A Feast For the Soul: Mushroom Hunting in Wales
Poppy was never meant to be a mushroom hunting dog. Her enthusiasm for wandering the woods with nose to the ground, the fact that her owner was a mushroom master, and her home out in the middle of rich Welsh farmland, all of these factors should have influenced her pedigree. Yet Poppy was foiled by her unquenchable desire to chase squirrels. Nevertheless, I found myself following the truffle-hunting-hound-gone-wrong through the wilds of Wales, and I loved it.
Early in the morning, under the misting rain enveloping the Welsh town of Rhayader, Daniel Butler and his constant companion, Poppy, gathered our small group of mushroom hunting virgins and proceeded to walk us out into the middle of the woods and give us a proper education.
“The British are notoriously scared about picking wild mushrooms,” Butler would bemoan several times on our outing. Yes, the British might be fearful, but this American was, too, and proud of it.
Let’s face it, we have all heard horrible tales of wild mushrooms gone wrong, when someone innocently ate the wrong type of fungus and soon found themselves pushing up daisies. I have no intentions of becoming one of those statistics, not when there is a perfectly good grocery store stocked with mushrooms on every city corner.
But here I was in the middle of a field (private property, by the way, and not Butler’s), wading hip deep in weeds and overgrowth trying to climb my way up a footpath muddied and littered with sheep poop just to go foraging for wild mushrooms. Did I actually think that I would eat one if I found one? Probably not, but the hunt sounded intriguing, and, after all, if I’m searching for wild fungi, I want one of the most preeminent experts in the field with me.
Butler, the author of Fungi Forays and an environmental journalist, has been leading Fungi Forays (www.fungiforays.co.uk) breaks in Mid Wales for several years. The offbeat outings, either an overnight two day course or a three-hour walk, are only offered in mushroom season, which is September and October in this part of the world, and the outings typically sell out fast. While the British might be scared of wild mushrooms, clearly visitors to Wales’ Elan Valley, a once-flooded wilderness just a few hours drive from London, are not.
As we finally climbed out of the wild overgrowth, our mushroom foraging foray suddenly became much more pleasant. Tended fields of Wales’ infamous green pastures stretched out as far as we could see, with white wooly sheep dotting the countryside. The rocky country road was much appreciated, allowing a easier walk.
Poppy ran ahead of us. She knew this journey by heart, having accompanied Butler countless times before. As she wildly chased anything that was brave enough to move, Butler tended to his pupils, keeping an eye on the ground to look for edible treasures while all the while teaching us the intricacies of mushrooms and how they typically get a bad rap.
“A mushroom is just a misunderstood rose,” Butler says. An interesting analogy, but I’m not quite sold, yet. As we walk along an incredibly quaint wooded path, overlooking Laura Ashley’s family home in the distance and with sheep occasionally running past us, I am warming up to the idea, though. This really isn’t a horrible way to harvest food.
After the Oxford-born mushroom historian explains the challenges of native species and how our food system has dramatically changed over the years, and not for the better, Butler finally hits home on the selling point for me.
“You can’t get any more organic or free range than picking mushrooms out in the wild,” he says. Hmmm, now this makes sense. As someone who takes pride in choosing foods that are as healthy and natural as possible, albeit in a sterile grocery store, what is so wrong with going out into the field to pick mushrooms? It is no different than a strawberry field or apple orchard, right?
Then there is the misunderstoodmushroom’s sheer culinary diversity. Butler’s record is finding 31 edible species in one day. You can’t find that many in a farmer’s market, and for good reason. “A vast majority of wild mushrooms cannot be cultivated,” Butler says. Clearly, if you want the good stuff, you have got to go out in the woods to find it.
So here I am, in the middle of a foodie metropolis (funny, it was just a grassy field an hour ago!), suddenly more anxious than ever before to find that edible treasure, to enjoy a flavor that few might ever discover. And can I find one? No.
Neither can anyone else, including Butler. It is way too early in the mushroom season (our group begged for an outing even though it wasn’t prime mushroom time) and Wales’ famously wet weather surprisingly hasn’t been fungi favorable for several weeks. So though Poppy is content eating the green grass that is plentiful along the sheep pastures, the rest of us haven’t had a decent snack for hours now. That is, until a thoughtful invitation by Butler to visit his house for a mushroom feast.
Butler wasn’t just taking pity on us because the mushrooms were ornery this time of year. A mushroom-based feast is always part of his Fungi Forays. Butler cooks the meals in his ancient kitchen in his equally ancient wood framed barn, and invites his guests to gather around a family table. Organic pasta and pesto made with mushrooms, creamy stinging nettle soup, homemade bread, and a watercress salad with greens picked freshly from his pond create a highly local meal that satisfies my appetite – both physical hunger as well as a hunger for getting back to a simpler way of eating and enjoying the many flavors of food.
Poppy has now taken to eating grass in Butler’s backyard. Apparently she is on the eat local bandwagon, too. For me, though, my appetite has just been whetted on my first fungi foray. I am still hesitant to go out into the wild to pick mushrooms without an expert guide, but as my vision of the simple pleasures of simple ingredients has now broadened, I am eager to try it again.
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