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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
NatureNature Studies

Nature Studies

One of the many ways in which we differ from our French neighbours is in our instinctive reaction to small animals and birds: I have noticed that where we might say aah, our French friends will sometimes murmur mmm. This difference persists in the case of fungi, which to British enthusiasts are largely objects of biological fascination, whereas to French aficionados the fascination is almost entirely gastronomical. This was obvious in September when my wife and I spent a few days with our children in Provence and in every fruit and vegetable market were spectacular piles of wild mushrooms, in particular the cepes (which we call penny buns or porcini or boletes) with their white stalks and nut-brown caps, and the apricot-yellow girolles (which we tend to call chanterelles)—we bought some to make an omelette. I did not see any of the less common ones, such as morels, or horns of plenty (which the French call trumpets of death), but I did spot a new one to me in the markets: piles of sanguins, which, were they to occur in Britain—they do not—would probably be called bloody milkcaps. But even if they were found here, I doubt they would make it into Tesco.
The contrast between French and English attitudes was further brought home to me a few weeks later when in October I joined a fungal foray, which is what a wild-mushroom-hunting expedition tends to be called, organised by the Dorset Fungus Group in Thorncombe Woods, the lovely piece of woodland surrounding the cottage at Higher Bockhampton which was Thomas Hardy’s birthplace. The DFG, founded more than 25 years ago by Mark Pike whose work on the railways led to an abiding interest in the things that were growing at the side of the tracks, is going from strength to strength. Since the Covid lockdown it has doubled its membership to nearly 140, and more than 50 people turned up at Thorncombe Woods, a good dozen of them children. There were five senior members of the group present as ‘identifiers’, that is, enthusiasts with sufficient expertise to able to tell you reliably which wild mushrooms are edible, and which will upset your tummy, give you hallucinations or even kill you—as a number of them, should you consume them, most assuredly will.
The possibility of being poisoned, however unlikely, undoubtedly adds a certain frisson to a fungal foray, but to me the exciting thing was the sheer range of species we found, many possessed of splendid names, such as the shaggy inkcap, the deer shield, the brown roll-rim, the blusher, the sulphur tuft and the aniseed funnel. There was the yellow stagshorn and the oak milkcap and the birch polypore. There was the porcelain fungus, delicate and high up on a beech tree, and the artist fungus, which you can write your name on using your finger. There was the oyster mushroom and the false oyster mushroom, and the false chanterelle but not alas, the real chanterelle. In terms of edibility, the best we found was probably the bay bolete, regarded by some as equal in flavour to its close relative the cepe, but there was also the cauliflower fungus which some people enjoy and the beefsteak fungus which is said to be edible but tough. And there were fungi with legends attached, such as the tawny grisette, which one of the identifiers, Derek Monk, told me was linked to the old women who watched the aristocrats being guillotined in the French revolution, but I forget exactly how. And many, many more.
In casually strolling through a woodland I have rarely spotted myself more than half a dozen different fungi, but to my amazement, the October foray in Thorncombe Woods produced a total of 71 species—doubtless because there were so many people doing the searching, not least the children—all laid out on the table at the end in their dazzling variety. It opened my eyes to the astonishing richness of this wildlife kingdom quite separate from plants and animals. We have about 200 breeding bird species in Britain, about 70 land mammals and about 1500 native plants, but we have more than 16,000 recorded species of fungi and even popular field guides will describe 2,500 or more.
Every one is a fascinating life-form with an intriguing life history. I’m afraid I can’t remotely tell you how many of them are edible. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a French person somewhere, who can.

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