Although I didn’t agree with the general conclusions of Charlie Gilmour’s piece on foraging in this weekend’s Observer newspaper I’d agree that the craft of foraging can be a great builder of relationship with the natural world. I’ll never forget the sense of gratitude that followed a blackberrying expedition with Madame in which we harvested many pounds of free fruit and subsequently ruined all of them in a truly disgusting chutney. Foraging will always entail a few culinary skills as well as the observational and identification skills that should keep you out of Intensive Care. That said, we have safely foraged and eaten many pounds of field mushrooms and enjoyed them greatly; but even a field mushroom has close relatives and lookalikes that demand identification skills. Most of the folk tales – can you peel it? does it blacken silver? are absolute nonsense and so we come back to experience and prior knowledge. If I can share the single most important question to ask of any fungus (or indeed plant) is – “where’s it growing?” The immediate environment; open field or field edge? maybe woodland but if that, what kind of trees? What kind of soil or underlying rock is it – acid or limestone? Is it growing on dead wood or in the ground? There’s always the possibility, as on the Mendip Hills, that an otherwise harmless edible plant or fungus has absorbed poisonous heavy metals, and many fungi have confusing lookalikes. Fairy Ring Champignons which are edible and dry well; can sometimes even share a ring with Fool’s Funnels – Clitocybe rivulosa which is poisonous.
It’s the kind of breezy confidence that all will be well which short circuits the hard labour of learning plants and fungi; I should know because the only reason I’m here writing this is that on several occasions I’ve prepared poisonous fungi and even started cooking them, when a last minute change of heart saved my/our skin. I even poisoned the cat on one occasion but mercifully after a good heave and a rash, she lived to tell the tale. Even worse, two highly experienced mycologists I know have developed an intolerance for the St George’s Mushroom after decades of eating it safely. There could be long queues of very sick people waiting for liver transplants if foraging became suddenly fashionable. The idea of sending naive collectors out into the fields and forests after a one-day course really scares me.
As does the idea of French style hunting days – otherwise known as circular firing squads – with inexperienced people thrashing around in the woods with no idea how to fire a gun safely. Once again I speak from experience having almost been shot by an overexcited man who – having paid his £500 for a day’s pheasant shooting, forgot the rule about shooting above the trees and gave me and our son the fright of our lives, with lead shot hitting the trees all around us. He was, I’m pleased to say, sent home immediately! Frankly, if you want to eat a pheasant – and spatchcocked mice and roast fox don’t float my boat (see article) – then buy one from a game dealer and save yourself retching over the entrails when you finally find out that most living creatures are full of glistening plumbing, oh and well hung squirrel and other roadkill can give you all sorts of weird diseases that will keep the doctors from their beds. I have no absolute problem with killing and preparing living creatures but the taking of any life should never be done for fun or sport but to meet a genuine need and it requires some skill, so it’s important to seek a good teacher.
When we were at art school we had to work all the vacations to make ends meet, and one summer I worked next door to a slaughterhouse where hundreds of pigs were killed every day. That was my first and best ever lesson in industrial meat production and it left an indelibly negative impression on me. But I learned about gutting and skinning rabbits sitting on the shed step with the head groundsman where I worked another two summers and who made it all look easy. When we kept chickens I got the local butcher to show me how to kill them without cruelty and he showed me why it was never really worth plucking pheasants or pigeons. If, as Charlie Gilmour says, you feel the need for foraged meat protein then you have to take responsibility, be a moral grownup and learn to do the job well. Does all this sound off-putting? Well – it’s the reality – and there’s no escape by trying to pass the responsibility onto someone else.
So that’s fungi and foraged meat dealt with, but what about plants, grains and suchlike? My big fear is that hordes of indiscriminate foragers could do untold damage to precious environments. Already, in Cornwall, professional foragers from outside of the area (obviously they come from Devon or worse still, down from London) have stripped whole roadsides of wild garlic and in Epping Forest mushroom hunters have been caught with upwards of 30 Kg of fungi. People I know well think nothing of harvesting thousands of Psilocybe mushrooms on the Bannau Brycheiniog but maybe that’s a different issue! However – and here I’m with Charlie Gilmour – if the end result is a new generation of naturalists who understand and love the natural world, coming to it via an interest in foraging, then what’s not to like? We should stop being so sniffy about people who ask about edibility on fungus websites and at least point them in the direction of the best help. I appreciate the caution about liability and insurance and all that, but duty of care can be expressed more helpfully than blanket prohibition accompanied by harsh words.
The world of plants is absolutely fascinating but foraging is never going to be capable of feeding the world short of some catastrophic collapse in the population, so let’s just see it as a getting to know you operation where our knowledge spreads out from the focus of interest like the spokes of a wheel and we land up grasping the wonderful interconnectedness of all living things on earth. Perhaps then, and finally, we’d know our place in it.