WHILE the sun struggles to break through the mist, I quickly throw on hiking boots, grab a coffee, and rush out of the door. The brisk smell of autumn is intoxicating, even when interrupted by the musky odour of fires burning near by. Saturated from rainfall the night before, the wet ground is a mud-lover’s paradise. At least it’s not pouring today.
Jumping in my car, I’m off to meet up with a group of keen collectors to find an exceptional fruit on display in the forest: mushrooms.
Autumn, and in particular October, is the perfect time of year for foraging, and I decide to spend time with a qualified instructor from Wild Foods UK to get a proper grounding, and to get to grips with hunting for wild food.
Nigel Moreton Fungi in the New Forest, Hampshire
My destination, the Red Shoot Inn, is only a 20-minute drive from Lyndhurst. When the New Forest was established as a royal hunting ground in 1079, this town was named its official centre by William the Conqueror, and is a great base from which to explore this diverse landscape.
This time of year, the leaves of oak, birch, and beech trees are shades of ochre, yellow, red, cerise, and orange. Most of a fungus’s body is made up of a mass of thin threads, mycelium, which act as a kind of underground internet linking the roots of the trees to different plants.
As we gather, our instructor, Marlow Renton, instructs us on social distancing and everything required to ensure that we are as safe as possible. His breadth of knowledge is soon apparent with our first sighting of bright yellow Chanterelles.
They are brilliant for eating, he explains. He pops a few into the bag attached to his belt, but not before cutting them in half to ensure that they are white on the inside. “Beware,” he warns us. “If these tiny specimens are yellow throughout when sliced, they are poisonous.”
We soon spot Winter Chanterelle, aka “yellow legs”, which are equally delicious and are added to our growing collection.
Lynn Houghton Some of the spoils from Lynn’s foraging trip
Everything that is edible will be part of our feast for later. Although not a mycologist, Mr Renton is a chef by training, and focused on finding the tastiest fungi.
One of the group points out a porcini mushroom, and there is a murmur of excitement. Porcinis are popular, tasty, and highly desirable. Part of the Boletus family, the section under the cap is spongy rather than having gills.
We amble further along, and someone spies purple fungi. These are Amethyst Deceivers: another delicious variety and safe to eat. Mr Renton whips out his book on foraging to show us a picture of a Fibre Cap. It looks identical, except it is a more delicate lilac colour — and toxic.
With the abundance of Death Caps in the south of England, and the range of poisonous mushrooms in the forest, Mr Renton reiterates that collectors must never eat anything if they don’t know exactly what it is.
istock A panther cap mushroom in the New Forest: one of the poisonous fungi to avoid
We are also told of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which covers access to private land. It dictates that the owner’s permission must be sought before foraging, and cultivated plants must not be pulled up. So, foraging for the four Fs — fruit, flowers, fungus, and foliage — is allowed, with permission, on private land, and anywhere on common land.
“You should only collect about half of what you see, and only what you will consume. No one, under any circumstances, can collect mushrooms for commercial use: 1.5 kg is the rule of thumb for what you can take away,” Mr Renton explains.
The next find is a Russula mushroom. This colourful fungi, with its concave caps, is an ancient breed, and unique in the natural world for having round cells rather than oblong. This means that the gills flake off, giving the appearance of almond flakes. There are all sorts of colours, too, from yellow swamp Russulas to green crack Russulas and blackish-purple Russulas, among others. I try the test for this type of mushroom to determine if it is toxic. I put a fragment on my tongue, and it burns like chilli. This means don’t eat it.
One of the foragers finds a Brown Roll-rim, which is a cue for a gruesome tale. A well-known and highly regarded German mycologist ingested these during dinner, and died the next day. This is the only incident of poisoning to affect a knowledgeable person in modern times.
On our relaxed walk back to the car park, we chance upon a Fly Agaric. This hallucinogenic beauty is possibly the most well-known of all mushrooms. Its large size and enormous red cap with white spots is the archetypical fungus, famous the world over.
Mr Renton has sprinted ahead to set up a table next to his car for our bounty. The water is boiling, pasta is cooking, and we try out a lovely wild-mushroom pâté as a starter before diving into our vegan meal.
istock The New Forest, famed for its wildlife, is also a great spot for foraging
Earlier, when I was waiting for the others, a small grey donkey had meandered over. In moments, I had been surrounded by seven, sniffing and jostling to get a treat or two. Only here are animals unafraid of approaching humans. The New Forest has thousands of ponies and countless deer — even pigs, during autumn, wandering loose.
After being closeted indoors owing to the pandemic, getting out in the fresh air and, at the same time learning skills our forebears would have known, feels quite luxurious.
I’ve learned something new about the complexity of the natural world, and got to taste the products of my labour — a great result for a few hours spent in the forest.
Lynn Houghton was a guest of Wild Food UK and the Crown Hotel.
Wild Food UK offers foraging day courses most of the year. Prices from £55 per adult, £27.50 for under-16s, and free for under-12s. Phone 01981 590 604, or visit wildfooduk.com/foraging-trips.
A two-night midweek break staying at the Crown Hotel, High Street, Lyndhurst, costs from £74 per night on a B&B basis. Two-night weekend breaks are from £89 per night on a B&B basis. To book, phone: 02380 282 922, or visit crownhotel-lyndhurst.co.uk.
For general information about the New Forest, visit thenewforest.co.uk.
- The Fife Arms, Braemar, Ballatar
The 5-star Fife Arms, in the Cairngorms, has an in-house forager who runs guided walks and workshops.
- The Creggans Inn, Strachur, Loch Fyne, Argyll
Foraging breaks here are informal: the owner, Gill MacLellan, takes guests out, on request, for a couple of hours’ foraging in search of brambles, blueberries, wild yellow raspberries, elderflowers, chanterelles, and whatever is in season.
- The Tudor Farmhouse in the Wye Valley, Gloucestershire
Accompany the in-house forager Raoul van den Broucke at the Tudor Farmhouse as he ventures around the Forest of Dean, as part of the foraging “Experience Package”.
- The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
The perfect family break, foraging at the 4-star Angel Hotel is led by an expert local guide, Adele Nozedar, who has recently published a book about foraging with children.
- One-day courses by the schoolofartisanfood.org offer everything from edible-flower workshops to one-day foraging courses and wild-food cookery events, based in the Sherwood Forest. Alternatively, venture to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast for Fore Adventure’s coastal foraging and food trips with an option to cook your own supper.