty Cap-like fellows, bright yellow blobby specimens, solid stark white puffball types, queer inside-out umbrellas, raggedy muck-brown numbers and dusty, turmeric-hued examples. All I can think is that it must be quite a fairy outpost down there in the orchard.

These colour plates are from Edible & Poisonous Mushrooms, a field guide for the amateur mushroom collector that was published in 1894 and written by one of the (apparently) great British mycologists of the nineteenth century, Mordecai Cubit Cooke.

I found the plates reproduced on the wonderful website MykoWeb, first stop for all your 21st-century mushrooming needs. (Mykoweb warns: do not use these plates as a guide to the edibility of any mushroom. The ediblity concepts of some of these species have changed in the past century. The prints are reproduced here for their artistic and historic interest.) I have to say, I like the idea of an "edibility concept" very much. And, from a words point of view, I'm pleased to have been introduced to the term "mycology".

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