Unless you know your mushrooms well, it is difficult and dangerous to forage for them. I heard a story about someone who put a poisonous one in the basket alongside all of the edible ones before realising their mistake and removing it. She and her partner ended up in hospital with severe poisoning after eating the edible ones that had touched the poisonous one.
However, there is a simpler way of harvesting them if you are a scardy-cat like me. You can buy your own mushroom kits.
Mushrooms are the fleshy and edible bodies of several species of microfungi – fungi which bear fruiting structures that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Identifying mushrooms requires a basic understanding of their macroscopic structure. Most are basidiomycetes and gilled. Their spores are produced on the gills and fall in a fine rain of powder from under the caps. At the microscopic level the spores are fired off and they fall between the gills in the dead air space. As a result, for most mushrooms, if the cap is cut off and placed gill-side-down overnight, a powdery impression reflecting the shape of the gills is formed. The color of the powdery print, called a spore print, is used to help classify mushrooms and can help to identify them. Spore print colors include white (most common), brown, black, purple-brown, pink, yellow, and creamy. While modern identification of mushrooms is quickly becoming molecular, the standard methods for identification are still used by most and have developed into a fine art harking back to medieval times and the Victorians, combined with microscopic examination. The presence of juices upon breaking, bruising reactions, odors, tastes, shades of color, habitat, habit, and season all have to be considered.
Mycophagy, the act of consuming mushrooms, dates back to ancient times. Edible mushroom species have been found in association with 13,000-year-old archaeological sites in Chile but the first reliable evidence of mushroom consumption dates to several hundred years ago in China. The Chinese value mushrooms for medicinal properties as well as for food. Romans and Greeks used mushrooms for culinary purposes. Food tasters were employed by Roman emperors to ensure that mushrooms were safe to eat.
The terms “mushroom” and “toadstool” go back centuries and were never precisely defined. Between 1400 and 1600 AD, the terms mushrom, mushrum, muscheron, mousheroms, mussheron, or musserouns were used. Mushroom and its variations may have been derived from the French word mousseron in reference to moss (mousse). Yet difference between edible and poisonous fungi is not clear-cut, so a “mushroom” may be edible, poisonous, or unpalatable. Cultural or social phobias of mushrooms and fungi may be related. The term “fungophobia” was coined by William Delisle Hay who noted a national fear of “toadstools”. The word “toadstool” has apparent analogies in Dutch padde(n)stoel (toad-stool/chair, mushroom) and German Krötenschwamm (toad-fungus, alternative word for panther cap). In German folklore, toads are often depicted sitting on toadstool mushrooms and catching, with their tongues, the flies that are said to be drawn to the Fliegenpilz, a German name for the toadstool, meaning “flies’ mushroom”. This is how the mushroom got another of its names, Krötenstuhl (a less-used German name for the mushroom), literally translating to “toad-stool”.
Many species of mushrooms seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. This phenomenon is the source of several common expressions including “to mushroom” or “mushrooming” (expanding rapidly in size or scope) and “to pop up like a mushroom” (to appear unexpectedly and quickly).
A mushroom develops from a nodule, or pinhead, less than 2mm in diameter, called a primordium, which is typically found on or near the surface of the substrate. It is formed within the mycelium. The primordium enlarges into a roundish structure of interwoven hyphae roughly resembling an egg, called a “button”. The button has a cottony roll of mycelium that surrounds the developing fruit body. As the egg expands, the mycelium ruptures and may remain as a cup at the base of the stalk or as warts or volval patches on the cap. Many mushrooms lack a universal veil, a mycelium, therefore they do not have either a volva or volval patches. Often, a second layer of tissue covers the blade like gills that bear spores. As the cap expands, the veil breaks, and remnants of the partial veil may remain as a ring around the middle of the stalk or as fragments hanging from the margin of the cap. All species of mushrooms take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though they do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.
The cultivated mushrooms, or common field mushrooms, initially form a minute fruiting body, referred to as the pin stage because of their small size. Slightly expanded they are called buttons, once again because of the relative size and shape. Once such stages are formed, the mushroom can rapidly pull in water from its mycelium and expand, mainly by inflating preformed cells that took several days to form.
Many mushroom species produce secondary metabolites that can be toxic, mind-altering, antibiotic or antiviral. Although there are only a small number of deadly species, several others can cause particularly severe and unpleasant symptoms. Toxicity likely plays a role in protecting the function of the basidiocarp: the mycelium has expended considerable energy and protoplasmic material to develop a structure to efficiently distribute its spores. One defense against consumption and premature destruction is the evolution of chemicals that render the mushroom inedible, either causing the consumer to vomit the meal or to learn to avoid consumption altogether. In addition, due to the propensity of mushrooms to absorb heavy metals, including those that are radioactive, European mushrooms may, to date, include toxicity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and continue to be studied.
So far we have tried using Taylor’s mushroom growing kit. It hasn’t been great – so far we have one big, beautiful mushroom, and nothing else. But I’ve been doing my research and have looked up how to grow mushrooms indoors and outdoors, as well as including the Taylor instructions below…
Taylor’s Grow Your Own mushroom kits…
- Empty the mushroom compost in the bottom of your lined box and lightly firm. Spread over the ‘Casing Layer’ (which has been moistened with half a litre of water) and lightly mix the two layers together leaving the surface rough.
- Rest the lid on top of the box at an angle and put in a warm place for about a week and a white fluffy mycelium should appear on the surface.
- Remove the lid and place in a cooler dark location, use a mist spray to keep the surface damp.
- Mushroom should begin to appear after about a week, pick them as small or as large as you like.
Indoor sowing information…
You need 20kg (45lbs) of well rotted compost for 100g spawn. Make the compost from fresh, strawy horse manure, or straw supplemented with organic nitrogen. The best compost for mushrooms is horse manure. Make sure the compost is free of worms and invertebrates which will eat the spawn. The manure will be “clean” if composting temperatures are reached. A cellar, shed, cool greenhouse, shelter or even garden frame can be used. Beds should be about 25cms (10 ins.) deep, boxes 15-20cms (6-8 ins.) deep. Tightly pack with compost. It may heat up after packing so leave until the temperature is steady and no higher than 21C (69F). Scatter the spawn over the surface and mix in until it is about 2 to 3 ins deep Firm the surface again and cover with a damp newspaper to keep the compost dark and moist. The compost will become covered in white fungal threads in two to three weeks. When the compost is fully colonised (covered with white threads) remove the newspaper. Cover the compost with 2.5 cm (1 inch) of casing. Casing may be either 50% garden soil 50% peat plus 2 or 3 handfuls of lime per bucketful of casing, or 50% chalk and 50% peat. Peat free compost can also be used but add the chalk or lime. Before using the casing it should be thoroughly wetted and allowed to drain. Keep the casing layer evenly moist but not wet. Use a fine rose watering can or mist spray. Mushrooms will first appear as tiny pin points 3-5 weeks after casing. Air humidity must be kept high at this point (about 85%) to allow mushrooms to develop. They will grow in a flush approximately every 10 days. Pick by twisting the cap until the mushroom comes away and avoid damaging the small ones nearby.
Sow from Spring to August. In grass areas lift 25 cm (10 ins) square turfs, 4 cm (1.5 ins) deep and about 60 cm (24 ins) apart. Loosen the underlying soil with a fork. Where no animal or garden compost has been added recently, or where the soil is poor add well rotted farm manure, garden or mushroom compost. Spread the mushroom spawn thinly over the soil and mix to a depth of 1 cm. Press the turf down firmly and moisten in dry weather. The soil below should not get saturated. A good dressing of humus – limed peat, rotten horse manure or old mushroom compost is recommended. Choose a lawn or pasture where the soil is rich, moist and contains plenty of fully decayed organic matter. In the garden it will thrive best in lawns which are not to acidic and therefore do not grow moss. Neglected lawns and around compost heaps are good sites. Growth will depend on the weather. Mushrooms grow best in warm damp conditions and once established they should continue to thrive if the weather is warm and the turf is kept moist. Growth produces patches of greener grass. Mushrooms grow best at an even temperature of about 16C(60F). They do not grow well below 10C(60F) or above 20C(68F).
Mushrooms are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower elevated blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke. One medium portobello mushroom has even more potassium than a banana or a glass of orange juice. One serving of mushrooms also provides about 20 to 40% of the daily value of copper, a mineral that has cardioprotective properties. Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Male health professionals who consumed twice the recommended daily intake of selenium cut their risk of prostate cancer by 65 percent. In a Baltimore study, men with the lowest blood selenium levels were 4 to 5 times more likely to have prostate cancer compared to those with the highest selenium levels. One cup of raw onions equals 2.2g of protein which is pretty high for plants. Mushrooms are therefore very useful for vegetarian or vegan diets as a source of protein and vitamin B and D.
I’ve been using mushrooms more this year and have come round to liking them in a number of different dishes. They are a great replacement for chicken in casseroles, brilliant in stir fries (Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg), I like them just fried in butter with rice and salad for a quick lunch, or fried with Orach seeds. They are a traditional side to egg and bacon, or just egg and toast. An addition to chicken pie. Mushroom risotto, addition to carbonara, raw in French salads with raw green beens and hard boiled eggs. Yet my favourite new-found-new-liked recipe is mushroom and cheese omelette – the best omelette around.
Mushroom and Cheese Omelette
-2 eggs -100g grated cheddar cheese -3-4 button sized mushrooms, sliced thinly -Knob of butter, for frying -Salad, to serve
- Beat the eggs together in a large bowl, thoroughly otherwise the whites and yolks won’t mix properly to create that beautiful yellow colour.
- Mix in the grated cheddar and sliced mushrooms.
- Melt the butter in a frying pan, swirling it round to cover the entire surface. Tip in the contents of the bowl and swirl it over the surface of the pan too.
- Allow it to cook on one side for a couple of minutes. Then, using a scraper, gently lift up half of the omelette and flip it over the other half. This encourages the other side to cook whilst preventing you from tearing the omelette apart.
- Once the outside is starting to brown and the inside looked cooked (the cheese will be melted but you want the egg part to be cooked), flip the omelette onto a plate and serve alongside a salad or some crusty bread, rice or potatoes.