Sunday, October 01, 2006

Autumn is mushroom season and it’s a common site here to see people with their baskets out early in the morning by the side of the road searching for fungal food. I think that, in general, the English have been scared off picking mushrooms by stories of deaths caused by eating wild mushrooms. It’s true, the most poisonous are absolutely deadly—the only cure seemingly a complete liver and kidney transplant—and there are cases of mushroom mortality in France each year: justification enough for leaving wild mushrooms well alone? In France, one can take any mushroom into a pharmacy for advice. For me, this has been a great example of theory versus the reality, as we’ve tried three times now, in different pharmacies, to identify fungi we’ve found on our land. In every case they’ve enthusiastically tried to help yet been unable to firmly identify the mushrooms (including, in my estimation, one wrong diagnosis) but have “failed safe” by advising us not to eat them. This is a sensible attitude to take but we are still hopefully searching for a pharmacy with a mushroom expert, and we’d love to do a guided mushroom walk.

It’s also possible to cultivate mushrooms. I did a two-day course with Bill Knight at the Sustainability Centre, East Meon a couple of years or so ago, where we learnt how to inoculate freshly-cut oak logs with the spawn of the shiitake mushroom and a wet soggy mass of straw and toilet rolls with oyster mushrooms. For the shiitake, holes are drilled in the logs, which are packed with the spawn and then protected with a painted on seal of food quality wax (the stuff some cheeses are coated with) then left for 18 months by which time the mycelium has colonised the entire log. The log is then shocked by submerging it in water for 24 hours to encourage fruiting and a few days later the mushrooms start to appear. In England, you can buy already-inoculated logs from Ragmans Lane Farm.

We recently bought some organic field mushroom spawn and followed the indoor growing regime to the letter. We could see that the mycelium had permeated throughout the compost and then had to “case” it: cover it with a 25 mm (1 inch) layer of half soil, half peat with a couple of handfuls of lime. It’s been a complete no show, and when we gave up and emptied the whole lot over our compost heap, the white fungal threads we’d seen before were absent, so somehow, we’ve managed to kill it all off. We’ll try again in the Spring and follow the planting outdoors instructions to see how that goes. In the meantime, we’ll be eating shiitake mushrooms!