The autumn woodland floor ...
There is a familiar scent associated with autumn rain, its earthy notes evocative of the unfurling season, the smell of fungi working their way through the soil heralding this magical time for fungus lovers to walk through England’s countryside and woodlands. Although most fungi are present all year round, as the days shorten and the heat of high summer dissipates, fungi become conspicuous and produce the familiar fruiting bodies of mushrooms and toadstools. When the environmental conditions are right, fungi are everywhere - beneath your feet, almost everywhere you look, and even in the air you breathe.
Fungi were once thought of as plants but they have since been awarded a well-deserved kingdom of their own. Strange, fascinating lifeforms, they are fundamental for the survival of our woodland ecosystems, from the minuscule ephemeral inhabitants of our native forests to its giant ancient trees. The smallest units of fungi are threads known as hyphae, which collectively form a network called a mycelium. A sort of primordial world wide web. Astonishingly, while hyphae can be tiny, there might be 100 metres of them in just 1gm of soil, and in a hectare (2.5 acres) of British woodland there may be well over 3.5 tonnes of fungi. If you pick up a handful of leaf litter, you can see the slightly furry network of mycelia that contributes to soil formation and water retention in the woodland floor. Slugs and snails feed upon it as it starts to grow; then worms and maggots, all kind of crawling creatures predate upon their fruiting bodies. Squirrels and birds, field mice and voles all depend upon this autumn store cupboard.
Mushrooms, from different parts of the world, have always been part of my travels & my life in cooking foraged foods. White Truffles, Matzutake, Ceps and Chantarelles left to mature in ancient forests encapsulate the flavours and aromas of the environment in which they grow, like wine redolent with its ‘terroir’; my favourites are mushrooms from the broad-leaved forests of Italy, France, Spain & the Balkans; or perhaps the sweet and earthy scent of Porcini coming from Pontremoli, in the Italian Appenino Mountains.
The most amazing mushroom I have found in UK was a ‘Lion's Mane’ coral fungus, during a fungi survey in Scotland last year. Although it is protected, I was given permission to take a little material to propagate from and miraculously it has grown beautifully. Taste & textures that take me back to adolescence, like an earthy candy floss! I have brought some to the woodland at Thyme, but we will have to be patient as it may take years to take. On the Southrop Estate we hope to introduce species that help biodiversity, improving the availability of local food resources for future generations to enjoy. It’s a guiding principle that we would all be wise to think upon.
In the UK, without the altitude of the forests of Italy and France, with their cold nights and misty mornings keeping insects at bay, mushrooms are often picked very young; this not only has an impact on flavour but increases the local risk of extinction in reducing their reproductive capacities. And here lies a cautionary tale, the popularised and unregulated “foraging for free wild ingredients” has recently prompted a total ban on any fungal “recreational foraging activities” in The New Forest; a total ban was first put in place in Epping Forest in 2008; and in 2014 the authorities responsible for Richmond Park’s SSSI were forced to erect notices asking the public not to pick or damage any mushrooms. An intellectual approach to our natural environment is to be lauded, and the fashion for foraging has turned the spotlight on an appreciation of our wild food, landscape and the significant sense of place. This can be hugely positive, but it is essential to take with care when we forage, and if you are buying ‘wild mushrooms’ beware of imports that may have been treated to avoid insect damage – not so ‘wild’ or so tasty.
Note: fungi can be extremely dangerous, we advise against foraging unless as part of an organised, authorised group that is aware of laws, safety and the impact upon the environment.