Foraging for food in the Derbyshire Peaks may sound idyllic but, when the clouds are ominously heavy with rain, there is only one thing in nature’s larder which could drag me from my bed on a Sunday morning. In short, you can leave sweet chestnuts and sloe berries to the birds and bees. I want mushrooms.
In spite of severe weather warnings, it seems I am not the only one answering the magical, mystical call of the wild mushroom. It warms the cockles to see fellow hunters and gatherers shuffling along in head-to-toe waterproofs waiting at the designated meeting spot; a car-park in the High Peak village of Hayfield.
A total of nine hardy souls have ventured to take part in a ‘Funghi Foray’ – a four-hour adventure combining fresh air, al fresco dining and fascinating facts with Bengt Saxmark and his wife Deb Hampson of New Mills; self-confessed fanatics who run a wild mushroom business called Get Funghi. The couple are eminently qualified to help people like Jayne Fowler and husband Rob find out how to spot the good (edible and delicious) from the bad (edible but tasteless) and the down-right ugly (poisonous enough to wage a deadly war on your internal organs).
“Rob and I go walking a lot with our dog and we’ve seen loads of mushrooms and often wondered if they’re edible,” says Jayne, of Chapel-en-le-Frith. “Our daughter bought us the event as a Christmas present as she thought it would be a good starting point for us.”
Fortunately, our little party could not be in safer hands. Bengt, who hails from Gothenburg, has been keen on foraging for mushrooms since he was a boy and qualified as a mushroom consultant from Sweden’s Umeå University in 2006.
“People are right to be cautious but it’s better if we encourage them to learn rather than scare them away,” he says. “Most of the ‘poisonous’ mushrooms aren’t fatal but will make you feel awful or give you dreadful stomach ache. If you are not 100 per cent sure, leave it for the maggots.”
Two of the UK’s deadliest mushrooms belong to the amanita family; for this reason, Bengt begins every session by pointing out their common features which can include white gills below the cap, a ring on the stem and a sock or vulva at the base.
“We will concentrate on beginner’s mushrooms which are almost impossible to mix up with anything else – unless you are colour blind,” Bengt explains while directing the group over a stile and into an open field. “A good beginner’s mushroom is the bright yellow chanterelle. Underneath the cap are ridges, not gills. There is no poisonous mushroom that looks like this.”
My suggestion that poisonous mushrooms look dangerous – red and covered with white spots – is quickly dismissed. While there is a red, spotty mushroom (the fly agaric), Bengt insists nature’s warning signals don’t always help when it comes to mushrooms.
“For instance, there is a mushroom with blood red sponge that turns blue when you cut it that is actually delicious,” Bengt says. “I took out a group of Italians who were convinced a mushroom is safe if it tastes good. Not true. The best way to start is to go out with an expert, do your homework, buy a book (Bengt and Deb recommend ‘Mushrooms’ by Roger Phillips) and make sure it is up-to-date. Mushrooms are often being re-classified.”
It is only fitting that the first ‘spot’ of the day – a field mushroom on a field too far away to pick – belongs to Pete Camp and son Scott, of Congleton, who are attending their third foraying day.
“My friends might say I’m becoming a mushroom bore,” Pete laughs. “Last year, I found a crop of porcini in Eyam, enough to make a nice starter for four on a crostini. Another time I came across what was almost certainly an edible scarletina bolete mushroom. I was 90 per cent sure but there was a ‘what if’ so I didn’t eat it.”
At the start, our biggest problem seems to be distinguishing mushrooms from leaves. The first edible mushroom close enough to pick, a crop of waxcaps, are rejected as old and slimy. Undeterred, one of our intrepid bunch, Jameela Mian of Ashby, clambers over to a fallen log to investigate what looks to be brown ears growing on the bark.
“Honey fungus – it is edible but not pleasant to eat,” says Bengt. “It’s often found at the base of trees and it attacks wood and plants so it’s not a friend to the gardener. It sounds sweet but the taste is slightly bitter and can upset the stomach.”
Just when it looks like our baskets will remain empty, novice mushroom hunter Tara McGuirk strikes edible gold.
“It’s called a hedgehog mushroom because it has soft spines under the cap,” says Bengt. “It has a firm texture, tastes slightly peppery and is very aromatic and it’s absolutely delicious. If it’s creamy white coloured and has spines instead of gills so it can’t be confused with anything else. It’s a beautiful mushroom.”
Tara, who has travelled from Birmingham to take part, is clearly thrilled; “Do I get a certificate?” she laughs.
Amazingly, the mushrooms, both edible and extra-ordinary, just keep on coming. In the next field along, Scott and Pete find a maitake; an edible mushroom also known as ‘hen of the woods’ because it resembles the feathers of a sitting hen. This find is followed by a flock of other mushrooms including one with the appearance of a filmy eye-ball.
“A parrot waxcap,” Deb says. “Lovely to look at but far too slimy to eat.”
As Bengt’s basket begins to fill, someone asks if there is a limit to the amount of mushrooms a forager can take.
“Picking a mushroom does not damage it as 100 per cent of the mushroom’s mycelium (root-like fibres) is underground. We pick the fruiting body so it’s much the same as eating apples from a tree,” explains Bengt “Leaving them in the ground is not necessary for their survival, but it’s polite to only take what you need.”
Divesting the countryside of every edible mushroom is not even an issue when it comes to my ‘haul’. So far, I have discovered what I thought to be mushrooms only to find out they are rabbit droppings, moss-covered acorns and a sheep’s skull. As we continue our romp into the hills, Deb tells me how she came to share Bengt’s passion for foraging mushrooms.
“I’ve always foraged fruit to make cordials, jams and puddings – even spirits,” she explains. “I met Bengt years ago in Sweden when I was there as part of my language degree. Then, in 2003, Bengt contacted me to say he was coming over to the UK and asked if we could we meet up. As we got to know each other again, we spent lots of time walking in the forest and he taught me everything he knows about funghi; more or less. The rest, as they say, is history. We were married in 2006.”
While Deb and Bengt have day jobs – she is a translator from Swedish to English and Bengt is a joiner – the couple’s passion for mushrooms saw them setting up Get Funghi in 2010. Their endeavours to sell only the very best wild mushrooms (they forage for funghi in West Sweden every Autumn) saw their dried porcini win a coveted product of the year award from The Guild of Fine Food in 2015.
The couple’s expertise in foraging for mushrooms led to them being asked to take out a group as part of the New Mills Festival in 2012.
“It was so successful, we started taking groups out every year throughout the mushroom season which starts in September,” says Deb. “Not only are people fascinated by foraging, there is also a growing trend for people to buy experiences rather than things these days and our events are always fully booked.”
Two hours into the walk and the heavens finally open. Deb reveals there is a gazebo waiting for us back at the car-park. Spurred by the promise of lunch, we use the last half hour to visit a field which, says Bengt, can be packed with porcini.
In spite of all our best efforts – people scampering over walls and braving a river of rainwater coming down off the hills – the porcini remains elusive.
“What we find varies from year to year, depending on the weather,” says Bengt with a shrug. He perks up considerably when a group member uncovers another ‘wonderfully edible’ mushroom. “This is one of my favourites but it is not a beginner’s mushroom because it has white gills like some dangerous members of the amanita family. What sets this one apart is the smell.”
Bengt invites us all to have a sniff. ‘My trainers’ I offer to general amusement. Someone else gets ‘cucumber’ and another can detect ‘beef’.
“No, no – it smells of wet flour,” Bengt laughs. “Hence it is known as ‘The Miller’ and it’s very good to eat.”
Our hike ends with a dash to the gazebo for a funghi feast – our mushroom finds fried on a barbecue in butter, parsley and garlic – served with sausages, home-made cordials and followed by Deb’s homemade carrot cake.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the day foraging. I like eating mushrooms but had no idea they are so interesting,” says Tara as we huddle together under the tent. “Deb and Bengt made the world of mushrooms so accessible to new foragers – I can’t wait to go out again.”
Hearing this her companion, cousin Matthew Thomas, confides a secret; “This outing was an early Christmas present. Don’t say anything but, as we both enjoyed it so much, there’s every chance she’s getting the same again next year.”
Postscript: On a short break in Norfolk, I came across a crop of pure white, spongy mushrooms in the sand dunes. After seeing my photographs, Bengt and Deb kindly confirm my find would have been edible but, as I’m back in Derby, driving back is not an option; not even for a puffball. Top marks go to Jayne and Rob Fowler who found lots of meadow caps on one of the dog walks and – after confirming the identification with Deb and Bengt – ate them for their lunch and pronounced them ‘delicious’.
A full list of Get Funghi stockists and events can be found on the website www.getfunghi.co.uk