Oct 122009
Amethyst Deceiver

Image by Dave W Clarke via Flickr

Amethyst deceiver is an ominous name for a fungus… and the purple colour, while pretty, does little to suggest that this mushroom is anything other than seriously poisonous. The truth is that it’s not only harmless, but is also edible and apparently tastes quite good. Looking at it, you’d swear blind it was deadly… but that’s the trouble with fungi… they’re tricky little so-and-sos.

On Sunday we went to the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation’s (INFF) headquarters at Manch Estate, near Dunmanway in West Cork, for their second-last open day of the season. The estate is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month from March to November. These open days involve talks on sustainable native forestry, a chance to see craftsman utilise traditional woodland skills like charcoal making, wood-turning, woven hazel fence construction, gate making, birch broom making and more. There are also activities to keep the kids occupied, like woodland "treasure hunts" and nature art. But the highlights are the guided walks along the 20km of woodland, meadow and riverbank of the estate.

This month Cork nature writer and fungus aficionado Damien Enright was leading a walk dubbed "Fungi in the Woods". We love looking for fungi. We also love the concept of foraging for wild food, be it picking blackberries, catching fish or whatever. So far though we haven’t had the courage to combine the two — other than the odd occasion when we come across a patch of field mushrooms.

Picking and eating wild mushrooms can be a wonderful way to enjoy natures harvest at its best, but it’s not something for the faint-hearted or the uninitiated. When perfectly innocuous-looking white mushrooms with names like "Destroying Angel" and "Death Cap" can cause irreversible kidney and liver damage, even in small doses, it pays to be careful. A look through a mushroom field-guide won’t do anything to alay your fears either. If anything it makes you even more paranoid. Most of the edible species seem to have near-identical contemporaries that are inedible or poisonous. Unless you’re absolutely certain of what you’re picking, eating wild fungi could result in a nasty stomach ache or worse.

The golden rule of foraging for fungi is to go out with an expert to learn the ropes, and unless you’re 100% sure, don’t eat anything. Given the opportunity to wander through the woods at Manch with someone who knows their mushroom onions (if that makes sense), we jumped at the chance.

Damien proved an engaging and knowledgeable host, and valiantly tried to identify everything the throng of walkers threw at him. Some were easier than others, and, as is typical with fungi, some defied identification altogether. The children loved charging about the forest collecting every mushroom, toadstool and anything else vaguely fungus-like. It wasn’t long before their parents’ attempts at nonchalant indifference evaporated most people were soon actively engaged in fungi hunting. We bagged quite an assortment… most of them inedible, some of them poisonous and many of them unidentifiable. Only a few were edible and worth eating: namely the amethyst deceiver I’ve already mentioned, and a mushroom from the russela family called the charcoal burner.

I brought a few of each home, but was still a bit apprehensive about eating them. I looked them up again in two books, cross referenced their defining characteristics and looked them up again on the internet. Finally, satisfied that they were, in fact, what I thought they were, I cooked them and ate them for supper. I have to say they were delicious… but if you don’t hear from me here next week, you know Damien got his identification wrong!

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