Lots of people tell me they would never pick wild mushrooms for the table because they are afraid of being poisoned. I’m OK with this because it means there are more of those tasty mushrooms available for me in local forests.
No doubt there are some nasty, in fact deadly mushrooms in our forests. There are also quite a number of them that will give you a serious belly-ache and a bad case of the runs but won’t kill you. There is really just one rule. Be 100% sure of any mushroom you are eating. And, don’t eat the poisonous ones. If somebody tells you, oh my uncle Bud has eaten these for 30 years and he’s fine, but you can’t identify the mushroom, just don’t eat it. If you are 95% sure of your identification and you’re tempted to think 95% is good enough, just don’t eat it. When it comes to eating stuff I find in the forest, I’m very conservative.
I’ve had many conversations with people who have stories about people with loads of experience picking mushrooms poisoning themselves because the mushrooms they picked and ate looked exactly like the edible mushroom they have been picking and eating for many years. It’s true that there are some poisonous mushrooms that look a lot like tasty edibles, and in fact I avoid any mushrooms that I can’t positively identify 100% of the time. I see some pickers in fall each year picking mushrooms I can’t positively identify. For instance I see people with bags of red Russulas. I can’t tell the difference between the poisonous varieties of red Russulas and the good ones, so I just don’t pick them. Somebody told me these guys do it by taste. Well, good luck to them. Just because they eat them and don’t get sick doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.
Let’s look at one story that was in the news. It’s the story about Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, who managed to poison himself and 4 others. Here’s what Elizabeth Grice wrote in the Telegraph
Evans is a knowledgeable countryman who’d enjoyed mushroom expeditions since he was a boy. He’d been told just the place to find ceps and chanterelles and came back with a basketful of what he thought were Boletus edulis, or ceps. He was greeted like a returning hero. “Fantastic!” they said. No one noticed they were the deadly webcap, Cortinarius speciosissimus, a mushroom that damages the liver, kidneys and spinal cord. No one consulted the fungi guidebook in the kitchen.
“It had been 10 years since I’d picked ceps and I thought: these are a bit more ginger-coloured than I remember. I didn’t spot the crucial difference – that they had gills and ceps don’t.”
This apparently really happened. This guy needed a kidney transplant because he picked and ate wild mushrooms without paying any attention to identification. All boletes have pores on the under side of their caps. Cortinarius have gills. This is one of the first things you notice when you see a mushroom. Does it have pores? Does it have gills? Does it have teeth? It’s the very beginning of any attempt to identify a mushroom.
I can identify a good number of tasty edible mushrooms with certainty. I can also identify some of the nastiest killer mushrooms. Between those two groups are many, many species of mushrooms. I can identify some of them but many of them I can’t identify with certainty (and in some cases I can’t even get close). I keep trying to learn more species each year because it interests me, but but some mushrooms are very tricky to ID.
Some people have allergies to some wild mushrooms. Assuming you’ve identified the mushroom with certainty, but you’ve never eaten it before, cook up and eat a small amount and see how your body reacts before having a full meal of them.