It's mushroom season, when our woods and undergrowth are bursting with mycological delights. Go for an autumnal stroll on Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest or any of our other semi-wild parks, and you can't help but notice those crazy alien forms skulking under bushes or clinging from trees. Tasty fry-up, 'mind-expanding' psychedelic, shelters for little gnomes - mushrooms have many associations and uses. But which ones are edible? Can we just take what we want? And which bits of London are best for foraging?
We decided to question Andy Overall, founder of the Fungi To Be With mushroom club. Going on one of his fungi forays is perhaps the only way to ensure a good mushroom trip. Arf. Arf.
Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Andy Overall and I started the ‘fungi to be with mushroom club’ back in 1996 recognising that I wasn’t the only one interested in wild mushrooms and the need to re-connect people with their natural environment. The walks work on many levels, stress, socialising, exercise and of course wild food. Some would consider this a strange vocation for me as I had been involved in the music business for many years as a singer/songwriter, having hits such as ‘Cry Boy Cry’ in 1982 with a band called Blue Zoo. It wasn’t that strange though as I had grown up in the Essex countryside and had inherited an interest and connection with the natural environment, in those days it was wild birds.
What first piqued your interest in fungi?
I first became interested in fungi when during the early nineties I discovered horse mushrooms growing on the lawn at the back of the flat I was living in, in West Hampstead. I then made trips to Hampstead Heath and the New Forest in search of different varieties; I soon became bored of just looking for edibles and started taking an interest in other types.
Are you self-taught, or have you taken any professional qualifications?
I am self-taught over 10 years with the help of professional mycologists and other amateur mycologists.
A lot of people are turned off by fungi – associations with athlete’s foot and that kind of thing. What would you say to such people, to convince them that they’re missing out?
I certainly wouldn’t encourage people to pick and eat athlete’s foot, but I would encourage them to take an interest in mushrooms and toadstools when they are paying a fortune in some restaurant for a wild mushroom dish. But not only for that reason, fungi are fascinating and ecologically crucial; I think it is important that those interested in edible fungi should understand this.
It’s well known that picking wild flowers is illegal in this country. Are there similar regulations for fungi?
Fungi are not plants - they produce spores not seeds, they obtain their nutrients by absorption. The mushroom you see above ground is one stage in the life cycle of a fungus; the business end of a mushroom is under the soil and called mycelium, it harvests all the nutrients it needs to produce a mushroom. So a mushroom is like an apple, picking apples is not illegal, unless you are trespassing. Old bye-laws in many areas forbid the removal of practically anything from the natural environment, including mushrooms; these can be enforced if the need arises. The general rules for collecting mushrooms are, get permission from those who manage a given area, once you have permission, then 1.5 kg per person is the limit. Always remember to leave some behind to help propagate the species and that you are not the only thing on this planet that utilises fungi, deer eat them, and squirrels eat them and many insects for laying eggs and food for their larvae. Fungi are essential in the decomposition process, helping release nutrients back into the soil = Saprophytic Fungi. They also form a mutual symbiosis with most vascular plants = Mycorrhizal Fungi, important to all woodland ecosystems. But there are those fungi that will attack injured trees and plants = Parasitic Fungi, rotting the heartwood or roots over time. There are also fungi that parasitize humans, such as Athlete’s Foot.
We’ve heard that fungi thieves have been taking large numbers of mushrooms from Wimbledon Common, for sale to restaurants. Have you ever caught people doing this, and what would you say to them?
The harvesting of fungi is not a new phenomenon it has been going on at least since the eighties. It has got worse recently with the arrival of many central and eastern Europeans. Some would consider that these people know what they are doing, but this is not always the case, they often harvest everything in their path, to then be sorted into edibles and non-edibles back at their employers, who are often restaurants. If I came across these people I would be very apprehensive, as they can get violent, they are picking to make money, which they have very little of, so they become protective of their harvest. If you do not have the authority to deal with these people they are best left alone, I have heard of wardens being attacked when they have approached such people. I do not condone this activity as it not only spoils it for everybody else interested in edible and non-edible fungi, but it can have adverse effect on the ecology of a given area with the removal of many insect species with the mushrooms and it can destroy the mycelium of ground dwelling fungi.
What’s your favourite fungi fact?
My favourite fungi fact is that it can take between 3 to 14million mycorrhizal tips, that’s up to 1800 km of mycelium to produce just 1 specimen of Boletus edulis (Cep), giving you an idea of the energy needed to do this. (Mycorrhiza are formed by the fungus mycelium and a tree root tip, they exchange nutrients in this way.)
Have you ever had anyone famous along on one of your forays?
I did have one of the old BBC news readers along Sue what’s her name? I did have the idea of doing a celebrity mushroom hunt for charity, soon I hope.
Which area of London has the richest diversity of fungi?
Good question. This depends upon how long a given area has been studied for its fungi. Ruislip woods had recorded 585 species (inc. Lichens) in 1992, with an estimate by Prof. David Hawksworth of being more in the region 1250 by using a ratio of 3:1 to 4:1 against vascular plants present. I have currently recorded 340 species from Hampstead Heath over 8 years or so, mainly of larger fungi, those you can see with the naked eye and this is added to each year.
Just last week, we saw a news item about a possible new fungus-derived antibiotic. Do you have any comments about possible medicinal uses? Is there a rich tradition of fungal medicine?
There isn’t a rich tradition of fungi used for medicine in the western world, apart from Penicillin. These uses are more documented in eastern parts like China or Japan, fungi such as Ganoderma lucidum, Reishi or Ling-Chi respectively where it used as general immunity enhancer. Also Grifola frondosa = Hen of the Woods or Maitake, used for much the same purposes. There are many more used throughout the world within indigenous cultures, which unfortunately is being lost due to the exploitation of such cultures by the west.
Any tips on buying mushrooms for cooking? We’re fed up with the same old supermarket lines
Italian deli’s can be good source for buying wild mushrooms or Borough Market, who I have heard can have a good variety of nearly fresh wild mushrooms from all over Europe at a given time.
And do you have a favourite mushroom recipe?
My stock answer to this is simple, onions, garlic, wild mushrooms, white wine and crème fraiche with pasta, or a good risotto using soaked dried mushroom (ceps) and the liquid with white wine. Chicken of the woods is a favourite for general pasta dishes.
Do you tend to order mushroom-based dishes in restaurants, or does that feel too much like mixing business with pleasure?
I tend to not go for the mushroom dishes at a restaurant, as I eat a fair amount at home in my own cooking.
Other than going on one of your fungi forays, what’s the first step for anyone interested in learning more about fungi?
One could become a member of the British Mycological Society and take part in their various forays and meet some very knowledgeable individuals or join the Association of British Fungus Groups who offers much the same. www.BritMycolSoc.org.uk and www.abfg.org. There are also many local operating groups that can be found on either of these sites.
And the usual London questions:
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Gate Vegetarian restaurant (I’m not a veggie though).
What’s the best thing about London that not many people know about?
My fungi forays.
What’s your favourite view in London?
Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath
The World Is Ending In 24 hours. How Would You Spend Your Last Day In London?
Walking in the New Forest.
What Advice Would You Give Ken Livingstone?
Treat those the way in which you wish to be treated yourself.
Have you ever been sick on the Tube? (Perhaps after eating too many mushrooms!)