I did indeed wander “o’er vales and hills”, although not “as lonely as a cloud” – I was with my son, on a Sunday afternoon walk. Whereas Wordsworth wrote “When all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils”, it was an entirely different golden host that we came across: chanterelle mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius). They would have fitted beautifully into Wordsworth’s poem, far more exciting than daffodils: ‘daffodils’ and ‘chanterelles’ even scan the same. Dorothy Hartley, author of the seminal ‘Food in England’ wrote of chanterelles “you find them, suddenly, in the autumn woods, sometimes clustered so close they look like a torn golden shawl dropped amongst the dead leaves and sticks”. It was my first experience of wild mushroom foraging, and it was magical.
To be fair, to describe them as a “host” of golden chanterelles would be slightly misleading. A small patch really. In the depth of a mossy wood, beneath the beech trees, near a stream. There were lots of different fungi on show throughout the woods, but these orangey gold fungi held our attention. “Are these edible?” my son asked. It was a good question. We crouched and looked closer. They were magical looking things, standing out from the forest floor. Richard Mabey writes in ‘Food for Free’ that in the 18th century, some believed that if placed in the mouths of the dead they would bring people back to life again.
Being a 21st century kind of guy (albeit selectively), and not having a mushroom identification guide in my pocket, I instead reached for Twitter, tweeting a photo of the mushrooms in front of me, asking “anyone know what these are?” In spite of the patchy coverage in the forest, the answers started coming back in. One misery guts wrote “Don’t know, but not tempted in the least bit”, and another made the entirely reasonable point “are you sure you should choose whether to eat mushrooms based on what random people on Twitter on a Sunday afternoon say?” But a consensus started to build, with another tweeter writing “chanterelles I think, and they’re lovely. We had some for breakfast”. One person suggested “you’d better check first with a pharmacy”. I had visions of walking into Boots and asking for their views on the identity of my mushrooms, and thought better of it.
It was pointed out that it was important to make sure you weren’t eating ‘false chanterelles’, which can cause a nasty stomach upset. There are some good videos online about how to tell the difference. We picked some (not all, picking carefully from the base and being careful not to disturb the ground beneath them) and brought them home in a plastic bag (other tweeters then later pointed out that you should always use a paper bag, not a plastic one, they need to be able to breathe).
When we got home, we got our books out, and went online to be sure of what we’d found. Key indicators for them being chanterelles, it seems, are that when cut in half the flesh is white, that they smell of peaches (they actually do), and that the gills on the underside have a branching pattern. Once we had done all these things (one tweeted had advised us to “never much on a hunch”), we felt sufficiently confident to get the frying pan out and to cook them up with some butter. And wow, what a delicious treat.
I am currently reading German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, an extraordinary insight into forests and how they function. It draws together the latest science on mycorrhizal fungi, and how they form what scientists now call a “wood wide web”, enabling the forest to share information, nutrients, water and much more. One example is that healthy trees are able to identify pests that are eating their leaves from the insect’s saliva, and then transmit that information to neighbouring trees so they can change the taste of their own leaves to make them less palatable to the pests. While sitting in the woods discussing our chanterelles, I imagined this vast complex network beneath our feet. For all I know, the trees could be discussing our presence, noting our arrival. One teaspoon of soil from an ancient woodland can contain a mile of mycorrhizal filaments.
So it felt like an honour, a privilege, to be able to eat this gift offered by the complex fungal networks beneath our feet. I felt in some way that it brought me closer to this subterranean world, plugged me in to this extraordinary, little-known world. I felt that for a fleeting moment, I became part of that network, part of that place, that forest, plugged into the Matrix somehow. As I said, magical. Wordsworth would have reached for the Tippex and made a few changes, I think.