One of my fondest autumn memories from childhood is of my siblings, my cousins and myself as small children, bundled up in warm coats and wellies (aka gumboots in NZ), being handed a couple of buckets by the adults and sent down my grandparents’ farm in Oldcastletown to go mushroom picking. After listening to their admonitions to avoid the field with the bull and to look after the smaller kids, we tramped down to the place where there had been a confirmed sighting of mushrooms.
Leaving the buckets down, we – there may have been six of us at times – spread out and looked for those small patches of white that denoted a successful hunt. Sometimes we’d only find a couple of wee ones. Other days we came back up to the house with a good haul and then there would be mushrooms for supper, cooked on the stalwart Aga cooker that presided over the centre of the kitchen. My Nana occasionally made a slow cooked mushroom soup if we got particularly lucky. The Aga was great for quick cooking too and occasionally one of my uncles would put a whole, peeled mushroom directly on its hotplate ’till it sizzled, popping it into his mouth before the juices escaped.
While I’ve been mushroom hunting down the fields at home in recent years, there’s never been the largess that I remember from my childhood. Maybe it’s the fertilizer used on the fields these days? But my interest was sparked again when I read of a mushroom hunt in some woods near Dublin last autumn. We were away the weekend it took place but it did remind me of the fact that field mushrooms aren’t the only edible ones. Among my birthday presents from the Boyfriend this year were a pair of books – Mushrooms and Other Fungi of New Zealand (Reed) and A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand (Penguin). Of course, these had to be used straight away and luckily Sunday was a bright and sunny day.
On a supermarket stop, we called into the gift shop in Cheviot and I got talking to the lady who works there. When, at some late stage in the conversation (we had already covered my tenure in NZ, employment in the town, the beautiful colours of trees in the area and her Cork-born great grandmother), I mentioned that the Boyfriend and I were going mushroom hunting she told me that someone had been in lately with a porcini from underneath the silver birch in the grounds of the old church. We needed no second telling!Armed with our books, we started looking in the fallen leaves underneath the silver birch and discovered about seven examples of what the book called Birch Bolete, Leccinum scabrum in its Latin incarnation (you can see a – very blurred – picture of one of our pickings at the top of the page). Encouraged by this success we went looking in the nearby Domain but, despite the gorgeous autumn colours of the oak trees, there were no mushrooms there. I did come across a puffball by the cricket grounds but it wasn’t enough for even a mouthful so it survived our mushroom-picking expedition. On the way home the Boyfriend had me looking out the window of the car in case one got away. In this manner we also managed to find a past-its-prime shaggy ink cap and some poisonous Gymnophilus junonius (I’m sure I’m going to remember that name!).
Once home, we peeled and chopped the mushrooms then fried them in butter and piled them onto some toasted challah bread. To our disappointment they didn’t taste acutely mushroomy but the real satisfaction came from having found them ourselves.Although we were pretty sure that they weren’t the Death Cap or any poisonous mushroom we still took the precaution of only eating half that night and, when we found ourselves still alive and without any untoward effects the following day, ate the rest for lunch. The books have now taken up permanent residence in the car so I feel that the rest of this Atipodean autumn is going to be enlivened with frequent mushroom stops!