Forest Foragers is a collaboration between Hackney-based ecologist Peter Sibley and his friend Clifford Davy, a mycologist (fungi expert). Their day courses combine education, a good lunch and an outdoor forage, the aim being to arm people with the skills and confidence to go out and collect wild food for themselves. Safety is a priority – pretty important when you’re looking for the difference between ink caps (nice sautéed in butter), and death caps (multiple organ failure and probable death). And Peter explains that mushrooms can absorb and even intensify poisons and industrial waste in the soil, which is why we leave Hackney behind and head east out of the city to the woods around Takeley.
Foraging with Peter Sibley and Clifford Davy
Peter sets the tone by saying that Forest Foragers is more Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall than Ray Mears, and the other people on the course prove the point: they’re gourmets and experienced veg growers, seeking to expand their knowledge about gathering wild food.
The setting for the morning is Takeley village hall, where Peter and Clifford show slides to illustrate plants which are good for foragers – chickweed, nettles, sorrel, hops, elderblossom and flowers, burdock, quince and medlar. And then there are the baddies, including deadly nightshade and hemlock (which did for Socrates). Following this there’s a specialist fungi session led by Clifford, with Peter throwing in a good anecdote or two about murder by mushroom.
At lunchtime, a part foraged meal is served: onion and cep tart, game casserole and Cranachan. And then we head to the woods, carrying bags, binoculars and mushroom knives with their curved blades and concealed brushes. Peter scans the meadow for fungi and we split up, rambling across the grass. Shrieks of excitement prove to be false alarms – nothing more than birds’ eggs in the grass.
After around ten minutes’ of walking, a dark circle in the grass alerts Clifford to the presence of fairy ring champignons. But they are past their prime – soggy and not good to eat. We find puffball mushrooms, but they are also well past their best – they have exploded to leave dusty mounds of brown spores. Eventually, a ring of darkened grass yields a little crop of dainty champignons and we find a few fresh puffballs with firm white flesh. I pick a couple of different and apparently innocuous specimens and Clifford examines one under his eyeglass. It turns out to be poisonous – I drop mine into the grass. Changing tack, we head to the woods, where poisonous sulphur tufts cluster on some logs, and we pause to poke at bracket fungi.
Clifford and Peter are bemused that the wet warm weather hasn’t yielded a mushroom bonanza – some foraging groups collect more than they can eat, while we have just enough for an omelette each. But the detective-like search is absorbing, we hear green woodpeckers in the woods and spot a buzzard overhead, and Peter points out abundant wild clematis as well as plants which prove we’re in ancient woodland. We return to the village hall for tea and bics and a concluding talk.
By this point, Peter and Clifford’s fascination with these mysterious growths in their multitudinous forms – hallucinogenic, fatally poisonous and just plain tasty – has become infectious. Clifford describes how they grow by cellular expansion rather than division, which explains the amazing ability of a patch of mushrooms to regrow overnight having been picked. Their very elusiveness on our forage seems like a mushroomy tease – “look, conditions were perfect, but we’re not here.” Peter describes a visit to the New Forest when conditions were dry and apparently unfavourable, and they found nothing but rare species. In a mycologist’s fantasy, Clifford even found a genus that may be unknown to science – it’s currently being checked out by the world’s top experts.
Finally, Clifford reveals that mushrooms are artists. He shows us his spore prints, made by cutting a mushroom in half and leaving it face down on paper overnight to release a delicate imprint of spores. The paper has to be bifurcated between black and white, because you can’t predict whether the spores released will be black, white or even pink. The result is like a cyanotype, the faint but unmistakable trace of a dream mushroom. Excited by entering into an artistic collaboration with a mushroom, I try to make my own spore print with dead man’s finger. It doesn’t work – that’s mushrooms for you. The omelette was good though.
Peter points out that the most important thing when making the onion and cep tart is that the onions must be slowly fried till golden to caramelise them. The game casserole is a very general recipe: just as the meats used can vary, so can the vegetables. The photographed version made by Peter has sweet potato and red pepper as well as the listed ingredients. It’s an excellent “use up all the stuff in the fridge and freezer” dish. Cranachan (also known as Athol Brose) is an old Scottish recipe, while rosehip syrup, crammed with vitamin C, was traditionally given to babies but can also be dolloped on ice cream.