The Magic and Myth of British Fungi

by BardofEly

Mushrooms and toadstools grow all over the world, and whilst many are edible others are poisonous or hallucinogenic. Fungi are very important and we need to learn about them.

Fairy stories and toadstools
Open any fairy-story book and if it has pictures, the chances are good that gnomes or elfin folk will be seen seated on colourful spotted toadstools or maybe these little people will be depicted living in houses constructed from mushrooms.
Every child, even still in modern times, grows up familiar with these images. The toadstool and wild mushroom is a cultural image for the land-of-make-believe, an icon for fairyland.

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Flowers of the Earth

Mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi

Fungi, the mushrooms, toadstools and some other types, are a strange breed that are no longer regarded as plants but are not animals either. However, I still think of them as representatives of the vegetable kingdom. Like flowers of the Earth they grow but without the need of sunlight or the green pigment chlorophyll.

This gives them a certain advantage and means that they can flourish in dark and low-lit locations. It means they can still do well when other plants and trees are struggling with the shortened hours of daylight in autumn and winter. It is often at this time of year, at least before the frost, ice and snow, that these peculiar ‘blooms’ come into their own and suddenly appear in large numbers in our gardens, fields, parks, forests and moorlands.

Often they have unusual colours and bizarre forms like something alien from a sci-fi or horror film. Not only do they have peculiar appearances but they are often cold and clammy to the touch as well.

Some are very ephemeral, lasting only a day or so in their fruiting body, which we see above the ground or maybe protruding from a tree-trunk or stump. In actuality, and unknown to many people, fungi can, like trees, be incredibly old living organisms, which each year extend their underground body of fungal threads or mycelium.

Many are poisonous but many more are not and make an excellent source of food. Some are useful for all manner of purposes, ranging from tinder to sources of dye.

There are mushroom growing kits so you can grow your own at home, and there are many different varieties you can try cultivating.

Mushroom Ketchup

You might even fancy making some mushroom ketchup? That has got to be a bit different and could add some interesting flavour to your meals.

Mushroom ketchup is made from mushrooms and a blend of spices, such as bay leaves, and no tomatoes in it at all. There is an 18th century recipe for making mushroom ketchup.

This is a ketchup that has that real rural flavour to it. It tastes distinctively of mushrooms and has a healthy aroma to it too. This is a sauce that you just know is a natural product. 

And after you have taken all the mushroom juices out to make the ketchup you can of course use the flesh that is left in other dishes such as mushroom soups, or even dry it all out and store for future use.

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Making Mushroom Ketchup

How to make Mushroom Ketchup explained

Hallucinogenic fungi and Magic Mushrooms

Mushrooms and altered realities

Many are psychoactive and possess hallucinogenic properties and have been used the world over by cultures founded on shamanism. The Fly Agaric, unmistakable with its red cap dotted with white, has been used by ancient cultures including the Sami people of Lapland. It is thought by some authors to have been the origin of the idea of Father Christmas being dressed in red and white, and is the subject of the controversial book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro. 

In modern times, some of these psychoactive fungi, such as the Psilocybin-containing “Magic mushrooms”have become popular with recreational drug-users and laws have been passed in many countries to attempt to curb this usage.

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Edible wild mushrooms

Foraging for edible fungi

One thing is for sure, that a vast number of delicious and nutritious species are readily available from our fields and forests for the knowledgeable picker to collect as food for free. Up until recently the identification of such types was handed down and still survives in many areas of Europe and Scandinavia.

Dishes made from wild mushrooms are regarded as gourmet delicacies, while over in China, Japan and the Orient, fungi are incredibly important, as not only a source of food but also as medicines.

For a variety of reasons, people in general have lost the knowledge of which fungi are useful and harmless and not only that but an actual fear and loathing for these strange plants has developed in many folk. Often a potentially good meal is deliberately kicked over and destroyed due only to ignorance and superstition.

Poisonous toadstools

A word of warning

However, it needs to be stressed that there are a small number of very dangerous and potentially lethal mushrooms that can be mistaken by the inexperienced picker for harmless types. To avoid the tragic consequences of such actions detailed information is required, best obtained from an experienced and trustworthy expert on fungi.

With this in mind, it is a good idea to watch out for any guided fungus walks being organized in your area. The best rule-of-thumb is if in any doubt at all to leave well alone. After all it is better to be safe than sorry and a free meal that turns out to be your last one is definitely not recommended.

Even if you do not wish to eat fungi, they can be really interesting to study and make excellent subjects for paintings and photography. There is a whole wealth of wonder and veritable panoply of delights to be found in the magical world of fungi.

The magic of the mushrooms awaits you in a field or forest in your neighbourhood.

Footnote: The text above represents the slightly edited version of the introduction to a book I started writing several years ago but never continued. I just found it again so thought I would publish this here.

Copyright © 2012 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.

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Updated: 12/30/2012, BardofEly
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BardofEly on 01/23/2013

Thanks for that great feedback! I used to like collecting Jew's ears and they were easy to find near and in Cardiff. I haven't seen any here on Tenerife, though we have plenty of Edible Boletus.

humagaia on 01/23/2013

My favourites from the UK (and unmistakeable for poisonous varieties) are:
Blewits (Fried - poisonous if not cooked thoroughly); Shaggy Ink Caps (fried with garlic, and put on toast); False Saffron Milkcaps (beware these turn your urine red); Amethyst Deceiver (interesting colour for salads, once cooked); Jew's Ears (little flavour though); many of the Bolettes (strong flavour in soup); Oyster Mushrooms (multiple uses); Salmon Salad, Orange Peel Fungus and Beefsteak Mushroom (these are now harder to find I add to stews).

BardofEly on 10/21/2012

Thank you, Jerrico!

Jerrico_Usher on 10/21/2012

voted up my friend

BardofEly on 10/21/2012

Thank you for your feedback, Tolovaj!

Tolovaj on 10/21/2012

Mushrooms are important part of our (Slovenia) history. We have a lot of forests and many people could not afford meat, so many Slovenes still call mushrooms 'meat for poor people' although market price is actually higher at the moment.

About fungi and vegetables... Fungi with their parasitic lifestyle has much more in common with animals (plants can synthesize their own food from inorganic substances), but they have their own kingdom for several years now.

You are right, there is a lot of magic here. Without mushrooms witchcraft would never be the same:)

BardofEly on 10/18/2012

Thanks, Katie!

katiem2 on 10/17/2012

I'll think of you next spring when I get a good haul of morels. Great topic I've enjoyed it.

BardofEly on 10/12/2012

Thank you for appreciating it!

janderson99 on 10/12/2012

Fabulous article! Great Read! Congratulations!

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