This is the destroying angel,” says Jackie Histed, holding up a photograph of a chalk-white, parasol-like mushroom that couldn’t look more innocuous if it tried. “If we cooked one of these in a casserole, it would kill us all.” I’m one among a room of 14 would-be fungus foragers, and I notice that we all listen particularly attentively from hereon.
I can’t say I’ve ever thought that deeply about mushrooms, which is why Jackie’s talk unveils a weird world I never knew to exist. I learn that poisonous mushrooms can hurt you even if you don’t ingest them – simply touching can be enough. No one has been able to identify the exact toxins in them, which means there are no antidotes: eat a destroying angel by mistake, and your proverbial goose is cooked, served and dispensed with. Every edible mushroom has a poisonous lookalike to trip you up. And of the 3000 varieties of mushroom in the UK, only 30 are worth eating.
All of a sudden this mushroom foraging lark looks to be more complicated – and infinitely more dangerous – than I had first thought.
For example: remember The Horse Whisperer, the vaguely sappy book that became an even sappier film with Robert Redford? In 2008, its author, Nicholas Evans, was poisoned when he picked what he thought were much-sought-after ceps in the Scottish Highlands. Turns out they were webcaps, the world’s most toxic mushroom. Chew and spit out one of these babies and you could still end up dead.
The webcap’s toxin damages the liver, kidneys and spinal cord. After eating the deadly fungus, Evans was on dialysis for three years. The life expectancy of someone on dialysis is five to eight years, but Evans’ heart started weakening early. In a dramatic gesture to save his life, his daughter donated a kidney. He is lucky to have survived.
So it’s a serious business, but not one without reward. I’m here to learn a few tricks of the trade from Jackie, who works for the only person who holds a licence to pick wild mushrooms in the New Forest in Hampshire, Brigitte Tee.
Mrs Tee – as she bills herself – makes her money selling these high quality wild ‘shrooms to the likes of Michel Roux and The Dorchester.
Fame and Hendrix
Though Mrs Tee is quite the character – the German-born 69-year-old makes much of the fact that her late husband, John Hillman, managed Jimi Hendrix in his heyday, and is even wearing a Hendrix T-shirt when I meet her; she then insists we watch a TV documentary in which she bosses a plummy BBC presenter around as they cook mushrooms – it’s Jackie who takes us out into the woods. Jackie has been foraging for food in the wild since World War II when supplies were rationed. She used to go out with her father, and never stopped. Smoking a cigarillo, she tells me that she doesn’t much care for eating the mushrooms: “I just get excited about finding them.”
And truly, I can see why. We’re only out in the New Forest for a couple of hours, but we return with bags upon bags of bounty – and who knew such strange things grew in the mulchy English soil? We find amethyst deceivers: blue-purple, psychedelic-looking growths. We learn about hen of the woods, which looks like a big, grey brain growing out of the ground, and beefsteak mushrooms, which resemble slabs of liver and leak a bloody red juice when you cut them. A puffball explodes in a burst of powder when I step on it.
I’m told the New Forest is plagued by ‘mushroom poachers’ from Europe, who reckon the Brits waste their natural fortunes by seldom going out and foraging from the land. In the evening, we cook up our finds and I can see where the poachers are coming from: the flavours are intense and complex, as different from the field mushrooms I buy from the supermarket as the effects of a cep and a webcap.
But bearing that comparison in mind, I don’t reckon I’ll be taking up full-time foraging any day soon.
A day of foraging with Mrs Tee and friends is £120pp including lunch and a bag of mixed wild mushrooms to take home.
Where to eat
Bistro du Vin, at the Hotel du Vin in nearby Poole, serves up quality local produce in a cosy leather couch/ roaring log fire setting. Try the specialty cheese boards for a real treat.
Check out the harbourside terrace of Custom House for elegant, fresh local seafood dishes.
Where to drink
The coastal town of Poole, and its super yacht-rich Sandbanks area in particular, is an exemplary spot for watersports and, therefore, a popular hangout for Aussies. Try Dundees Sports Bar for a laughably inauthentic taste of home.
The Rising Sun gastropub makes a welcome gear change from the rowdy waterfront.
Where to sleep
The romantic Hotel du Vin in Poole makes a great weekend break in itself, but also offers weekend packages that include a day’s foraging with Mrs Tee, two nights’ B&B accommodation, a bistro dinner, and a four-course mushroom-themed meal with matching wines for £299pp.
The cheapest stay is offered at nearby Bournemouth Backpackers Hostel, with dorms from £14pppn.
Trains from London Waterloo to Poole start at £19 one-way with South West Trains.