You either love them or hate them. I love mushrooms for their ability to absorb and enhance the flavours of the other ingredients they are cooked with. Garlic seems more intense, parsley more aromatic and anything that increases the deliciousness of butter is a sure winner for me. Walking the dogs this month I’ve noticed wild fungi popping up everywhere: magnificent scarlet fly agaric at the edge of the woods, fairy circles in the middle of fields, and who can resist giving a puffball a good kick?
When we first moved to the countryside I was excited at the prospect of gathering handfuls of wild mushrooms for family suppers. Off I set with my gingham-lined basket and a handy guide to edible fungi. It was going to be such fun! But trying to identify these delights I found that photos of edible specimens sat alongside images of identical-looking, deadly poisonous versions. Needless to say, I retreated empty-handed.
Fungi have long been used as a source of human food, in the form of mushrooms and truffles, as a leavening agent for bread, in the fermentation of various food products such as wine, beer and soy sauce.
But after a childhood of listening to Grimm’s Fairy Tales and poring over fantastical woodland illustrations by the likes of Arthur Rackham, I grew up primarily aware of fungi’s magical powers.
According to Mike Jay’s Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland: it was the Romantic sensibility of the Victorians that promoted picturesque rustic traditions, a form of escape from England’s brute industrialisation into an older, “pagan land of enchantment”. Illustrators like John Anster “Fairy” Fitzgerald produced popular drawings of tiny faery folk living under toadstools (for example, “The Intruder”), which are reproduced in books and posters to this day.
Writers and artists also subverted the theme. Jay writes: “The subject lent itself to writers and artists who, under the guise of innocence, were able to explore sensual and erotic themes with a boldness off-limits in more realistic genres.”
The mushrooms, toadstools, fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves of mid-twentieth century children’s literature often revealed darker undertones, in a way that was disturbing to young readers, even if they didn’t recognise the blatantly phallic form of liberty caps and foul-scented stinkhorns. Lightly sketched in pen and ink, they looked decidedly dodgy even to my innocent child’s eye.
And no one could forget Lewis Carroll’s Alice, transported to a surreal land inhabited by strange creatures like a giant caterpillar, who persuades her to nibble on the equally giant mushroom he’s perched on. (In a subtle reference to the hallucinogenic power of shrooms, the caterpillar explains that nibbling on one side will make her taller, while the other makes her shorter.)
The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare didn’t seem to grasp the erotic subtext when they released Curious Alice (1971), a film based on Carroll’s text but intended to warn eight-to-ten-year-olds about the dangers of drug-taking. When their young Alice quaffs the “Drink Me” bottle, she enters Drug Wonderland, in which the Mad Hatter is so named because he takes LSD derived from ergot, a fungus found in rye and other grains. Meantime, the March Hare jumps about because he’s on amphetamines, the Dormouse is asleep on barbiturates and the King of Hearts has a heroin habit. Unfortunately, Alice’s “trip” looks rather fun, which effectively cancels the film’s anti-drug message.
I still dream of foraging for wild mushrooms, magic or otherwise, inspired by the romantic tales of great friends who live in the New Forest and have found a secret place in the woods to gather fungi for family feasts. Though even they, with years of experience, recount a time they served forest mushrooms to friends, praised by everyone until one guest fell violently ill. It turns out that even if you pick a “good” mushroom, some stomachs are more sensitive than others to this woodland treat.
New species of fungi continue to be discovered, with an estimated number of 800 registered annually. This, added to the recent reclassification of some species from edible to poisonous, has made older guidebooks unreliable in terms of species harmful to humans. For the time being my gingham basket is staying put.
Pan-fried mushrooms on sourdough
200g mixed wild mushrooms
1 thick slice sourdough bread
3-4 sprigs of thyme
1 small garlic clove
squeeze of lemon juice
1tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Gently rinse the mushrooms, then pat dry using kitchen paper. Halve any larger ones. Toast your bread until golden, then keep warm. In a large frying pan over a high heat, melt the butter with the thyme; once the butter is foaming, add mushrooms and season well. Cook without stirring for two mins or until the undersides are golden, then turn the mushrooms, add the crushed garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add lemon juice to taste.
Put the toast on a plate, spoon the pan juices over the mushrooms, sprinkle with parsley and eat immediately.
Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com