I can’t remember when I ate my first wild mushroom – it was probably as a child, when we ate at my grandparents’ cottage, or rather smallholding, in the Chilterns. Because of her childhood my mother knew and talked about wild mushrooms but so far as I remember never picked any. The first I’m ever sure I picked were on the playing field at Beechfield House, then part of Bath Academy of Art. It was nearly 50 years ago and I blagged a job as assistant groundsman during the summer vacation. We were constantly broke in those days and it was that or nothing. It was the groundsman that taught me to recognise and distinguish between horse mushrooms and field mushrooms – he also taught me how to paunch and skin a rabbbit and pluck a pheasant. It never occurred to me to question how he came by these specimens, but I put the new skills to use immediately as our next door neighbour would often leave dead creatures tied to our letterbox. It was our first ever garden and we ate well, notwithstanding a period of deep depression and spending much of the second year on probation for my repeated absences.
But since then I’ve refined my knowledge of fungi and eaten quite a few species, many of them – frankly – hardly worth the effort. In my parish I knew where the wild mushrooms grew and sadly so did the local milkman so it was a bit of a competition between us to get to them first. However whichever of us got there first would always tell the other – after we’d eaten our fill.
Last year we went on a fungus hunt with the Bath Nats in Dyrham Park. There was a huge turnout and we had a great time except that we came across a large clump of shaggy parasols – Macrolepiota rhacodes – one of the most attractive displays I’ve ever seen. Our guide talked about them and offered the hope that they would be left alone for others to enjoy. Later on I glimpsed into the wicker basket of one of the participants who’d come prepared and she’d hung back and taken the lot. I harbour the hope that she’ll read this one day and burn with shame at her ingratitude.
Nothing can quite capture the flavour of wild mushrooms. I never wash them (everyone should eat their peck of dirt) just wipe any dirt and grass off and then quarter them if they’re big enough to need it and fry them gently in butter with a little pepper, nutmeg and garlic. Sometimes I finish with a tiny bit of chopped parsley.
We picked the ones in the photo in a field next to the Pembrokeshire coast path in St Davids a few weeks ago. A continuous flow of walkers passed within yards of us but we were on a subsidiary path and surrounded by freshly grown fungi. We took enough to feed us and left the rest for anyone else with eyes to see. I hate to see perfectly good fungi kicked off their stalks by those who find them frightening and dangerous. We took them back to the van and cooked them.
I can’t even begin to describe the intensity of their flavour, it made you want to cry out loud with sheer greed and joy; it made you want to forgive God for all the remoteness and hard-heartedness of the church; it made you want to believe in something. I look at the photo and I can recapture the finding, the cooking and the eating and it was good – the whole process was good, and if you wanted an example of eudaemonia, of pure human contented fulfilment it was there in those mushrooms.