Mmmm, muuuushrooooms. Tis the season (southern hemisphere autumn) to be once more checking out your various secret fungi patches that you'll never tell anyone about, even if they put you in thumbscrews because mushrooms are that damn important to you. No, we're not talking about gold tops or liberty caps, though the psilocybes are certainly awesome in their own special ways wink but that's a whole other kettle of bananas. Mushrooms can be a chariot for the soul in more ways than one; their colours rival the most glorious textiles in their saturation and subtlety, their textures ranging from suede to silk to rubber and grindstone, their flavours spanning everything from peppermint to peppercorns to venison. They are secretive subterranean informants, telling of their travels amongst the roots of pine and oak through the compressed darkness of the soil and the litter sticking to your shoes. They will not appear on command, but in their own inscrutable fashion, studding the ground and peeping between thickets of grass, velveteen visitants from another realm.
We're reluctant to share the fungal bounty that we glean from here and there; for one, because we are greedy, for two because others are merely being polite as they choke down their plate of Slippery Jacks and Dirty Tricholomas, and thirdly because there is a serious side to this ungenerous sentiment; mushrooms can literally kill your arse, a nasty little fact glossed over far too often by gourmet-zine articles urging us to rush out and forage in case your neighbours don't think you're serious enough about food. There is always the possibility, however remote, that you will serve death cap to your friends and family. I mean unintentionally.
Is a mouthful of mushroom worth ten years of dialysis?
Do I prefer the liver I was born with?
Pretty much clears it up, doesn't it? Disclaimer- we're not experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we've never poisoned ourselves, touch wood, and it is of course possible to gather safely without doing a freaking degree. Sort of. You just need to put in the hard, boring yards before you fry anything up.
I can't give you an exhaustive list of toxic and suspect species, but there are many excellent books that can, and you should find them and read them cover to cover before even thinking about going out and looking for some. There are roughly one hundred different kinds of poisonous mushrooms, ranging from the ones that will put you on the toilet for a week to the ones that will put you in intensive care for the truncated remainder of your natural life. Mushroom poisoning can affect the brain, blood, nervous system, digestive system, kidneys and liver. It can take anything from six hours to six days to manifest. Feeling lucky, punk?
Do your research. There is no easy way, no shortcuts, no cheat sheets. Everyone's mycelia are different, and several types are alright to eat in one place, iffy somewhere else and downright poisonous at another location. Spend two years just bringing them home and comparing them to the pictures, smelling and touching them and NOT eating the damn things. Yes, that sucks, but you probably need more structure in your life anyway.
-The term 'toadstool' is completely meaningless and bears no relation to toxicity.
-Smell is not a guide to palatability.
-The saucepan is not a magic wand. Cooking destroys some toxic compounds but makes no difference at all to the worst of them.
-Just because insects or wild animals have nibbled it doesn't mean it's okay to eat.
-Just because your mates have eaten it doesn't mean it won't affect you adversely. If you have existing medical conditions or sensitive digestion, leave the damn things alone.
-Alcohol can increase the effect of some toxins.
-Some mushrooms can be rendered poisonous by their pesticide/herbicide loads.
-Never take someone's word for the safety of wild mushrooms. Get the book out and double check; better to offend them than to end up in intensive care together fighting over who gets first shot at that dead stranger's donated organs.
Personally, I cannot recommend field or horse mushrooms to the novice unless you are walked directly to a safe patch of them by someone who knows. I say this because the parasol-type shrooms are very similar to one another, unless you know what to look for, and contain a number of the most deadly and-near deadly species including the Death Cap, Destroying Angel and Brown Roll-Rim. All of these highly-toxic little marvels look perfectly delicious, by the way, and don't smell or taste poisonous, so don't think they can't fool you. Death Caps and Destroying Angels are things of singular, almost arresting beauty, actually, if you've ever come across them in their prime; plush and porcelain at once, almost supernatural amid their homely backdrops of pine needles and pea straw.
Just a quick note on foraging etiquette, BTW. It's really not the done thing to wander onto someone else's land just because those ink-caps are calling your name or stretch over that fence and decimate the neighbour's goodies. That's really rude and also illegal. Even if you got there first/are really hungry/whatever, take no more than a third of anything you're harvesting or they may not regenerate; this about the future and the limitations of entitlement. Secrets really are fine- don't shoot your mouth off indiscriminately about every resource you discover. Keep the knowledge of those special things in the hands of people who will respect them. And if it was free to you, think twice about charging other people money for it. That shit is killing us. Share and share alike.
In conclusion, it's probably not a good idea to send your kids looking for mushrooms, and maybe don't show your stash to impressionable passers-by and assure them they're delicious. I know it's tempting, but a little discretion can go a long way and for some very good reasons.
AN EXCELLENT MUSHROOM BOOK- 'The Great Encyclopedia of Mushrooms', 1998, Lonsange, Könemann.