Monday, March 17, 2008

The great mushroom hunt


Gathering field and horse mushrooms on dewy autumn mornings is becoming increasingly hard to do. Early morning on one of those still October days when the sun is rising like mother-of-pearl through a thin mist. Heavy dew beads the cobwebs, and I leave a trail of shadowy footprints in the crisp grass.
It isn't long before I find, strung out in a semi-circle, a row of hunched domes the colour of a summer cloud, protruding between tufts of dark grass. They are cold, moist and slightly silky to the touch. I slice a stalk at ground level and let the cap roll into my hand. It takes about 20 minutes to fill the basket, and then back to the kitchen for the fragrance of a flat-topped, black-gilled 'old mushie' sizzling in the pan with bacon. The small, pink-gilled button mushrooms are for later, simmered in beer or port or maybe eaten raw with a splash of oil. Delicious.
Rare delightsFor me, that kind of mushroom hunt is now a distant memory. Though I still go a-gathering when autumn comes around, it's more likely to take me to the woods than the fields, and rather later in the day. And the mushies I cook now are much more likely to be toadstools. I have eaten my way through puffballs, parasols, milk-caps and morels but the field mushroom rarely gets a look-in - they're getting too hard to find. In fact, you are four times more likely to find the highly-prized cep fungus than the humble field mushroom. But, there are no figures showing how field mushrooms might have fared over the past 50 years.
Horsing aboutThe mushroom relies on certain things that are not as freely available now as they used to be. As everyone knows, mushrooms and ponies go well together - 'where there's muck, there's mushies.' Mushrooms prefer rich soils where large animals, especially horses, have been, or where a gardener has been generous with manure. They also like short grass that they can nose their way through in order to shed their spores in the air.
The wrong sort of grassFinally, mushrooms are not keen on chemicals. Modern breeds of farm animals are pumped full of all kinds of manufactured medicines to get rid of parasites and make them grow faster. The result is sterile dung instead of the rich community of fungi and dung-feeding insects you find with more natural methods of farming. By the same token, mushrooms thrive best in old grassland and not the nitrogen-hogging rye-grass swards that have replaced them. We can therefore hypothesise a variety of reasons why the field mushroom and its larger relative, the horse mushroom, may feel squeezed-out by intensive farming. But, in truth, we don't really know how much wild mushrooms have declined, because there has been little research or surveys into the subject.Words: Peter Marren.

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