Fear of the fatal fungi

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Chef Tommy Banks in the garden of the Black Swan, Oldstead
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The White Horse at Kilburn
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The aptly-named Death Cap mushroom

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th March 2018.

I’ll never forget the moment when local boy Tommy Banks, enthusiastic forager and head chef at the Michelin-starred Black Swan, Oldstead, produced his incredibly personal tribute to his late grandfather on the TV show Great British Menu in 2016. He had created his dish, a dessert called ‘My Great Briton’, with precision, tenderness and obviously deep love for his grandfather, who for many years was custodian of nearby landmark, the White Horse of Kilburn. Tommy flavoured a parfait with oil extracted from the Douglas fir trees that grow on the hills around the White Horse. When the dish was served to a soundtrack of his grandfather’s voice, it had us all, and Tommy too, in tears. His appearance on that show catapulted him and his family-run restaurant into the stratosphere and Oldstead became a must-go destination for the serious foodie.

The thing about foraging, though, is that you really do have to know your stuff. In his column from March 11th 1978, Dad talks about the dangers of confusing your fungi, and how calamitous it could be to get it wrong. His topic came about as a result of a colleague asking him if Death Cap mushrooms grew in North Yorkshire. Dad had never seen one, but he knew it grew in moist shady areas covered by deciduous trees such as oaks, chestnuts and beeches, and so deduced it was entirely possible.

The Death Cap is incredibly toxic and accounts for more than 90% of deaths from fungus poisonings. One of the reasons people make mistakes is because they look similar to perfectly edible varieties, and are rather tasty when cooked. In 2014, there was a surge in poisonings in California after a spell of heavy rain and mild temperatures caused the mushrooms to flourish. Fourteen cases were reported over a few weeks, with three of those afflicted needing liver transplants. In 2008, a woman from the Isle of Wight died after mistakenly picking and cooking a Death Cap, and in 2013 another from Bridgewater suffered organ failure after putting one from her own garden into her soup. That year, there were 237 reported cases of fungus poisonings in the UK.

In 2016, warnings were issued across the country after the wet and mild autumn had led to significant proliferations of the deadly mushroom, and as last autumn was similar, I’m assuming those warnings are still valid.

But the Death Cap isn’t the only toxic mushroom that grows here, and many have appropriately lethal names, such as Destroying Angel, Funeral Bell, Fool’s Funnel and Panther Cap. But if I came across one on a country ramble, I wouldn’t know my Meadow Wax Cap (edible) from my Deadly Web Cap (poisonous).

In a 2014 statement issued by Public Heath England, Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service (Cardiff Unit), said: “When it comes to wild mushrooms, people really need to be aware of the very real potential dangers involved…While mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species, even for people with experience in foraging.”

This was certainly the case for Nicholas Evans, bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer, whose story resembles a plot straight out of one of his own novels. The writer almost killed himself, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law in 2008 after cooking what he thought were innocent ceps. Evans, a seasoned countryman, was usually extremely careful in checking what he had picked against a trusted book of mushrooms. But this time, he didn’t, and cooked several Deadly Web Caps for dinner with butter and parsley. The next day, they started to feel ill with nausea and stomach cramps, and within hours, all four were in intensive care. Thankfully, they survived, but were sick for months afterwards, and the consequences were life long. For three of them, their kidneys were destroyed, and they ended up having to have dialysis for several hours, several days each week, and eventually, all underwent kidney transplants, with Evans receiving his from his own daughter in 2011.

Despite these fungal nightmares, one of my favourite things to eat will forever be mushrooms on toast, and I have heard that the flavour of foraged mushrooms is in another league to the mass-produced varieties on our supermarket shelves. But I’m going to take some convincing before I dare to venture into the wild to pick my own. (Source: wildfoodsuk.com)

 

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